Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

By: Elizabeth Gilbert

Note: this is a book for people who love to create things, if that's not your jam, I suggest grabbing another book from the Bookshelf.
 

Big Magic is one of those books that brings artists closer to a vital understanding: that money, fame, and "success" are not the rewards we seek from the act of creating, but merely misguided patch-fixes to a deeper hole within ourselves.

The rewards of creating lie in the act of creation itself. Engaging in this process that we love (and often worship), is the reward. Anything else that stems from this wondrous act is "icing on the cake," and not the cake itself.

In many ways, Big Magic challenges our cultural consensus of a successful creative life. It helps us past feelings of doubt and inadequacy that stem from being a writer who hasn't hit a bestseller list, a painter who's art hangs in no galleries, or any sort of artist who supports themselves by other means. Big Magic helps, because it reminds us that those are crappy, external metrics that have nothing, at all, to do with why we chose to make art in the first place.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

Students told me he was the most extraordinary man they’d ever encountered. He had seemed not quite of this world, they said. He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged them to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.

Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small—far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
And no, this story does not end with her winning any championship medals. It doesn’t have to. In fact, this story does not end at all, because Susan is still figure skating several mornings a week—simply because skating is still the best way for her to unfold a certain beauty and transcendence within her life that she cannot seem to access in any other manner.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
The Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
The poet David Whyte calls this sense of creative entitlement “the arrogance of belonging,” and claims that it is an absolutely vital privilege to cultivate if you wish to interact more vividly with life.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).
— Elizabeth Gilbert
Instead, I simply vowed to the universe that I would write forever, regardless of the results. I promised that I would try to be brave about it, and grateful, and uncomplaining as I could possibly be. I also promised that I would never ask writing to take care of me financially, but that I would always take care of it—meaning that I would always support us both, by any means necessary. I did not ask any external rewards for my devotion; I just wanted to spend my life as near to writing as possible—forever close to that source of all my curiosity and contentment—and so I was willing to make whatever arrangements needed to be made in order to get by.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
Your creative work is not your baby; if anything, you are its baby. Everything I have ever written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way. I am who I am today precisely because of what I have made and what it has made me into.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
It makes me sad when I fail. It disappoints me. Disappointment can make me feel disgusted with myself, or surly towards others. By this point in my life, though, I’ve learned how to navigate my own disappointment without plummeting too far into death spirals of shame, rage, or inertia. That’s because, by this point in my life, I have come to understand what part of me is suffering when I fail: It’s just my ego.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires one thing: wonder. And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost—thereby saving me from the most dangerous aspect of myself.
— Elizabeth Gilbert

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Man and His Symbols

By: Carl G. Jung & Associates

Man and His Symbols is an in-depth introduction to the unconscious psyche. If, as in my case, your understanding of the unconscious extends only as far as the knowledge that you have one, this book might shift the very pillars of your reality.

It did mine.

A consequence of our faith in science and reason, many of us view the world through this overly objective lens, which has a way of removing meaning and mystery from life. This book provides an antidote to that overbearing objectivity, illustrating how the unconscious mind plays an essential roll in the formation of “reality” and opens up an entire realm of ourselves (that I didn't know I had, but obviously do) to explore and learn from.

I had to push myself through it's four-hundred pages, but the gain was unquestionably worthwhile: it opened up, if only a crack of communication, between my conscious and unconscious.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

The essence of Jung’s philosophy of life: man becomes whole, integrated, calm, fertile, and happy when (and only when) the process of individualization is complete, when the conscious and the unconscious have learned to live at peace and to complement one another.
— John Freeman
There is, however, a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give a meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe. He can withstand the most incredible hardships when he is convinced that they make sense; he is crushed when, on top of all his misfortunes, he has to admit he is taking part in a ‘tale told by an idiot.’

It is the role of religious symbols to give a meaning to the life of man. The Pueblo Indians believe that they are the sons of Father Sun, and this belief endows their life with a perspective (and a goal) that goes far beyond their limited existence. It gives them ample space for the unfolding of personality and permits them a full life as complete persons. Their plight is infinitely more satisfactory than that of a man in our own civilization who knows he is (and will remain) nothing more than an underdog with no inner meaning to his life.
— Carl G. Jung
Anthropologists have often described what happens to a primitive society when it’s spiritual values are exposed to the impact of modern civilization. Its people lose the meaning of their lives, their social organization disintegrates, and they themselves morally decay. We are now in the same condition. But we have never really understood what we have lost, for our spiritual leaders unfortunately were more interested in protecting their institutions than in understanding the mystery that symbols present.
— Carl G. Jung
It is exactly the same in the initial crisis in the life of an individual. One is seeking something that is impossible to find or about which nothing is known. In such moments all well-meant, sensible advice is completely useless—advice that urges one to be responsible, to take a holiday, not to work so hard (or to work harder), to have more (or less) human contact, or to take up a hobby. None of that helps, or a best only rarely. There is only one thing that seems to work; and that is to turn directly towards the approaching darkness without prejudice and totally naively, and try to find out what its secret aim is and what it wants from you.
— M.-L. von Franz
Somewhere, right at the bottom of one’s own being, one generally does know where one should go and what one should do. But there are times when the clown we call “I” behaves in such a distracting fashion that the inner voice cannot make its presence felt.
— M.-L. von Franz
Nowadays more and more people, especially those who live in large cities, suffer from a terrible emptiness and boredom, as if they are waiting for something that never arrives. Movies and television, spectator sports and political excitements may divert them for a while, but again and again, exhausted and disenchanted, they have to return to the wasteland of their own lives.

The only adventure that is still worthwhile for modern man lies in the inner realm of the unconscious psyche. With this idea vaguely in mind, many now turn to Yoga and Eastern practices. But these offer no new genuine adventure, for in them one only takes over what is already known to the Hindus or the Chinese without directly meeting one’s own inner life center. While it is true that Eastern methods serve to concentrate the mind and direct it inward (and that this procedure is in a sense similar to the introversion of an analytical treatment), there is a very important difference. Jung evolved a way of getting to one’s inner center and making contact with the living mystery of the unconscious, alone and unaided. That is utterly different from following a well-worn path.
— M.-L. von Franz
This resistant side is unable to free itself from statistical thinking and from extroverted rational prejudices. The dream, however, points out that in our time genuine liberation can only start with a psychological transformation. To what end does one liberate one’s country if afterward there is no meaningful goal of life—no goal for which it is worthwhile to be free? If man no longer finds any meaning in his life, it makes no difference whether he wastes away under a Communist or Capitalist regime. Only if he can use his freedom to create something meaningful is it relevant that he should be free. That is why finding an inner meaning of life is more important to the individual than anything else, and why the process of individualization must be given priority.
— M.-L. von Franz
Suppressed and wounded instincts are the dangers threatening civilized man; uninhibited drives are the dangers threatening civilized man. In both cases the “animal” is alienated from its true nature; and for both, the acceptance of the animal soul is the condition for wholeness and a fully lived life. Primitive man must tame the animal in himself and make it a helpful companion; civilized man must heal the animal in himself and make it his friend.
— Aniela Jaffe
The deeper layers of the psyche lose their individual uniqueness as they retreat farther and farther into darkness. ‘Lower down,’ that is to say, as they approach the autonomous functional systems, they become increasingly collective until they are universalized and extinguished in the body’s materiality, I.e, in chemical substances. The body’s carbon is simply carbon. Hence ‘at bottom’ the psyche is simply ‘world.’
— Carl G. Jung

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Yes, the title is gimmicky. But there's a reason there's 25 million copies of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in circulation—the book is clock-full of profound, actionable wisdom. Approaching from an academic angle, Stephen Covey focused his studies on success literature of the past 200 years, looking for parallels and common practices, and wrote this book about his discoveries.

Walden

Walden

Walden is the account of Thoreau's two-year experiment in simple living on Walden Pond. One could do no better in describing its intent than he: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Desert Solitaire

By: Edward Abbey

One doesn't read Desert Solitaire for the tales of Edward Abbey's experiences in the American Southwest (though riveting), but rather for the insights and ideas that stemmed from two years as a ranger in Arches National Park and his journeys throughout the harsh desert.

Among story, humor, and descriptive prose, veins of philosophy are often encountered and run deep throughout the book. If you seek profound wilderness experiences, enjoy questioning cultural assumptions, or share Abbey's rebellious distaste for the number-obsessed system, you'll relish in these pages the way I did.

I'm living just a mile outside of Yellowstone National Park as I write this and would love to hand copies out at the entrance gate to the millions of confused tourists trying to experience wilderness from the inside of car, gift shops, and camera of their phone.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of that goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something maybe. Probably not.
A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.
Unburdened by the necessity of devoting most of their lives to the production, distribution, sale and servicing of labor saving machinery, lacking proper recreational facilities, these primitive savages were free to do that which comes as naturally to men as making love...
What for? ‘In anticipation of future needs, in order to provide for the continued industrial and population growth of the Southwest.’ And in such an answer we see that it’s only the old numbers game again, the monomania of small and very simple minds in the grip of an obsession. They cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness, that Phoenix and Albuquerque are doubled again and again. They would never understand that an economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human.
Protest alone will not halt the iron glacier moving upon us.
If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss.
If man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernatural. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than enough to console him for the loss of ancient dreams.
Where all think alike there is little danger of innovation.
All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, said a wise man. If so, what happens to excellence when we eliminate the difficulty and the rarity.
In trying to isolate this peculiarity, if it exists at all and is not simply an illusion, we must beware of a danger well known to explorers of both micro—and the macrocosmic—that of confusing the thing observed with the mind of the observer, of constructing not a picture of external reality but simply a mirror of the thinker. Can this danger be avoided without falling into an opposite but related error, that of separating too deeply the observer and the thing observed, subject and object, and again falsifying our view of the world? There is no way out of these difficulties—you might as well try running Cataract Canyon without hitting a rock. Best to launch forth boldly, with or without life jackets, keep your matches dry, and prey for the best.

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What Makes Sammy Run?

By: Budd Schulberg

This is a novel about the dark side of ambition. The story of Sammy Glick, a kid with insatiable hunger for success which drives him to the top, but blinds him of everything good along the way, and in the end, leads to his ultimate downfall.

Raised in a culture where success and being #1 are so highly prized that we never consider the consequences of ambition, What Makes Sammy Run? was an eye-opening read. It's not all about the career, the money, or being on top—if you disagree with that statement, this is the book for you!

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

This was one of his most valuable gifts, for perspective doesn’t always pay. It can slow you down. I have sat in my office and said to myself, there are twelve million of your fellow Americans unemployed this morning. Who the hell are you? If that kept me from writing a line all morning it might mean I have perspective. Or thinking how the world was fifty million years ago and all the men who had their chance at living in it and what that had to do with the big payoff scene in Nick Turner – Boy Detective I was supposed to be turning in at five o’clock. That’s perspective too. Or just staring up at millions of stars at night until you become molecular. Perspective is a fine thing. It can make you very unhappy. I couldn’t imagine Sammy ever unhappy. Or happy either. I wondered what emotions he did have. Perhaps only a burning impatience to be further, further on.
The theater entrance was full of excitement that came mostly from women who were attracted to the leading man, and men resentful or regretful that they would never go to bed with anybody like the star, and unimportant people who idealized their envy into admiration and kids who wanted to have more autographs than anybody else in the world.
He was so grateful it was painful. He backed away like an awkward courtier, hoping he wasn’t being too much trouble and thanking me again.
I don’t really believe that liquor will cure all the ills in our society. But two or three healthy slugs often cure our curious inability to know each other. Unless we know people well, we sit around with our worlds and our minds starched, afraid of being ourselves for fear of wrinkling them.
Was Sammy ever down here with you?” She shook her head. “I pointed it out to him once. But he didn’t want to stop. No one ever taught him how to play.
What do you think Sammy is but a desperate, hungry little guy?” It was true. He was going around being desperate in a $150 tailor-made suit. He was hungrier than ever after five-dollar dinners at Marcel’s.
It would have been funnier if it hadn’t contained so much horror, the horror of a fetus called Sammy Glick sprinting out of his mother’s womb, turning life into a rat race in which the only rules are fight for the rail and elbow on the turns and the only finish line is death.
I saw Sammy Glick on a battlefield where every soldier was his own cause, his own army and his own flag, and realized that I had singled him out not because he had been born into the world any more selfish, ruthless and cruel than anybody else, even though he had become all three, but because in the midst of a war that was selfish, ruthless and cruel Sammy was proving himself the fittest, the fiercest and the fastest.
I tried to look innocent, but I knew he was beginning to suffer just as much about playing second fiddle to Fineman as he had about being a copy boy or only making five hundred dollars a week. Instead of sitting on the roof of the tenement with that terrible hunger to be out of the slums, he was up there on top of the Waldorf going crazy to get out of the B-picture field he was just about to enter.
I thought how, unconsciously, I had been waiting for justice suddenly to rise up and smite him in all it’s vengeance, secretly hoping to be around when Sammy got what was coming to him; only I had expected something conclusive and fatal and now I realized that what was coming to him was not a sudden payoff but a process, a disease he had caught in the epidemic that swept his birthplace like a plague; a cancer that slowly ate him away, the symptoms developing and intensifying: success, loneliness, fear. Fear of all the bright young men, the newer, the fresher Sammy Glicks that would spring up to harass him, to threaten him and finally overtake him.

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The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth is the transcript of a six-part interview series of Joseph Campbell from the late 1980's. I found Campbell's depth in mythology and understanding of the human experience utterly profound. From the implications of the same archetypal pattern followed by myths and religious texts from around the globe, to the road map through life of the hero's journey, to his focus on the inner life that we all too often neglect, this is a life-quaking book. I suspect Campbell had one of the best cross-cultural bird's-eye views of the 20th century and he shares it in plain, conversational English making it accessible to everyone.

Man's Search for Meaning

By: Viktor Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning is the most universally applicable, cross-culturally life altering book I've yet to encounter. I can't imagine anyone reading this book and not being moved by Frankl's incredible story surviving the Holocaust, the understanding gained in such atrocity, and his conclusion that meaning is the primary drive of our human existence. I've ran into a couple "books that most influenced your life" survey-results and this book never fails to be near the top.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.
If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load that is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.
The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day, from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be to the question posed to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’
To be sure , a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.
Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.
Consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn’t it the same with life?

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Shantaram

Shantaram

Shantaram is powerful, entrancing, and beautiful. At over 900 pages long, it's as thick as a dictionary, but the pages almost turned themselves—I read the book in a mere week. It's a work of fiction, as the characters and dialog were created by Roberts, but the unbelievable chain of events come directly from his life. From escaping maximum security prison to slum doctor to Indian gangster to fighting Russians in Pakistan, Roberts has lived one of the toughest, most fascinating of human lives. The story, the flow of prose, and the deep wells of philosophy put Shantaram near the top of the list of the best books I've ever read.

The Biology of Belief

By: Bruce H. Lipton

The Biology of Belief begins as an attempt to rewrite our understanding of evolution and ventures on into a range of what many might write off as "new age" or "hippy stuff," backing it with science. The most reality-quaking argument, though, is Lipton's attack on the idea that evolution is driven by random mutations. As a cellular biologist, he believes that cells receive information from the environment and over time, incorporate it into their DNA. It's a convincing argument, with fascinating implications.

Regardless of Lipton's main argument, there are many undisputed truths that are worth your consideration ranging from belief to meditation to the structure of our minds. This book has bent my reality in the best of ways and for that, I highly recommend it.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

Genes are physical memories of an organism’s learned experiences.
They needed to hear they were first-rate students in order to believe that they could perform as first-rate students. As I will detail in future chapters, so many of us are living limited lives not because we have to but because we think we have to.
Buried in exceptional cases are the roots of a more powerful understanding of the nature of life—“more powerful” because the principles behind these exceptions trump established truths.
The conscious mind’s capacity to override the subconscious mind’s programmed behaviors is the fountain of free will.
Once we accept the perceptions of others as “truths” their perceptions become hardwired in our own brains, becoming our “truths.” Here’s where the problem arises: what if our teachers’ perceptions are inaccurate? In such cases, our brains are then downloaded with misperceptions.
The fact is that the primary source controlling our life experiences is the subconscious mind, and we need to focus on reprogramming it rather than just shifting our conscious mind’s beliefs.
To an extent that immunologists and psychologists rarely appreciate, we are architects of our own experience. Your subjective experience carries more power than your objective situation.
— Steve Cole (Epigeneticist at UCLA School of Medicine)
We are born with the ability to swim... But children quickly acquire fear of the water from their parents—observe the response of parents when their unattended child ventures near a pool or other open water. Children learn from their parents that water is dangerous. Parents must later struggle to teach Johnny how to swim. Their first big effort is focused on overcoming the fear of water they instilled in earlier years.
I was intellectually aware of everything in this book, but, before I made the effort to change, this made no impact on my life. If you simply read this book and think that your life and your children’s lives will change, you’re doing the equivalent of accepting the latest pharmaceutical pill thinking it will “fix” everything. No one is fixed until they make the effort to change.
I had spent years studying molecular control mechanisms within the physical body and that astounding moment came to realize that the protein “switches” that control life are primarily turned on and off by signals from the environment... the Universe.

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Walden on Wheels

By: Ken Ilgunas

Walden on Wheels is the memoir of author Ken Ilgunas and his quest to find himself while vanquishing $32,000 of student debt. It's the quintessential story of the millennial generation—taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for college and graduating to find one's degree quiet useless. Yet, Ken manages to pay off his debt in three years while discovering himself and adventure through working a series of odd jobs in Alaska and throughout the United States.

He becomes a sort of modern day Thoreau—living with the bare essentials, questioning norms, and heading into the deeper waters underlying the actions and desires of the modern American. It's a story of personal growth, a societal critique, and perhaps the most inspirational story of unconventional living in print. I couldn't put the book down.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

This is what I came for, after all: an adrenaline overload, a blow, a shock to my system—some-thing that would charge every fiber of my body with screaming life; something that would scare the suburbs right out of me; something that would wake me right out of my slumber and make me bellow, once and for all, ‘Holy shit. This is real!’
As a country, we take out loans and go to school. We take out loans and buy a car. We take out loans and buy a home. It’s not always that we simply “want” these things. Rather, it’s often the case that we use our obligations as confirmations that “We’re doing something.” If we have things to pay for, we need a job. If we have a job, we need a car. If we have such things, we have a life, albeit an ordinary and monotonous life, but a life no less. If we have debt, we have a goal— we have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Debt narrows our options. It gives us a good reason to stick it out at a job, sink into sofas, and savor the comforts of the status quo. Debt is sought so we have a game to play, a battle to fight, a mythology to live out. It gives us a script to read, rules to abide by, instructions to follow. And when we see someone who doesn’t play by our rules— someone who’s spurned the comforts of hearth and home— we shift in our chairs and call him or her crazy. We feel a fury for the hobo and the hitchhiker, the hippie and gypsy, the vagrant and nomad— not because we have any reason to believe these people will do us any harm, but because they make us feel uncomfortable. They remind us of the inner longings we’ve squelched, the hero or heroine we’ve buried beneath a houseful of junk, the spirit we’ve exorcised out of ourselves so we could remain with our feet on the ground, stable and secure.
Some were stuck because they had debts of their own, because they needed health insurance, or because they needed the money to feed their kids. But it seemed they weren’t all bound by these external constraints. Most were just too scared to leave. They tolerated the daily drudgery of work because dealing with daily drudgery was easier than quitting and doing something truly scary; sailing into unknown waters in pursuit of a dream.
I’d once heard that we are nothing but our stories. Forget the blood and bones and genes and cells. They’re not what we are. We are, rather, our stories. We are an accumulation of experiences that we have fashioned into our own grand, sweeping narrative. We are the events and people and places to which we’ve assigned symbolic meaning. And it’s when we step outside our stories that we feel lost.
I knew from my Brooks Range mountain climbs that to get to the top of a mountain, you have to be half-insane. The climber must approach his goal with a zealotry that may be inappropriate for normal, mundane things but is essential for the grandiose.
If I’d learned anything these past couple of years, it was that a postponed dream was just a dream. If I didn’t do it now, I might never.
I felt a strange twinge of anger looking at the stars. It was as if I’d just learned of an inheritance that had been stolen from me. If it wasn’t for Alaska, I might have gone my whole life without knowing what a real sky was supposed to look like, which made me wonder: If I’d gone the first quarter of my life without seeing a real sky, what other sensations, what other glories, what other sights had the foul cloud of civilization hid from my view?
When I thought about my hitchhikes, the voyager trip, Duke—I was happy to have suffered; I was happy to have been miserable; I was happy to have been alone. And I knew I’d soon be happy to have been scared half to death by that bear. That’s because it was in these moments, when I was pushed to my limits, that I was afforded a glimpse of my true nature.
I learned such a glimpse cannot be gotten with half-hearted journeys and soft endeavors. Nor could I hope for such a glimpse merely by setting out to conquer some random geographic feature, like getting to the top of a mountain. Rather, I knew one must confront the very beasts and chasms that haunt our dreams, block our paths, and muffle the voice of the wild man howling in all of us, who calls for you to become you—the you who culture cannot shape, the you who is unalterable, uncivilizable, pure. You.
One does not become free simply by staying out of debt or living cheaply in a large, creepy vehicle; rather, we must first undergo a period of self-examination to see, for the first time, what nets have been holding us back all along.
Maybe there is no longer a frontier, but for me the frontier is a horizon as wide and endless as it was for the first pioneers. We have real villains who need vanquishing, corrupt institutions that need toppling, and the great American debtors prison to break out of. We have trains to hop, voyages to embark on, and rides to hitch. And then there’s the great American wild— vanishing but still there—ready to impart it’s wisdom from an Alaskan peak or patch of grass growing in a crack of a city sidewalk. And no matter how much sprawl and civilization overtake our wilds, we’ll always have the boundless wildlands in ourselves to explore.

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The 4-Hour Workweek

By: Tim Ferriss

The 4-Hour Workweek is an inspiring shake-up of the status quo. It's full of great ideas that add up to a lifestyle that allows for travel, unique experiences, and serious increases in your productivity. Initially, some might be put off by a bit of a gimmicky feel, but there is much lifestyle enlightenment inside: traveling can be cheaper than living at home, you can decouple time and money, your greatest fears aren't all that scary, the competition for greatness is less than that for mediocrity, productivity and busyness are unrelated. It's many brilliant ideas and concepts rolled into a single book.

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People don’t want to be millionaires—they want to experience what they believe only millions can buy.
I’ve chartered private planes over the Andes, enjoyed many of the best wines in the world in between world-class ski runs, and lived like a king, lounging by the infinity pool of a private villa. Here’s the little secret I rarely tell: It all cost less than rent in the United States.
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
— George Bernard Shaw
It’s lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most time and energy-consuming.
Effectiveness is doing the things that get you closer to your goals. Efficiency is performing a given task (whether important or not) in the most economical manner possible. Being efficient without regard to effectiveness is the default mode of the universe.
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
— Herbert Simon
Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.
— Thomas J. Watson
That’s precisely the question everyone should be asking—why the hell not?
The average man is a conformist, accepting miseries and disasters with the stoicism of a cow standing in the rain.
— Collin Wilson
To be free, to be happy and fruitful, can only be attained through sacrifice of many common but overestimated things.
— Robert Henri

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The War of Art

By: Steven Pressfield

The War of Art is the ultimate creative kick-in-the-ass. It's a potent source of inspiration and guide to destroying procrastination of the things we care about most. If you are aspiring towards art, writing, getting in shape, starting a business, or basically any other worthwhile endeavor: read it.

Steven Pressfield clearly illustrates our never ending battle with Resistance, which is the force that opposes us in doing any worthwhile action. Resistance is the inner enemy that wants us to take it easy, to put it off until tomorrow, to not stray from the pack. To beat Resistance and reach our potential, Pressfield explains that we must “turn pro” and treat our endeavors like we would any professional occupation. Every day, we must show up and put in hard, dedicated work towards our project without slackening our resolve. This is where creativity flourishes, dreams become reality, and as Pressfield puts it, “The Muse” is called upon for inspiration.

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As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.
The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.
Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Now consider the amateur: the aspiring painter, the wannabe playwright. How does he pursue his calling? One, he doesn’t show up every day. Two, he doesn’t show up no matter what. Three, he doesn’t stay on the job all day. He is not committed over the long haul; the stakes for him are illusory and fake. He does not get money. And he overidentifies with his art. He does not have a sense of humor about failure. You don’t hear him bitching, “This fucking trilogy is killing me!” Instead, he doesn’t write his trilogy at all.
He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep those huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull into Nome.
The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is not such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.
He reminds himself it’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
— William H. Murray
What happens in that instant when we learn we may soon die, Tom Laughlin contends, is that the seat of our consciousness shifts. It moves from the Ego to the Self.
The world is entirely new, viewed from the Self. At once we discern what’s really important. Superficial concerns fall away, replaced by a deeper, more profoundly-grounded perspective.
The artist is the servant of that intention, those angels, that Muse. The enemy of the artist is the small-time Ego, which begets Resistance, which is the dragon that guards the gold. That’s why an artist must be a warrior and, like all warriors, artists over time acquire modesty and humility. They may, some of them, conduct themselves flamboyantly in public. But alone with the work they are chaste and humble. They know they are not the source of the creations they bring into being. They only facilitate. They carry. They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.

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The Alchemist

By: Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is the story of a young shepherd who follows his "Personal Legend." After reading Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, I've realized that it's just a simple, artfully told version of the hero's journey, but few books illustrate the steps and pitfalls of the hero's journey with the wistful clarity that Paulo Coelho does. If you have a dream, a "Personal Legend," or anything else you want to call such innate ambitions, this book will bring you to tears and serve as a straightforward guide on your quest to fulfill it.

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The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. ‘When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going to spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.’ ‘He should have decided to become a shepherd,’ the boy said. ‘Well, he thought about that,’ the old man said. ‘But bakers are more important people than shepherds. Bakers have homes, while shepherds sleep out in the open. Parents would rather see their children marry bakers than shepherds.’ The boy felt a pang in his heart, thinking about the merchant’s daughter. There was surely a baker in her town. The old man continued, ‘In the long run, what people think about shepherds and bakers becomes more important for them than their own Personal Legends.’
‘If you want to learn about your own treasure, you’ll have to give me one-tenth of your flock.’
’What about one-tenth of my treasure?’
The old man looked disappointed. ‘If you start out by promising what you don’t even have yet, you’ll lose the desire to work towards getting it.’
But the sheep had taught him something even more important: that there was a universal language in the world that everyone understood, a language the boy had used throughout the time that he was trying to improve things at the shop. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.
He still had some doubts about the decision he had made. But he was able to understand one thing: making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really driving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.
But all this happened for one basic reason: no matter how many detours and adjustments it made, the caravan moved toward the same compass point. Once obstacles were overcome, it returned to its course, sighting on a star that indicated the location of the oasis. When the people saw that star shining in the morning sky, they knew they were on the right course toward water, palm trees, shelter, and other people. It was only the Englishman who was unaware of all this; he was, for the most part, immersed in reading his books.
‘Once you get into the desert there’s no going back,’ said the camel driver. ‘And once you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward.’
‘Because my eyes are not yet accustomed to the desert.’ the boy said. ‘I can see things that eyes habituated to the desert might see.’
‘They were looking only for gold,’ his companion answered. ‘They were seeking the treasure of their personal legend without wanting actually to live out the personal legend.’
Usually the threat of death makes people a lot more aware of their lives.
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

By: Robert M. Pirsig

I was held spellbound grappling along with Pirsig's on this philosophical odyssey. It starts out a bit slow, with more plot, including motorcycle touring and the logic upon which motorcycles are built. As you continue on, though, you spend more and more time inside of the main character's head and a story of inquiry into our society's values, why we think the way we do, and what quality actually means unfolds. It's dense, but Pirsig does a remarkable job carrying us through some of the deepest philosophical inquiry we may ever find ourselves in.

I thought about tattooing the word “Areté” on myself for months after finishing the book.

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And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.
It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past.
We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.
To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as “the system” is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guy” who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.
He didn’t think of this as a career for his own personal advancement. He was very young and it was a kind of noble idealistic goal.
The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper or lover. The daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.
What is most astonishing about them is that almost everything he said years later is contained in them. It’s frustrating to see how completely unaware he is at the time of the significance of what he is saying. It’s like seeing someone handling, one by one, all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle whose solution you know, and you want to tell him, “Look, this fits here, and this fits here,” but you can’t tell him. And so he wanders blindly along one trail after another gathering one piece after another and wondering what to do with them, and you grit your teeth when he goes off on a false trail and are relieved when he comes back again, even though he is discouraged himself. “Don’t worry,” you want to tell him. “Keep going!”
Mountains like these and travelers in the mountains and events that happen to them here are found not only in Zen literature but in the tales of every major religion. This allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make. Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships. Some travel into the mountains accompanied by experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous routes by which they arrive at their destination. Still others, inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own routes. Few of these are successful, but occasionally some, by sheer will and luck and grace, do make it. Once there they become more aware than any of the others that there’s no single or fixed number of routes. There are as many routes as there are individual souls.
To discover a metaphysical relationship of Quality and the Buddha at some mountaintop of personal experience is very spectacular. And very unimportant. If that were all this Chautauqua was about I should be dismissed. What’s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them... The task now is to get back down to that procession with a wider kind of understanding than exists there now.
Now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth...but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.
For him Quality is better seen up at the timberline than here obscured by smoky windows and oceans of words, and he sees that what he is talking about can never really be accepted here because to see it one has to be free from social authority and this is an institution of social authority. Quality for sheep is what the shepherd says. And if you take a sheep and put it up at the timberline at night when the wind is roaring, that sheep will be panicked half to death and will call and call until the shepherd comes, or comes the wolf.

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How Proust Can Change Your Life

By: Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life is a distillation of wisdom drawing from famed novelist Marcel Proust's life and monumental three thousand page novel, In Search of Lost Time. It's so damn insightful, illuminates the quality to be found in everyday life, and emerges as a sort of witty self-improvement book through the examination of Proust.

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I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it–our life–hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.
But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.
— Marcel Proust
It is not the contented or the glowing who have left many of the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive. It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of , and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable.
But an advantage of more prolonged encounters with Proust or Homer is that worlds that had seemed threateningly alien reveal themselves to be essentially much like our own, expanding the range of places in which we feel at home.
The more an account is compressed, the more it seems that it deserves no more space than it has been allocated.
I know there are young people… whose teachers have instilled in them a nobility of mind and moral refinement from the very beginning of their schooldays. They perhaps have nothing to retract when they look back upon their lives; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.
— Marcel Proust
It is perhaps only normal if we remain ignorant when things are blissful. When a car is working well, what incentive is there to learn of its complex internal functioning.
The problem with cliches is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones.
Deprivation quickly drives us into a process of appreciation, which is not to say that we have to be deprived in order to appreciate things, but rather that we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t.
Which suggests that having something physically present sets up far from ideal circumstances in which to notice it. Presence may in fact be the very element that encourages us to ignore or neglect it, because we feel we have done all the work simply in securing visual contact.
The worth of sights is dependent more on the quality of one’s vision than on the object viewed...

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Meditations

By: Marcus Aurelius

This might be the first self-improvement book ever written. A great Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, wrote it for himself nearly 2,000 years ago. Meditations is literally a collection Marcus Aurelius's personal notes and thoughts on how to live life. It's written in simple yet extraordinarily powerful bits, one concept at a time, making it easy to digest.

The book caused an empowering shift in my values and a stronger mental fortitude in me against the effects of things beyond myself and my control. It puts our existence into perspective. He discusses using the thought of death to one's advantage, the irrelevance of the past and future, and the logical handling of emotion in ways a summary of which can do no justice. Essentially, Meditations is dozens of profound concepts, ideas, and strategies, learned over a lifetime of philosophy and leading Rome, rolled into one easily digestible, profoundly useful collection.

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Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.
Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces - to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it - and makes it burn still higher.
‘If you seek tranquillity, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.
Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impeding to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and need a comrade to pull you up? So what?
To learn to ask of all actions, ‘Why are they doing that?’ Starting with your own.
That you don’t know for sure that it is a mistake. A lot of things are means to some other end.
Practice even what seems impossible. The left hand is useless at almost everything, for lack of practice. But it guides the reins better than the right. From practice.

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