On my way to reading 1,000 books before I turn 30, this was number 387.
I take notes on everything I read, with my notes organized by book and by year. I also have a single word document containing my most important notes from each book, and I use these to raise money for Doctors Without Borders, the international human rights and disaster relief organization.
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If you think about something all day every day, then you just have to write about it. That’s how I feel about books and literature, so here are some of my notes and thoughts on the book, “Smarter Faster Better”, by Charles Duhigg. All quotes below are either from my notes, or from the book itself, unless otherwise indicated. Enjoy!
“The future is several possible futures fighting against each other until one of them actually wins.”
From Amazon: At the core of Smarter Faster Better are eight key productivity concepts—from motivation and goal setting to focus and decision making—that explain why some people and companies get so much done. Drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics—as well as the experiences of CEOs, educational reformers, four-star generals, FBI agents, airplane pilots, and Broadway songwriters—this painstakingly researched book explains that the most productive people, companies, and organizations don’t merely act differently.
They view the world, and their choices, in profoundly different ways.
A young woman drops out of a PhD program and starts playing poker. By training herself to envision contradictory futures, she learns to anticipate her opponents’ missteps—and becomes one of the most successful players in the world.
A group of data scientists at Google embark on a four-year study of how the best teams function, and find that how a group interacts is more important than who is in the group—a principle, it turns out, that also helps explain why Saturday Night Live became a hit.
The filmmakers behind Disney’s Frozen are nearly out of time and on the brink of catastrophe—until they shake up their team in just the right way, spurring a creative breakthrough that leads to one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
What do these people have in common?
They know that productivity relies on making certain choices. The way we frame our daily decisions; the big ambitions we embrace and the easy goals we ignore; the cultures we establish as leaders to drive innovation; the way we interact with data: These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.
WHERE MOTIVATION COMES FROM
Motivation is driven by the feeling of having control. It’s basically just Stoic wisdom in a modern form, in that, when you realize that you are acting out of your own free choice, you are going to see that you “you chose this”. This choice of activity becomes yours, and you are no longer a slave.
Confirmed by my own experiences, you will get a spike in motivation when you utilize your own sense of agency, and begin to make more decisions for yourself. You will develop what’s called an ‘internal locus of control’ which will make you feel more powerful and in control over the events in your own life.
When you find a source of motivation that works for you, you can keep on going back to it for years and years. You may have heard me tell the story of when I was living in India, working on behalf of Human Rights Watch, and the teenage kid I drove by one day who was literally starving to death on the street.
He continues to be a major source of motivation for me, even years later, when I look back and remember my feelings from that moment. I remember feeling like my privileges were an embarrassment in a world where we allow this sort of thing to happen. I remember feeling like I couldn’t do anything to help him, but I could center my entire life around helping others LIKE HIM.
To this day, what I do is all connecting to my larger goals and inspirations. Whenever my motivation is lacking on a specific day, I can go back and realize that “I CHOSE THIS”, and then get back to business as usual.
It was my decision to build a life like this, and then suddenly, I feel my motivation returning to me.
THE CRITICAL IMPORTANCE OF MENTAL MODELS
By mental models, Duhigg just means what we expect to see in a given situation. In the context of sports, it’s almost like a visual representation of what perfection execution will look like and feel like.
Personally, I know what a perfect punch is supposed to look like. And I know how it feels when I throw one. I have a mental model of the perfect punch, and I’m able to realize instinctively when I’m landing anything LESS than a perfect punch. I know when my technique is off, and when I have to make an adjustment.
TIP: You’re cheering for yourself, right? Or do you engage in negative self-talk? Praise hard work and working on things that are hard rather than praising innate abilities and things that are easy to do. Praise yourself for stepping up, not for doing what comes easily to you.
My advice (and Duhigg’s) is to always have a representation mentally of what you expect a perfect situation to look like, or a situation in which all is well, and then look for deviations. Look for things contrary to the mental model that you have set up in your head. Then you can make adjustments as you go along.
What’s also important is to build mental models that put you firmly in charge. It all goes back to that internal locus of control that we discussed above.
You need to be in control of your mental model, and you need to be in a position to fix it when it breaks down. This is just as critically important as having a mental model in the first place, and each feeds into the other.
CREATIVITY AND THE ADJACENT POSSIBLE
Creativity is a process and it’s open to all of us. It’s not something that you either “have” or “don’t have”, and it can be deliberately cultivated. You just have to follow a few precepts that have been tried and tested.
This is amazing news to those of us who used to believe that creativity was innate, and that we simply weren’t capable of the kinds of breakthroughs that so inspired and uplifted us with their originality and brilliance.
TIP:Information will stick better when more effort is put forth in the input stage, such as when you write things out by hand rather than just reading prepared tables and charts. Personally, taking notes on what I read helps me retain the information more easily because I actually put in the effort to manipulate what I’m learning.
First off, you always want to introduce minor disruptions in your life and work. Creativity comes from a multiplicity of ideas all smashing into each other and creating something new. Think of new ideas and concepts as disruptions, and seek to gather as many of them as you possibly can. That’s why I read at least a hundred books every single year. Those are all new ideas that I introduce to my own mind that are then going to smash into each other and create something new.
Steven Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From” also refers to something called the ‘adjacent possible’. Think of it like a room with three doors. Beyond one of those doors is another room, containing 2 more doors, and then through one of THOSE doors, is another room containing an ADDITIONAL 5 doors. All of those rooms beyond the first one are rooms (ideas) that you never could have reached had you not entered the first door.
TIP: Decide in advance where you will start a task, how good it has to be, how long you will work on it, etc. That way, it’s easier to grasp mentally what you’re trying to accomplish, and you won’t let an unfocused mind steal away your precious time.
In the above example, the room is an idea and a door is a disruption, or a bridge leading to the next big idea. However, you want to introduce a minor disruption instead of no disruption or an extreme disruption. No disruption means no new idea, and a major disruption could spell the end. Simply put, lifting weights is a limited disruption that will lead to new muscle growth, while an injury is an extreme disruption that will have you sidelined and not working out at all.
It’s important to maintain distance from what we create so we can entertain alternate viewpoints. And in fact, the fear and uncertainty that your ideas aren’t coalescing properly are the preconditions for creativity. You need to be dissatisfied and you need to introduce disruptions and create more uncertainty. In the end, creativity is about taking what you’re thinking and feeling and paying close attention to those things.
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Motivation and creativity are both just problems to be solved. They have been solved by others in various ways and at different times, and we can learn from their answers. That’s a lot of what Charles Duhigg is doing with this book.
TIP: Motivation is triggered by having a sense of being in control and the idea of a specific task being a part of your larger objectives. Realize that you are in control, and that you have chosen this particular task because it fits in with the larger picture of where you want your life to go.
There’s a lot of storytelling because it’s one of the best ways to get information across, I feel. It’s one thing to just be told to read more until you introduce enough new concepts to be able to form new ideas, and quite another to read about alternate rooms, and ideas smashing into each other, and books being like puzzle pieces that bring all of life into focus.
Again, life is just a series of problems waiting to be solved. Our lives are an experiment into what works and what doesn’t.
We’ve been making decisions for our entire lives, and that means that we have the data from all those experiments to draw upon when we face similar choices in the present.
What we need to do is cultivate a sense of comfort with doubt and to train ourselves to tolerate uncertainty within decision making. We aren’t supposed to have all the answers at the outset, and that would actually take a lot of the fun out of it. Problem-solving is supposed to be fun, and our lives are supposed to be experiments in adventure.
And ultimately, we choose our own adventure. Epic motivation comes from being in control and realizing that we are choosing what to do in every moment. We are completely totally free, and you have to live a life that is true to that idea. If you’re not doing that, then obviously you’re going to be unmotivated, undisciplined, and won’t be able to get yourself to do anything.
As Epictetus says: “No man is free who is not master of himself.”
All the best,
“Smarter Better Faster”, by Charles Duhigg: Complement it with “Peak” by K. Anders Ericsson, Self-Discipline and the Clock Counting Down to My Death, Being Comfortable Is Actually Killing Your Spirit, and The Greatest Books of All Time.
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Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, nightclub bouncer, and hardcore reader. He writes about books, self-discipline, and human rights at Godlike Discipline, and you can get his free ebook on how to radically improve your own levels of self-discipline. Between workouts, Matt is trying to read 1,000 books before he turns 30, and start a non-profit that allows volunteers to earn money just by tracking the hours they already spend volunteering. He would be straight-up honored if you would support the life-saving work of Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch.