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I read a lot. I also forget a lot.

This blog is meant to improve my retention of books, improve my writing skills, delve a bit deeper into the books I read rather than speed reading through them, and share passages and quotes, which moved me, with whoever might end up reading this blog.

So if anyone ever reads this blog, please point out any wrong grammar or usage of words, and please share your thoughts and opinions about the books in this blog.

Hospital Station – James White

220px-hospitalstation1962paperbackSector General 01 Hospital Station 

(Recommend)

Hospital Station is a little gem I stumbled upon by accident. It’s one of the most imaginative representations of alien life I’ve read about. The action is set in a space hospital, which treats life forms from all over the galaxy. It feels a little bit like a procedural medical TV show (House MD).

It is an easy read and a very entertaining one.

Quotes

 

Maybe he really was a despicable person and that was why the role had come so easy to him. Perhaps the constant frustration of never having the chance to really use the brain which was buried in his ugly, muscle-bound body had gradually soured him, and the part he thought he was playing was the real O’Mara.

 

A protected species,” he repeated. “Shielded from the crudities of present-day life. From your social strata-on all the worlds of the Union, not only on Earth—come practically all the great artists, musicians and professional men. Most of you live out your lives in ignorance of the fact that you are protected, that you are insulated from childhood against the grosser realities of our interstellar socalled civilization, and that your ideas of pacifism and ethical behavior are a luxury which a great many of us simply cannot afford. You are allowed this luxury in the hope that from it may come a philosophy which may one day make every being in the Galaxy truly civilized, truly good.”

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

zenmindcdx Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryū Suzuki; Trudy Dixon; Richard Baker

(Recommend)

I really don’t know why I bother reading these books. The message is simple: Focus on the present moment.

Quotes

 

The most important point is to own your own physical body. If you slump, you will lose yourself. Your mind will be wandering about somewhere else; you will not be in your body. This is not the way. We must exist right here, right now! This is the key point.

 

The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.The same way works for you yourself as well. If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. Then they will be under control. But this policy is not so easy. It sounds easy, but it requires some special effort.

 

Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else.

 

The Bodhisattva’s way is called “the single-minded way,” or “one railway track thousands of miles long.” The railway track is always the same. If it were to become wider or narrower, it would be disastrous. Wherever you go, the railway track is always the same. That is the Bodhisattva’s way. So even if the sun were to rise from the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way. His way is in each moment to express his nature and his sincerity. We say railway track, but actually there is no such thing. Sincerity itself is the railway track. The sights we see from the train will change, but we are always running on the same track. And there is no beginning or end to the track: beginningless and endless track. There is no starting point nor goal, nothing to attain. Just to run on the track is our way. This is the nature of our Zen practice. But when you become curious about the railway track, danger is there. You should not see the railway track. If you look at the track you will become dizzy. Just appreciate the sights you see from the train. That is our way. There is no need for the passengers to be curious about the track. So try not to see something in particular; try not to achieve anything special. You already have everything in your own pure quality. If you understand this ultimate fact, there is no fear.

In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do.

 

Even when you practice zazen alone, without a teacher, I think you will find some way to tell whether your practice is adequate or not. When you are tired of sitting, or when you are disgusted with your practice, you should recognize this as a warning signal. You become discouraged with your practice when your practice has been idealistic. You have some gaining idea in your practice, and it is not pure enough. It is when your practice is rather greedy that you become discouraged with it. So you should be grateful that you have a sign or warning signal to show you the weak point in your practice. At that time, forgetting all about your mistake and renewing your way, you can resume your original practice. This is a very important point.

 

If you are concentrated on your breathing you will forget yourself, and if you forget yourself you will be concentrated on your breathing. I do not know which is first.

 

“Now it is raining, but we don’t know what will happen in the next moment. By the time we go out it may be a beautiful day, or a stormy day.

 

“Now it is raining, but we don’t know what will happen in the next moment. By the time we go out it may be a beautiful day, or a stormy day.    Since we don’t know, let’s appreciate the sound of the rain now.”

 

By enlightenment I mean believing in nothing, believing in something which has no form or no color, which is ready to take form or color. This enlightenment is the immutable truth.

 

To have delusion is practice. This is to attain enlightenment before you realize it. Even though you do not realize it, you have it. So when you say, “This is delusion,” that is actually enlightenment itself. If you try to expel the delusion it will only persist the more, and your mind will become busier and busier trying to cope with it. That is not so good. Just say, “Oh, this is just delusion,” and do not be bothered by it. When you just observe the delusion, you have your true mind, your calm, peaceful mind. When you start to cope with it you will be involved in delusion.

 

Willpower – Roy Baumeister

51x4i72blbgl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Willpower

(Do not recommend)

  • Make sure your brain has enough glucose to function.
  • Willpower has a capacity that can be depleted.
  • Through constantly using your willpower, you can increase that capacity.
  • Create habits and systems that will avoid putting you in positions where you have to use your limited supply of will power.

Research Paper – This research paper says the opposite.

Much recent research suggests that willpower—the capacity to exert self-control—is a limited resource that is depleted after exertion. We propose that whether depletion takes place or not depends on a person’s belief about whether willpower is a limited resource. Study 1 found that individual differences in lay theories about willpower moderate ego-depletion effects: People who viewed the capacity for self-control as not limited did not show diminished self-control after a depleting experience. Study 2 replicated the effect, manipulating lay theories about willpower. Study 3 addressed questions about the mechanism underlying the effect. Study 4, a longitudinal field study, found that theories about willpower predict change in eating behavior, procrastination, and self-regulated goal striving in depleting circumstances. Taken together, the findings suggest that reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion.

Quotes

Ego depletion thus creates a double whammy: Your willpower is diminished and your cravings feel stronger than ever.They were also more grumpy, irritable, and prone to anger or despair. They may have blamed their outbursts on the stress of exam period, because there’s a common misperception that stress causes those kinds of emotions. What stress really does, though, is deplete willpower, which diminishes your ability to control those emotions.

 

 

 

 

 

When people have to make a big change in their lives, their efforts are undermined if they are trying to make other changes as well. People who are trying to quit smoking, for example, will have their best shot at succeeding if they aren’t changing other behaviors at the same time. Those who try to quit smoking while also restricting their eating or cutting back on alcohol tend to fail at all three—probably because they have too many simultaneous demands on their willpower. Research has likewise found that people who seek to control their drinking tend to fail on days when they have other demands on their self-control, as compared with days when they can devote all their willpower to limiting the booze.

 

Yet just by looking at the response to the glucose test, the researchers were able to predict with greater than 80 percent accuracy which convicts would go on to commit violent crimes. These men apparently had less self-control because of their impaired glucose tolerance, a condition in which the body has trouble converting food into usable energy. The food gets converted into glucose, but the glucose in the bloodstream doesn’t get absorbed as it circulates. The result is often a surplus of glucose in the bloodstream, which might sound beneficial, but it’s like having plenty of firewood and no matches. The glucose remains there uselessly, rather than being converted into brain and muscle activity. If the excess glucose reaches a sufficiently high level, the condition is labeled diabetes.

 

Their willpower gradually got stronger, so it was less readily depleted. Focusing on one specific form of self-control could yield much larger benefits, just as self-experimenters from Ben Franklin to David Blaine had maintained. The experiments showed that you didn’t have to start off with the exceptional self-control of a Franklin or a Blaine to benefit: As long as you were motivated to do some kind of exercise, your overall willpower could improve, at least over the course of the experiment.

 

We’ve said that willpower is humans’ greatest strength, but the best strategy is not to rely on it in all situations. Save it for emergencies. As Stanley discovered, there are mental tricks that enable you to conserve willpower for those moments when it’s indispensable. Paradoxically, these techniques require willpower to implement, but in the long run they leave you less depleted for those moments when it takes a strong core to survive.

The behaviors they had coded as automatic tended to be linked to habits, whereas the more controlled sorts of behaviors tended to be unusual or one-time-only actions. Self-control turned out to be most effective when people used it to establish good habits and break bad ones. People with self-control were more likely to regularly use condoms, and to avoid habits like smoking, frequent snacking, and heavy drinking. It took willpower to establish patterns of healthy behavior—which was why the people with more willpower were better able to do it—but once the habits were established, life could proceed smoothly, particularly some aspects of life.

 

When Boice followed up on the group some years later, he found that their paths had diverged sharply. The page-a-day folks had done well and generally gotten tenure. The so-called “binge writers” fared far less well, and many had had their careers cut short. The clear implication was that the best advice for young writers and aspiring professors is: Write every day. Use your self-control to form a daily habit, and you’ll produce more with less effort in the long run.

 

 

 

Stanley realized, self-control is not selfish. Willpower enables us to get along with others and override impulses that are based on personal short-term interests. It’s the same lesson that Navy SEAL commandos learn during a modern version of Stanley’s ordeals: the famous Hell Week test of continual running, swimming, crawling, and shivering that they must endure on less than five hours’ sleep. At least three-quarters of the men in each SEAL class typically fail to complete training, and the survivors aren’t necessarily the ones with the most muscles, according to Eric Greitens, a SEAL officer. In recalling the fellow survivors of his Hell Week, he points out their one common quality: “They had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the ‘fist’ of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others.”

…people exert less self-control after seeing a messy desk than after seeing a clean desk, or when using a sloppy rather than a neat and wellorganized Web site. You may not care about whether your bed is made and your desk is clean, but these environmental cues subtly influence your brain and your behavior, making it ultimately less of a strain to maintain self-discipline. Order seems to be contagious.

 

Chandler had his own system for turning out The Big Sleep and other classic detective stories. “Me, I wait for inspiration,” he said, but he did it methodically every morning. He believed that a professional writer needed to set aside at least four hours a day for his job: “He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.”

Kafka on The Shore – Haruki Murakami

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Kafka on The Shore

(I want my time back)

Goodreads Wikipedia

Franz Kafka is one of my favorite authors, but also, in my opinion, a bit difficult to read. After finishing the Metamorphosis I deeply regretted the time I spent reading such a boring book. Until a few days later when it suddenly hit me how amazing the book and Franz Kafka really are. I proceeded reading all of his books and they all had that same ‘delayed gratification’ effect.

I read a few short stories and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running  by Haruki Murakami, before I decided to give Kafka on The Shore a try. The famous author, the positive reviews and the fact that the title of the book has the name of my favorite author increased my expectations of the book. However, I ended up deeply disappointed. Kafka on The Shore was incredibly boring and annoying to read and it had the opposite of a ‘delayed gratification’ effect. As time goes by my hate towards this book only grows…

Kafka on The Shore was so boring that it took me about an year to finish. It left a lingering feeling of pain, emptiness and dullness, which made me quit Murakami forever. To start with, all the characters in the book have a two-dimensional feeling to them. I never cared about any of the characters, not even the kind, crazy, old, cat man. Moreover, at times the book feels absurd just for the sake of being absurd. The author tries really hard to give us the feeling of “dream-logic” but comes no near to the brilliant way that Kafka does it…

Many of you have probably experienced waking up after a dream only to realize that you were following some weird “dream laws” in your sleep? And these laws were all incredibly absurd, yet you felt the urge to abide by them. Then you wake up and wonder how come you never realized that you were dreaming… And how come you didn’t have the will to break free from the grip of that dream and shape your dream world the way you want it to be==> Reading Franz Kafka feels the same way. You become more aware of the absurd rules and laws that you follow in your real, waking life, which are often a product of social expectations, fear and upbringing. Franz Kafka made me more aware of who I am and freed me in many ways…

We then take a look at the ‘dream-logic’ in ‘Kafka on the shore’. I can best describe it as being aware that you are asleep and fully conscious of the absurdity of your dreams but still stuck in them until you wake up. Or to put it another way, fully aware of how boring the book is but stuck reading it…

If anyone found meaning and derived value from this book please share in the comments below. I am curious about the way you see it.

Quotes

“You have to look!” Johnnie Walker commanded. “That’s another one of our rules. Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on. In fact, things will be even worse the next time you open your eyes. That’s the kind of world we live in, Mr. Nakata. Keep your eyes wide open. Only a coward closes his eyes. Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears won’t make time stand still.”

“Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe.”

“That’s fine. Look—what I’m getting at is no matter who or what you’re dealing with, people build up meaning between themselves and the things around them. The important thing is whether this comes about naturally or not. Being bright has nothing to do with it. What matters is that you see things with your own eyes.”

“”That’s why I gave myself the name Kafka. That’s what Kafka means in Czech, you know—crow.” “Hmm,” she says, mildly impressed. “So you’re Crow.” “That’s right,” I say. That’s right, the boy named Crow says. “There must be a limit to that kind of lifestyle, though,” she says. “You can’t use that strength as a protective wall around you. There’s always going to be something stronger that can overcome your fortress. At least in principle.” “Strength itself becomes your morality.” Miss Saeki smiles. “You catch on quickly.” “The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from outside. What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power, to stand up to it. The strength to quietly endure things—unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunderstandings.” “That’s got to be the most difficult strength of all to make your own.””

“”Myoga, you’re not very bright, so you don’t have to learn any sutras. Instead, I’d like you to sit at the entrance and polish everybody’s shoes.” Myoga was an obedient guy, so he didn’t tell his master to go screw himself. So for ten years, twenty years, he diligently polished everybody’s shoes. Then one day he achieved enlightenment and became one of the greatest of all the Buddha’s followers. That’s a story Hoshino always remembered, because he’d thought that had to be the crappiest kind of life, polishing shoes for decades. You gotta be kidding, he thought. But when he considered it now, the story started to take on a different undertone. Life’s crappy, no matter how you cut it. He just hadn’t understood that when he was little.”

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murkami

runningWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running

(Recommend)

There is a lot of pep talk for when you are feeling down. However, as with all motivational videos, quotes, movies, books etc… it takes actual implementation in order to see positive change in your life. You are going to read some of the quotes below, pump yourself up and in 10 minutes eat a tub of ice-cream…

Personally, I see trying to imitate someone’s success as pointless. They are unique human beings. What works for them might not work for me. I realized that I need to stop seeking rules to follow or some general truths to abide by. My life is my own creation and I don’t need someone else to tell me how to live it or to inspire me to aim for goals which are not even mine in the first place.

That said, I enjoy reading about the ways people find meaning in their lives and what keeps them going. I like having an arsenal of ideas to use. Also, often there are some hidden practical gems that could be discovered…

Summary:

  • Exert yourself to the fullest within your individual limits
  • Work towards your goals every day, be consistent, do it no matter what.
  • Expand your capacity for attention by focusing on your mind as hard as you can, every day.

To further summarize:

Don’t be lazy, work as hard as you can, every day.

I think most motivation talk comes down to this doesn’t it… It’s all ‘work hard, no matter what’ looked from a different perspective, with a lot of fluff and a lot of repetition.

 

Cool Quotes

I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.

This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed—and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.

Running without a break for more than two decades has also made me stronger, both physically and emotionally.

I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself, so in this sense long-distance running is the perfect fit for a mindset like mine.

Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.

In other words, you can’t please everybody. Even when I ran my bar I followed the same policy. A lot of customers came to the bar. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and said he’d come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it the other way, it didn’t matter if nine out of ten didn’t like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. This is what I learned through running a business.

The main thing was not the speed or distance so much as running every day, without taking a break.

When I tell people I run every day, some are quite impressed. “You really must have a strong will,” they sometimes tell me. Of course, it’s nice to be praised like this. A lot better than being disparaged, that’s for sure. But I don’t think it’s merely willpower that makes you able to do something. The world isn’t that simple. To tell the truth, I don’t even think there’s that much correlation between my running every day and whether or not I have a strong will. I think I’ve been able to run for more than twenty years for a simple reason: It suits me. Or at least because I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue what they don’t like. Admittedly, something close to will does play a small part in that. But no matter how strong a will a person has, no matter how much he may hate to lose, if it’s an activity he doesn’t really care for, he won’t keep it up for long. Even if he did, it wouldn’t be good for him.

“Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?” He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!”

I wanted to know whether, despite being worlds apart in terms of strength, the amount we can exercise, and motivation, when we lace up our running shoes early in the morning we feel exactly the same way. Seko’s reply at the time came as a great relief. In the final analysis we’re all the same, I thought.

There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training. That’s it in a word. Not enough overall exercise, plus not getting my weight down. Without knowing it, I’d developed a sort of arrogant attitude, convinced that just a fair-to-middling amount of training was enough for me to do a good job. It’s pretty thin, the wall separating healthy confidence and unhealthy pride.

I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform—or perhaps distort—yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.

Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it. As long as you explain your expectations to them by actually showing them examples of the amount of work they have to endure, your muscles will comply and gradually get stronger.

No matter what, though, I keep up my running. Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit just because I’m busy.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. Even a novelist who has a lot of talent and a mind full of great new ideas probably can’t write a thing if, for instance, he’s suffering a lot of pain from a cavity. The pain blocks concentration. That’s what I mean when I say that without focus you can’t accomplish anything.

Fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training. You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point.

This is a lot like the training of muscles I wrote of a moment ago. You have to continually transmit the object of your focus to your entire body, and make sure it thoroughly assimilates the information necessary for you to write every single day and concentrate on the work at hand. And gradually you’ll expand the limits of what you’re able to do. Almost imperceptibly you’ll make the bar rise. This involves the same process as jogging every day to strengthen your muscles and develop a runner’s physique. Add a stimulus and keep it up. And repeat. Patience is a must in this process, but I guarantee the results will come.

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

On the other hand, writers who aren’t blessed with much talent—those who barely make the grade—need to build up their strength at their own expense. They have to train themselves to improve their focus, to increase their endurance. To a certain extent they’re forced to make these qualities stand in for talent. And while they’re getting by on these, they may actually discover real, hidden talent within them. They’re sweating, digging out a hole at their feet with a shovel, when they run across a deep, secret water vein. It’s a lucky thing, but what made this good fortune possible was all the training they did that gave them the strength to keep on digging. I imagine that late-blooming writers have all gone through a similar process.

Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.

But you need a great deal of energy to create an immune system and maintain it over a long period. You have to find that energy somewhere, and where else to find it but in our own basic physical being?

To deal with something unhealthy, a person needs to be as healthy as possible. That’s my motto. In other words, an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body. This might sound paradoxical, but it’s something I’ve felt very keenly ever since I became a professional writer.

If possible, I’d like to avoid that kind of literary burnout. My idea of literature is something more spontaneous, more cohesive, something with a kind of natural, positive vitality. For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t, one or the other. I always keep that inner image with me as I write.

I’m not a human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.

That’s what I told myself. That’s about all I thought about, and that’s what got me through. If I were a living person of blood and flesh I would have collapsed from the pain. There definitely was a being called me right there. And accompanying that is a consciousness that is the self. But at that point, I had to force myself to think that those were convenient forms and nothing more. It’s a strange way of thinking and definitely a very strange feeling—consciousness trying to deny consciousness. You have to force yourself into an inorganic place. Instinctively I realized that this was the only way to survive.

I repeat this like a mantra. A literal, mechanical repetition. And I try hard to reduce the perceptible world to the narrowest parameters. All I can see is the ground three yards ahead, nothing beyond. My whole world consists of the ground three yards ahead. No need to think beyond that. The sky and wind, the grass, the cows munching the grass, the spectators, cheers, lake, novels, reality, the past, memory—these mean nothing to me. Just getting me past the next three yards—this was my tiny reason for living as a human. No, I’m sorry—as a machine.

Instead of forcing myself to run, perhaps it would have been smarter if I’d walked. A lot of other runners were doing just that. Giving their legs a rest as they walked. But I didn’t walk a single step. I stopped a lot to stretch, but I never walked. I didn’t come here to walk. I came to run. That’s the reason—the only reason—I flew all the way to the northern tip of Japan. No matter how slow I might run, I wasn’t about to walk. That was the rule. Break one of my rules once, and I’m bound to break many more. And if I’d done that, it would have been next to impossible to finish this race.

Once you have a scary incident like that, you really take it to heart. In most cases learning something essential in life requires physical pain. Since that incident on the bike, no matter how tired I might be I always keep my head up and my eyes on the road ahead.

There’s one thing, though, I can state with confidence: until the feeling that I’ve done a good job in a race returns, I’m going to keep running marathons, and not let it get me down. Even when I grow old and feeble, when people warn me it’s about time to throw in the towel, I won’t care. As long as my body allows, I’ll keep on running. Even if my time gets worse, I’ll keep on putting in as much effort—perhaps even more effort—toward my goal of finishing a marathon. I don’t care what others say—that’s just my nature, the way I am. Like scorpions sting, cicadas cling to trees, salmon swim upstream to where they were born, and wild ducks mate for life.

What I mean is, I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run—simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.

I look up at the sky, wondering if I’ll catch a glimpse of kindness there, but I don’t. All I see are indifferent summer clouds drifting over the Pacific. And they have nothing to say to me. Clouds are always taciturn. I probably shouldn’t be looking up at them. What I should be looking at is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered nature that still doubts itself—that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.

But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive—or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself. If things go well, that is.

The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle

tcsidebarThe Talent Code 

(Recommend)

At its core this book is all about the concept of myelination. Practicing a skill leads to myelination of the neural network in your brain responsible for that skill. More myelination – the faster and stronger this neural network becomes.

Myelination in action

Deep Work – Cal Newport

A Mind For Numbers – Barbara Oakley

Quotes

 

Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.

The reason, Bjork explained, resides in the way our brains are built. “We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder, but that’s wrong,” he said. “It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build. The more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.”

The firing of the circuit is paramount. Myelin is not built to respond to fond wishes or vague ideas or information that washes over us like a warm bath. The mechanism is built to respond to actions: the literal electrical impulses traveling down nerve fibers. It responds to urgent repetition. In a few chapters we’ll discuss the likely evolutionary reasons, but for now we’ll simply note that deep practice is assisted by the attainment of a primal state, one where we are attentive, hungry, and focused, even desperate.

Causing skill to evaporate doesn’t require chromosomal rejiggering or black-ops psychological maneuvers. It only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit for a mere thirty days. Their muscles won’t have changed; their much-vaunted genes and character will remain unaltered; but you will have touched their talent at the weakest spot in its armor. Myelin, as Bartzokis reminds us, is living tissue. Like everything else in the body, it’s in a constant cycle of breakdown and repair. That’s why daily practice matters, particularly as we get older. As Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist who kept performing into his eighties, put it, “If I skip practice for one day, I notice. If I skip practice for two days, my wife notices. If I skip for three days, the world notices.”

Repetition is invaluable and irreplaceable. There are, however, a few caveats. With conventional practice, more is always better: hitting two hundred forehands a day is presumed to be twice as good as hitting one hundred forehands a day. Deep practice, however, doesn’t obey the same math. Spending more time is effective—but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits. What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice human beings can do in a day. Ericsson’s research shows that most world-class experts—including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes—practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.

“We instinctively think of each new student as a blank slate, but the ideas they bring to that first lesson are probably far more important than anything a teacher can do, or any amount of practice,” McPherson said. “It’s all about their perception of self. At some point very early on they had a crystallizing experience that brings the idea to the fore, that says, I am a musician. That idea is like a snowball rolling downhill.”

“We believe that people are shy not because they lack social skills but because they haven’t practiced them sufficiently” said therapist Nicole Shiloff. “Talking on the phone or asking someone on a date is a learnable skill, exactly like a tennis forehand. The key is that people have to linger in that uncomfortable area, learn to tolerate the anxiety. If you practice, you can get to the level you want.” The godfather of this kind of therapy is Dr. Albert Ellis. Ellis, who was born in 1913 and raised in the Bronx, was a painfully shy teenager, unable to bring himself to speak to women. But one afternoon he decided to make a change. He sat on a bench near the New York Botanical Garden and chatted with every woman who sat down. In one month he spoke with 130 women. “Thirty walked away immediately,” he said. “I talked with the other hundred, for the first time in my life, no matter how anxious I was. Nobody vomited and ran away. Nobody called the cops.” Ellis, who went on to write dozens of books, built a straight-talk, action-oriented approach that challenged the Freudian model of examining childhood experience. “Neurosis is just a high-class word for whining,” he said. “The trouble with most therapy is that it helps you to feel better. But you don’t get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action.”

This is why level of education is one of the most reliable predictors for Alzheimer’s onset, Bartzokis says. More education creates a thicker, more robust circuit, better able to compensate for the early phases of disease. It’s also why we’ve recently seen an avalanche of new studies, books, and video games built on the myelin-centric principle that practice staves off cognitive decline. The myelin model also highlights the importance of seeking new challenges. Experiments have found that situations in which people are forced to adapt and attune themselves to new challenges (i.e., make errors, pay attention, deep-practice) tend to increase cognitive reserve. One study showed that elderly people who pursued more leisure activities had a 38 percent lower risk for developing dementia. As one neurologist pointed out, the mantra “Use it or lose it” needs an update. It should be “Use it and get more of it.”

Deep Work – Cal Newport

41a5gqoqsfl-_sx317_bo1204203200_Deep Work 

(Recommend)

‘Deep Work’ is a surprisingly good book, and an easy and fast read.

It’s main message is simple. Find time to focus deeply on your work, every day. The book tells you why this is an important thing to do and offers some strategies to achieve it.

A Mind For Numbers – Barbara Oakley

Quotes

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities. Deep work, in other words, was exactly the type of effort needed to stand out in a cognitively demanding field like academic psychiatry in the early twentieth century.

To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” admitted journalist Nicholas Carr, in an oft-cited 2008 Atlantic article. “[And] I’m not the only one.” Carr expanded this argument into a book, The Shallows, which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. To write The Shallows, appropriately enough, Carr had to move to a cabin and forcibly disconnect.

Jason Benn’s story highlights a crucial lesson: Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today. There are two reasons for this value. The first has to do with learning. We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. Some of the computer languages Benn learned, for example, didn’t exist ten years ago and will likely be outdated ten years from now. Similarly, someone coming up in the field of marketing in the 1990s probably had no idea that today they’d need to master digital analytics. To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.

On the other hand, my commitment to depth has rewarded me. In the ten-year period following my college graduation, I published four books, earned a PhD, wrote peer-reviewed academic papers at a high rate, and was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgetown University. I maintained this voluminous production while rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek. This compressed schedule is possible because I’ve invested significant effort to minimize the shallow in my life while making sure I get the most out of the time this frees up. I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

My commitment to depth has also returned nonprofessional benefits. For the most part, I don’t touch a computer between the time when I get home from work and the next morning when the new workday begins (the main exception being blog posts, which I like to write after my kids go to bed). This ability to fully disconnect, as opposed to the more standard practice of sneaking in a few quick work e-mail checks, or giving in to frequent surveys of social media sites, allows me to be present with my wife and two sons in the evenings, and read a surprising number of books for a busy father of two. More generally, the lack of distraction in my life tones down that background hum of nervous mental energy that seems to increasingly pervade people’s daily lives. I’m comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill—especially on a lazy D.C. summer night listening to a Nationals game slowly unfold on the radio.

“Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.” This advice comes from Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, a Dominican friar and professor of moral philosophy, who during the early part of the twentieth century penned a slim but influential volume titled The Intellectual Life. Sertillanges wrote the book as a guide to “the development and deepening of the mind” for those called to make a living in the world of ideas. Throughout The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges recognizes the necessity of mastering complicated material and helps prepare the reader for this challenge. For this reason, his book proves useful in our quest to better understand how people quickly master hard (cognitive) skills.

As psychologists, Ericsson and the other researchers in his field are not interested in why deliberate practice works; they’re just identifying it as an effective behavior. In the intervening decades since Ericsson’s first major papers on the topic, however, neuroscientists have been exploring the physical mechanisms that drive people’s improvements on hard tasks. As the journalist Daniel Coyle surveys in his 2009 book, The Talent Code, these scientists increasingly believe the answer includes myelin—a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why deliberate practice works. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits—effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination. By contrast, if you’re trying to learn a complex new skill (say, SQL database management) in a state of low concentration (perhaps you also have your Facebook feed open), you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen.

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.

…when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.

When we step back from these individual observations, we see a clear argument form: To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.

This clarity simplifies decisions about what work habits a professor adopts or abandons. Here, for example, is the late Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman explaining in an interview one of his less orthodox productivity strategies: To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time… it needs a lot of concentration… if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them: I’m irresponsible.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! -Richard P. Feynman

 

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

If you believe in the value of depth, this reality spells bad news for businesses in general, as it’s leading them to miss out on potentially massive increases in their value production. But for you, as an individual, good news lurks. The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable. Having just established that there’s nothing fundamentally flawed about deep work and nothing fundamentally necessary about the distracting behaviors that displace it, you can therefore continue with confidence with the ultimate goal of this book: to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep—and by doing so, reap great rewards.

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. When measured empirically, people were happier at work and less happy relaxing than they suspected. And as the ESM studies confirmed, the more such flow experiences that occur in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction. Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. There is, of course, overlap between the theory of flow and the ideas of Winifred Gallagher highlighted in the last section. Both point toward the importance of depth over shallowness, but they focus on two different explanations for this importance. Gallagher’s writing emphasizes that the content of what we focus on matters.

This chain method (as some now call it) soon became a hit among writers and fitness enthusiasts—communities that thrive on the ability to do hard things consistently. For our purposes, it provides a specific example of a general approach to integrating depth into your life: the rhythmic philosophy. This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep. The chain method is a good example of the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling because it combines a simple scheduling heuristic (do the work every day), with an easy way to remind yourself to do the work: the big red Xs on the calendar.

In Ericsson’s seminal 1993 paper on the topic, titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” he dedicates a section to reviewing what the research literature reveals about an individual’s capacity for cognitively demanding work. Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours—but rarely more. One of the studies cited, for example, catalogs the practice habits of a group of elite violin players training at Berlin’s Universität der Künste. This study found the elite players average around three and a half hours per day in a state of deliberate practice, usually separated into two distinct periods. The less accomplished players spent less time in a state of depth.

The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. This constant switching can be understood analogously as weakening the mental muscles responsible for organizing the many sources vying for your attention. By segregating Internet use (and therefore segregating distractions) you’re minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so you let these attention-selecting muscles strengthen.

The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.

I suggest that you adopt a productive meditation practice in your own life. You don’t necessarily need a serious session every day, but your goal should be to participate in at least two or three such sessions in a typical week. Fortunately, finding time for this strategy is easy, as it takes advantage of periods that would otherwise be wasted (such as walking the dog or commuting to work), and if done right, can actually increase your professional productivity instead of taking time away from your work. In fact, you might even consider scheduling a walk during your workday specifically for the purpose of applying productive meditation to your most pressing problem at the moment.