Book: Bird by Bird Some Instructions on Writing and Life

If you love writing, but get stuck at not knowing how to write better, this book is for you. It’s a light-toned therapy session that consists of practical lessons on how to write better. I found it reassuring to learn about the struggles that even great writers faced. It was equally reassuring to know that writing is tough, but if you keep at it, eventually you’ll get something out of it.

The book can get dull as it drags on, if you are not that interested in the author’s personal anecdotes. The main take-aways for me include:

  • Just sit your ass down and force yourself to write. It’ll come
  • First drafts are always horrible, for everyone. Just let it all out at first
  • Little by little, just write. Or in the author’s father’s words: “bird by bird”!

Below are few great quotes from the book:

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard

“Do it every day for a while”, my father kept saying. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things”

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’.”

One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.”

This blog is my “tea ceremony”. I don’t know what I would get out of it. I just enjoy it.

Bonus: Below are the four blogs that inspire me to write as often as I can

 

Book: The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for The Thoughtful Investor

I am in the middle of the book: The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for The Thoughtful Investor by Howard Marks. It looks to be a short book, but 40% in the book, I have been delighted by the concise and thoughtful insights the author shares in his words. If you are a fan of value investing or the investing philosophy made famous by Ben Graham, Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger, this book should not surprise you as many topics touched upon by Howard Marks follow the same philosophy.

One of the best lessons I have learned so far from the book is the difference between first-level thinking and second-level thinking. The goal of investing is to outperform the market and other investors. It’s not easy as information is widely accessible now, making it highly challenging to gain some insights that few others know. Nonetheless, if gained, the contrarian thinking or unpopular but correct insights will enable superior returns compared to the returns of market or other investors.

First-level thinking can be done by almost everyone. It’s “simplistic and superficial”. First-level thinkers have an opinion about the future as in “the outlook for the company is favorable, meaning the stock will go up”. Second-level thinking is deep, convoluted and complex. Second-level thinkers arrive at conclusions and forecasts that are both correct and not thought of by the consensus. But it’s hard to do so.

There are many other lessons offered in the book. I highly recommend it if you are interested in investing. After all, we can’t get rich without making money while we are sleeping, can we?

 

Book: The Messy Middle

The Messy Middle is a new book written by the founder of Behance, a networking platform for designers. He is now the Chief Product Officer at Adobe. The book reflects his bootstrapping years at Behance and great lessons on businesses, career and entrepreneurship. Even if you are not an entrepreneur (I am not), this book has some insights on how tough it is to be one and fantastic lessons on how to advance your career. The book may get a bit mundane as it progresses, but the good thing is that many small chapters aren’t related to one another and you can skip forward or move backward at will. No need to read it in order. Below are a few of my favorite passages:

On self-awareness

Self-awareness starts with the realization that when you’re at a peak or in a valley, you’re not your greatest self. Self-awareness means dispelling your sense of superiority and the myths that people believe about you.

Ultimately, self-awareness is about preserving sound judgement and keeping relatable and realistic. However big your project or ambition, your journey is nothing more than a sequence of decisions: You’re probably many decisions away from success, but always one decision away from failure. Clarity matters. The more aware you are of yourself and your surroundings, the more data you have to inform your decisions, and the more competitive you will be

On authenticity

Nobody remembers or is inspired by anything that fits in

I do the work I do because I have to. I can’t help it. I was born this way – I can’t be false to any man. I know what the current trends and moods are, but I can’t concern myself with them. I also can’t force myself (as many do) to make work that fits within the going commercial style. Trends change and I believe that is why my work is still relevant today, because I am the only one making work like mine.

The idea of being born “weird” means you have a gift – like being born a star athlete. It would a sin to deny my gift. My “weird” is powerful. It stands out. I know that it attracts some individuals and clients, and repels others. I have to be cool with that. I am not for everyone – just the sexy people. Like you.

And as American artist Sol LeWitt once advised, “Learn to say ‘fuck you’ to the world once in a while”. Do your thing.

On doing the hard work

There’s a reason so few people do hard work beyond their job description: It’s hard work. You run the risk of extending energy or falling behind in other pars of your life, but these are the costs of playing at the frontier and having the opportunity to lead something new. You’re either a cog in the system or a designer of new and better systems. Of course, if you aspire to transform your industry and leave a valuable mark in your world, you’ll challenge every system you find yourself confined by. When you see something wrong, take the initiative to fix it.

When you find yourself frustrated or critical, channel that energy into persistent creation. If it’s not your job, pursue it anyway. Do research, run tests, or draft white papers and presentations to prove your position, even if it’s on your own time. It’ll give you a sense of satisfaction that no amount of preordained tasks will.

A shared trait among entrepreneurs and innovators within big companies is defying prescribed roles. The future is drafted by people doing work they don’t have to do. You need to be one of those people and hire them, too. There is too much wonder and talking and too little doing. So don’t talk: do

On how difficult it is to stay positive when dealing with hardships of entrepreneurship. I am not an entrepreneur, but it’s something I feel relatable, as I believe many do.

When I think back to those lost years, I recall a constant somber loneliness, a suffering from the feeling that nobody else could relate. The struggle was further compounded by the optimism I had to exude to my team and potential customers and partners. My hope had to be minded deep beneath the surface of fear and reality. The juxtaposition of the intensity of a start-up and feeling invisible and despondent was soul crushing. Staying positive was exhausting, and there were times when I felt depressed.

Without a steady stream of rewards, you will feel empty. You must supplement this void with manufactured optimism. You will have to endure anonymity and a persistent state of frustration. You’ll have to generate a unique and intrinsic sense of belief in yourself as you manage the blows to your plan and ego.

 

Inferiority and Superiority Complexes

The dynamic between inferiority and superiority complexes has been on my mind for quite some time, but the book “the courage of being disliked” articulates it better than I ever could. I cannot recommend this book enough. It can be a life changer. Read it if you have time and want to have a better life.

Everyone has the feeling of inferiority, one way or another. There is nothing wrong with it. It is desirable that one uses the feeling of inferiority to drive actions and growth. The inferiority complex refers to the blaming mindset. For instance, I was born in a poor family and uneducated. Therefore, I couldn’t succeed. This “cause and effect” mentality is detrimental to one’s mental health.

A long period of enduring the inferiority complex leads to a superiority complex or a fabricated/borrowed feeling of superiority. Specifically, one “borrows” superiority from using a luxury brand, being associated with a famous person or boasting one’s achievements. Other examples can be using jargon or big empty words. The book quoted Alfred Adler, a philosopher whose credit seems to be less than what he deserved: “The one who boasts does so only out of a feeling of inferiority”.

I used to fill the hole of my inferiority complex with a superiority complex in the past. I, for sure, still do to some extent nowadays. Fortunately, I have tried very hard and consciously to use my feeling of inferiority to drive my personal growth and avoid living on someone’s value systems or borrowed superiority. I have made an effort to play down whatever I do, keep the low profile, keep my head down and just do my own things.

Unfortunately, it may be a bit tricky and difficult in a society drunk with superiority complex. In the past not so long ago, my friend recommended me to apply for a position in her team because she knows what I can do and that the company can be a good fit for me. I sent my resume. My friend, after two weeks, came back and was mad at me. She said that the hiring manager in her team would want to see me boast more on what I had done and that I needed to make the resume longer with more boastful statements.

One incident doesn’t represent the majority, but it would be naïve to think that it is not common. It makes the task of balancing it out tricky. There is no hard-and-fast rule on this. But I think it’s important that we are aware of these complexes and the practical consequences.

Must-read book on business & strategy

I just finished the book “Subscribed: Why the Subscription Model Will Be Your Company’s Future – and What to Do About It”. It is a fascinating book that explains clearly and well the importance of a customer-obsessed subscription business model nowadays.

I have been to Strategy classes at universities. The classes usually involve academic lectures and outdated case studies. Although hindsights are always great and strategies can only make sense after a while, the technological advances (cloud computing, machine learning…) have changed significantly how companies interact with customers and how customers want to be served. It is of little value to analyze what companies did 15 or 20 years ago (I used to be asked to analyze Google while it was still competing with Yahoo in 2003). The principles and theories of strategy remain the same, but the landscape under the influence of technology has changed dramatically. For instance, nobody is installing software by buying a disk any more. Software is delivered over the Internet now mostly in the subscription-based model. Lectures taught by professors at Ivy League and certificates can be accessed online at MOOC. With a small fee, guys can receive shaving blades every month. The days of having to buy hardware for IT services are over. IT is now delivered over the cloud and on the pay-as-you-go basis.

This book details the underlying factors contributing to the meteoric rise of subscriptions and what it is like to be customer-obsessed. It also discusses the ramifications of adopting subscription-based model ranging from HR, Marketing, Sales and organizational structure. It is choke full of successful subscription companies. If you are interested, you can do a separate study on each one.

I believe this book should be a must-read for college students, whether you major in business or not. If you have sometime to waste, I highly recommend it.