Euthymia: The Right Path


[I had to cut this from an ebook recently, but wanted to keep it around. The section has been stripped down for context.]

“What you desire, to be undisturbed, is a great thing, nay, the greatest thing of all, and one which raises a man almost to the level of a god. The Greeks call this calm steadiness of mind euthymia … What we are seeking, then, is how the mind may always pursue a steady, unruffled course, may be pleased with itself, and look with pleasure upon its surroundings, and experience no interruption of this joy, but abide in a peaceful condition without being ever either elated or depressed: this will be ‘peace of mind.’” – Seneca

Seneca provides us a long list of symptoms of those without euthymia:

” … those who suffer from fickleness and continual changes of purpose, who always are fondest of what they have given up, and those who merely yawn and dawdle: add to these those who, like bad sleepers, turn from side to side, and settle themselves first in one manner and then in another, until at last they find rest through sheer weariness: in forming the habits of their lives they often end by adopting some to which they are not kept by any dislike of change, but in the practice of which old age, which is slow to alter, has caught them living: add also those who are by no means fickle, yet who must thank their dullness, not their consistency for being so, and who go on living not in the way they wish, but in the way they have begun to live.”

When we live only by hope and fail to show our strength we fall into these patterns. This isn’t strength to dominate but to stay the course when proper, and to change routes when we need to.

The only way we can possibly avoid living our lives based on fleeting popular tastes is to respect our experience, and the only way to do that is to pay attention to it.

We don’t need to watch a TV show or read a book or keep up with a blog just because others do. More importantly, we don’t need to marry the one others think is perfect for us or do the kind of work others think we should do.

If you’re feeling lost, following another’s prescription for your life will not lead you to a sense of euthymia. It only temporarily relieves the pressure of finding your own path.

Quick Look: Makers and Takers

makers and takers cover

Rana Foroohar’s Makers and Takers is the story of how  the financial sector has defined the rest of our economy.

“Finance holds a disproportionate amount of power in sheer economic terms. (It represents about 7 percent of our economy but takes around 25 percent of all corporate profits, while creating only 4 percent of all jobs.)”

That’s pretty wild. The financial sector hasn’t just taken a disproportionate amount of money and power, it’s influenced how many other businesses are run. Foroohar writes that, “Wall Street’s values and culture have been so fully imbibed by business leaders that the Street’s idea about what’s good for the economy has come to be the conventional wisdom within business, and even society at large. To that point, much of the corrosive effect of Wall Street on corporate America can be measured not in terms of raw malfeasance but in the new dominance of short-term thinking. The culture of finance looks for growth now, starting this morning, in time to show results for the next quarterly profit filings.”


It is beneficial for all of us to understand the forces affecting the organizations we spend our lives working within. This on seems to be just about universal:

“Davis likens financialization to a “Copernican revolution” in which business has reoriented its orbit around the financial sector. … Wall Street’s own labor practices, characterized by volatility and insecurity, have become status quo for the rest of the country.”

Foroohar spends much of the book looking at how we got to here and what “here” means, finishing with some ideas on how to make things better.

Quick Book Review: Born For This

Chris Guillebeau‘s new book, Born for This, is like a compilation/synthesis of all the blog posts written about new careers in the last five years.

born for this


It’s for those feeling confused about what a career should look like in the current environment. There’s a lot more experimenting and making our own way than there used to be.

Guillebeau covers everything from thinking about risk to choosing your next career move to building a side hustle. He doesn’t blindly say that everyone should be an entrepreneur, but give employees ways in which they might be more entrepreneurial.

The book is more about flexibility than sticking to a plan, something that’s more important now than ever. He talks about creating opportunities and then limiting them, creating an audience, making money online, and staying sane with flux.

Overall it’s a great overview of a navigating an odd career landscape that more and more people are facing.


Short Review: How to Have A Good Day

how to have a good day

How to Have A Good Day is the first compilation of all the behavioral economic stuff floating around in best-sellers from the last 10 years that is action-focused.

I’m using this book to replace Google when looking for ideas to improve in all the areas that it covers. It’s just easier to get to quality suggestions.

If you’ve read much about behavioral economics or psychology this may not be an interesting read, but it will be a useful research. What’s new here are the focused suggestions for actions to take.

It’s easy to use the book as a reference when you’re trying to target different areas in your life. Here are the areas covered (each a chapter):

  • Priorities
  • Productivity
  • Relationships
  • Thinking
  • Influence
  • Resilience
  • Energy

The formatting of the book makes the suggested exercises obvious. For instance, here’s the summary for Making Wise Decisions (a subchapter of Thinking):

Next time you have a choice to make, whether big or small:

  • Notice when your automatic system is talking. “It’s obviously right [or obviously wrong].” “I recently heard XYZ…therefore…” “Everyone agrees.” “I understand it–so I like it!” “Let’s just stick with what we know.” “There’s only one real option.”
  • Adopt a cross-check routine. Try each of these cross-check questions, and decide to make at least one of them part of your personal routine:
    • Don’t default: “What would be another option, and what do its advantages tell me?”
    • Play devil’s advocate: “What would be another way of seeing this?”
    • Mandate dissent: “If you had to raise a concern, what would you say?”
    • Never say never: “Is it always/never/absolutely the case?”
    • Conduct a pre-mortem: “If this goes horribly wrong, what will have caused that?”
  • Watch out for system fatigue. If you feel impatient, distracted, or clumsy, give your deliberate system a mindful pause. Shift your focus to more routine tasks. Take extra cross-checking steps to compensate for your automatic system’s shortcuts.
  • Resolve dilemmas with greater ease. Ask “What could I do?” rather than “What should I do?”

There are highlighted suggestions throughout the book that you can easily find. For example, in the “Keeping a Cool Head” section it highlights a couple of questions that are helpful for focusing on what really matters:

  • What matters most right now?
  • What do I really want to have happen here?

Simple, but that’s kind of the point. Quality suggestions without the crap that Google will serve you up. It’s a great reference to have on your shelf.

A Short Book Review: The Time Chamber

the time chamber cover

I had no idea coloring books for adults was a thing. My younger hipper sister says it’s awesome and everybody is coloring again. Sounds good to me.

I got her The Time Chamber for Christmas and started looking through it.

And it’s just as awesome as she said it would. The images and designs look like a lot of fun to scribble on while zoning out.

It’s fascinating to see how our need for non-digital interactions with the world is showing up. These coloring books are one of the less Crossfit-y or EDM-y ways, and I’m into it.

A Short Book Review: Under Pressure

under pressure cover

This book has a specific goal: help you get rid of the negative effects of pressure.

I didn’t end up caring much about pressure after this book, though. It was the first book that truly convinced me to be an optimist since my fall into pessimism a few years ago.

The book is broken into thirds:

Part One shows exactly how detrimental pressure is in our lives. The authors dispel cultural myths about “clutch” players and pressure actually increasing performance. Pressure (with important differences from stress) never increases performance. These athletes and executives that seem to perform better under pressure are actually just better at mitigating the negative effects of pressure and performing at their natural abilities.

Part One was interesting at points but ultimately boring.

Part Two provides 22 specific ways for you to relieve pressure in certain situations. You’ve already heard of many of these ideas (focus on the present, listen to music, squeeze a ball, visualize success) but they are all solid reminders. This reads mostly as an extended blog post.

Part Two is worth making a list of to refer to at pressure moments, but felt like a waste when I wasn’t skimming.

Part Three is where it’s at. Honestly, you could do well by just reading this last section. They outline their strategy for dealing with pressure long-term and it just so happens to be the best four-pillar strategy I’ve come across for dealing with life in general as well.

They prescribe a “COTE” of armor. That is: Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiasm. At first glance, this is offensively basic. The authors make important distinctions and use data to get into each of these at a level of nuance I haven’t seen before.

Like I said at the beginning of this, no book has persuaded me of the benefits of optimism until I read this. Same with confidence. They don’t use these words in the same way that others do. Optimism and confidence to not have to equate to stupid and brutish.

If you’re already a confident optimist excited to never quit then this book isn’t for you.

If you are, like me, someone who has avoided these qualities out of over-thinking and a need to be “correct”… then I’d recommend you pick this up and at least skim the relevant section.

Quick Book Review: Better Than Before

better than before

We’ll start where Mrs. Gretchen Rubin concludes:

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

-William James, Psychology: Briefer Course

It’s quotes like this that make the book worth reading. Rubin is obviously well-read and that itself makes this different than any other habit book out there.

I have a problem with these types of books in general. If you want to change a habit, there is only one way to go about it: stop doing the thing you don’t want to be doing and start doing the thing you want to do.

Of course it’s not that simple. Rubin introduces a simple framework and many stories that help us to think better about habits. For instance, she separates us all out into four categories:

  • Upholders have no problem doing whatever they say they’ll do for no reason other than they’d said they do it.
  • Questioners need to have a solid reason to do something, otherwise they have no problem breaking off commitments.
  • Obligers find gumption easily when they’re doing something for other people, not so much for themselves.
  • Rebels always have to feel like they have freedom, otherwise they just react against the “cage.” (Or something.)

I kept wanting to put the book down, then she’d grab me with some story or, more often, with her quotes. Here are some of my favorites:

Andy Warhol said, “Either once only, or every day. If you do something once it’s exciting, and if you do it every day it’s exciting. But if you do it, say, twice or just almost every day, it’s not good any more.” Gertrude Stein made a related point: “Anything one does every day is important and imposing.”

“Habits gradually change the face of one’s life as time changes one’s physical face; & one does not know it.” – Virginia Woolf

As architect Christopher Alexander described it: “If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.”

“It is well to yield up a pleasure, when a pain goes with it.” – Publilius Syrus

“It is much easier to extinguish a first desire than to satisfy all of those that follow it.” – La Rochefoucauld

“The sacrifice of pleasures is of course itself a pleasure.” – Muriel Spark

“There is a myth, sometimes widespread, that a person need do only inner work… that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself… The fact is, a person is so formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.” -Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

“The infancies of all things are feeble and weak. We must keep our eyes open at their beginnings; you cannot find the danger then because it is too small: once it has grown, you cannot find the cure.” – Montaigne

And on and on with things that make you think: shoot, it really IS worth it to create a habit…

At the end of the day, that’s probably all we need.



Short Book Review: Trying Not to Try

Trying Not to Try made all the disconnected reading of eastern philosophy I’ve ever done make sense.

Edward Slingerland traces the history of eastern thought as it attempted in four different ways to help people achieve wu-wei. This created a historical frame for all my previous studies of the stuff. Before this book it was just a jumble of flowery contradictions vaguely pointing to a state of peaceful immersion.

The book is an absolute masterpiece and I have about 40% of it highlighted. The margins are full of connections I was able to make to things as seemingly disconnected as creating engaging communities and profitability.

It somehow remains a fun, easy read as it twists and turns through some of the most subtle ideas out there. Which makes sense for a celebration of wu-wei.

Slingerland explains evolutionarily why we care so much about reaching this state and how it can give us de, a powerful magnetic force. Something like gravitas.

I’ll let Slingerland explain these, I know I haven’t done them justice:

Wu-wei literally translates to “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in we-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind.

I’m sold, of course. But it gets better…

People who have wu-wei have de, typically translated as “virtue,” “power,” or “charismatic power.” De is radiance that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-weiDe comes in handy in a variety of ways. For rulers and others involved in political life, de has a powerful, seemingly magical effect on those around them, allowing them to spread political order in an instantaneous fashion. They don’t have to issue threats or offer rewards, because people simply want to obey them. On a smaller scale, de allows a person to engage in one-on-one interactions in a perfectly efficacious way. If you have de, people like you, trust you, and are replaced around you. Even wild animals leave you alone. The payoff provided by de is one of the reasons that wu-wei is so desirable, and why early Chinese thinkers spent so much time figuring out how to get it.

Of course, we spend a good portion trying to figure out how to get into wu-wei and achieve de.

No definite answer is ever reached. And that’s the point.

But there is no book that will better guide you toward wu-wei. 



Book: Remote

Remote is great if:

  1. You’ve never worked remotely.
  2. You really want to convince your boss to let you work remotely.

As someone who has worked in libraries and cafes for most of my working life, this all seems kind of obvious to me, and that’s really their point.

One funny piece of trivia: since 2013 when Remote was written, 37Signals closed down all of it’s businesses besides Basecamp. One of these businesses was WeWorkRemotely.

Some of most insightful pieces of advice:

  • Use separate tech devices work for play. They suggest “teching down” for play. This would be something like an iPad.
  • Don’t get cabin fever. Working remotely doesn’t mean being a hermit, so go do social thing.
  • If you’re not feeling motivated, it might be the work’s fault. From the book: “Most people suffering from a lack of motivation will blame themselves first. “Ah, it’s because I’m such a procrastinator!” “Why can’t I just get myself together?” The truth, more often than not, is that you are not the problem; it’s the world you’re working in.”

Overall the book is basic (you can read it in a couple of hours) and may be worth looking at for people making the transition to work.

Narrative Collapse

[This is a kind of summary of the first section of the great book Present Shock.]

America has, until recently, had an extremely strong narrative core. There has always been something great on the horizon.

Just as Mormonism continued the ancient story of the Bible into the American present, technologies, from rocket ships to computer chips, would carry the story of America’s manifest destiny into the future. The American Dream, varied though it may have been, was almost universally depending on the same greater shape, the same kind of story to carry us along. We were sustained economically, politically, and even spiritually, by stories.”

As time speeds up these stories are swapped out quicker and quicker. At this point it’s difficult for any story to last longer than it takes to read a headline or record a snap.

Terrence McKenna talked about time spiraling tighter and tighter. The spiral has reached the point where narratives breakdown. Not the “present” experienced by someone meditating, but the “present” you experience every time you are forced to react to a situation without taking any time to think about it.

Alvin Toffler was motivated to write his seminal essay “The Future as a Way of Life,” in which he coined the term “future shock”:

We can anticipate volcanic dislocations, twists and reversals, not merely in our social structure, but also in our hierarchy of values and in the way individuals perceive and conceive reality. Such massive changes, coming with increasing velocity, will disorient, bewilder, and crush many people. … Even the most educated people today operate on the assumption that society is relatively static. At best they attempt to plan by making simple straight-line projects of present-day trends. The result is unreadiness to meet the future when it arrives. In short, future shock.

Narrative take us to the most tense moment possible, then, sometimes, offer a way out. Joseph Capmbell created the “Hero’s Journey” to help us understand this process. Storytellers keep our interest by creating tension and relieving it. We most rely on the storyteller when we are most tense. This is moment they can instill a moral in us—or a desire for their product.

The higher into tension we have gone, the more dependent we are on the storyteller for a way out. That’s why he can plug in whatever value, idea, or moral he chooses.

As things become more disorienting the more we long for a coherent narrative. The more desperate we are for a story to save us. This is when we are sold ideas that our rational selves would laugh at us for. Self-help gurus sweet in with a system (a story) to fix us. Religions come in and relieve our uncertainty with answers. Advertisers, too:

Or product. The technique reaches its height, of course, in any typical television commercial. In just thirty seconds (or twenty-eight second, then you account for the fades to and from video blackness), a character finds himself in a situation, makes choices that put him in danger, and then finds a solution in the form of a purchase.

Aristotle said that “When they storytelling in a culture goes bad the result is decadence.” Decadence 

To appreciate the humor of the [Mystery Science Theater 3000], viewers need to understand the media as a self-reflexive universe of references, any of which can be used to elucidate any other. Each joke is a demonstration of the media’s self-similarity. This is not a humor of random association but a comedy of connectivity where images and ideas from very disparate sources are revealed as somehow relevant to one another.

Everything is commentating on everything else. Check out this South Park clip to get an idea of what this means:

The linear progression of the film’s story is sacrificed to the more pressing need for a framework that mirrors the viewing experience.

Quentin Tarantino revealed in the chaos of the post-narrative world when he made Pulp Fiction:

Pulp Fiction delights in its ability to play with time, and in doing so shows us the benefits of succumbing to the chaos of a post narrative world. The object of the game is to avoid getting freaked out by the resulting gaps, juxtapositions, and discontinuity.”

The satisfaction of the Hero’s Journey is being replaced by a kind of “jam-session” style where there is no fixed endpoint, just a story that goes on and on…

“And like fantasy a role-playing game, [Game of Thrones] is not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible. There is plot—there are many plots—but there is no overarching story, no end. There are so many plots, in fact, that an ending tying everything up seems inconceivable, even beside the point. 

As Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, explained in an interview, it is no longer the writer’s job to “tell us how somebody felt about something, it is to tell us how the world works.” … Characters must learn how their universes work. Narrativity is replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns.

Rushkoff warns of the danger of reality television by likening it to Milgrim’s experiment. You’ve probably heard of it. He found that the majority of people will electrocute an innocent person to death if there is a person in a lab coat telling them to.

On a structural level—and maybe also an emotional one—reality TV mirrors much of this same dynamic. [That of Milgrim’s electric shock experiments on authority.] No, we’re not literally shocking people, but we are enjoying the humiliation and degradation of the participants, from the safe distance of an electronic medium. The question is not how much deadly voltage can we apply, but how shamefully low can we go? Besides, the producers bear the real brunt of responsibility—just as the men in lab coats did in the research experiments.

This lack of concern for others is shown in the premium on self-expression:

Freestyle sports, like skateboarding, snowboarding, rock climbing, and mountain biking, are more compatible with a world in which team loyalty and military victory have given way to self-expression and the thrill of the moment.

The nature of news has shifted radically as well.

Morning newspapers would have even more time [than television] to digest, format, and editorialize on the news of the preceding day, so that the public wouldn’t simply be confronted with the globe’s many catastrophes. We would be told what was being done about them or how they ended up, and those in charge were located and given a chance to reassure us. News editors also chose when to hold back a story altogether, for fear that its unresolved nature might worry us too greatly. Foreign dictators were not granted US airtime, for example, and scandals about politicians were held indefinitely or forever. Just as the New York Times promised us news that was “fit to print,” television news shows sought to promote the interests, welfare, and contentment of America by creating a coherent narrative through which we could understand and, hopefully, dismiss the news before going to bed. Thank you and good night.

This type of news makes it hard for anyone to have a temporally sane outlook. This creates new incentives for a lot of us. Bad incentives for people who need to think through problems–like politicians. 

This saturation with live, uncensored, and unconsidered images from around the world impacted public opinion profoundly and actually forced government leaders to make decisions more quickly. Officials at the Pentagon eventually dubbed this phenomenon “the CNN effect,” as then secretary of state James Baker explained, “The one thing it does, is to drive policymakers to have a policy position. I would have to articulate it very quickly. You are in real-time mode. You don’t have time to reflect.” Baker isn’t simply talking about needing to work and think faster; he’s expressing the need to behave in real time, without reflection. Policy, as such, is no longer measured against a larger plan or narrative; it is simply a response to changing circumstances on the ground, or on the tube.

As a result, what used to be called statecraft devolves into a constant struggle with crisis management. Leaders cannot get on top of issues, much less ahead of them, as they instead seek merely to respond to the emerging chaos in a way that makes them look authoritative.

So our politicians are making reactive decisions before having a chance to make a plan. This annihilation of narrative doesn’t just makes our politicians more reactive, it creates an underlying uncertainty for us as well.

Likewise, without long-term goals expressed for us as readily accessible stories, people lose the ability to respond to anything but terror. If we have no destination toward which we are progressing, then the only thing that motivates our movement is to get away from something threatening. We move from problem to problem, avoiding calamity as best we can, our worldview increasingly characterized by a sense of panic.

We try to cope by hanging on to older stories or to simplify reality into something that we can understand.

As Columbia University historian Mark Lilla has chronicled, the combination of amplified self-confidence and fear of elites is a dangerous one. In his view, the Tea Partiers “have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

What’s interesting is what looks to be replacing narrative: participation, present-moment story creation, and infinite games.

Finite games are those with fixed endings—winners and losers. Most every game from tennis to football works this way. Victory is the scarcity: there can be only one winner, so players compete for the win. Infinite games, on the other hand, are more about the play itself. They do not have a knowable beginning or ending, and players attempt to keep the game going simply for the sake of play. There are no boundaries and rules can change as the game continues. Case’s point is to promote the open-ended, abundant thinking of infinite games. Instead of competing against one another and aching for the finality of conclusion, we should be playing with one another in order to maximize the fun for all. Instead of yearning for victory and the death of finite games, we should be actively enjoying the present and trying to sustain the playability of the moment. It’s an approach that favors improvisation over fixed rules, internal sensibilities over imposed morals, and playfulness over seriousness.

Infinite games are not new, of course. D&D players have always appreciated playing for the sake of playing.

RPGs did not respect our notions of time boundaries. When was the game over? Who wrote the rules? How does a person win? If a game doesn’t teach winning, is it simply creating losers?

Dungeon Masters measured their reputations in terms of how long they could keep a game group together. They had one terrific advantage in this regard over regular storytellers: their audience actively participated in the creation of the story.

Narrative collapse has created a whole new type of necessity for—along with the possibility for—self-reliance and participation.

Instead of panicking at the death of the story, players become the story and delight in acting it out in real time. The people designing the game can still communicate values if they choose to; they simply need to do it by offering choices instead of making them in advance.

In retail, the equivalent would mean deemphasizing brand mythologies and focusing instead on what is called brand experience—the actual pathway the customer takes through the real or virtual shopping environment. It’s not about the story you tell your customer; it’s about the experience you give him—the choices, immersion, and sense of autonomy. (It also means accepting transparency as a new given, and social media as the new mass communications medium…)

Games point the way toward new ways of accomplishing what used to be done with stories. They may not be a cure-all, but they can successfully counteract some of the trauma we suffer when our stories come apart. Our disillusionment is offset by a new sense of participation and self-direction.

The promise of video games is that it’s indicative of a whole new way of thinking of things.

Computer gaming is valuable to us not just through its particular applications, but as the inkling of an approach to contending with present shock—in this case, the inability of stories to function as they used to. Without the beginnings and endings, nor the origins and goals offered by linear narratives, we must function instead in the moment. We must mourn the guiding stories we have lost, while also contending with new measures of control, freedom, and self-determination. Gaming is a great lens through which to see this process of maturation.

It’s about getting comfortable being the storytellers of our own lives.

Young people raised in this environment are among the first to take back what has been lost. Instead of finding new storytellers, they become the equivalent of storytellers themselves. Snowboarders score their own paths down a slope, while skateboarders reinterpret the urban landscape as an obstacle course. Like their peers in other pursuits, they are playing winnerless, infinite games. This growing improvisatory subculture of players also abandons the single-minded effort of political parties to win offices; they instead write their own set of behavioral normal for activism and economic justice. Instead of looking to TV and film to inform them about the world and its values, they turn to computers and games to choose their own adventures and find their own answers.

Which flashing screen we choose to answer often means less about who or what we want to engage with than who or what we want to be, ourselves, in that moment.