Book Review: Soul In The Game: The Art Of A Meaningful Life

This book came to me at the right time.

Soul In The Game was written by Vitaliy Katsenelson, who was born in a remote and cold city in Russia before migrating to the US in 1991. Tragedy came at a young age when his mother died from brain cancer. A few years after the death of his mother, he moved to the US with his father, settled down in Denver and despite knowing little English when he arrived, Vitaliy has gone on to become a successful businessman and investor. Currently the CEO of IMA, a Denver-based investment firm, he is also an author of multiple books and an award-winning writer.

Soul In The Game is a collection of essays and stories about life, Stoicism and a little bit of classical music. A big portion of this book is dedicated to the school of philosophy whose famous proponents include Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Readers will get to know these historical characters a little bit and many chapters end with a quote from them. I find it very cool. Vitaliy did a great job making the topic interesting through his own experiences and interaction with folks around him, especially his children. Some of the points and lessons from this book are profound enough that they require that you drop the book for a day or two so that they can marinate on you.

I was in a rough patch recently. I dropped a few good habits that I worked hard to build. I let frustration at work negatively impact my emotions and personal life. My pandemic cat, which adds so much joy to my life, became distant to me because I spent most time in the office and didn’t spend enough time with him. This book is a much needed reminder of what I can and should do, to feel happier and find what is truly valuable to my life. If you are looking for a book on Stoicism or life lessons, I highly recommend this book. Both the content and the writing are great. It gains some additional points from me as several stories speak to what I am going through. Here are a few excerpts that I took note of

“Artisans constantly strive for improvement. Jiro has been making sushi for over 70 years and is still learning. He says, “Even at my age, in my work… I haven’t reached perfection… There’s always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.”

“Artisans have a very narrow, single focus. Jiro said, “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.” Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “You become what you give your attention to.” Single focus combined with a drive for constant improvement, while being a student of life, adds up to an incredibly powerful force.”

“There are so many other things I could be doing. But a while back, I realized that there is a finality to everything in life and especially to kids being… well, kids. This changed my perspective on life. Instead of looking at driving my daughter to tournaments as an obligation and feeling victimized for being forced to do it, I choose to do it. And I really, honestly look forward to doing it. As we drive, Hannah and I listen to music and podcasts, and we talk. We go to lunch. We spend time together.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“I know that in two hours they’ll wake up. We’ll have breakfast and I’ll drive them to school. Jonah (my 16-year-old) will be bargaining with me about what music we’ll listen to – classical will not be his first choice. Hannah will be on Jonah’s side. Mia Sarah (my almost-four-year-old) will offer her preference, which is always the same: “Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.” We’ll compromise. Jonah has a learner’s permit, and he’ll be driving us through a beautiful park. I’ll hug and kiss them, drop Jonah off at high school, Hannah at middle school, and Mia Sarah at preschool.

I am overwhelmed with emotions just writing this. This is all finite. One day they’ll all be grown up. The house will be empty and days like today will be distant happy memories. I never want days like this to end. I really don’t want my kids to grow up, and a bat mitzvah is another reminder that they are! Someday I will no longer be hugging and kissing them in the morning and driving them to school.

The stock market, economics, politics somehow seem so trivial next to this”

“Tim Urban estimated that by the time you finish high school, you have spent 93% of the total time you’ll ever spend with your parents. Today I spend at least six hours a day with my kids and another 20 hours on weekends. When kids live in your house they are completely dependent on you, especially younger ones.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“When writing is a habit, I do not have to force myself to write. Writing is part of my identity. I am a person who gets up every morning and writes. After not writing for a month, I realize that without it my brain is complete chaos. Just like working out is exercise for my body (I feel mushy when I skip workouts), writing is exercise for my brain. It is not something I do in addition to investing. No, it’s a necessity for me; it’s how I keep my brain tuned and how I connect and organize my otherwise chaotic thoughts.”

“I write a few hours every single day. When I’m done writing I have a similar feeling to the one I have after I work out at the gym. When I’ve worked out hard, the micro-tears in my muscles leave me with a feeling of fullness and growth.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“The problem with a normal budget is that though it captures well ongoing daily expenses like a mortgage, the cable bill, groceries, etc., it ignores future expenses. Let’s take your car, for example. It’s paid for, which is great. But in five years this car will need to be replaced and “suddenly” you’ll discover that you have a one-time $20,000 expense, which should not be sudden and is actually anything but one-time unless you are planning to drive this car for the rest of your life.”

“Sit down together and identify all of your expenses, current and future. Once you have identified your future major expenses, create a sinking fund for each one of them. Once you’ve identified your future expenses, create your budget; and I guarantee that you’ll discover that your true income is much lower than you thought. Just because these expenses are going to happen in the future doesn’t make them less real.”

“By bringing all current and eventual expenses into our monthly spending budget, we got rid of unwelcome surprises. Also, when unexpected things happened – a car accident, a significant repair to the house – since money had been saved in the “emergencies” sinking fund and it came out of a different savings (and mental) account, writing a check was a lot less painful.

I realized over the years what Mark saw then: That our wants are unlimited and will always exceed our income. No matter how much money you make, without a system your insatiable wants (if not controlled) will always outpace your income.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“Stoicism seeks to minimize unnecessary negative emotions, which in turn amplifies positive emotions.”

“Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it so well: “A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”

“Stoicism was started in ancient Greece around 300 BC by Zeno, a wealthy merchant who lost all his wealth in a shipwreck and barely made it out alive himself. Throughout this book I constantly make this point: Pain often unlocks creativity. It must have been a devastatingly painful experience for Zeno to lose everything overnight. Nevertheless, he later wrote: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune.”

For a while Zeno’s philosophy was called Zenoism – but maybe because Zeno did not want it to become a cult of Zeno, he named it after a place in Athens where he and his students gathered, the Stoa Poikile (“painted porch”).”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.” This is how Epictetus introduced the dichotomy of control framework”

“He continues: “Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”

“As Epictetus said, “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen.” We just need to remember that opinion is completely up to us. We can reframe it in a way that minimizes our suffering.”

“Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate physicist, said, “You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

 

Have something to do in mind? Just do it as soon as possible!

Here are a few anecdotes that lead me to believe that when you have a task in mind, it’s better to just get it over with as soon as possible.

Last month, a colleague opened a work ticket. The request was not easy, but I knew if I could sit down with full focus for a few hours, I would be able to finish it. I didn’t. I let it sit there and marinate for over a month while having different projects pull my attention in various directions. Two days ago on Monday, the person sent an email asking for an update and said he needed the data in the middle of this week. I freaked out because I was going to fly out fo a conference on Tuesday, taking the rest of the week off. I had to scramble, asking multiple people for information, and work late on Monday night to complete the ticket that I should have dealt with a while ago.

Knowing full well that I would need shirts to don casual business outfits for the conference, I planned to have several professionally cleaned for the occasion. The thing is: I procrastinated on it. I thought that washing and cleaning shirts would be quick and I could delay till the last minute . The day before I flew, I took my shirts to a cleaning store in town. I received a rude wake-up call when they said they needed more time than just 12 hours for these shirts. Such a poor decision on my part led to my washing the shirts by myself and unnecessary anxiety.

This trip didn’t come at the right time. I was cat-sitting for a friend who lived 20 minutes from my apartment. Because one of the cats has to take medicines at 8am and 8pm every day, I had to live there instead of shuttling back and forth. My flight yesterday was scheduled to be at 1pm. Hence, I planned to pack in the morning, go to work for a scheduled presentation, return home and head to the airport. Well, life threw me a curveball. While I was enjoying my coffee at 6:30am, I got a text from my fellow conference attendee that our flight out of Omaha was delayed and we would not make the connection flight in Salt Lake. He said there was another flight leaving in about 1.5 hours, but of course I couldn’t make it since I had to drive home, shower, pack and leave for the airport. Had I packed before, I would have probably made that flight. The result? A lot of anxiety to arrange a replacement flight and frustration because of the delays. I finally got to my final destination at 9pm, 4 hours later than expected.

The thing is that I reaped the profits of acting right away before.

When I was in Vietnam, the first thing my wife and I did out of quarantine was to prepare for the visa application and submit it. It took a couple of days, but we finished the task without delay. It was good that we did because the Consulate took longer than we expected to renew my visa. During those 3 weeks, we were anxious, not knowing when I could book the return flight or whether I could return to the US at all. My wife admitted that it felt good that we didn’t waste time on that crucial task.

Another example is my marriage certificate. My father-in-law asked us to only get the certificate a few days before the wedding and before my departure for the US. We refused. We wanted to become married legally beforehand. It turned out that we were right. Here is what happened. To get such a certificate in Vietnam, one person has to be certified single in their district before register as married together in the other person’s district. It took me three days to receive a piece of paper confirming that I was single. It’s just ridiculous red tape in Vietnam. Then, my wife and I went to her district’s People’s Committee for the registration. First, they turned us away because there was a small omission on my paper mentioned above. So we had to spend 2 hours sorting it out. When we came back, it took a couple of more tries to finally get the paperwork in order. But trouble didn’t stop there. The person called us at 4pm later that day to inform us that since my wife moved residence once after she turned 18 years old, she had to go back to her previous place to get a document certifying that she was legally single as well. Long story short, thanks to my mother-in-law hoarding old and outdated documents, after 4 days or so, we could finally have a marriage certificate in our hands. The tricky part is that we both had to be present when they gave us the certificate. So you see, had we listened to my father-in-law, either I would have had to delay my trip to the US or we would not have had the marriage certificate we need.

Life has a funny way to punish the unprepared. There are just a lot of unforeseen curveballs and these curveballs, unfortunately, tend to happen too often and at the wrong time. Procrastination and stupidity punished me a few times and I saw the rewards of prompt actions. But I was too comfortable in the warmth of procrastination. I need to work on myself to leave that comfort zone once there are tasks to be done. If you had similar experiences, I hope this will give you some necessary push.