Books for Life: An Operating System

I remember reading Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. Don’t remember much about it, I do like remember enjoying it and I do like the title (obviously – it’s a good title). I wouldn’t say this piece has been inspired by that book but gives me a reason to show off I have read relatively little known French literature.

What is useful is the concept itself. A user’s manual for life is a compelling proposition. If you are unconscious about it, your value system, political views, reactions to events, priorities and a lot of other stuff are shaped by what you learnt from your parents and what happens to you as you go through life. That’s hardly a smart strategy unless you happen to have really wise parents and/or face with things in life, cope with them effectively and learn all the right lessons from them. A lot of luck is involved with this. Despite what some people say, luck is not something that’s in your control.

What’s in your control is feeding your mind with useful stuff that helps you shape a resilient system for successfully dealing with life. Reading books is the best system there is to achieve this as far as I am concerned. Another (better) system is inventing a time machine, going back in time and having illuminating conversations with Abraham Lincoln and such. I am working on this. You’ll be the first to know.

In the absence of the time machine, here are some ideas to get you started. A basic system for life alongside the books which inspired them. As a meta structure, I should add, use the books to dig deeper into the concepts and areas that resonate with you most. It’s a productive rabbit hole to get yourself into.

1- Do stuff you are good at

There is quite a bit of research on this now. People experience higher job satisfaction levels when they actually do things they are good at. In turn, this makes their overall life better. They can run faster (I made this last one up but you get the point). This goes against some of the previous literature on this topic. Traditional wisdom was addressing your weaknesses to be a well rounded professional/person. This is not entirely without merit. My take on this is developing yourself in the weak areas to the point where you are able to reasonably operate in your field but not more than that. This also doesn’t mean don’t to anything for self improvement. It shifts the focus from developing your areas of weakness to those of strength. If you are competing in a global economy (and whether you like it or not you are) you really need to be in the top 1-2% of your field to truly excel. Building on areas of strength makes this a little bit more conceivable and achievable. 2 books to dig deeper into this principle:

2- Don’t be afraid to say and do things

Steve Jobs said that thing about how all the things that exist around you is built by people not smarter than you. Especially if you are an introvert you need to get yourself heard. Self-censoring or filtering is not helpful. It caps your potential. A lot of people say a lot of stupid shit all the time. A lot of this gets forgotten or ignored if you have momentum behind you. I personally experienced the disadvantages of not making myself heard and also the advantages of getting my view across. I didn’t start saying what I thought or just did what I think was right because my ideas significantly improved compared to the times I kept quiet. It was mainly a difference in behaviour not a difference in the quality of the idea. Over-thinking what you want to say and do kills action and momentum.

3- Don’t spread yourself too thin

The risk of rushing into a lot of different things is basically not delivering any of them. You keep chasing the next project, idea, shiny thing without having done justice to the one at hand. It’s extremely rare to create something valuable without having put significant time and effort into it in a very focused way. Things just need time and concentrated effort to happen (i.e wealth building with compound interest, mastery in a certain field taking 10000 hours). Be careful when you say yes to things which create additional commitment when you already have things you are (or were) excited about. If you are constantly moving from one thing to the other it might be worth self analysing your reasons for this. Don’t underestimate what can be achieved in a long term horizon. This also applies to relationships in your life, you can’t make everyone happy and be best friends with everyone. Deeper relationships are more rewarding. Books for further exploration:

4- Don’t care (too much) about what other people think of you

Obviously don’t be a barbarian. However assuming you are somewhat civilised human being who is not pillaging people’s farms and stuff, you can most certainly dial down the weight you give to other’s people’s opinions about you, your actions and ideas. There are multiple good reasons for this. People might be jealous of you, they might not see you as you see yourself, they might have other agendas etc. It’s a form of letting someone else control your mind. It’s not good. You get zombified if you pay too much attention to what other people think. Have enough belief in your own decisions, direction in life etc. This is not easy but is critical and worth the effort. Books:

5- Take care of yourself, don’t burn out (where possible)

A lot of people are working more than ever before. Work weeks are hitting 60-70-80 hours and this is all considered normal. This is mostly not productive. People under constant stress are not good for themselves, people around them or their business/company. They piss people off, make wrong decisions, create a stress halo and then get sick (mentally, physically or both). It’s bad. 3 ways to address this:

  1. Forcing yourself into down time and sleeping enough
  2. Understanding most things are not the end of the world / or your life if they don’t happen
  3. You succeed not by doing more but by doing the right things. Ruthlessly prioritising the pieces of work or projects that’ll truly move the needle is possibly the most impactful strategy to avoid burn out.

Books:

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