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. 


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.

Of Snowballs, or 5 Lessons from Warren Buffett

Buffett is someone I’ve always been curious to learn more about. A self-made billionaire (and yet, a publicly admired/popular person), a man of simple tastes who’s communications are filled with homespun (and sometimes, self-deprecating) humor, Buffet can be an inspiration and a fascination at the same time. As a student in graduate school in 2006, I guess I was late to the party of Buffett admirers, but am glad to have joined it neverthless.

I remember buying a hard-copy of the Snowball when it was first released in 2008, but for some reason never got through beyond the 3rd chapter. It is a long, exhaustive narration of several events in the life of the legendary Warren Buffett, and his close family/friends. Perhaps more material than if you just wanted to study the positive aspects of his life, but it certainly leaves you hungry for even more if you wish to get a more holistic peek.

More recently, though, I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book.

In this piece, I’ll not review the book so much as I’d like to recall some of the ‘sticky’ lessons from Buffett. After reading the book, I read through several annual shareholder letters that Buffett wrote himself (highly recommended reading, if you haven’t already), watched his university lectures/speeches, and read through many of his interviews to news channels. Below is no comprehensive a list of the lessons, but merely a recollection of a few ideas that have stuck in my mind (blame my memory/mind for any important omissions!):

  1. Inner ScoreCard
    As paraphrased here:

    • Your inner scorecard is more important than your outer scorecard. It’s very important for people to evaluate how they behave over a lifetime morally and ethically and not be overly concerned with other people’s impressions. Keep an inner scorecard: judge yourself by your own standards. This keeps you focused when you have many people giving you advice.
  2. Best investment is investing in yourself
    Quoting from an ABC interview:

    • Generally speaking, investing in yourself is the best thing you can do. Anything that improves your own talents; nobody can tax it or take it away from you.  They can run up huge deficits and the dollar can become worth far less.  You can have all kinds of things happen.  But if you’ve got talent yourself, and you’ve maximized your talent, you’ve got a tremendous asset that can return ten-fold.
  3. Focus is the most important ingredient for lasting success. 
    When Warren Buffett first met with Bill Gates at a dinner, someone asked “What factor did people feel was the most important in getting to where they`d gotten in life” (sic), both Buffett and Gates answered: “focus”
  4. Perspective: 98th floor is way better than the 2nd!
    “If you go from the first floor to the 100th floor of a building and then go back to the 98th, you’ll feel worse than if you’ve just gone from the first to the second, you know. But you’ve got to fight that feeling, because you’re still on the 98th floor.” — Buffett

  5. On Careers: Do what you love, and get on the right train.
    “There are generally two recommendations I offer to college and business school graduates.

    1. The most important thing about where you work is that you admire/love it.
    2. Get o­n the right train; that is, moving in the right direction. There’s no course in business school called “Getting o­n the Right Train”, but it’s really important. You can be an average passenger but if you get o­n the right train it will carry you a long way. You want to learn from experience, but you want to learn from other people’s experience when you can.”
Finally, in Buffett’s own words…
“Life is like a snowball, all you need is wet snow and a really long hill.”

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.

Michael Useem on Leadership Lessons from Capt. Sullenberger

He had just taken off on Airbus A320 from New York, when his plane was hit by a flock of birds. Captain Sullenberger reported a “double strike”. Both engines had been hit in mid-air, and anything could happen. With a composure bordering limits of human objectivity, he landed the aircraft safely in the middle of the Hudson river. Not a single passenger was injured.

US Airways Flight 1549 afloat in the Hudson

US Airways Flight 1549 afloat in the Hudson


Prof. Michael Useem is the Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. In his recent column for the Washington Post, Prof. Useem has identifies key leadership insights from Captain Sullenberger’s actions. Let me share them here:

1. We should first develop technical mastery of our main goal.

2. We should then be masters of our self-discipline. Ignore distractions, focus on what matters.

3. Master making good and timely decisions.

In learning about those five minutes and the entire life that prepared him for those minutes, we may be that much better prepared for those future moments when our own leadership is on the line. Thank you Captain Sullenberger.

Often in life we come across circumstances that test us to the core. We are also occasionally witness to others being tested. Those moments can become snapshots of everlasting lessons. Have you learned any such lesson(s) in similar ways? Feel free to share..

P.S. — Prof. Useem is also the Editor of the Wharton Leadership Digest. I had the good fortune of interacting with him when I wrote an article for the Digest last year.