Personal Bible: recent additions on procrastination, life metaphors, Buddhism, and the Power of Now

So I keep a personal bible, a word document to collect and organize my favorite writings and wisdom across just about every topic of interest, from world history to self improvement to tech startups. Just some of the authors included in it: Warren Buffett, Jack Ma, JK Rowling, Rainer Rilke, even a passage from the Bible itself.

Every few months, I add new stuff to the personal bible and remove or prune old stuff. Below is a collection of what I’ve added in this most recent update.

Here’s more on the concept.

Here’s a past update.

Everyone can create such a document for themselves. Like the Christian Bible, it can become a reliable source of strength and support for you, serving as a crutch through hard times, or as a simple daily reminder of what’s wonderful and wise in life.

You can modify or improve on mine if you like. Here’s the PDF download.

All notes below are copied verbatim from the original text, unless otherwise noted.

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Howard Stevenson on why juggling is a better metaphor for life than balancing

I think it’s about juggling. The juggling metaphor is a lot more apt. One of the things about juggling is that you’ve got to keep your eye on all the balls. A second thing about juggling is each time you touch something you have to give it energy. You’ve got to throw it up in the air so that it takes care of itself while you’re working on the others. You’ve also got to throw the balls thoughtfully and carefully. That requires a lot of practice. The third thing about juggling, though, is you’ve got to catch the falling ball. The most important ball is the one that’s about to hit the ground.

PG’s Life is Short

Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That’s what you do when life is short.

Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life.

PG on Procrastination

That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions: What are the most important problems in your field? Are you working on one of them? Why not?

I think the way to “solve” the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you.

Highlights from The Sovereign Individual by James Dale Davidson

the most important causes of change are…in the hidden factors that alter the boundaries where power is exercised.

Most democracies run chronic deficits. This is a fiscal policy characteristic of control by employees. Governments seem notably resistant to reducing the costs of their operations.

Governments have never established stable monopolies of coercion over the open sea…This is a matter of the utmost importance in understanding how the organization of violence and protection will evolve as the economy migrates into cyberspace, which has no physical existence at all.

Bethke Elshtain observed, nationstates indoctrinate citizens more for sacrifice than aggression: “The young man goes to war not so much to kill as to die, to forfeit his particular body for that of the large body, the body politic.”

The average psychotherapist probably gives the patient less good moral advice on how to lead his life than the average Jew would have received from his teacher in the period of Moses.

Highlights from What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of [the Five Aggregates]. They are all impermanent, all constantly changing. ‘Whatever is impermanent is dukkha’

According to Buddhism for a man to be perfect there are two qualities that he should develop equally: compassion on one side, and wisdom on the other.

The moment you think ‘I am doing this’, you become self-conscious, and then you do not live in the action, but you live in the idea ‘I am’

It may be agreeable for certain people to live a retired life in a quiet place away from noise and disturbance. But it is certainly more praiseworthy and courageous to practise Buddhism living among your fellow beings, helping them and being of service to them.

‘Ever mindful he breathes in, and ever mindful he breathes out. Breathing in a long breath, he knows “I am breathing in a long breath”; breathing out a long breath, he knows “I am breathing out a long breath”; breathing in a short breath, he knows “I am breathing in a short breath”; breathing out a short breath, he knows “I am breathing out a short breath”.

He whose senses are mastered like horses well under the charioteer’s control, he who is purged of pride, free from passions, such a steadfast one even the gods envy.

Highlights from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

Give your fullest attention to whatever the moment presents. This implies that you also completely accept what is, because you cannot give your full attention to something and at the same time resist it.

Your outer journey may contain a million steps; your inner journey only has one: the step you are taking right now. As you become more deeply aware of this one step, you realize that it already contains within itself all the other steps as well as the destination.

You see time as the means to salvation, whereas in truth it is the greatest obstacle to salvation.

The greatest catalyst for change in a relationship is complete acceptance of your partner as he or she is, without needing to judge or change them in any way.

God is Being itself, not a being.

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.

Daily Habits Checklist (October 2nd – October 29th): “Savor the time you have”

A few changes for this month’s habits checklist: I removed the music habit (where I commit to singing or playing an instrument for one hour a day). Simply wasn’t getting it done, my focus had moved elsewhere, and I didn’t have any clear goals within view. A lack of focus and motivation, I think. But who knows, music might make a re-appearance, it’s still in the general milieu and I still take singing lessons.

In place of the music habit, I’ve brought back an oldie but goodie: the writing habit! Where I commit to writing – in a meaningful form, emails do not count – for at least 2 hours a day. This could be my public journal, or it could be short stories. Stuff that matters, that moves the goalposts.

Relentlessly prune bullshit, don’t wait to do the things that matter, and savor the time you have – Paul Graham

Here’s why and how I track my daily habits.

Thanks for following! You can find me on Twitter.

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.

What’s your ministry?

Jim Carrey’s commencement address at Maharishi University is quintessential Carrey: mostly hilarious, sometimes awkward, and very deep. Among the many parts that stayed with me, this was one of my favorites:

I realized one night in LA that the purpose of my life had always been to free people from concern, like my dad. When I realized this, I dubbed my new devotion, “The Church of Freedom From Concern” — “The Church of FFC”— and I dedicated myself to that ministry. What’s yours?

To a young Carrey, his purpose wasn’t just to tell jokes onstage and get paid. It was greater: He wanted to free people from their everyday concerns, from the worries of their workaday lives. The Church of FFC. And over his almost 4-decade Hollywood career, he has preached his message to countless acolytes.

His use of the word “ministry” is particularly interesting. He doesn’t use the words mission or passion, not once in the speech. He specifically calls his life purpose a ministry, and he uses the Church metaphor to hammer his point.

Wikipedia defines Christian ministry in the following way:

Ministry is an activity carried out by Christians to express or spread their faith, the prototype being the Great Commission. [It is] “carrying forth Christ’s mission in the world”, indicating that it is “conferred on each Christian in baptism.”

Religious wisdom is a big interest of mine. I try to spend some time each day learning from and practicing different religious traditions. Even if it is a few minutes reading from my Personal Bible, or ten minutes of quiet morning meditation. I don’t consider myself a dyed in the wool member of any labelled tradition (here is more about my approach to faith, inspired by Sri Ramakrishna). I find uplift and community in going to Church on Sundays (and like to sing the songs). I receive calm and clarity from long meditation sessions. Feel a sense of discipline and rigor in learning about zakat and salat in Islam, wisdom in reading excerpts of the Talmud and Midrashim. So Carrey’s anecdote got me thinking: What is my ministry? What is yours?

Within the realm of self help and productivity, we are often taught the value of having a life mission, a personal mission statement. To me, the concept of a personal ministry differs from a mission in at least two important ways:

  • A ministry is evangelical. The root of “evangelism” is good news. As an evangelist, your job is to spread the good word, the good book, the good news. If you have a ministry, a core part of your job – if not the entire job – is to spread your message, because it is the right thing to do. A mission, on the other hand, could be something you keep to yourself
  • A ministry is about changing others first. A minister’s job isn’t to transform herself but to serve and lead others. Your mission could be to visit every country in the world. But you wouldn’t call that a ministry unless the main reason you were doing all this travel was to inspire others to follow you. To help others, it helps to be clear about your potential community, your hoped for target audience. Pastors call this their flock. A mission, meanwhile, could start and end with yourself, and doesn’t require an audience

Put differently, you can think of a personal ministry as an outward focused, people first mission. Seen this way, it becomes clear that many of today’s most successful people are essentially such ministers:

  • NYT columnist David Brooks’s ministry is to teach his educated audience how to think deeply about the moral and spiritual dimensions of life. To live more conscientiously and purposefully amidst all the new technology, the fomo, the hyper speed distraction. Brooks uses the term “moral geniuses” to describe behavioral exemplars like Atul Gawande and Dorothy Day. They are saints in his ministerial canon
  • Startup investor Paul Graham preaches the value of starting a company, and the power of writing software. His flock is some combination of everyone who can write code and everyone who wants to start a company to control their career destiny. His good news is captured in 100s of essays. His church is the Y Combinator school and his many thousands of dedicated essay readers.
  • Tim Ferriss has a very dedicated flock who will follow him anywhere: These people want to achieve the dream of a 4 hour workweek, want to optimize every aspect of their lives from their bodies to their relationships to their morning routines. He ministers through his podcast, his blog, and his books

What’s your ministry? I’m slowly discovering mine. Some themes on this blog include the power of habits to give your life structure and meaning, the value of studying all religious traditions for their life advice, and the need to free yourself from outdated and perhaps even harmful social structures — whether the corporate ladder, the addiction to prestige, or the college admissions mouse trap (I prefer “mouse trap” over “rat race”).

Who are the flock you want to attract, inspire, and support? What is the insight bigger than yourself that motivates you to get up every morning and spread across the world?

I leave you with a favorite Indian proverb:

Every morning you wake up and ask yourself, what good things am I going to do today, remember that when the sun goes down at sunset, it will take a part of your life with 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.

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.

The Great (Tech Inequality) Debate: a review of PG, Ezra Klein and Tim O’Reilly

When my family immigrated from China we lived first in the Philly ghettos. To pursue the American dream, we started on the poor side of the inequality tracks. But with hard work and sweat and some luck, my parents eventually carried us across those tracks (eventually leaving that area of Philly), but the experience left some scars. They are scars of experience and emotion for which today, in a position of privilege and comfort, I feel nothing but gratitude. Without those marks of memory, it would be easy to forget that the life I have now is a far cry from the one we endured then. It would be easy to forget that people – no matter where they land on the lifestyle and income spectrum – are alike in infinite ways, and different in only a vanishing few.

That is why I care about the inequality problem. It is a big problem, and it is made bigger because it touches people in ways that can feel like opposites but really aren’t. The solutions are there but are stuck in a swirl of human history and personal interest and the not-useful mud of right-versus-wrong, true-or-false. But the need for solutions, however, has increased in urgency and heat with recent events like the Occupy Movement and the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital.

So I’m glad, very glad, to see Silicon Valley join the battle. PG fired the first volley. Then Ezra Klein replied. PG countered. And most recently Tim O’Reilly added his salvo. (am I over-, or mis-, using this metaphor?)

Below is my description of each writer’s main arguments. I share them, like I share all notes, to understand things and hope I can be helpful. Please keep in mind that the notes are skeleton and bones, not meat and muscle. For that, please read the original essays.

At the end I share some questions and comments.

PG (Paul Graham)

[link to his essay]

1. There are many ways to get rich, and we mustn’t confuse the good ways (e.g., startup founders creating wealth) with the bad ways (e.g., corrupt practices in finance and healthcare).

But while there are a lot of people who get rich through rent-seeking of various forms, and a lot who get rich by playing games that though not crooked are zero-sum, there are also a significant number who get rich by creating wealth.

2. With the bad ways, if you try to stop them, you’ll often stop the good ways too. And even if you succeed in stopping the bad ways, you may create new problems, such as the “bad way” people becoming “good way” people, thus further increasing inequality.

You can’t prevent great variations in wealth without preventing people from getting rich, and you can’t do that without preventing them from starting startups.

3. The good ways of getting rich will only increase, because productivity is growing, because technology is improving. This trend is exponential

You do not want to design your society in a way that’s incompatible with this curve. The evolution of technology is one of the most powerful forces in history.

4. Instead of focusing on the symptom (inequality), we should focus on the underlying problems (such as poverty and low social mobility).

For example, let’s attack poverty, and if necessary damage wealth in the process. That’s much more likely to work than attacking wealth in the hope that you will thereby fix poverty.

Ezra Klein

[link to his essay]

1. Empirically: startups don’t cause inequality, and the rate of startups is actually declining while inequality grows

So perhaps that falling startup rate obscures a rise in the kind of startups that interest Graham. Even if that’s true — Graham doesn’t present data to prove it, but it certainly seems correct as a description of Silicon Valley trends — it doesn’t change the fact that there is no observable relationship nationally in recent decades between the rate of startup formation and inequality.

2. Wall Street and corporate compensation are the real villains

the incomes of executives, managers, supervisors, and financial professionals can account for 60 percent of the increase in the share of national income going to the top percentile of the income distribution between 1979 and 2005.

3. The growth of technology doesn’t mean inequality must grow, too

Technology makes individuals grow more productive, in part because they stand atop the knowledge and industrial base of their societies, and societies redistribute part of that wealth, in part because that’s necessary to sustain the political stability and economic freedom required to protect those individuals.

4. A society can enjoy both low inequality and high startup rates, e.g. Sweden

PG replies to Ezra Klein. I won’t include his reply here because it is brief and is, for the most part, a re-statement of his initial arguments

Tim O’Reilly

[link to his essay]

1. Not all startups cause inequality. The most successful startups, e.g. Google and Facebook, create more value (for society) than they take (for founders and employees)

even Thomas Piketty argues that increased productivity and better diffusion of knowledge create more wealth for society and are among the forces that reduce income inequality.

2. The financial industry is a big concern because, unlike successful startups, it creates less value than it takes

Around the turn of the century, financial markets provided capital to business and consumers at a cost of about 2% of the total economy. By 2013, that cost was up to 9%! (By contrast, the entire internet sector is about 5% of GDP!)

3. Another big concern, less discussed, is the abuse of stock options. Options and the tax loopholes that accompany them have propelled executive salaries and pushed down worker compensation

the use of stock options and other financial instruments led to a widening gap between the pay of executives and ordinary workers. In the 1960s, CEO pay was 20x that of the average worker. Now, it is 300x that of the average worker.

4. The real “pie fallacy” is that, as the global economic pie gets bigger, we falsely believe that everyone is better off

It’s true that through technology, trade, and the spread of knowledge, we have made a bigger pie. But that doesn’t mean that some people aren’t getting far more of the benefit, while others are losing out.

5. PG should talk to the “users” of inequality

Paul, you’ve always encouraged the startups you’ve coached at Y-Combinator to focus on their users, to get out of the office and talk to people. Yet here in this piece, you assume that what’s true in Silicon Valley is true everywhere.

6. The startups that cause inequality, unlike Google or Facebook, do so by taking more value than they create

When a startup doesn’t have an underlying business model that will eventually produce real revenues and profits, and the only way for its founders to get rich is to sell to another company or to investors, you have to ask yourself whether that startup is really just a financial instrument, not that dissimilar to the CDOs of the 2008 financial crisis

My thoughts and questions

1. Nobody mentions the difference between income and wealth inequality. This might be a lesser point, but I worry about wealth more than income. Because even if you earned your wealth in the good ways, by the time your grandchildren and great-grandchildren inherit it, that wealth is no good by the same reasoning. Instead, it’s idle wealth. Wasted wealth. Wealth that should be given to people who can use it to improve their lives, right now. So we should reduce wealth inequality. For example, we can raise the estate tax. If the estate tax was 99%, would that stop Larry Ellison from creating Oracle or Steve Jobs from starting Apple? Here’s a hint that it probably wouldn’t: look at the Giving Pledge, a commitment by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, among other billionaires, to give away the vast majority of their wealth. The Giving Pledge is like an estate tax whose proceeds are directed by the benefactor instead of the government

2. We shouldn’t forget that too much inequality is itself bad. How much is too much? Like Justice Stewart’s description of porn, you know it when you see it. Even if we tackle underlying problems like poverty, an entire field of psychology research (and common sense) tells us that happiness is relative. My $5K bonus makes me happy until I learn that you got $12K. Not to mention the family that carries $8K in credit card debt and never gets a bonus…

3. Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century (among others), shows that inequality isn’t a relentless boulder rolling down the hill of growing technology. Throughout history, inequality has risen and fallen (often in dramatic fashion) through the actions of communities and motivated individuals. That’s why this debate is so important.

Thanks for reading. I will continue to write and wonder aloud about this problem. If you have advice or feedback or suggestions, please reach out.

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.