Category Archives: Non-fiction

Inspired by non-fiction

The Art of Possibility

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander describes twelve practices. As so often I was fascinated and inspired by the first half of the book. While most of the practices weren’t completely new to me, the build-up to them and the angle from which they are introduced made me feel excited about trying them.

I don’t think the practices in the second half of the book are less valuable. Maybe I was too impatient. Maybe I should have paused my reading of the book to let the meaning of it and the ideas in it sink in. Or maybe the practices that are discussed in the first half happened to have been closer aligned to the challenges that interest me most right now.

The chemistry between Ros and Ben is clear, even in the writing. The completely different angles from which they approach life and this book lift each other up. The back and forths are highly enjoyable and I wish I could have a conversation with the two of them. Their writing is joyous and inspirational. I hope they are as happy together as they seem to be.

The most important rule described in the book is rule number 6.
I’ll share the story that introduces rule number 6 in full.
Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology. When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?” “Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so seriously.”‘ “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” “There aren’t any.”

This might be a silly story but I know a lot of people who could benefit from rule number 6, myself included. The jobs most of us do didn’t exist a hundred years ago. We made them up fairly recently. Hunters and gatherers didn’t have “operations leads” (my job). And yet none of our ancestors ever wished they had or were an operations lead. Just this little fact should be a reason for me to smile at the silliness of it all when I get overwhelmed by the (amount of) work that I feel I have to do.

I tend to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not just in work, but in life too. To worry about everyone’s well-being. An especially daunting task these days. I tend to be very hard on myself when I feel I’m not doing a good enough job, when I’m not a kind enough person, when I don’t give everyone the attention that I feel they deserve, when I don’t go running enough, when I skip abs, snack too much, or go to bed too late.

It’s impossible to always be happy and patient and full of energy. The more you feel like you have to be all of these things all of the time, the quicker you’ll drain your energy and feel the opposite. Wouldn’t it be nice to treat life as a game a bit more? I’m saying this and immediately my mind goes to how seriously many of us even take games today. You have to fear for your safety if you support the wrong sports club at the wrong moment in the wrong place, which is ridiculous if you think about it. But let’s be optimistic for a bit.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m learning to play the piano. I’m not talented but I love it and I’m stubborn. Every time I sit down behind the piano it’s an opportunity for expression and growth. I can learn something new and get better. If I mess up I start over and try again.
We do the same when we’re playing a sport. When hitting a hundred balls on a tennis court some will be beautiful and others will end up at the bottom of the net. But each ball is an opportunity to try again and get better.
How much more fun would life be if we could look at it and ourselves like this? If we could allow ourselves to try things and be ok if they don’t work out. We try, we fall, and we try again. We hopefully learned something. No need to pull ourselves down.
Because if we never fail or mess up, we’re almost certainly playing it safe and that means we’re not growing.

I’m practicing to take life as it is, not as I think it should be. When I’m out for a run in the pouring rain – again – I can get frustrated and grumpy. That’s the easy response in that moment. And I can tell you, it’s tempting. But I can also accept the rain. Be grateful that I’m running. Laugh at my feet soaking in my shoes. Laugh at myself for insisting to go for a run despite the dreadful weather.
If I start from what is without fleeing, blaming, or attempting to correct it gives so much space and peace of mind. It saves buckets of energy and allows the sky to open up, at least metaphorically.

If you could use a nudge towards acceptance and positivity I highly recommend checking out The Art of Possibility. You’ll get to spend some quality time with Ros and Ben in the process.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

I’m writing about a book about writing.
I read about writing regularly because I’m always looking to learn something. In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg takes the magic out of writing. He breaks down the art of writing into manageable chunks, better known as sentences. He assures us that we don’t have to effortlessly churn out large amounts of text to qualify as a good writer. Even good writers should write one sentence at a time. Many people assume that creativity and precision are at odds with one another. That there is a conflict between scrutinizing and revising your writing and allowing your writing to be interesting and original.
This is total nonsense. Even the most creative story is much easier and more pleasant to read if it’s written using strong and well-built sentences.

Klinkenborg warns against paragraphs that effortlessly flow out of your head straight onto the paper or screen. A paragraph like that probably contains one or more sentences that are cliché or redundant. It might sound tedious to write one sentence at a time, but to my surprise, I find it liberating. The task of writing one sentence doesn’t feel overwhelming. I can start writing without knowing what the result will look like.
I write a sentence. Then read it back in context. Then I think about ways to improve it. Klinkenborg also advises reading out loud. Reading out loud allows you to understand the rhythm -or lack thereof- in a text. If something sounds funny it needs reworking until there’s a flow.

Once you know how to write, the next question is at least as important. What to write about? The answer is as simple as it is challenging: Anything that interests you.
Unfortunately, we have been taught to ignore what interests us. We assume that others have already determined what’s interesting and worth noticing. We don’t ask questions because we don’t want to be seen as difficult. When I’m having a conversation, reading a book, or listening to a webinar, questions might pop-up in my mind, triggered by what I’m hearing or reading. Most of the time I’m not even fully aware of these questions. I don’t consider asking them. Sometimes I realize the missed opportunity later but just as often it doesn’t register at all.

I do notice things but I ignore them. I shelf them away immediately. My noticing is passive. I subconsciously assume that anything I notice will have been noticed by everyone else too. That the world has been completely pre-noticed, sifted, and sorted by everyone else, by people with real authority.
This is why it’s so hard to come up with topics to write about. Topics that are original are probably not worth exploring. Otherwise, someone more knowledgeable would have done so. Topics that others have written about are done and dusted. Who am I to assume that my opinion is worth expressing when more qualified people have already expressed theirs?

We need to learn to notice our thoughts and be patient in the presence of them. Don’t dismiss them. Pay attention to the ideas that interest us. Interrogate them. Do more research to broaden or deepen them. Take our time to discover and think.
Readers are like us. They will be interested in things that we find interesting. We need to muster up the courage and the audacity to guide them on the journey through our ideas. One sentence at a time.

The Only Plane in the Sky – An Oral History of 9/11

The Only Plane in the Sky is a compilation of stories about the attacks on September 11, 2001. There are stories from firefighters who fought fires at the World Trade Center in New York on that day. Over the next few days, they searched for survivors. Finally, for many weeks or even months, they searched for bodies. There are stories from spouses of the people who fought the hijackers onboard American Airlines flight 93. And from the airline employee who checked them all in earlier that day. Some people from the press corps traveling with President Bush that day share their experiences. And there are stories from kids as young as 5 years old. They all talk about how they remember that September 11 and how it has influenced their lives since.
The author, or rather the compiler of the book, is Garrett M. Graff.

I was 21. I remember where I was. I had my own company and I was designing and building a web application. I was at my colleague’s (and friend’s) house. I was on my own. I don’t remember what triggered me to turn on the TV. When I saw the fire burning in Tower 2, I thought a terrible accident had happened. I saw the second plane fly into Tower 1. I was confused. Were they showing a film on CNN? I could not believe that someone would intentionally fly a plane into a building. They flew three planes into three buildings before the day was over. It would have been four if it wasn’t for the brave people on American Airlines flight 93.

The facts about the attacks have been well documented. The FBI, the CIA, and several other organizations across the world have investigated the attacks and the attackers. If you are interested in the details there is a lot of material out there that you can read. There won’t be many people alive today who haven’t heard of Al Qaeda. Or of Osama Bin Laden. A lot of people know that after a long manhunt, Bin Laden was finally killed in 2011. The United States Army had been trying to find him for 10 years. The intricate tunnel complex that Al Qaeda created in Afghanistan did its job of protecting the organization and hiding its people very well.

On September 11, 2001 2977 people were killed. Among them 343 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers. Parts of the New York fire department were decimated overnight and had to be rebuild from the ground up.
All these numbers are a testament to the viciousness of the attacks and the devastation that they caused. Yet it’s highly unlikely that you will be crying because of what you’ve just read. Numbers don’t trigger emotional reactions. They are too factual and sterile. What happened that day can’t be described by numbers. To get a sense of the real impact of the tragedy we need stories. And that’s where this book comes in.

The Only Plane in the Sky tells the story of the day as it was experienced by many different people. I listened to the audiobook, which is performed by a cast of 45 people. It made the stories come to life in an incredible way. Most of the narratives are taken from interviews and people’s memories, but there is also some original audio. The speech that President Bush gave and some of the 911 calls for instance.

The audiobook is 16 hours long and I was crying or on the verge of crying throughout most of those 16 hours. Some of the stories triggered my memories but a lot of them show what happened that day from a point of view that I had never considered.
It’s a remarkable and incredibly emotional book. If you think you can stomach it I highly recommend it. This book does a much better job of getting the horror of that day across than all the facts and figures will ever be able to do.

The Four Agreements

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading The Four Agreements but I could not have chosen a better time to read this book. I had had a work-related conversation the week before that had thrown me off balance. I generally don’t have high highs or low lows and I like it that way. I’m not a fan of drama. In any form. I like symmetry and stability. You might call me boring and that’s ok.

The Four Agreements is based on the tradition of the Toltec, a people who were called “men and women of knowledge”. There is quite a bit of talk about god and the spiritual or the divine in the book but in my humble opinion, the main concepts of The Four Agreements don’t need any spirituality. They are powerful concepts in and of themselves. I felt peaceful and happy while reading this book. I wish I could hold on to that feeling but I’ve read enough great books to know that the high from a book doesn’t last. Just like any high really, which is why people get addicted while striving to hold on to that fleeting feeling. Luckily books are a relatively harmless addiction. I generally don’t read books multiple times but I might read this one just once more (spoken like a true addict).

Let’s move on to the book’s contents. As little kids, we were uninhibited. Growing up we learned how we should behave to fit into our society and our styles got cramped. We learned to care about what other people think about us and to be afraid of other people’s judgment. Every judgment expressed to us got engrained deep within our brains. Especially the ones made by the people we love most. A friend of mine made a not very positive comment about me trying to learn to play the piano. It took him about 10 seconds to comment. But it impacted my confidence and enjoyment for more than 2 weeks.

We don’t just suffer judgment and comments. We also judge and comment ourselves. We might feel that a comment is benign. We might mean well. Or perhaps we are angry and we are trying to be mean and hurtful. We don’t realize that our comments can impact the life of our target for years or even decades.

The way we treat and judge ourselves is even worse. We feel guilty, stupid, and unworthy of love and acceptance from ourselves, let alone from others. The lower your self-esteem, the more you will accept that others treat you badly. After all, you’re not worth the kindness of others now are you?
We want to be accepted and to be loved by others, but we cannot accept and love ourselves. We have created an image in our minds of what it means to be perfect and we reject ourselves because we can’t live up to that ideal.
What we think about ourselves is important. Henry Ford expressed it very well when he said “whether you think you can or you can’t, either way, you’re right.

The four agreements can help us to reclaim some of our freedom and feel less self-conscious. The agreements are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personal
  3. Don’t make assumptions
  4. Do the best you can

Being impeccable with your word means not using words against yourself or others. If you say nice things to someone they will feel good and they will likely say nice things to you and to the next person they interact with. If you say bad things to someone they are likely going to say unfriendly things to you. Both positivity and negativity spread like anthrax. Or coronavirus. Use this understanding to spread kindness and positivity. After all, your opinion about someone is just that, your opinion. There are very few people who are objectively good or bad.

Whatever someone says about you (whether in your face or behind your back) is a reflection of how they are feeling. People saying how great you are or how stupid you are says something about how they are looking at the world and themselves. It has nothing to do with you. Don’t take it personal.
This is very hard as our own life revolves around us and we assume other people’s lives also revolve around us. Because of this projection, we are constantly on an emotional rollercoaster that gets set off by what people say to us. To not take things personally you need to constantly moderate your reaction.

The third agreement is “don’t make assumptions” and also requires you to moderate your knee-jerk reactions. No one said this would be easy! We tend to make assumptions about everything.
The most famous statement about assumptions is “assumptions are the mother of all fuck-ups” and there is a lot of truth in this. We make assumptions about what other people are doing or thinking or understanding. Then we assume (again) that our assumptions are the truth. How often do you feel someone is judging you? Let me tell you a secret: most people are way too busy with themselves to be thinking about judging you. Often they don’t even notice you.
Assumptions also cause a lot of problems in business situations. We assume that we know what the client wants or needs. Instead of asking questions, we draw our own conclusions. Often to find out at the end of a project that our assumptions weren’t aligned with the expectations of the client. Don’t make assumptions. Have an open mind and ask questions.

The first three agreements are all challenging to put into practice. That makes the fourth agreement very important. Just do your best. Don’t judge yourself when you slip up. You’re not a robot and you don’t want to be. You can’t do more than your best.
There’s also another side to this agreement. If you are doing something because you have to, it immediately feels like hard work. Whereas if you try to do something as well as you can do it then it becomes more fun. If you force yourself to exercise because you have to and you’re counting down the minutes until you can stop you will dread the exercise. If you just do your best and perhaps try to do a little bit more than you did yesterday you might even (gasp) start to enjoy the challenge.

If you are even a teeny tiny bit inspired by the way I have described the agreements in this post I highly encourage you to read The Four Agreements yourself. I promise that Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills explain them in a way that is a lot (really a lot) more inspiring and moving. I might join you and read it again.

Atomic habits – Discipline is taking that break

When I started reading Atomic Habits by James Clear I thought it couldn’t possibly contain a lot of new information. The concept overlaps with so many other books that I was sure most of the book would be repetition and I mostly read it to tick it off my list. What I underestimated is how useful the repetition of good ideas is and how much I needed to reframe and adjust my habits to being at home most of the time.

Behavior becomes a habit when you do it consistently. It often seems easier to create bad habits than it is to create good habits. The main reason for this is that bad habits often have an immediate reward attached to them, while with good habits the reward is delayed. If you’re a smoker, having a cigarette relieves stress and a craving immediately. If you’re a runner the endorphins take a while to kick in.
Your habits should be aligned with the way you want to live and the person you want to be. A smoker, a runner, a reader, or a cheater. Your habits are often how people describe you and how you might describe yourself.

I started working from home full-time around mid-March. At first, I mostly noticed the positives. I became more productive because I didn’t have to commute and because there were no distractions. The structure and consistency of the days and the lack of work-related dinners and events in the evening meant that it was much easier to manage my irritable bowel syndrome. As spring had just begun and the weather was acknowledging that fact, it was lovely to be outside and I took daily lunch walks.

At some point during or just before the summer, work started to pile up again. And even my introvert, structure loving brain was getting bored with what felt like an endless repetition of the same day. I started to skip my lunch walks to get more work done. I felt like I was being disciplined by focusing on my todo list, but my motivation and productivity were starting to falter.
When I started reading Atomic Habits I realized that it required more discipline and would be more sensible to take regular breaks. It turns out that taking regular breaks without an external trigger is surprisingly hard.

The book gave some clues. Habits that stick are obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. My number one job was to find a way to make taking breaks more obvious.
When I had a few days off I decided that I would use part of my time hanging around the house not-working to come up with something to motivate myself to take more regular breaks while working from home. I’m pleased to report that mulling over a concrete problem in your mind while lying on the sofa can lead to tangible results.
I came up with a surprisingly low-tech “solution”.

  • I bought 12 small cards with fun pictures on them
  • On all of the cards, I wrote one activity that can be completed in about 10 minutes. Examples are:
    • Take a walk
    • Make a smoothie
    • Do a 7-minute workout
    • Stretch
    • Do laundry (it might surprise you to hear that this is the easiest one to step away from the screen for)
  • I stuck a small piece of string with 5 tiny pegs on it to the lamp behind my screen, right in front of me
  • The cards are laid out next to me each morning and the idea is that at the end of the day, I have at least 4 cards hanging on the string, representing 4 ten minute breaks

Most days I have 2 or 3 cards up at the end of the day. Having the cards lying next to me provides a very helpful reminder, but it still requires discipline to get up and take the break. Discipline requires energy and energy is often in short supplies when I most need a break. I have some more work to do to make taking regular breaks a habit and I suspect it will always require some discipline as continuing work will always be the most obvious and easy. A break is more satisfying once you are taking the break and after you’ve taken it. As with a lot of good habits, the gratification is delayed. And worth it so I’ll keep working on it.