Book: Norwegian Wood

Feeling a bit tired of reading business, self-help and technology stuff, I decided to pick up one of my favorite novels: Norwegian Wood. Among Haruki Murakami’s works, it’s up there as one of the best in my opinion.

Apart from the beautiful writing, the male protagonist, Toru, displayed an admirable level of nonchalance, indifference to impress too many and a loyalty to those whom he cares about. There is also a brutal honesty from him. An example is when he admitted telling his close friend’s girlfriend to leave the guy. I admire those values from him.

I won’t spoil too much, but Norwegian Wood is a beautiful story about love, lust and the loss of innocence. It may not carry a cheerful vibe, but I found the ending positive. It’s my 3rd time reading it and the satisfaction is as much as the other previous times, if not more.

Some favorite quotes:

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.” 

“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that.” 

“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.” 

“No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.”

Book: Black Swan

I’d give this book two stars. The book has some interesting insights, but it is unnecessarily long with a lot of anecdotes, name-dropping and less-known examples. Basically, the idea could have been wrapped up in 20-50 pages. Plus, the flow could have been much easier to follow.

In short, Black Swan talks about the great impact of the outliers, unpredictable events that happen in our life. For instance, if a person somehow were involved in a car accident through no fault of his or her own, the person’s life would be turned upside down. As Black Swans are not predictable, the author urged us not to use the past to predict the future. Yet, it seems that we are prone to doing exactly that, using data from the past to predict the future. I believed he claimed that we humans were victims of asymmetry in understanding random events. He also claimed that there were no experts in a lot of fields.

The thesis of the book seems obvious, but we don’t always have it in mind. As human beings, we love to predict the future and know what is going to happen years from now. I am always astonished by the popularity of fortune-telling. It amazes me how those fortune tellers could see the future. It simply seems impossible to me. Even if they could, why would they agree to earn modest income from that profession? Wouldn’t it be much more lucrative to gamble or pick stocks?

Regarding business, who could have predicted in 2000 that Yahoo would be what it is today? Or Nokia, one of the biggest brands in the world in 2005, would be a shell of its former self today? Or Kodak and more recently Facebook? I agree with him that life is too uncertain to predict. We are terrible at it, yet that’s what we keep doing.

Also, I agree with him that being alive is already extraordinary. I always feel lucky enough to be born without any disabilities or sickness. There is no telling what could happen to a child in a mother’s womb. One DNA misplaced could mean a lot of consequences for the child. In an infinite universe, we are living on a speck of dust millions of years old that has gone through a lot of revolutions and unpredictable events. If we are alive, we are already Black Swans.

Book: Bad Blood

This book – Bad Blood – is an exhaustingly reported account of how Theranos lied and deceived hundreds of people, from employees and investors to the patients. The lies not only cost investors millions of dollars, but also put the patients at potential threats.

I was shocked and amazed by the lack of due diligence some companies showed in doing business with Theranos. Despite all the warning signs and delays, they kept going full force ahead with Elizabeth Theranos. Even more amazing was the list of high profile and experienced individuals such as Rupert Murdoch, Henry Kissinger, Jim Mattis, just to name a few, who bought into the lies and deception by Theranos.

I was really angry when reading about an employee taking his own life because of stress from work and another who had several years of his life, a family relationship and hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted by Theranos. In the end, I felt glad and relieved that the fraud of Theranos was put to an end.

I am highly appreciative of this kind of reporting by the author. Theranos resorted to aggressive intimidation and legal bullying to bury every threat that might expose the company in public. Yet, the author was dogged and exhaustive in his reporting. I am glad his editor and Murdoch, who had a financial interest in Theranos at the time and owned the parent company of Wall Street Journal, let the author follow the lead to the very end. In the times of relentless attacks to the press (some is justified, to be fair), this kind of reporting is much needed.

There has been a lot of pushback regarding the impact from regulations on business. Admittedly, there is certainly a lot of unnecessary red tape. However, if you read the book, without regulations, Theranos would have done a much bigger damage. Too many regulations is obviously bad and so is too fewer regulations. Don’t take the extreme. Seek for reasonable regulations.

Final thought is that don’t be evil. Theranos resorted to Non-Disclosure Agreements, top notch lawyers, surveillance, bullying and intimidation to keep quiet those who wished to reveal information on it. Nonetheless, the truth finally came out. In this age and day, access to information is frictionless and so is scrutiny. If you do something bad, it’s just a matter of time when it is revealed.

Easy read. The first half of the book may be a little bit dull, but stick with it. Around 50-60% of the book, the author switched to his investigation of Theranos. It is then more dramatic. If you are looking for a book to read and have no other prioritized books, take this one.

Book: The courage to be disliked

I spent some time thinking about what I should write first in 2019. Instead of some predictions, I decided to write a bit about the book that influenced me greatly in 2018 – The courage to be disliked. I am reading it for the second time and believe that by writing about it here, it will stick longer in my memory and can be beneficial in 2019 for those who happen to read this post. Here we go.

Avoid the victim mentality

According to the author and Alfred Adler, the psychologist and philosopher, even though we can’t change what happened in the past, our past should not dictate our happiness and future or should not be an excuse for our unhappiness. In layman’s terms, we should not have the victim mentality regarding our past or what we were born with. For instance, even if you are born in a poor family or short, it should not be the source of your unhappiness or you shouldn’t use it to say that causes your failures in life.

Adlerian psychology is a psychology of courage. Your unhappiness cannot be blamed on your past or your environment. And it isn’t that you lack competence. You just lack courage. One might say you are lacking in the courage to be happy.

One tries to get rid of one’s feeling of inferiority and keep moving forward. One’s never satisfied with one’s present situation – even if it’s just a single step, one wants to make progress. One wants to be happier. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the state of this kind of feeling of inferiority. There are; however, people who lose the courage to take a single step forward, who cannot accept the fact that the situation can be changed by making realistic efforts. People who, before even doing anything, simply give up and say things like “I’m not good enough anyway” or “Even if I tried, I wouldn’t stand a chance”.

Anger

You did not fly into a rage and then start shouting. It is solely that you got angry so that you could shout. In other words, in order to fulfill the goal of shouting, you created the emotion of anger.

In a word, anger is a tool that can be taken out as needed. It can be put away the moment the phone rings, and pulled out again after one hangs up. The mother isn’t yelling in anger she cannot control. She is simply using the anger to overpower her daughter with a loud voice and thereby assert her opinions.

Love yourself

“I’m sure that no one would want to get involved with a guy as warped as me”. I am sure you understand this already. Why do you dislike yourself? Why do you focus only on your shortcomings, and why have you decided to not start liking yourself? It’s because you are overly afraid of being disliked by other people and getting hurt in your interpersonal relationships.

A healthy feeling of inferiority is not something that comes from comparing oneself to others; it comes from one’s comparison with one’s ideal self.

Avoid the fabricated superiority complex

One makes a show of being on good terms with a powerful person. By doing that, one lets it be known that one is special. Behaviors like misrepresenting one’s work experience or excessive allegiance to particular brands of clothing are forms of giving authority and probably also have aspects of the superiority complex. In each case, it isn’t that the “I” is actually superior or special. It is only that one is making the “I” look superior by linking it to authority. In short, it’s a fabricated feeling of superiority.

There’s the kind of person who likes to boast about his achievements. Someone who clings to his past glory and is always recounting memories of the time when his light shone brightest. Those who go so far as to boast about things out loud actually have no confidence in themselves. As Adler clearly indicates, “The one who boasts does so only out of a feeling of inferiority”…those who make themselves look bigger on borrowed power are essentially living according to other people’s value systems – they are living other people’s lives.

Separation of tasks

All you can do with regard to your own life is choose the best path that you believe in. On the other hand, what kind of judgment do other people pass on that choice? That is the task of other people, and is not a matter you can do anything about.

You are worried about other people looking at you. You are worried about being judged by other people. That’s why you are constantly craving recognition from others. Now, why are you worried about other people looking at you, anyway? Adlerian psychology has an easy answer. You haven’t done the separation of tasks yet. You assume that even things that should be other people’s tasks are your own. Remember the words of the grandmother: “You’re the only one who’s worried how you look”. What other people think when they see your face – that is the task of other people and is not something you have any control over.

Those are the main lessons I picked up from the first half of the book. They really hit home with me and changed my perspective in 2018. Of course, there are many more lessons and nuances, but the above stood out for me. Others might do for you. If you find them helpful, give the book a try. You’ll likely find more interesting insights from the book which will be helpful to your growth in 2019 and beyond.

Most important book I read in 2018

2018 has been a good year in terms of great books. Great reads so far this year include Sapiens, Messy Middle, The Courage to be disliked, Subscribed, to name a few. I wrote quickly about some of them on this blog. However, none is more important than Why we sleep.

Here are a few things I learned:

Sleep isn’t like money in the bank. If you over-spend this month, saving up a little more next month will make up the difference. If you lose one quality sleep one night, that ship has already sailed. There is no getting it back. Hence, the notion of staying up late on the weekdays just to make it up on the weekends is false

Without sufficient sleep, amyloid plaques (poisonous to neurons, killing the surrounding brain cells and associated with Alzheimer’s disease) build up in the brain, especially in deep-sleep-generating regions, attacking and degrading them. The loss of deep NREM sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens the ability to remove amyloid from the brain at night, resulting in greater amyloid deposition. More amyloid, less deep sleep, less deep sleep, more amyloid, and so on and so forth

At fault were the two characters, leptin and ghrelin. Inadequate sleep decreased concentrations of the satiety-signaling hormone leptin and increased levels of the hunger-instigating hormone ghrelin. It was a classic case of physiological double jeopardy: participants were being punished twice for the same offense of short sleeping: once by having the “I’m full” signal removed from their system and once by gaining the “I’m still hungry” feeling being amplified. As a result, participants just didn’t feel satisfied by food when they were short sleeping.

When given just five and a half hours of sleep opportunity, more than 70% of the pounds lost came from lean body mass – muscle, not fat. Switch to the group offered eight and a half hours’ time in bed each night and a far more desirable outcome was observed, with well over 50% of weight loss coming from fat while preserving muscle

With a genuine lack of malice, I proceed to inform them that men who report sleeping too little or having poor-quality sleep have a 29% lower sperm count than those obtaining a full and restful night of sleep, and the sperm themselves have more deformities.

Routinely sleeping less than 6 hours a nigh results in a 20% drop in follicular-releasing hormone in women – a critical female reproductive element that peaks just prior to ovulation and is necessary for conception.

One such foreign entity that natural killer cells will target are malignant (cancerous) tumor cells. Natural killer cells will effectively punch a hole in the outer space of these cancerous cells and inject a protein that can destroy the malignancy.

Examining a healthy young men, Irwin demonstrated that a single night of four hours of sleep – such as going to bed at 3AM and waking up at 7AM – swept away 70% of the natural killer cells circulating in the immune system, relative to a full 8-hour night of sleep.

A large European study of almost 25,000 individuals demonstrated that sleeping 6 hours or less was associated with a 40% increased risk of developing cancer.

A chemical called melatonin helps regulate the timing of when sleep occurs. It governs when the race (sleep) begins, but does not participate in it. Our distractions by modern technology and LED lights suppress and delay the rise of melatonin, meaning that our body is told that sleep should start late. Throw in the enforced awakening by virtue of the industrial culture (alarm clock) and we have a recipe for inadequate sleep.

Memories remain perilously vulnerable to any disruption of sleep (including that from alcohol) even up to three nights of learning, despite two full nights of natural sleep prior.

Selectively warming the feet and hands by just a small amount (0.5 Celsius degrees) caused a local swell of blood to these regions, thereby charming heat out of the body’s core, where it had been trapped. The result of all this ingenuity: sleep took hold of the participants in a significantly shorter time, allowing them to fall asleep 20% faster than was usual, even though these were already young, healthy and fast-sleeping individuals

Most controversial and alarming are those highlighted by Dr Daniel Kripke, a physician at the University of California, San Diego. Kripke discovered that individuals using prescription sleep medications are significantly more likely to die and to develop cancer than those who do not

Saying that alcohol is a sedative often confuses people, as alcohol in moderate doses helps individuals liven up and become more social. How can a sedative enliven you? The answer comes down to the fact that your increased sociability is caused by sedation of one part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, early in the timeline of alcohol’s creeping effects. As we have discussed, this frontal lobe region of the human brain helps control our impulses and restrains our behavior. Alcohol immobilizes that part of our brain first. As a result, we “loosen up”, becoming less controlled and more extroverted.

Your desire and ability to remain conscious are decreasing and you can let go of consciousness more easily. I am very deliberately avoiding the term “sleep”, however, because sedation is not sleep. Alcohol sedates you out of wakefulness, but it does not induce natural sleep.

Reflection

I have mixed feelings from reading this book. On one hand, I am glad to be enlightened by all the scientific findings on sleep. On the other, I am a bit horrified by what I have done to my body. Nonetheless, I am determined to prioritize sleep more in 2019 and beyond or at least to limit the hard done to my body.

Above are just a few of many great insights that the book offers. I am not doing the book justice, but I hope you spend some time reading this book and gifting it to friends or beloved ones. (I have no connection whatsoever with the author or the publisher. Just a big fan who wants as many to learn about the science of sleep as possible)

Book: Year of Yes

On my way to Austin last weekend, I had a few hours to waste while in transit and on the plane. If you are one of the normal folks, like I am, those hours are not particularly the time when we experience a spurt of efficiency in getting work done. So I took out my beloved Kindle and chose a book to read. Happy that I chose “Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person” by Shonda Rhimes. 

Having read business and science-related books for a while, I figured something like a memoir would be a refreshing change of air. Plus, I’d love to know more about the architect behind some of my favorite shows: Scandal and How to get away with murder.

What I like the book is its realness. Shonda’s writing is genuine that I got a feeling I was listening to her story in person. From her struggle as an introvert, self-awareness of the time when she got fat, the allergy with public events. You might find some parts a bit long-winded, but I guess it’s part of the charm. Other highlights for me are her Year of Yes concept, perception of motherhood and commencement speech at Dartmouth. It’s real. It’s rough. It’s honest. And that’s why it is appealing. 

Below is a sneak peek of her perception on motherhood.

“But being a mother is also a job, Shonda”. You know what I say to that? NO. IT IS NOT. 

Being a mother is not a job. Stop throwing things at me. Being a mother isn’t a job. It’s who someone is. You can quit a job. I can’t quit being a mother. Mothers are never off the clock, mothers are never on vacation. Being a mother redefines us, reinvents us, destroys and rebuilds us. Being a mother yanks our hearts out of our bodies and attaches them to our tiny humans and sends them out into the world, forever hostages. 

Please don’t try to tell me it’s the most important job I’ll ever have as a way of trying to convince me to stay at home with my children all day. Don’t. The most important job to a woman who has rent, has a car note, has utility bills and needs groceries is one that pays her money to keep her family alive. Let’s stop trying to make ourselves indulge in the crappy mythological lady-cult that makes being a mother seem like work. 

Working or staying home, one is still a mother. One is not better than the other. Both choices are worthy of the same amount of respect. Motherhood remains equally, painfully death defying and difficult either way. 

I am not a mother, but she makes sense there, doesn’t she? Here is her awesome commence speech

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.