Food-Water-Shelter-Books

Ryan Holiday changed my life. Though we’ve never talked and may never, he deeply impacted me. Ryan has written extensively about reading and how important a part of his life it is. Most of what I have to offer on the topic merely echoes his teachings, but nevertheless has become so much a part of me that I can’t just ignore it or redirect attention elsewhere. I need to write about it too.

Ryan wrote about reading like it was essential to his survival. He explained that he classed it with eating and sleeping. This alone enabled a profound shift to take place in my mind about the way that I treated reading. I valued reading, no doubt. Many of my friends failed to read as much as me, and probably had little desire to do so. I had a pretty impressive collection of books in comparison to my peers. When the shift occurred where I came to regard reading in a similar way as Ryan, an insatiable appetite developed in me – or at least was allowed to finally come to the surface – for knowledge.

There was so much I needed to read.

He wrote about making a deal with himself that if he ever wanted a book, he wouldn’t let money or time or anything else stop him from owning it. He wrote about how owning it to him meant more than reading it right away. He might not read it for years, but it was there for him when he wanted it. He wrote about this resulting in several – or many – books that he hadn’t read, and rather than this being a negative aspect, he viewed it as his anti-library. The anti-library produced still more motivation for him to read what he was reading so that he could continue to move through all the books that he wanted to read, which he saw every time he looked at his bookshelves. He went into detail about his approaches to reading, to taking notes, to commonplacing, to doing all these things that helped him to give maximum function to his reading. He ultimately wrote about how it was essential to his writing process, and how one leant to the other, providing him with not only an effective way to self-educate, but a career that has thus far proved prosperous.

I, and many people I know and follow, have experienced life-altering insight as a direct result of reading a book. For fifteen or twenty dollars, my life could be significantly affected for the better. This low-risk gamble excited me and continues to. Unlike gambling at a casino, the stakes are low and the potential for gain is inevitable and guaranteed. The biggest cost isn’t the aforementioned price tag, it’s the time, energy, commitment, and seriousness one brings to the practice of reading.

It’s a decision. Simple as that. All Ryan did – other than display his enthusiasm by setting a detailed example – was give me permission to become obsessed with reading too.

Food-Water-Shelter-Books

Bringing It All Together

Recently I read something that resonated with me. It explained a problem in my life that I didn’t have a name for, providing a solution that I knew I had. In reading, I discover lots of information. Occasionally, I receive insight, and I’m working to develop my ability to read for understanding so to increase the frequency of insight.

“Outcomes have replaced insights as the yardstick of learning.”

Lowell Monke

With all the reading though, much of that information is funneled into my conscious mind, but quickly sneaks back out. Besides this, there’s also a disconnection between the information and it serving immediate function. In other words, the information I consume doesn’t always have an immediate practical application.

For this reason, the letters and words that give my life such deep meaning are fragmented – all floating around in seeming disarray, without tangible connection to one another.

What I mentioned above that I recently read, spoke to resolving this fragmentation through creative work. This woman wrote about her creative process – how she starts with raw materials and combines them; how she gives them form through movement; how she finishes with something that’s not only uniquely original, but whole and complete. Metaphorically rich, it immediately resonated with me as I’ve illuminated above already, further validating the need for me to write.

I write anyway, so it wasn’t a call to do something new, per se. But what it did was give my writing deeper purpose, and gave this style of writing – blogging – new function.

I used to dabble on Medium.com a couple years ago. I recall being impressed by one particular writer’s little two-sentence blurb about himself, visible at the top of his posts just below his picture. Everybody had catchy little writing-related aphorisms that made them seem worldly – at least to me. I can’t recall exactly what his was, but it was something to do with walking through life and trying to write his way through it.

Anyway, I thought it sounded really clever, and so I adopted it into my vernacular repertoire of witticisms, but I didn’t really get it. What writing allows me – among many other things – is the ability to take an idea or question or concept, and really dissect it. Perhaps at first this is only superficially, but with inventorying anything, I can really take it apart piece by piece. At the time it was over my head, but that’s the point. I don’t need to have all the answers. In writing in and around something, I can discover truth, insight, understanding. I can create bridges, connecting seemingly unrelated ideas or information, giving meaning to a new combination of notions – a new train of thought.

I’m able to bring it all together, perpetually cultivating deeper and deeper meaning in my life. Reading feeds the writing, and writing feeds the reading – a cycle I look forward to residing in indefinitely.

Bringing It All Together

Living for Others

A friend of mine recently reminded me how important it is to live for others. He sent me this mildly religious inspirational video that talked about living for the big “YOU” rather than the little “you.” The implication being made was that we’re all connected through a sort of universal consciousness, and that when we intend our actions to be beneficial for others, they’re consequently beneficial for us.

When one is as hopelessly self-centered and terminally narcissistic as I am, it’s sometimes necessary to develop motivation to be thoughtful, considerate, and especially helpful regarding other people. Somebody tells me that I’ll benefit from it though and I’m all in.

Counterintuitively  for a guy like me, this has in fact proved true. Fortunately, it’s not a brand new idea, and despite my default of gazing into my own eyes in the bathroom mirror for longer and more frequent intervals than I’ll allow myself to admit, I’ve been afforded many regular opportunities to be useful to other people.

It’s easy for me to tell when I’ve spent too much time with me. Mind you, I’m my favorite person in the world to spend time with, and I really love when I get me all to myself. Still, there’s a limit where even the best of things begins to be harmful. At this point, I’m able to refresh my spirit by actually taking one of the phone calls I’ve trained myself to ignore. Really though, I could use that as an opportunity to call one of the friends I tell myself I’d love to catch up with. Best of all, I could call someone I know that has difficulty going on in there lives, try to lift them up and even just wish them well and let them know that I’m thinking of them.

While these seem like little endeavors that don’t carry much significance, they actually have the potential to make my day, and frequently do. I get caught up in the grind and forget that this kind of stuff – human interaction and spontaneity – are the zest of life, and that they are what essentially make me happy.

Another good example is getting out of my own way enough to play with my five-year-old son. I love him to pieces, and he loves me similarly. No less, I still struggle to become willing to play the little games he comes up with. We spent one hour this afternoon going from downstairs to upstairs with his Woody and Buzz Lightyear dolls, resuscitating his other Woody doll when this Woody doll would strangle it by the other Buzz Lightyear doll getting the latter Woody doll with his imaginary laser. I was the Buzz’s. He was the Woody’s. After each of these episodes, the two “good” guys would go hide and go back to sleep somewhere in the house. Then, the two “bad” guys would go find them again, repeating the action in different parts of the house for an entire hour. This may sound adorable, and it really was. Remaining present throughout was real work on my part though. It was service. I don’t say that to sound self-congratulatory. It really was. While that may come naturally for some, it certainly doesn’t for me.

I’ve gotten better at this kind of thing – both helping and interacting with people and actively engaging with my son. It’s amazing how it can really lift us up and set us back on our feet when we feel down and off the beam. When we begin to feel irritated at trivialities, it’s usually a good indicator that we’re getting tired of being around ourselves. Being with and for others reminds us of how small we and our problems sometimes are. And when our problems aren’t small, we can rely on those close to us in a similar, reciprocating way.

Finishing here, I’ll end with a quote from Marcus Aurelius I was just reminded of.

“Remember:

Matter. How tiny your share of it.

Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it.

Fate. How small a role you play in it.”

Living for Others

All Education is Self-Education

I read somewhere recently that all education is self-education. I really appreciate this because it makes sense to me. I can take it upon myself to learn on my own without teachers – in the proverbial sense – and without a school or a neatly packaged curriculum.

Conversely, even if I’m enrolled in school, I could be seeking to merely accomplish what’s necessary so I can get the outcome I desire – be it a grade or even a degree. Seth Godin has some strong opinions on educational philosophy, especially in relevance to this point. “The test is a stick, the grade (and the degree) are the carrot, and compliance is the process.” If we focus solely on outcomes, we miss all the good stuff that’s supposed to happen in between. The test is ideally intended to verify we learned something, evaluating exactly how much and how well. The degree is ideally a representation of the education we spent x amount of years and energy earning. Unfortunately, this is an uncommon perspective these days.

The notion of all education being self-education puts the responsibility on us as to whether or not we’re going to learn. As I oscillate back and forth between staying in school or giving all my energy and time to my reading and writing, I’ve been continually reminding myself about the opportunities that lie dormant and underutilized in the average educational process.

I’m gaining exposure to things that I wouldn’t otherwise, or at least not nearly as quickly. In my particular situation, I don’t feel overly challenged with the content of the school work regarding what’s necessary. Sometimes the quantity is challenging, but this seems annoying rather than productive. The point being made above is that we can go extra deep in the studies and really mine for gold if we want to. This has never been a personal approach to formal education for me, so it’s naturally strange and unfamiliar. Frankly, it’s counterintuitive to the way I was academically raised. It’s pretty cool that we can really make something out of even a community college education, or even out of the books that we read. The real stick is that we have to challenge ourselves though. Easier said than done.

All Education is Self-Education

Asking Better Questions

I spend a fair amount of time reading. Beyond that, my ambition is to spend a fair amount of time writing. I do okay there too. Sometimes in between I find myself in the presence of people who are smarter than me. I don’t write that as a way to either belittle or aggrandize myself intellectually, but the fact is that I’m quite fortunate to have ended up where I am. The people I encounter on a routine basis are relatively accomplished in their own ways, and have a lot to offer – whether they realize it or not.

And, whether they realize it or not, I do, and I attempt to make the most of that insight by prying. I will occasionally grasp a teacher’s hand – at the school where I’m so fortunate to exist – over the table during one of our daily communal meals, look them piercingly in the eyeballs, and in all frankness, demand they tell me everything I need to know to be successful in life.

That never happens, actually.

I do frequently engage with them and other folks though – often over lunch – and I’ve made it my task to try to learn from them in conspicuous and not-so-conspicuous ways. Mainly, I’ve learned to ask for book recommendations. In doing this, people present who know me well will roll their eyes, sighing in preparation for my taking hostage any potentially wholesome, all-involving conversation that may have happened.

How does one effectively ask for book recommendations though? It’s easy to be vague here.

So, uh.. Any books worth reading these days?

No. I get a little hemmed-up here sometimes. I’ve often felt like the guy at a café asking a cute barista for her phone number after some trivially unimpressive attempt at a conversation.

I finally devised an effective question for situations like the one with the teacher – still hopelessly unequipped regarding the barista. “Most influential book(s)” doesn’t always apply, that is unless we share careers or at least aspirations. Sometimes this will yield interesting results, but it’s not exactly the bread and butter we’re looking for. “Book(s) you think I should read” doesn’t work unless they know something about us. Even “important book(s)” is hugely subjective and, if they read a lot, they aren’t going to know where to begin. I’ve even tried to utilize a mentor’s question: “Book(s) you’ve given away most frequently,” but depending on who we’re talking to, they may have never given a book away in the first place.

I’ve written enough chatter here. The grand finale is as follows:

“If you could deem one to three books as essential for all people to read, what would they be?”

We could dramatically increase the quality of our lives by learning to ask better questions. This, of course, presupposes that we’re willing to ask them.

Asking Better Questions

Accustomed to Glory

We travel around the world to experience strange culture and beauty. Interestingly, as of late, I’ve been fortunate enough to notice it in my local surroundings. Peterborough and Wilton, New Hampshire; Stonington, Maine. Even the small cities around are beautifully rich in culture and history. One has to look more closely in order to see past the mask of familiarity. In so doing, one may find that their home is in something comparable to an environment or culture they long to see and experience. Music sometimes reminds me of this. A relatively privileged quality of life enables me to notice this. When I have a moment to muse while admiring nature – whether actually being in it or merely from a window of a vehicle or a building – I’m reminded of this. It’s here. The grass is allegedly always greener on the other side. I prefer the expression: life is what you make it.

We travel all around the world to experience things with fresh eyes, but it might not be an unreasonable exercise to lift the veil and see what is here with an intention of newness. This of course requires more than a nod at a blog post, or a slight recognition of truth. Insight into the beauty of one’s local surroundings may even be a product of exposure to other places. It’s worth mentioning too that the more one travels, the more one begins to notice that most places are alike – they all echo the same sounds, only they look a little different. Cultivating deeper appreciation for the world immediately around us allows for deeper enjoyment of travel for the sake of the exposure it affords, rather than merely seeking to escape self-imposed mundanity. Seneca wrote about this idea of trying to escape via travel. He resolved in stating that it’s not effective. If one is restless and discontent with their everyday life, traveling isn’t a satisfactory cure.

“Though you may cross vast spaces of sea… your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.”

It’s simple enough: Take the time to get to know the area where you live and work. Find things about it that you long to experience elsewhere. Rest your focus there rather than on the inconsistencies and disagreeable aspects. The local harvest and fresh, daily cooking associated with Parisian lifestyle attract me, but realistically, a similar abundance is available in my local region. The lifestyle, the allure of the seemingly esoteric is what truly appeals to me. May we decide to live the lives that we want to live. We don’t need to be halfway around the world for that.

Accustomed to Glory