A brief snippet of Paul Graham’s brief writing advice

His original essay is here.

A few favorites (all quoted):

  • Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can
  • Expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong
  • …just say the most important sentence first
  • Read your essays out loud to see…which bits are boring (the paragraphs you dread reading)
  • Write for a reader who won’t read the essay as carefully as you do

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

A typical adult has…

…seen more lands than Marco Polo…

…read more philosophy than Confucius…

…heard more music than Mozart.

And so on and so on.

So how do we gain more of Confucius’s wisdom? Marco Polo’s curiosity?

We have already consumed so much. Taken in and absorbed and eaten more than kings and popes and most presidents.

But all of this quantity only gets us so far. Diminishing returns, that diminish quickly.

Understanding and using and mining what we already have is far harder. But it’s also far more valuable.

The easy thing to do is consume more: Read more books. Travel to more cities. Listen to more hit Billboard songs and watch popular TV shows. Go back to school to do homework and take exams. Always seeking more and new and novel.

But something tells me this is the easy part of the journey, the journey to where we want to go. It’s the part we’ve traveled many times over. Where we keep getting stuck on the same mountain pass, lost in the same valley.

But over that pass, through that valley, lies the beautiful destination. The place where Mozart composed his sonatas, where Marco Polo lived his stories, where Confucius discovered and shared his worldview.

I guess I’m just complaining that I don’t create enough. Input so much, and output so little. How do I – how do we – flip this equation? How do we make the most of the much that we already possess, of each little bit?

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Habit reduces choice — and that’s a good thing

Today’s world is one of snowballing choice. We can choose from hundreds of restaurants each with tens of menu items, delivered to our doorstep. We can select from many lifetime’s worth of TV shows and movies and watch them on our laptops, our phones, and our smart TVs. Even a quick trip to the corner convenience store to buy toothpaste requires you to choose among a shelf of brands. Then to choose your payment method. Credit or cash? Apple pay? Do you have a loyalty card? Do you want to open one now? How about a store credit card?

Don’t even get me started on the choice porn that is Starbucks.

We know that choice is generally a good thing. It means freedom and opportunity and hope. The more education we receive, the more developed our society, the more relationships we have, the more choice we’re given.

But we also know each decision comes with a cost, a kind of psychic debit card. That cost has many names: Information overload. Decision paralysis. The paradox of choice. Willpower depletion.

So how do we balance this ballooning universe of choices with a decision making process that is both efficient yet effective, disciplined yet open minded?

After we make a decision, how do we stay committed through the inevitable waves of doubt and second-guessing as we’re presented with yet more related decisions, and as we see the outcomes of people who made different decisions?

Habits are the answer.

Habits are one of our oldest and most reliable technologies. Human brains are literally wired to act out of habit.

Let habits decide for you.

If your habit is to wake up before 7am every day, then your body won’t let you stay out late, night after night.

If you’ve been a vegetarian for years, you actively avoid fast food restaurants. The burgers aren’t appealing.

If your habit is to spend time with your kids when they return from school, then those afternoon hours become sacred to you. You don’t think about working during them.

Habit reduces choice. In fact that may be its primary job.

When your habit is to eat a piece of fruit and a yogurt each morning, you don’t spend time and willpower to think about breakfast. You know what you’ll eat when you wake up, and you eat it, and you don’t second guess your meal when it’s done.

When you wear the same type of outfit every day, say a black turtleneck and slim blue jeans, you don’t spend willpower points and arouse anxiety when choosing your clothes. Maybe the clothes have been laid out the night before. You go straight to the pants and shirts you’ll wear and you put them on without hesitation.

When you head to spin class every Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm, you know what you’ll be doing at that hour. Your schedule clears itself, and you don’t hem and haw as the hour approaches. Your mind expects it. Your body craves it.

Of course you still need to choose and then forge the right habits. That is hard or very hard, depending on the particular habit. It requires patience and persistence and pain. Every step forward can start to feel smaller and smaller until you hardly feel like you’re moving at all. But you are. You’re just making progress on a different level, a less conscious one, but a more permanent one.

After enough repetition, one day you will perform your habit – whether it’s reading a literary novel at night, or kissing your wife before she heads to work, or going for a long walk after dinner – without thinking about it. You’ll finish the task and only then will you realize what you were doing. And it will feel great.

That daily walk after dinner, for example, removes ten decisions you’d otherwise need to make. Without it, you’ll find yourself asking: What do I do after dinner? Watch TV on the couch? Read a book? Or maybe I should exercise. But what type of exercise? Go to the gym? Head to krav maga class? I’m tired though. It’s been a long day. Should I do it anyway? Ugh.

Choice is like the stuffing inside a burrito. It’s the filling. It’s the flavor. Without it a burrito would be tasteless.

Habit, meanwhile, is the tortilla wrap that keeps the whole thing together. Habit gives us shape and structure. The stronger and sturdier the wrap, the more meat and rice and beans you can add into the burrito, and the easier it is to eat.

So build good habits now. Construct them slowly and steadily over months and years. Let them grow into reliable pillars, to stand you up and hold you firm. Let them make good choices for you.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

New additions to the Personal Bible: Warren Buffett, Robert Greene, and a Hacker News comment

I created a Personal Bible for myself so I could re-read and re-re-read my favorite essays, poems, and passages of text. Below are new additions including a snippet from a Warren Buffett shareholder letter, a raw and honest comment on Hacker News, and some small snippets from other writers that I like.

Here’s my latest version as a PDF. Hope one day you can create one for yourself!

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Warren Buffett’s 1989 letter to shareholders
http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/1989.html

My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call ‘the institutional imperative.’ […] I thought that decent, intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn’t so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

For example: (1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

[…] After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem.

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I was the ambitious one, the one that strayed far from home, chasing the dream, getting caught up in the consumerism. I’m glad that by the age of 38 I have come to realize that I had everything that was important before I left. The remainder was a constant cycle of churn, want more, want bigger, want better, want newer, want more convenient. Except it’s hard when it’s being fed to you every day by every billboard, every sign, every menu, every advert, every press release, every news story, every TV show to differentiate between want and need. When you stop to analyze what you actually need – I mean really need: Clean air, clean water, shelter, nutrition, sanitation, family, community, companionship; how much of what you’re being sold every day is truly “needed” and how much of it is a want to fulfill some notion that has been sold to you by the media? – a Hacker News commenter

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David DeAngelo: Prove to yourself over and over that you can cope with rejection

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From Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power [Amazon]

Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness
When […] entering any kind of negotiation, go further than you planned. Ask for the moon and you will be surprised how often you get it.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

My Personal Bible: 2017 additions including The War of Art and The 4 Agreements

Personal Bible is a collection of your favorite wisdom, notes, and passages that you can – like the Bible – read and re-read and absorb and memorize and integrate wholly into your life. Over the years my own collection has grown to include poems, book notes, article excerpts, and even a Bible passage. I formalized the document last year and try to update it monthly and read from it nightly. It’s one of my daily habits but not one that I actively track.

Below are additions I’ve made in 2017. You can download my latest version here. Feel free to read or edit or fork your own!

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War of Art by Steven Pressfield [Kindle]

  • Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
  • The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.
  • The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.
  • The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real” vocation.
  • The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.
  • The ancient Spartans schooled themselves to regard the enemy, any enemy, as nameless and faceless. In other words, they believed that if they did their work, no force on earth could stand against them.
  • When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. A territory doesn’t give, it gives back.

The 4 Agreements by Miguel Ruiz [Kindle]

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personally
  3. Don’t make assumptions
  4. Always do your best

Tim Ferriss [source]

  • What’s the least crowded channel?
  • What if I could only subtract to solve problems?
  • Am I hunting antelope or field mice?
  • What would this look like if it were easy?
  • One former Navy SEAL friend recently texted me a principle used in their training: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.