The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 2.05.37 PM.png
One of my favorite things to read is The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes by Clifton Fadiman. The book contains over 4,000 anecdotes by more than 2,000 famous people.

Here are a few examples:

A devotee of cigars, Mark Twain was temptuous of those who made a great to-do about giving up smoking. He always claimed that it was easy to quit: “I’ve done it a hundred times!”

Henry Ford was once asked why he made a habit of visiting his executives when problems arose rather than calling them to his own office. “I go them to save time,” explained Ford. “I’ve found that I can leave the other fellow’s office a lot quicker than I can get him to leave mine.”

On arrival at a Chicago hotel, Thomas Du Pont found that a lady who had previously occupied his room had left behind a frilly nightgown. He summoned the manager, handed him the garmet, and instructed, “Fill it and bring it back.”

If you decide to buy it I recommend the Kindle edition simply because the paperback edition is massive. I also recommend not trying to read it straight through; I enjoy flipping it open to a random page and to just start reading regardless of whether I’ve heard of the person or not because it exposes me to a lot of history that I probably would never learn about otherwise.

As one of the Amazon reviewers commentedI envy you if you are discovering this for the first time. Check it out.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, Facebook, and the Oculus Acquisition

In The Age of Spiritual Machines Ray Kurzweil describes the life cycle of a technology:

We can identify seven distinct stages in the life cycle of a technology.

1. During the precursor stage, the prerequisites of a technology exist, and dreamers may contemplate these elements coming together. We do not, however, regard dreaming to be the same as inventing, even if the dreams are written down. Leonardo da Vinci drew convincing pictures of airplanes and automobiles, but he is not considered to have invented either.

2. The next stage, one highly celebrated in our culture, is invention, a very brief stage, similar in some respects to the process of birth after an extended period of labor. Here the inventor blends curiosity, scientific skills, determination, and usually a measure of showmanship to combine methods in a new way and brings a new technology to life.

3. The next stage is development, during which the invention is protected and supported by doting guardians (who may include the original inventor). Often this stage is more crucial than invention and may involve additional creation that can have greater significance than the invention itself. Many tinkerers had constructed finely handtuned horseless carriages, but it was Henry Ford’s innovation of mass production that enabled the automobile to take root and flourish.

4. The fourth stage is maturity. Although continuing to evolve, the technology now has a life of its own and has become an established part of the community. It may become so interwoven in the fabric of life that it appears to many observers that it will last forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives, which I call the stage of the false pretenders.

5. Here an upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. Its enthusiasts prematurely predict victory. While providing some distinct benefits, the newer technology is found on reflection to be lacking some key element of functionality or quality. When it indeed fails to dislodge the established order, the technology conservatives take this as evidence that the original approach will indeed live forever.

6. This is usually a short-lived victory for the aging technology. Shortly thereafter, another new technology typically does succeed in rendering the original technology to the stage of obsolescence. In this part of the life cycle, the technology lives out its senior years in gradual decline, its original purpose and functionality now subsumed by a more spry competitor.

7. In this stage, which may comprise 5 to 10 percent of a technology’s life cycle, it finally yields to antiquity (as did the horse and buggy, the harpsichord, the vinyl record, and the manual typewriter).

Fred Wilson argues in The Search For The Next Platform that Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus is “Zuck and his team looking up and saying “what’s next?””. Viewed through the lens of Kurzweil’s seven stages, Facebook is at stage 4 (maturity) and Oculus is the potentially disruptive upstart in stage 5. It might seem far-fetched now, but what if Oculus’s virtual reality platform did eventually evolve into a communication platform? Could it threaten Facebook’s current dominance? Maybe. The acquisition then can be seen as part Facebook’s attempt to beat the Innovator’s Dilemma, the tendency of mature companies to lose out to startups by focusing too much on satisfying existing customers and not enough on disruptive new technologies.

Will Facebook succeed and still be relevant in 5-10-20+ years or more? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to see how things play out. :)

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

From Some Thoughts on The Real World By One Who Glimpsed It And Fled, a commencement speech by Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, in 1990.

Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.

Via Ed Weissman on an old HackerNews discussion about Paul Buchheit’s I Am Nothing essay.

There are a lot of good thoughts in the other HackerNews comments too. Worth checking out.

[QUOTE] The good life is for the bold.

Great post on Reddit in a thread titled “Any Redditors 40+ living the life they imagined at 20? Why or why not? What advice would you give us 20 year olds that you wish you knew/followed?“:

To steal a line from the great philosopher Apollo Creed: “There is no tomorrow.”

Wishes/dreams are things that cannot wait. Act on them now. Right fucking now. There is never going to be a magical date when you will have a secure enough bank roll, a reasonable amount of free time, and few enough obligations to embark on your dream, whatever it may be. There is no “good” time.

It’s a fairy tail you tell yourself when you’re young. If I just had this much money as a cushion to start . . . if I just finish this one thing . . . once I get my family life situated, I’ll begin . . . ad infinitum. It will never be just right. You either have to suck it up and do it, risks be damned, or you have to take the easy path.

And, if you put if off once, it becomes exponentially harder to get started – you will always find a reason why your dream is impractical. There are millions of legitimate reasons not to pursue a dream – security, time with the people you love, etc. Those things grow as you grow older.

My son asked me last night why I didn’t stop being a lawyer and write for a living – which was my “dream” in college. I felt he was too young for the real answer: “Because your dad was a coward.” It’s moments like that in your later years that really ram home the consequences of the choices you make.

The advice I wish I had followed was that failure IS an option. It is OK to fail at something. It is cowardice not to try something because you fear you might fail. The good life is for the bold. In fact, the best advice I can give you is to FAIL. Get it over with and learn for yourself that you will still wake up the next morning, that you will figure out how to recover. And, once you have learned that this power you have given to the possibility of failure was a waste of your time, it will not be an obstacle. Failure is not the end – it is the beginning.

As practical advice, at 20, I would not be looking for that “safe” job – unless I was damn sure I wanted to be en engineer, doctor, or some other specific professional that requires a lot of upfront training. Take a couple of swings at the unlikely things — if you want to be a musician, NOW is the time to make a go of it. And, the same logic applies to just about anything anyone truly wants to try to be.

Another thing that turning 40 has brought home to me is: get fit and stay fit. Don’t come to 40 weighing 250. It feels like shit. Your life is diminished because of it. Give yourself a chance to enjoy life with your kids, people you love, etc. It’s not just shame I feel when I waddle around outside trying to kick a soccer ball with my boys, it’s also sadness. This stuff was fun when I was young, and I have fucking ruined it, now.

Last, understand what money is. All my life, I thought money was there to buy shit – shit that I needed and, especially, shit that was going to make my life cooler. At 40, I finally realized that money = freedom. You don’t see it now at 20, but you may end up on a path where you do not make much money. This is not a bad way to live your life. But, keep in mind, that no matter how small you live, it will still cost money: you will likely have to pay for food, shelter, and clothing. You will have to pay for healthcare in some way (or, I guess, just die). At least in the U.S., money gives you the freedom to tell that asshole boss to fuck himself (maybe not literally, since little good ever comes from telling of a boss). Money=choice.

I was going to bold the parts that stood out to me, but it’s all so damn good.

Lefort on Daily Routines and Analytical Minds

I ran across this comment by Lefort, a well known poker player, on a 2+2 thread (bold by me):

I’ve always thought that the biggest advantage to being a poker player is the huge amounts of “free” time we’re blessed with, given that it’s so easy for many of us to make $X00+/hr, any given hour of the day. This was awesome when I was in school and for a short time after when I was busy with projects and other life aspects. But as things slowed down and poker became my biggest focus, the massive amounts of free time almost become a burden in a weird way. It’s different when you have legitimate things to fill up that time. But when you don’t, I think too much “free” time is very unhealthy. And this is especially true for those people who are naturally extremely analytical, ie. good poker players.

I think to achieve true balance in a daily routine, one needs a certain level of time-related stress to experience feelings of accomplishment and self gratitude. As poker players, we literally have 90% of our time to divvy up however we choose, compared to maybe ~30% of someone with an office job. That means that we’re basically never under any sort of stress to get to work on time, eat our lunch briskly to fit in that workout, weave through traffic to make that dinner date, have a quick workout because we need to make the 8pm show, etcetc.. And as much as it seems awesome to not have to worry about these things by working when it’s easy and convenient, I’ve learned that for myself, it tends to breed a feeling of disassociation from society and is not a very good situation for breeding feelings of true success and accomplishment.

It’s very possible that this is just something exclusive to myself and not applicable to people with other personalities, but I thought I’d discuss anyway in the case that it’s not just me. My “best” days now are always the ones where I get up to the alarm clock early enough to have breakfast with and see off my gf to work, grind a few hours, rushing off to the gym for _pm for a workout, making it quick-ish to get back and do laundry or whatever else, fit in another quick session feeling fresh from getting the blood flowing, then having enough time to prepare an awesome dinner for the gf before hanging out with friends or doing something fun. Regardless of results, I enjoy the grind far more when I feel like I’m being active, as opposed to the days where I’ve been a slob that hasn’t showered or done anything but play poker in sweatpants and take breaks to eat toast and granola bars and over-analyze just about everything there is in my life to possibly over-analyze.

Basically, I’ve concluded that an overly analytical mind plus an abundance of time equals an unhealthy environment that tends to restrict balance and overall happiness. But maybe it’s just me, who knows.

What he’s saying is that when you have a lot of free time you still need to create a schedule for yourself in order stay healthy. Without deadlines, there isn’t as much pressure to get things done, and when you don’t get things done, you don’t experience “feelings of accomplishment and self-gratitude.”

As someone who has spent a lot of time working from home, I couldn’t agree more: my most productive days are the ones where I get up to an alarm clock, shower, and set tangible goals for that day. If I wake up at 11 and sit here surfing HackerNews and Tweetdeck without any clear objectives, the day flies by and feels wasted. And I’d say this applies to everyone, not just analytical people.

You can read Lefort’s full post here.

Woz and Hemingway on Working Alone

Two great quotes on working alone:

Steve Woznikak, Apple’s co-founder:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team. (Source)

Ernest Hemingway:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him. (Source)

It’s important to note that they are advocating working alone as a means of maximizing creativity. When I first read Woz’s quote I couldn’t help but think of sole-founders in startups (of which I am one). But he’s not necessarily advocating sole-founding (after all, he cofounded Apple). He’s just saying that when creativity is an important factor in what you’re doing, you should work alone. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a co-founder though. If you do, just distance yourself when your work requires it.