Books: ‘Benjamin Franklin: An American Life’

Benjamin Franklin was no ordinary human being. Our society has had its heroes in science, writing, politics, and business. Franklin achieved world-class excellence in each, while staying true to his middle-class roots and the emphasis on a virtuous life. There is much to learn from his story, and Walter Isaacson as done a terrific job in writing about the various facets of his celebrated life in his book

Ben Franklin began his life as an apprentice to his brother, ran off to Philadelphia to start on his own, conducted successful experiments that helped the society understand lightning and build better chimneys, wrote about morals and religion and business, conducted historical diplomacy with France, helped edit the Declaration of Independence, all the while maintaining a down-to-earth persona. He is often credited with defining and exemplifying what we now know as the middle-class values of industry (hard work), pragmatism, and honestly. Franklin hated pretense and show-off. In reading about his life, it is not hard to guess that Franklin would have had an off-the-charts IQ, but one comes out realizing that what made Franklin so special and revered was his ability to connect with people and communicate effectively. 

Franklin embodied a sense of practical utility in his conduct. He was tolerant to different religious views, and proclaimed “the most acceptable service of God was doing good to man“. Similarly, he emphasized the importance of compromise in diplomacy and politics. And what made him particularly relate-able was his way of communicating arguments with homespun similes, stories and metaphors. Consider, for example, the quote below which he used to highlight the importance of compromise:

When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner, here, both sides must part from some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition.

Another fascinating aspect of Franklin was his lifelong love of learning and exploration. Franklin loved to travel, and during his voyages, amused himself by scientific studies on topics such as winds, currents, and behavior of oil on water. When he was young, Franklin compiled a list of 13 virtues, that in his opinion would lead to a successful life. Borrowing from Wikipedia:

His autobiography lists his 13 virtues as:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
  4. “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
  6. “Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
  9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
  11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Franklin then made a plan to master each virtue per week, using a slate to mark crosses for days when he would miss. This is where the phrase “having a clean slate” traces its origins from.

There is a lot more to learn from Franklin, beyond what I can quickly summarize here. Above all, I came away from Walter Isaacson’s book with an impression of a full-of-life, practical, rational, and fun-to-be-with person. 

Advertisements

Books: The Sense of an Ending

I have read very few works of fiction, and am so glad that ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes is one of them. In very few words, Barnes has traced the arch of rich narrative, leading the reader  to an inner world of reflections and questions.

The narrator is a middle-aged man who recounts the early and youthful days of his life — the desire to stand out, the sex drive, and grand thoughts about life. He shares how he has ‘evolved’ in to a peaceable, risk-averse grown-up. At the center of the story is the character of Adrian Finn, the confident, self-assured genius who is looked up to by the group of close friends. How a tragedy unfolds, and how perspectives about it change with time, is the constant theme of this book. 

Reality, quite like the description of ‘history’ in this work, is like an onion. With every new perspective, you peel a new layer. Every new experience helps you look at things from a different vantage point. Hidden somewhere within is fundamental truth.

The story is also an engaging tale of love, jealousy, hate, and coming of age. But it does very well to treat each of these emotions with a very delicate narrative.

There is one event that creates a sense of surprise, urgency and shock in the middle of the story. The narrator’s perspective about this specific event changes over time, and also with knowledge of new facts. I was left wondering… how one action can be seen, years later, as either good or bad in light of consequences that were unknown at the time of event. You may have said something mean to a friend. It may have turned out to be inconsequential and a non-event. But if it leads your friend in to depression, is the very same action now worse? In other words, an act by itself is not good or bad… it’s consequences — unintended or intended — and the knowledge thereof make it so? Adrian Finn would’ve been much more eloquent about this.

Revisiting Books: Flow


One of my favorite books about the creative experience, Flow was a fantastic re-visit. If you’ve ever spent a night rehearsing for a play, been lost in a song you’re trying to write, or worked so intensely on a project that you lost track of hunger and time, you’ve experienced Flow.

Csikszentmihalyi, the author and a renowned scholar, summarizes observations that led him to an understanding of Flow:

When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following.

First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.

FlowInterestingly, there is an ‘autotelic‘ quality to Flow.

The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, ‘auto’ meaning self, and ‘telos’ meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.

The author talks about how Flow has helped individuals in times of extreme adversity. Anyone who has read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ knows that one can be free even in prison through their mind. Cszikszentmihalyi connects the dots through Richard Logan’s conclusion based on the study of writings of many survivors.

[Logan] concludes that the most important trait of survivors is a ‘nonself-conscious individualism,’ or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. .. because they are intrinsically motivated in their actions, they are not easily disturbed by external threats.

Cszikszentmihaly contends that the natural state of mind is one of ‘psychic entropy‘ or ‘chaos’. It is only a sense of clarity in purpose that can help anchor a person to a state of ‘flow’, because clear goals and expectations help focus the mind on the essential, leading to ‘harmony’. He also writes ‘a person who knows how to find flow from life is able to enjoy even the situations that seem to allow only for despair’, summarizing a result from his interviews with blind people: ‘what is so remarkable about these interviews is the number of people who describe the loss of their sight as a positive event that has enriched their lives.’

The peak in development of coping skills is reached when a young man or woman has achieved a strong sense of self, based on personally selected goals, that no external disappointment can entirely undermine who he or she is. For some people the strength derives from a goal that involves identification with the family, with the country, or with a religion or an ideology. For others, it depends on mastery of a harmonious system of symbols, such as art, music, or physics. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the young mathematical genius from India, had so much of his psychic energy invested in number theory that poverty, sickness, pain, and even rapidly approaching death, although tiresome, had no chance of distracting him from calculations– in fact, they just spurred him on to greater creativity.

There is a sense of beauty and order in the ability to ‘transform hopeless situations’ in to an activity that gives meaning and purpose in life.  How does one create such conditions in life? Cszikszentmihalyi gives 3 pointers on common traits among people who share this attitude:

  1. Unselfconscious self-assurance: Implicit belief that destiny is in their hands. Yet, at the same time, their egos seem curiously absent: they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.
  2. Focussing attention on the world: People who know how to transform stress into an enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person’s goal, but it is open enough to notice and adapt to external events even if they are not directly relevant to what he wants to accomplish.
  3. The discovery of new solutions: [they] focus on the entire situation, including oneself, to discover whether alternative goals may or may not be more appropriate, and thus different solutions possible.

Finally, the author talks about Meaning in life. It is a very interesting question, and each of us have our own answers. One of my biggest take-aways from that was that our life’s meaning is what we choose to give it. Whether it is spiritual, artistic, scientific, family-oriented, patriotic, or a combination of the limitless possibilities, it is one of our choosing. Let’s be conscious of that.

steve jobs

Image

steve jobsI spent the last few days listening to Isaacson’s book about the life of Steve Jobs. And I felt an intense array of emotions ranging from inspiration to disgust.

To put this in context: Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford commencement speech struck a deep chord with me, like it did with so many individuals. The design of the iPod, Mac, iPhone impressed me, as did the Zen-inspired minimalist essence of Apple products. Jobs, in my mind, was the unique blend of artistic and technical passions concocting in a magical way, rippling with new possibilities. Jobs recently died. So I was all the more curious to learn more about him, how he led teams, how he dealt with people, and who he internally was, as a human.

The book sheds light on all these aspects. If you’re expecting Jobs to come out a hero in all spheres, you’d probably be more than disappointed. Instead, Jobs comes across just as human and prone to mistakes as any of us, perhaps more. He declined paternity to his daughter, did not share stocks with close friend and employee number 12 — Daniel Kottke, underpaid and lied to Steve Wozniak about a bonus he got at Atari for a device that Wozniak created, planned a boardroom coup to oust John Sculley, frequently charmed people with lies for selfish motives. He was not an engineer, but tightly controlled the workings of several.

At the same time, he comes across as someone with an excellent sense of design, a pursuit toward perfection, ability to inspire, and the charisma to extend the spectrum of perceived possibility. He was the CEO of 3 big companies, co-founder of 2 of them, battled cancer, came back from a public ouster to generate unpredictable success.

The question I had on my mind was: how does Jobs fare as a role-model? Is he someone one would like to emulate? Of course, there are parts of him that seem good, and others not-so-good. However, as anyone interested in leadership would ask: were the same quirks and issues that made Jobs a ‘difficult’ person, the ones responsible for all the innovation he was able to inspire or participate in? Isaacson has, on a few interviews, answered this in the affirmative (or so is my perception).

I disagree. I think Steve could have inspired creativity without denying paternity to his daughter. He could have shared his success more fairly with friends, while making great products. Not to say that he made any more or worse mistakes than several of us make in life, but that as far as role models and inspiration go, one has to be careful to identify what would resonate. Steve’s wonderful life can leave one with the impression that innovation is not possible without being a jerk… but it is important to remember that there are several examples around us where innovation and impact has been made without necessarily resorting to be a jerk. Whether it is Gandhi or Luther who inspires you, or Andy Grove or Larry Page, or Neil Armstrong, or Marie Curie, it is important to put things in context. Especially when you’re in the reality-distortion-field that engulfed the life of Steven Paul Jobs.

Lincoln Inspirations, and Current Politics

Any man can say things that are true of Abraham Lincoln, but no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln

Frederick Douglass

I’ve been recently listening to the Team of Rivals, and interviews of Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln (besides snooping around on Biography.com for more about the man). Like millions of others, I find myself mesmerized by the almost-mythical stature Lincoln commands in history.

There is a lot that can be said about him, but a quality that intrigued me most, perhaps because of its absence in the political scene of today, is Lincoln’s uncanny knack to be able to oppose his political foes with respect, without questioning their intent. Even as he opposed slavery, Lincoln could empathize with folks on the other side. Instead of demonizing them, he said:

They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.

By doing so, Lincoln is able to oppose the issue and let others ‘come to him’, instead of adding to flames of bitterness. It is not only a sign of good character, but also a smart political strategy.

I wonder how such attitude would transform the political debate today, especially in India. I wonder if Manish Tiwari could speak a sentence without demonizing everyone else on the other side of the table. It is not just about being polite, rather more importantly, it is about being smart and strategic.

In the midst of these thoughts, I am reminded of Gandhi, who called Jinnah his brother. I am reminded of Barack Obama, who called McCain a patriot and hero, while opposing him in an election. These qualities are not wholly absent, but rare, perhaps for a reason…

On the landscapes of history, only a thin horizon separates the skies of statesmanship from the seas of politics. Perhaps it is this essence of Lincoln and Gandhi, a sense of balance that calls you to rise to the highest levels of emotional strength while keeping your feet grounded in reality.

Delivering Happiness… — Tony Hsieh

It is always nice to meet with people who brim with energy and passion. It is in this cocktail of effort and meaning that life can become a lot of fun.

Tony Hsieh recently visited Google to talk about his new book: Delivering Happiness. Hsieh is an entrepreneur, a venture-capitalist and salesman, now trying his hand at writing a book. Having read through the first few chapters, I’d say that he has done it well. The book is a well-paced, interesting read. Below are some of the things that I carried back from the talk and my reading:

  • If you strongly believe in something and have done your due diligence in researching its pros and cons, it may be worth sticking to it even if it is against the norm.
    For Tony Hsieh, that thing was the culture at Zappos. They founded a company where people are paid to leave, customers are provided with a 365-day return guarantee on shoes/apparel that they buy, employees are encouraged to have long conversations with customers (in direct contrast with the philosophy of resolving stuff and getting off the phone as quickly as possible). Tony said that this culture was to promote passion (in employees) and strong relations (with customers).
  • Mission and Core Values matter. A lot!
    The first company that Tony helped find (LinkExchange) sold for $265 million in 1998. In their quick growth, however, they had lost track of keeping alive passion and commitment to the company’s mission. Tony writes about waking up and not wanting to go to the office. The fact that even in the presence of a lot of financial success, if one struggles to find reason and fun in what they do, it becomes dull. Clearly, our choices should strongly correlate with our values.
  • Happiness…
    Why do you want a job? To make money? Why do you want to make money? To buy a big house? Why… (you get the idea)
    “When you talk about you doing something, ask why. Keep asking the why…” , said Tony “and it is likely that you will end up with the eventual goal of being happy.” Hsieh cited some recent research in the field of happiness, including Flow, which we have talked about earlier in this blog. He encouraged the audience to think about getting to happiness directly than through the winding routes that our lives often tend to take.

P.S. — Thank you to all my friends who stop by at A Speck in the Cosmos.

Life can keep one as busy as one wants to be, but few things are as soothing as writing! I hope that experiences — both good and not-so-good — inspire more passion through this blog.

Flow

I wrote a post on the same title a few weeks back. Flow is a state of mind filled with focus, joy and meaning. It was proposed and researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes it thus:

… being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

The author also gave an interesting TED talk on the same subject. Many have commented on and summarized the philosophy elsewhere; I think the talk does it quite well.

I have just begun reading Csikszentmihalyi’s book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Below are a couple of sentences from the second page :

What I “discovered” was that happiness is not something that happens… It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person.

———————
Connect with me on Twitter; find me elsewhere.