The selfish catharsis of criticising others

“Rare are helpful speakers, rarer still are good listeners, but rarest of all are words that though unpleasant are helpful.”

– N√†garjuna

The concept that we criticise others for what we dislike about ourselves is met in Buddhist writings and is popular amount (pop) psychology publications. I was wondering if there is any basis to it.

The inspiration comes from criticism I kept receiving from my grandmother. It always came down to competence with her: I was criticised for being incompetent in its various incarnations. Over little things. Leaving the light on in the corridor. Not leaving the light on in the corridor when guests are over. Forgetting to buy something in the shop.

Then there were big things. Any time I defended myself against her criticism over big things, it inevitably transpired that her accusations were based on erroneous assumptions. She didn’t realise how hard I was working or what I was trying to do. Mostly though, it was over small things, especially for not complying with her idiosyncratic world view.

She wasn’t even that tyrannical: she would say to me that I am my own person and I make my own decisions. According to her, what I heard from her wasn’t oppressive and unsupportive, no, it was just her opinion – and she is entitled to one, right?

Naturally, her approach showed a lack of understanding of human emotion, relationships, empathy…

Furthermore, looking back on her life, it’s easy to see why she might see herself as the very thing she is accusing me of, of cautioning me against seeing as how she doesn’t actually mean harm: “incompetent”. Her life was so full of endless challenges: stagnation and lack of opportunity under Brezhnev, hopeful but troubled times under Gorbachev, then turbulent and Darwinian fighting to get by under Yeltsin.

All of the above have left her with no real tradable skills, just the knowledge of how to adapt while not getting accused of something she didn’t do, swindled or killed. By today’s definition of success she’s not all that “competent”.

So was she just trying to counsel me so that I avoid her fate? That may be what she told herself, but I believe the real motivation isn’t quite as selfless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Knowing that she isn’t the picture of competence and success as it is understood in today’s culture, she pokes holes in the competence and success those around her so as to not feel quite so inadequate. In other words, if those around her aren’t better than her – at least in some ways, then she’s not so bad either. It was done to maintain self-respect.

Any time I would ask her if she has her phone before leaving, she would snap at me: “Stop asking me such nonsense!” It’s not that I felt that she wasn’t independent or indeed was trying to be in some way offensive. However that obviously hit right where it hurt the most: competence and independence.

Obviously, this extends beyond issues like competence and independence. It can be anything at all.

Interpersonal criticism and rejection always come down to the same main point: it’s far less about the person being criticised or rejected, it’s about the needs of the person doing the criticising and the rejecting.

I am not writing this to simply hate on the critics and tell them to get out of here “with their negativity”. The really interesting part is the following. Next time when you feel like criticising someone, ask yourself: is there something about me that makes me criticise this person? It can be fascinating what you find out ūüėČ

Is there any mysticism to this? I don’t think so at all, even though these kind of theories often arise from the more spiritually inclined. I believe this phenomenon arises from recency/attention bias. If something is on one’s mind, e.g. competence, one is more likely to find issues with it in others.

If we were to try and be scientific about it, I would design an experiment like this: interview a person about things that bother them the most about themselves, then interview those closest to them in a random population, without directly letting them know the hypothesis. 

I think an intervention-based trial would be less than ethical, but that could be tried too! For example, criticise person A about trait X and then ask them to find faults in people in a prerecorded video. Thoughts? 

‚ÄúIf we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.‚ÄĚ

-François de La Rochefoucauld

The successniks of Silicon Valley learn philosophy, but search for the secret sauce continues

‚ÄėMen work together,‚Äô I told him from the heart,
‚ÄėWhether they work together or apart.‚Äô
– Robert Frost

“Practical philosopher” Andrew Taggard disabuses founders, executives, and others in Silicon Valley of the notion that life is a problem to be solved, and happiness awaits those who do it:

‚ÄúPhilosophers arrive on the scene at the moment when bullshit can no longer be tolerated,‚ÄĚ says Taggart. ‚ÄúWe articulate that bullshit and stop it from happening. And there‚Äôs just a whole lot of bullshit in business today.‚ÄĚ

Taggart seems to preform a sort of CBT on CEOs. This article also features the term successnik when talking about the Silicon Valley execs. What a gem.

But wait, maybe we have the secret sauce after all?

Harvard/MassGen “psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and Zen priest” Robert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard…

Now, before we get all excited, it is an observational study of a small-ish bunch of Boston men, so go easy on the extrapolation. But here is the said sauce:

“So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

I asked a similar question of Dr John McBurney – and his answer was community as well. Other research points out that when it comes to relationships, the absence of the negative is far more important than any grand gestures or unbelievable highs in determining whether these relationships will last.

successniks of silicon valley learn philosophy

Given that for millions of years our very survival has been predicated on our tribe much more so than on our personal achievements, it makes sense that we weight it so highly. Evolution carved us out for survival and not for happiness.

So perhaps, somewhere between the first and second step of the Maslow pyramid (that is physiological needs and safety), we’ve been missing community. In today’s society we can pay for the fulfilment of both of those – and that’s where most people are stuck.

Why do people want to be successful? Because it solidly ticks off the bottom two steps of the pyramid. If you are more cynical, let me phrase it this way: hedonism is step one, narcissism is step two.

Maybe the hack is in the fact that having a community provides both physiological and safety cover. Furthermore, unlike money in an of itself, it also let’s us into the higher up steps of the pyramid. I am calling it a “hack” because few people consciously feel community is that important.

Why don’t more people invest into community?

1. “I want to be special”

Blending in with a community is no fun. If you didn’t figure it out on your own, is it worth the same to you? All the cool guys seem to have done it one their own. We know that’s not true, of course.

However, it is hard to have a lot of impact if all you ever do is comply with the unspoken traditions of your community. So in a sense, it does prevent personal accomplishment. It’s important to clarify that you can’t make do with any sort of community: it has to be supportive. A conflicted community (or family) is probably more harmful than being alone based on what Dr Waldinger discussed.

2. “You can’t trust no one”

Indeed, communities do have a way of ostracising people – and generally being poisonous when things aren’t going well. All of a sudden your neighbour of yesterday is making a business out of your misery. We have all heard the stories from wars and famines that illustrate people’s disregard for the life of another in extreme circumstances.

This fact doesn’t stand alone of course. We’ve also all heard stories of altruistic sacrifices around those same wars and famines. And – what if you had been working in an individualistic rather than a community-centred manner: this isn’t a guarantee either because you’ve invested into things that may not have any value in extreme circumstances.

In the extreme, banks collapse, property gets nationalised, political regimes choose new heroes and scape goats… Less extremely, industries rise and fall, changing laws and regulations present new challenges.

If you want to be pragmatic about it, think of community as a diversification strategy. It seems that trusting your own accomplishments over trusting the community is a false path to success – whatever for you feel you need it.

harvard happiness stud role of community

Want to be great at something? You simply need to like it

A lot of the literature in psychology, especially the type read by people not trying to get a Ph.D., is focused on success. How to be successful. What do successful people do. You know. It gets quite tiring after a while, especially because for the most part it is a thinly veiled sales pitch or click bait.

Inspiration or perspiration?

I’ve gone through the non-click bait writing/research on the matter and noticed some interesting patterns.

First, I will define success as being in the top 1% of something: swimming, earning money, cutting out adenoids… whatever floats your boat.

It appears that in the majority of cases, someone’s success¬†in a particular field is mostly related to experience and practice, not to innate ability.

I’ve been very fortunate to have gone to school with some incredibly talented people. As we were growing up, I watched their motivations change: some people would get by on raw talent, after all school was never designed to be difficult, while some, who were mediocre to start, became unbeatable.

This observation of mine is echoed in the literature. Even if one’s first attempts at something are poor, it is bears no relationship to the overall outcome. Obviously, there are some factors at play, but they tend to be obvious: like, to be a jockey or a ballerina you simply have to be light.

However, when the mission is a little more intangible, such as becoming a good writer or being good at maths, the impact of practice greatly outweighs that of talent. This dynamic is also congruent with the idea that a mindset of believing in one’s improvement is fundamental to motivation (as distinct from the belief that one’s ability is fixed which ultimately leads to learned helplessness).

how to get good at anything

Aptitude tests show aptitude, not outcomes

Consider aptitude tests. I would argue that they need to be scrapped as they predict nothing at all. Research doesn’t support the assertion behind aptitude tests, namely that the X-factor is present in a person before¬†they put in the work required in a particular field.¬†I also want to prevent anyone from conflating the ideas of practice outweighing talent vs nurture being more important than nature, but I will come to that later.

I like to observe people. I especially keep a mental chart for anyone who I flag as having a high IQ or a high EQ. All of these people consistently make bad decisions in their respective fields of prowess when they aren’t paying enough attention. My musings are once again congruent with available data:¬†SAT scores explain 9% of the variance in first year college grades.

Interest is far more important than aptitude.

Even if you have the aptitude, you still need to focus on what it is exactly you are doing to actually perform well. For example, I did well in my (what you would call equivalent to) SAT’s and in first year of college. But not in fourth year: I was only around 75% centile. Why? I lost interest, didn’t like it, stopped paying as much attention and didn’t put in as much time into the specific subject.

do aptitude tests matter when choosing career

What is the relationship between accomplishment and practice?

Can you max out your practice? Sort of: you can reach 100% in a test, but in reality practice always leads to improvement. There is of course, such a thing as inappropriate practice: overtraining, staying up at night to study instead of sleeping, but you get the point.

Anders Ericsson did some great research in this area. He confirmed a few interesting things:

  • Improvement is subject to diminishing returns. In other words, one makes more progress in the first 1,000 hours practicing something than they do in their most recent 1,000 hours.
  • Interestingly, he found that these diminishing returns often create the illusion of a plateau, however, progress continues as evidenced by a ton of studies.

is it important to like your career

What is deliberate practice?

Ericsson uses the term deliberate practice to differentiate junk hours from practice that will actually make a difference in one’s level of achievement, and this is how he defines it:

1. Focus your attention on the work with the intention to improve.

2. Your practice should be targeted to your current level of skill. 

3. After you attempt something, you should get to immediate, informative feedback until you have complete clarity in relation to what you did right and what you did wrong.

If practice is all I need, how do I motivate myself to practice?

All of this sounds very laborious: having to chip away at something, constantly look for feedback and address endless mistakes. There is only one way to avoid this hell: to like what you are doing. They say that if you pick a job you like doing, you won’t have worked a day in your life. It is sort of true.

My parents’ generation nearly all switched jobs. My parents, being Russian, were in their 30s when the USSR collapsed and so were forced to find a new way to make it. My generation is also constantly changing jobs. I know so many young doctors, nurses, solicitors, accountants who end up changing their field of work: however, they aren’t forced by harsh economic perturbations. They are forced by the discrepancy between what they were taught would be good for them as a career versus what is it actually like.

Aptitude tests and risk-averse parents had aspiring accountants believe they will be good at their job. They are good at it, but they soon realise they are ambivalent about it.

And it is hard to get up early in the morning 5 days a week when you are ambivalent. This is the reason so many people who were so “promising” end up having lacklustre careers: if you don’t like doing what you’re doing, you’re not going to find it easy to practice and if you don’t find it easy to practice, the competition will quickly leave you behind.

I recall taking a deep breath in and out to simply refocus as I was writing a note in a patient’s chart towards the end of a 14 hour shift in the emergency department, the last 9 of those without any breaks. The nurse sitting beside me took this to be a sigh of desperation and said: “It’s just another half hour until you’re finished.” Clearly, this nurse has been in a place where she was literally counting the minutes until she can go home. She was being supportive and relating to an experience she thought I was having. I was just tired. The way she said it was: “I know how much you don’t want to be here; I feel the same”. I bet there was a time when she was really excited about her work. She is good at her job. But she will never get better. And because lack of progress causes tremendous unhappiness in and of itself, she is likely to leave that job.

practice beats talent

What if I like something that I can’t turn into a career?

I think that that’s just a story we tell ourselves. Wearing a suit and going to work 5 days a week isn’t a career. Or maybe it is, but in that case we don’t all need a career. It’s hard for me to guess what people need, but I hypothesise that people need meaningful impact. And in this case, it is possible to make an impact doing virtually anything. Is it possible to make a living out of it? I would argue that it is. It requires some creativity, but with the internet people have been able to find their tribe much more easily. By listening to the audience, it will soon become obvious how to make what you are good at extremely useful to people – and monetise it. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, you can be a freelancer, or even an employee. As for security, I also believe that that’s more of a story. Corporations collapse, technology makes professions irrelevant, cheaper labour elsewhere leads to job losses… Employment is far riskier that it is made out.¬†

The point is that it is being good that sells.

If you manage to get amazing at something odd (break-dancing, why not), you are at least as likely to sell it as if you’re mediocre at something for which there is a lot of demand (accounting).¬†I will let you judge the level of happiness attained through these two routes for yourself.

It’s not all that simple of course. If you’re relying on being the best at something, you need to constantly put in the practice or create systems around you that will allow you t grow, e.g. creating things that last like organisations and leveraging other people. If you are relying on being mediocre where there is high demand, you will probably get away with it for the rest of your less-than-happy life.

What if I don’t know what I like?

You do, but it’s hard to be honest with yourself because it may lead to a lot of uncomfortable conclusions.

I’ve always liked writing, but I was always told it is a road to nowhere. Of what use is writing? When you’re 17, you listen to adults and trust them. Having said this, I liked science just as much. However, my interest in science was encouraged, but my interest in writing wasn’t.

It can also feel like it’s a very individualistic thing to say: “I like X”, X being piano, fashion, philosophy, whatever. We’re taught that it’s not about liking things, it’s about finding a good solid field where you can be successful. Whatever that means. So saying “I like X” is immediately contrary. There is an implicit “it doesn’t matter what you like, the choice you make it about your future! This isn’t a game!”

This kind of attitude plants a lot of doubt of course: what if X is just an infatuation? What if in 3 years’ time I am sick of painting and all I want is to start a family which is far easier to do if I become an accountant? It’s a risk, I guess, but I’ve never met anyone who really liked something and actually got sick of it. They may have been repeatedly rejected, something bad may have happened that became associated with X – but I’ve never met anyone who just lost their passion from first principles.

It can even cause guilt: doing something that you like feels like it isn’t work and is therefore not valuable. The insight here is that it feels like work to most people.¬†

It’s also important to remember that we like things we are good at. It’s therefore good to at least try and differentiate between positive feedback and genuine interest.


How are accomplished people’s brains different?

Isabelle Gauthier and Michael Tarr created a new field of study: Greebles. These are a family of 3-D structures, they are made up, none of the participants of their studies knew anything about them and had to learn from scratch.

As the participants practiced identifying and classifying these ridiculous Greebles, Gauthier and Tarr observed the developments in their brains using fMRI. When participants were first learning about Greebles, a huge portion of their brains was active. As they practiced more and more, fewer regions showed activity, but they ones that remained active became more active. Greebles are a nice example, but there are a number of studies like this that all point that brain activation gets more precise and efficient.

The meaning of meaningful glances

I also like to observe experienced doctors. Every morning, a senior physician would do a round and be presented with the case details of the patients who were admitted through the emergency department overnight. A lot of these presentations are really vague, that’s just the nature of the activity. The experienced senior physicians have a way of narrowing it down effortlessly: and most of the time they are correct. There is one minor detail that I noticed: they tend to fixate on something for a few seconds before they pronounce their verdict on the working diagnosis. It’s like they aren’t really here. The transient but significant fixation is especially juxtaposed with¬†the hustle and bustle of the emergency department.

It turns out that that’s a thing¬†that experts do. Studies of eye-tracking movements of by¬†Joan Vickers call it the quiet eye.¬č Ordinarily, our eyes jump from one object to another, about 3 times per second. The movements are controlled without our conscious involvement. As we focus on a task, these movements become more deliberate.¬†Especially accomplished people tend to stop their eye movements for as much as a whole second as they are about to act (or make a decision). Once again, we are looking at precision and efficiency: limiting the information input to be able to focus on what is relevant. This seems to be the real skill behind being accomplished at something (incidentally, it is also the skill that is directly trained though mindfulness meditation).¬†

Having reviewed the mechanics of being good at something, it is obvious that it comes at an obvious cost. By going in for the kill each time, the accomplished performer is likely to miss something in plain sight simply because their optimised equation didn’t factor it in. There is valuable flexibility in being a novice.

You may also like:

Paul Graham: What Doesn’t Seem Like Work?

FT:¬†How a ‚Äėno-plan‚Äô plan launched a career at Facebook

Can we live without evil?

Black or white?

What you label as evil essentially depends on which side of you are on.

Being directional, having a goal, being in pursuit involves labelling things and people as allies or obstacles. In pursuit of our goals, we do many things which we may think are perfectly okay, but somebody else will thinks are evil. I am typing this on a MacBook Air. If I were a Chinese person, I would probably have good reason to consider Apple evil. As I am on the consumer side here, I feel somewhat overcharged and not having a lot of options beside MacBook, nonetheless meaning that they are my ally. Good and evil, all at once.

My actions inadvertently lead to the death of the cutest and friendliest cat you can ever hope to meet. This made me see myself as someone who can do evil, even though it was never my intention to do evil. Whenever someone else did evil previously, I felt they were, well, evil. Bad. Shouldn’t exist. This experience has taught me to see things differently.

Another throwback to my 1990s Russian childhood: there were some Roma people around. They have vanished since; I’ve no idea where they’re gone. I guess that’s just part of the lifestyle of those people I witnessed. The unfortunate prejudice was that you need to hold on to your wallet when one is in sight. Indeed, on occasion, I would witness some cursing shopkeeper shouting as a Roma woman was running away. As a child, I recall wondering what stimulates these particular women to live this life. It is really quite clear and much more relatable when you are an adult.

Indeed, a lot of the the men and women whom we may regard as criminals are in pursuit of their goals: they have babies to feed, bills to pay, whatever. We may feel that it is unfair for them to rob what we’ve earned with our hard labour (as if robbing isn’t labour). They may feel it is unfair that we sit in a comfy office pushing paper (as if pushing paper is that easy). Our motivations are actually quite similar.

I really don’t like that variety of philosophy that ends up telling you that white is black and black is white. So I am not doing that. All I am saying is that good and evil are subjective and transient.

how do you tell good from evil
Grim but beautiful. Wicklow mountains

A Darwinian life

Any kind of goal-directed behaviour is likely¬†to result in someone else’s suffering. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t even the goal-directedness of our behaviour, but the fact that nature makes us compete. Are win-win situations really that great when you consider the wider context? Tesco (a kind of British Walmart) not only allows residents of small towns to purchase goods cheaper, but it also creates jobs in the small town: someone has to pack the shelves, look after the purchasing decisions, etc. It is also well known that whenever the likes of Tesco move into a small town, for every job they create, they kill two jobs (who wants to buy from the butcher now that you can get the “same” stuff cheaper). Whether it is good or bad on balance, it is Darwinian and it causes suffering for the butcher.

Or consider my poor moths. I lived in a carpeted apartment for a while. Mid-plank I noticed that some bits of the carpet were bare and then found that there were moths living under it. I had to commit absolute genocide against them. Three rounds of poisonous chemicals. They must have “thought” I was evil. But did I really have a choice? Again, a Darwinian reality of them versus me.

In an insect‚Äôs mind, the most important life on this planet is an insect‚Äôs life. It’s all the insect has – nAot unlike us, though some of us think of life in a more abstract manner.

In a Darwinian world, is it possible to never do evil? How about a better question: is it that clear what good and evil is? Doesn’t it all depend of perspective?

why can't we live without evil
You can have perspective even when its cloudy. Kerry mountains.

Happiness and accomplishment

This is why being terribly obsessed with goals and accomplishment is so disturbing: it relies on a concrete framework of wanted and unwanted events. For those who are especially interested, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a great example of how being goal-directed can cloud one’s perception of good vs bad.

A lot of readers indicated that they wish to hear more on the subject of happiness. Read the fable “Blessings in disguise” in this context. Events that we see as undesirable could well be good. I sometimes look back at my failures. In what now seems like a former life, I was interviewed with McKinsey. After what seemed like 17 000 rounds of interviews, I received a phone call from the partner. As he greeted me, I assumed I had it in the bag. Why else would he call me? No, it was a kick in the stomach. I went digging and found out that some slightly younger guy with a reasonably unremarkable CV got it instead of me. I couldn’t figure out the conundrum for ages (I naively believed I could). I now feel that it was a lucky escape.

I even look back at some of the events I then labelled as successes and think: I wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole.

My working hypothesis is that to feel happiness one need to experience or perceive change and have perspective. Perspective is largely a set of cognitive judgements. I don’t want the reader to think that absolutely any event can be rationalised into being perceived as good when it was first thought of as bad or evil.

I want to simply highlight that some of our judgements about good and evil are completely off the wall.

I recall one scientist tell me that he won’t consider his career successful until he gets a paper published in Nature as a first author. Even if we ignore the needy narcissism, what a miserly contract to make with yourself! This is what I call off the wall.

Furthermore, everything is a chain of events.

If my aunt hadn’t suffered a medical negligence case, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go in on a rescue mission and reconnect with her, something that was way overdue. At the time of course, it all seemed like a bad dream.

can we live without evil
Grey’s a happy colour. Mizen Head



Ego undermines greatness by deluding its holder

In short: don’t be a needly distracted narcissist because it sabotages your mission. That’s it.

After Audible recommending this book for me in every way, Ego is the Enemy finally made its way onto my reading list. I wish it didn’t. Of course, there are some things that I feel the author got perfectly right in a refreshing way – especially because he is 29 (in 2016). Overall, the better insights of Ryan Holiday are concisely expressed in¬†Ray Dalio’s Principles.

Premise and logic

Holiday takes the “study the successful” approach. There are a number of problems with that approach – and I am very close to banning any such book from my reading list for the future.

In general, these books tend to make an assertion, back it up with a historical fact –¬†et voil√†, it’s true. Not really. As a bunch of musings and hypotheses, it’s fine, but this kind of work implies that it’s didactic – “here’s how to defeat [your ego]” the title reads. Meanwhile, the “logic” doesn’t really hold water and violates, in the broadest sense, the scientific method. This isn’t science, it’s more related to philosophy, but it has to be logical regardless.

These Socrates-quoting authors assume that the idiosyncrasies of the successful are causal to their success.¬†In reality, it’s a very small observational study with a handpicked sample. The collection of stories explains more about confirmation bias than it does about the proposed subject.

ego is the enemy ryan holiday book review

Holiday even talks about how passion in a certain field is common among the highly successful (e.g. Steve Jobs) – but he also points out that there are countless cases of passionate entrepreneurs, writers, etc – who failed. Great insight – and there are a few like that. Only Holiday didn’t manage to take another step out of his own work to realise that this very logic applies to saying that being dispassionate is the real cause for success.

Holiday simply swaps one brand of snake oil for another.

On this note, Nassim Nicholas Taleb just published this one-liner on Facebook that I simply have to include here:

Scientism is to science what a Ponzi scheme is to an investment.

While I don’t endorse using it as a manual, the only examples of useful books written in this style that I am familiar are Niccolo Machiavelli’s¬†The Prince and¬†Discourses on Livy. Many of the “facts” that Machiavelli uses to substantiate his argument in The Prince are wrong – most likely deliberately, as it was intended to persuade his audience, namely Lorenzo de‚Äô Medici. If there’s one thing we can learn from Machiavelli – it is that these books are written as least to some extent for the benefit of the writer. I much prefer books that simply theorise and use historical references very vaguely – rather than as quasi-scientific evidence – like most philosophers and my proposed substitute for Holiday – Ray Dalio. Musing should be musings – and they can be very good, but they cannot be sold the way that Holiday proposes. Ryan Holiday is such a clever and accomplished man though, why does he do it? I don’t know, but maybe the fact that it sells – and builds connections – has something to do with it. Indeed, the Amazon reviews are rather good: 4.6.

Nonetheless, we will have a look at his musings.

ego is the enemy summary


Holiday doesn’t mention millennials, but it is pretty clear that that’s what he’s talking about. He is one too. His view of us, special snowflakes, geniuses who cannot bear the waste of working in junior positions clearly shows that he himself has never been in that situation. He knows that being in such a position involves just doing the work and making your boss look good. Holiday knows that that’s not what the Harvard grad that was selected out of thousands time after time for this position wants to hear. He reminds us of these, what he calls, realities:

  1. you’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are

  2. you have an attitude that needs to be adjusted

  3. information you learnt in college in outdated

I broadly agree with assertion 1 and 3. Two is in and of itself attitudinal. Indeed, Dalio has interesting things to say about all of this and my views are for more resonant with his.

Holiday feels that our problem is the “indignities of serving someone else.”

He argues that rather than obsessing with one’s own ego, the said snowflake should trust the apprentice model that has produced great results in the past. (Holiday provides no data on how many lives it diverted into a mindless, creative-less funnel of paying mortgages and 9-5). He says, be an anteambulo (one who precedes¬†to clear the way), attach and subsume your identity to the identity of those who are already successful and basically ride that wave to your own success.

Most of us snowflakes don’t have a problem with serving someone else. Making your boss look good is no problem. We understand that apprenticing under a solid role model is beneficial.

I feel the problem is the shocking emptiness and pointlessness (“should have been automated 10 years ago”) of much of this work in reality.

Frequently the work and the people at the top are both uninspiring. Many of them aren’t there out of professional fervour, but out of familiarity and necessity. The ones who do become anteambuloes are becoming the people at the top – with fewer perks year on year. Holiday had a different experience – it seems that the people in the organisations he worked for were there out of more exciting reasons. He probably doesn’t realise how rare that it. Us snowflakes, we yearn for purpose besides having the nicest car in the neighbourhood – which categorically satisfies the generations above us. Maybe it’s an illusion, but it’s at the heart of our snowflake-hood, not the indignity of serving someone else.

The other problem with accepting this lifestyle is that it quickly drives out whatever creativity was inherent in the bright-eyed intern. No matter how aware we are of how corporate indoctrination works, the bottom line is that it works. Staying in long enough will result in successful zombification.

ego is the enemy review

The ego

Holiday’s use of the word refers to our need for validation and self-importance. Sometimes what he actually means is better described as jealousy. Sometimes he means lack of focus. He states a lot of obvious things about the harm done through ego barriers and emphasises the value of letting go of them.

In Chapter 10, the author says that tolerating badness can be necessary as part of achieving goals, and this tolerating is actually avoiding one’s ego.

Unless this book is aimed at finished narcissists, it’s kind of sounds like a Stalinist “goals justify the means” turned on oneself. Again, Dalio talks about this in his Principles¬†– making far more sense. Not letting ego barriers stand in the way of achieving a goal is quite different to the ambitious/masochistic attitude that Holiday seems to advocate.

Holiday is refreshingly honest about the way the world requires us to be master story tellers and build our own brands – and hence the need to be special.

The author is averse to living in a fantasy and encourages action over overthinking. He describes the psychological phenomenon he calls imaginary audience with suspicious finesse.

ryan holiday book review

Marketing, not philosophy

The opening chapters are much better than the average quality of the book. His structure isn’t terribly clear and he repeats himself a lot. It should definitely be shorter. By chapter 17 of 35, it was a bit “When is the end?” “Oh, could this be my ego sabotaging me?” “Mmm, no. It’s you thinking”.

My conclusion is that there are much better books out there on the subject. There’s nothing new here. It was interesting to get inside (the accessible) part of the mind of a rich and famous self-made millennial rich guy who knows how to sell things.

Ryan Holiday is definitely no philosopher. Even his references to stoicism are a bit lopsided, but then again – it’s just another example of confirmation bias. The language and references to history and literature – even the pretentious image on the cover – create the atmosphere of intellectual finesse. It’s not actually there.

He is a marketer – and seemingly a shady one too.¬†I’d been warned by the kind of people that recommended his book not to buy it. Having read it, I feel a bit like my friends who went to Jordan Belfort’s seminar after watching The Wolf of Wall Street – only to come back and say that it wasn’t at all useful. It was a sales pitch of some bigger weekend seminar that he does later in the year. I never even considered giving money to Jordan Belfort – not after watching the film. Should have used that logic this time too!

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”


Should we avoid losing?

Freud is famous for all kinds of weird reasons. I believe it is more of a reflection on society than it is on Freud. He got some stuff right and some stuff wrong. One of the things that he managed to articulate incredibly well is this simple concept: we are driven by wanting pleasure and avoiding pain. In this simple equation, avoiding pain is much more important. In other words, we will forego pleasure in order to avoid pain. I remember learning that lesson when I was 7: I am sure I’ve done a lot to learn it through my own mistakes, but what got really etched into my brain was my cat’s behaviour. My lovely cat, she was probably about 5 months old then, got on top of the kitchen counter while no one was looking. I may have been an accomplice in her trespassing. She speedily made her way to the divine smelling milk that was getting heated up on the hob. As she put her pus into the pan, she must have burnt herself off the edge of the pot. She jumped right down with a loud meow. She didn’t get seriously hurt. What fascinated me though is that she never went near the hob again. Ever. Even if I put her regular cat food bowl on the switched off cold hob. She would just proudly sit there and wait for me to put it back where it belongs. My cat made a decision – and it was final. Avoiding pain is key.

mindfulness fear of failure losing

If you come to associate something with pain, you will probably fear it to some extent. So the question is: should you be afraid of losing and associate it with pain? On the one hand, it means that you will avoid losing. Is that the bottom line though?¬†Winning isn’t the same as never losing.

I don’t know whether losing in some shape or form is part of the obstacle course. Maybe you can just get through a life of poetry in motion without ever losing. I don’t think I can think of any examples of it though. It is important to remember that the people we think of when we think of success generally have some control of what is put out in the world about them. So we are looking at a highlight reel. However, considering some really famous actors, politicians and business people – it is easy to think of things that were outright flops. Cringy films, awkward public statements, bad investments, a personal life that could be on Jeremy Kyle – it all seems part of everyone’s journey.

As somebody who has a clear sense of agency and whatever control that humans can have over their own lives, I envisage life as a series of option trees. Every time there is a fork in the road – that’s when life is shaped. Moments of choice are what shapes that part of our lives that we can control.¬†However, I have been making the assumption that if I make the right choices, I will never experience losing. Hence, losing equals bad choice – my bad choice. I am starting to question that assumption.¬†

It is important to take a step back and consider what we call losing. What do we call failure? Is failing simply falling short of our expectations? In that case, for anybody who likes philosophy and mindfulness, it is immediately obvious that losing happens in our heads Рnot in real life. Expectations are great, but a dose of humility can be a real treat when we get so carried away so as to believe that we are owed our preferences at all times.

Not to sugar coat it – because it is true – but losses now can mean large gains later. While that’s a metaphor for our experience, it is quite literally a description of an investment: debit now for credit later. To continue with the investment analogy what really matters is how you compound it. Does a loss mean new learning and information that adds to your overall game or does it mean debilitating poison that stops you from carrying on? It is clear that the latter option is better. So maybe being afraid of losing in and of itself is damaging.¬†I don’t know for certain that losing is unavoidable. A consultant psychiatrist I used to work with and revere used to use this metaphor: if you want to box, prepare to get punched.¬†

It’s not easy though, to find a balance. If you focus too much on being OK with losing, you will get too comfortable with low standards.¬†This seems to logically make sense. There’s an interesting analogy I would like to draw. I have discussed the Stoic attitude to death in this article.¬†Essentially, not fearing death is one of the most liberating things that a person can do. This goes against all logic: surely, if you stop fearing death you are more likely to die? Yes and no. It seems that literal life-or-death situations are thankfully exceedingly rare for most people. Unless you actively seek out dangerous situations, you are unlikely to die prematurely because you adopt this belief. However, you are more likely to take small risks – as now, they are framed in this bigger perspective and seem not that huge at all. So could it be that by de-vilifying failure, it is possible to make better decisions rather than worse ones?¬†

If you focus too much on always winning, losing becomes too scary to deal with. I don’t think it is better to assume that losing is inevitable than to assume it is possible to avoid it. Assuming anything is always risky business though necessary to simplify things. Sometimes we will lose because the timing isn’t right, sometimes it will be completely beyond our control – but we have to keep our eyes on that part of it that is within our control. I think the key is to not think of losing as detracting from your final wins – that are surely ahead of us. Winning is a long game and losing is just a lesson that refines our approach and let’s us know how to do better next time. Failure is a form of constructive criticism or a reflection of conditions beyond our control. Should we be afraid of failure? All in all, I think it is too high a price to pay as it constricts our ability to get to the big wins. Should we avoid losing? I don’t even know if that’s completely necessary. It’s not the actual end result. If you make a P&L statement analogy, high costs don’t mean no profit.

In medical ethics, they often talk about an act of commission and acts of omission. In other words, to act and to not act are equally consequential. In the medical context it is something like this: you cannot euthanise a person by actively injecting potassium chloride in their veins, but you can allow someone to die by choosing to not instigate active treatment (in most parts of the world). In our culture, we have come to see failure as a negative consequence of an act of commission. Doing something outside of what is prescribed is an act of commission, meaning it takes more deliberation and implies more responsibility. It is much more likely to cause strong emotions if it doesn’t go right than ending up with the same result from doing nothing.¬†So¬†what about acts of omission?¬†The definition of failure has to allow for acts of omission. I think failing to invest in something worthwhile or to tell someone you love them is as bad as investing with poor returns or being rejected. However, if we only concentrate on avoiding losing, we are bound to miss out.

Moving from Freud to Frankl, it’s important to consider the meaning of failure. I think the visceral fear of failure comes from the meaning people have been conditioned to attach to failure: you are failing because you aren’t good enough. I mean you may as well take a gun and shoot your sense of self. What is enough? Enough is completely in our heads. Maybe you are failing because you aren’t that good yet. It’s describing the same facts, but the way it makes you feel is completely different. A much better question to ask would be: how can I use this? Looking at failure from more than one angle instead of fixating on a bunch of assumptions is going to help. If you can make use of it, then there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Our brains are somehow wired to move towards the thing we think about the most. Those who survive car accidents tell how they could only think about the thing that they crashed into – rather than thinking of the gap that they may have been able to drive through safely. Budgeting for the downside is good, but once a decision is made, it has to be a fleeting thought at the back of your mind. You can’t focus on avoiding failure and expect success. Even in those forms of financial investments where avoiding losses is the foundation of all success, the game is to put yourself in situations where losses are least likely – rather than trying to predict them, e.g. in trading. In venture capital, it’s the opposite – you only need one smashing success. While we can’t be completely unaware of our surroundings, the focus has to simply be on winning.

I think it is time to start letting go of the fear of losing because that way we’re risking missing out on something really great. Losing requires humility to accept our own mistakes non-judgementally and use them. Only this way, we have a chance of winning in the long term.