I publish a newsletter called Friday Finds every week. This page is a compilation of the best links I’ve ever shared.
You’ll notice it’s not like other link-based newsletters, which focus on news and the dramas of the day. Instead, I aim to only share links you won’t find elsewhere. It’s a break from the rest of the news-obsessed Internet, where you can focus on interestingness over utility, importance over urgency, and the timeless over the timely.
Enter your email below, and I’ll see you on Friday.
Business & Tech
Business Writing with Brie Wolfson: How does remote work change the way companies get things done? Remote work leads to writing-centric companies instead of speaking-centric ones. Companies like Amazon and Stripe have already built writing-heavy cultures. As Patio11 once said: “Stripe is a celebration of the written word which happens to be incorporated in the state of Delaware.” With that in mind, I asked Brie Wolfson (who worked at Stripe for ~5 years and led the creation of Stripe Press) to speak to my Write of Passage students about how organizations can create a culture of writing. Out of our conversations, she produced this stellar guide.
Why Jeff Bezos Dropped Physics: No matter how talented you are, your lack of genius in a particular area is often obvious. Jeff Bezos wanted to be a theoretical physicist. But one night, while studying quantum mechanics, he realized his brain wasn’t wired to process highly abstract concepts. Upon learning that he wasn’t smart enough to be a physicist, he switched to computer science. He tells the story in this short and hilarious YouTube video.
Own the Demand: This piece has been tattooed in my brain ever since I discovered it. With the rise of the Internet, power in the economy shifted from people who controlled supply to people who owned demand. That’s why Bill Gurley, perhaps the most successful marketplace investor of all-time, once wrote: “A lesson I have learned many times in my 20 years as a marketplace investor is that aggregating demand is the one & only key.” The lesson is simple: Have a direct relationship with your customers. If somebody gets between you and your customer, your margins will fall as customer acquisition costs rise. One statistic stands out: Google pays ~$9 billion per year to Apple to be iOS’ default search engine.
Dan Wang’s Annual Letters: If you want to learn about China, this is your guy. Every year, Dan writes an Annual Letter where he reflects on his on-the-ground observations from China. He’s unique because he’s lived in each of China’s main mega-regions. Most of his observations center around the intersection of culture and technology, but they stretch from classical music to industrial policy to how political decisions shape public opinion. Here are his letters from 2021, 2020, and 2019.
Sumner Redstone: Wealth and success are cool, but not if you turn out like this. Redstone built a chain of successful movie theaters early in his career. At 56, he was almost burned alive in a fire. Out of his miraculous survival, he ramped up his ambitions and, after a hostile takeover, became the Chairman of Viacom. But his relentless lust for power fractured his family relationships. He’s gone to court against his brother, son, nephew, wife, and granddaughter.
CIA Field Sabotage Manual: In 1944, the CIA released a guide on how to sabotage an organization, and I can’t shake the feeling that we’re voluntarily implementing these tactics today. They sound exactly like what happens in a corporate meeting: (1) insist on doing everything through channels, (2) haggle over people’s wordings, and (3) advocate “caution.”
The Idea Maze: This article from Balaji Srinivasan is a roadmap for entrepreneurs who want to turn an idea into a profitable business. It orbits around a concept called “The Idea Maze.” Great entrepreneurs don’t just have an idea. They have a bird’s eye view of the landscape. They’ve thought through various paths they can take their company and have an answer not just for why they’re choosing a specific path but also why they’ve rejected the alternatives. If you want to build a company, this article is for you.
How Instant Messenger Shapes Thinking: The most meta interview you’ll ever read because it’s an interview about instant messenger which takes place on instant messenger. The best part of the interview centered around writing as a technology for thinking, as opposed to speech. When we’re talking, we hop from thought to thought. But writing asks us to freeze our thoughts, which is why it’s such an effective way to improve your thinking. The lesson is simple: Writing is useful precisely because it’s difficult.
Trader Joe’s: A primer on my favorite supermarket, which sells more food per square foot than any other grocery store. They don’t just have customers. They have fans. Visiting the store is a little bit like thrift shopping because you always find something unexpected. It seems like every other week somebody swells with pride as they recommend some new Trader Joe’s product to me. It’s far more curated than other grocery stores too. Where typical grocery stores carry ~35,000 SKUs (stock-keeping units), Trader Joe’s only has ~3,000. Roughly 80% of those products have the Trader Joe’s name on the label too. Unlike other grocery stores, there are employees everywhere, no social media, no self-checkout lines, no customer loyalty programs, and no online ordering.
Vibe Capitalism: The original vision of Silicon Valley tech was that we could be so efficient that we could level up and nurture our humanity. But in truth, since efficiency has no end, we knocked the soul out of the Internet. As investor Geoff Lewis explains in this 20-minute talk: “Somewhere along the way to global domination, many of us in tech traded in the goal of the good life for an efficient life without even realizing it.”
Buffett’s Reading Obsession: Many people look at the way Warren Buffett reads 500 pages a day and try to do the same. The problem is that the things that made him successful on the way up aren’t the things that keep him successful now that he’s made it. This article goes into the things that made Buffett successful on the way up. He obsessed over the biographies of people he admired, interrogated executives to understand the mechanics of business, and hosted friends for a bi-annual conference in what eventually became known as “The Buffett Group.”
Urbit: What if we could rebuild our computing infrastructure from scratch? What if a platform could guarantee privacy, allow people to customize their computing stack, and incentivize a computing environment where our emotions aren’t so manipulated? Though the vision is grand, the project is still in its early stages. And though it’s little more than a chat forum right now, this project has incredible energy around it — like Bitcoin in 2011. I recommend two introductions: this formal one and this informal one.To learn about the project’s philosophical underpinnings, I recommend this essay about digital communities and this one about Christopher Alexander’s influence.
The Theory of Constraints: When I started working with Tiago Forte, I learned how the Theory of Constraints shows up all over the place. For instance, my first introduction came through this excellent multi-part series about bottlenecks and supply chains. It’s essentially a summary of The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt (I recommend the audiobook). The theory provides an entry point to productivity, from personal tasks to global supply chains. To see how The Theory of Constraints is practically relevant, I recommend this Twitter thread about the Long Beach port and all the container ships camping out nearby. The idea that “you should always choose the most capital intensive part of the line to be your bottleneck” demands a deep think.
Eugene Wei: To the extent that my work consists of betting on smart people, I’m happy to have been the first person to host a podcast interview with Eugene. He was one of the first people on Amazon’s finance team and led product at Hulu and video for Oculus at Facebook. He’s far more right-brained than the kinds of people I usually meet in Silicon Valley. For a short introduction to his thinking, I recommend this interview ,which builds upon his film background and love for movies. For something more in depth, I recommend Selfies as a Second Language or his three-part essay series about TikTok’s success.
How Narratives Drive Prices: The public markets increasingly resemble private ones in the way that revenue multiples continue to spread. Founders who can articulate their company’s vision and persuade the public markets that they have a bright future have cheap access to capital. Elon Musk and Tesla is the perfect example. The author writes: “Thus Tesla’s PE ratio is in many ways self-fulfilling. If Tesla could get people to extend the access to capital it needs for long enough, it will be successful. If it could not, then it would have collapsed. Ironically, this means that far from Elon’s antics being distracting, his ability to maintain these high PE ratios might be the most important driver of the company’s ability to succeed.” The better a company can tell its narrative, the cheaper it can access capital and the higher its price-to-earnings ratio can become.
Remystifying Supply Chains: Everybody’s life is shaped by supply chains, but few people understand them. Supply chains aren’t some distant phenomenon either. We live inside of them. They shape every aspect of our lives, from the computer you’re reading this on to the clothes you’re wearing. Here, Venkatesh Rao shows us how we should upgrade the analogies we use to think about supply chains. For a more practical look at supply chains, I also recommend a book summary called The Epic Story of Container Shipping.
An Introduction to Thomas Sowell: An excellent introduction of Sowell’s work by Coleman Hughes. If you don’t know Sowell, he’s a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. This essay tells the story of his life from growing up without electricity or hot water in North Carolina, to moving to Harlem in 1939, to receiving his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago.
Supporting Ambition: Receiving an Emergent Ventures grant was one of the most important moments of my career. Though it wasn’t a huge sum of cash, it was a giant stamp of approval that injected me with confidence. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason who runs the program, effectively said: “I love what you’re doing and I believe in you so much that I’m going to give you a stamp of approval.” Trivial as it may seem, it was game-changing for me. It made me believe in myself, and I used that grant money to fund the first Write of Passage cohort. This essay argues that we don’t have nearly enough grants like Emergent Ventures or the Thiel Fellowship, and I strongly agree. Way too many talented young people are stuck in a prestige chase that traps them in trivial jobs. We need more people to take big risks and pursue their most ambitious ideas.
China’s Sputnik Moment: One of my favorite writers, Dan Wang, wrote about how the Chinese economy is changing. Its government has cracked down on consumer Internet companies and online education firms. Officials are turning their attention to controlling certain “chokepoint technologies.” Wang explains that the fallout from recent U.S trade restrictions unified the private sector’s profit motive with the Chinese government’s push for geopolitical power.
How to be an Effective Executive: One of the best articles I’ve ever read about management. A few principles stand out: (1) Make decisions by knowledge rather than position as much as possible and at as low of a level as possible, and (2) Your output is how much your team gets done + how much neighboring teams get done divided by how many people are on your team. Only add someone if they bring up the ratio of output to people. Since all the ideas in this piece come from the venture capitalist Keith Rabois, they’re geared towards venture-backed companies in hyper-growth mode.
Interview with Patrick Collison: Of all the Silicon Valley CEOs, Patrick is the one I admire most. This interview is a whirlwind through his interests: biology, online business, technological progress, aviation, funding scientific research, energy, and culture. I don’t remember the last time I learned about so many new ideas in one sitting. Such a fun read.
Leaked Technology Emails: One of my friends made an astute observation on Twitter: “The only business writing worth reading are leaked emails. Writing that was never meant to be a product is always closer to the truth.” Amen, brother. With that in mind, I’ve been enjoying this Twitter account of leaked technology emails (there’s a Substack too). For starters, I liked Steve Jobs’ executive team meeting agenda from 2007 and this email he sent to the CEO of Adobe in 2005.
Process Knowledge: The author Dan Wang is one of those essayists who continually inspires me to level up my craft. He’s one of the most learned people I know. One time, he spent an hour breaking down the structure of Chinese politics for me and some friends. It was so well done that if it had been public, it would have been a viral YouTube video. Anyways, this essay laments the decline of America’s manufacturing base. Specifically, through the lens of process knowledge which he defines as earned experience that can’t be written down. Beyond that, he paints a vision for Silicon Valley as a place where people give hardware manufacturing the respect it deserves.
The Story of TikTok: A conversation with two of the savviest product analysts I know: Eugene Wei and Kevin Kwok. Both are previous podcast guests and Eugene has written three long-form essays about TikTok (this is my favorite one). If you’re interested in online creativity, Silicon Valley-style product building, and how social media is transforming, you’ll enjoy this 90-minute conversation.
Vitalik Buterin: Vitalik is the founder of Ethereum and in my opinion, one of the smartest people alive today. In this Annual Review, he talks about the changing role of economics in a digital world. The traditional models of economics don’t apply in the virtual world, where copying is cheap, few things are “consumable,” and goods are non-rivalrous. I also recommend his interviews with Tyler Cowen and Eric Weinstein. If his ideas catch your attention, I also recommend the articles on his website.
Amazon Logistics: A tour through Amazon’s mind-bogglingly complex logistics system. My favorite part was seeing how the incentives of Amazon, as compared to UPS and FedEx, influence their flight routes.
Things to Hang on Your Mental Mug Tree: When I study business, I look for authors who are also practitioners because their theories are filtered through the lens of experience. Rory Sutherland tops the list. I interviewed him last year and summarized his ideas in an article too. I discovered his work in this top-notch interview, which is an excellent introduction to his ideas.
A Legendary Interview: The YouTube algorithm usually does an outstanding job of recommending conversations with brilliant people in the public eye. But every now and then, there’s a glitch in the system. This conversation with Mark Zuckerberg, Patrick Collison, and Tyler Cowen deserves more than 8,000 views. Thanks to Blake Robbins for the pointer.
How McDonald’s Really Makes Money: The first YouTube comment summarizes this video better than I ever could: “Burger is their side business, charging rent is their cash cow.” In fact, with $39 billion in assets, McDonald’s is the 5th largest real estate company in the world.
Working Backwards: I’ve long been obsessed with Amazon’s business operations practices, and besides this essay from Zack Kanter, this book is the best thing I’ve seen written about them. The two authors worked directly with Bezos, so the book is filled with one-liners like this: “Good intentions don’t work. Mechanisms do.” Long-term, you can’t solve problems by working more or trying harder. If you want persistent change, you have to fix the underlying system.
The Master Switch: As Hollywood continues to lose influence, I want to explore the history of it so I can make sense of where the culture industry is going. The Master Switch is my favorite book on this subject, and it’s time for a re-read. The writing is dry but the ideas are excellent. The thesis is that information industries are defined by a cycle between periods of closed and open, centralization and decentralization. But it’s really a series of histories about information technologies like radio, television, and the movie industry. Here’s a YouTube video the author gave about the book.
Debt: You know me: I‘m always looking for radically independent thinkers who can shake my worldview. This week’s nominee is David Graeber. I bring him up today because my closest childhood friend, Zander Nethercutt just wrote an essay about his seminal book: Debt. Start there. Then, if Zander’s piece moves you to learn more about the book, I recommend this summary from Alex Danco or this one from a blog called Understanding Society.
PliimPRO: This app lets you safely share your screen. With a single click, you can hide desktop icons, pause notifications, and clean your computer. Then, after you’re done presenting, you can unclick the button and return to your computer as normal.
Tech Subpoenaed PDFs: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google testified in front of Congress and were forced to share some fascinating presentations, emails, and chat logs. They have been deleted on official channels, but somebody graciously saved the PDFs before they were taken down. They’re a rare but fascinating look into how these firms think about competition and acquisitions.
Building Products at Stripe: I’ve long been fascinated by Stripe. From the moment I visited their headquarters a couple of years ago, it was immediately clear that it was a generationally special company. This interview is a good window into their culture. First, they balance a sense of urgency with a long-term vision towards the future. Second, their writing-heavy culture enables rigorous thinking and extreme attention to detail.
WhisperSync: The entire book industry is limited by Amazon’s monopoly over book sales and electronic reading devices, but WhisperSync is a rare bright spot. For certain books, you can read and listen to a book at the same time if you purchase both the Kindle version and the audiobook. Doing so is the best way to highlight and take notes of audiobooks too.
The Deployment Age: Jerry Neumann wrote an excellent introduction to Carlota Perez’ framework of The Deployment Age, from her book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. The book comes highly recommended by people like Alex Danco, Fred Wilson, and Marc Andreessen. Based on the theory, we’re moving into an age of “production capital,” which Neumann explains well.
Entrepreneurship Hacks: I found two great resources while hosting my Annual Review: Bench Bookkeeping and You Need A Budget. The book-keeping service is geared towards small businesses and sole proprietors. The second is for anybody. YNAB has a book, a podcast, and a highly recommended software product. Oh, and here are my friend Tiago’s notes from the book.
Sequoia’s YouTube Thesis: Sequoia Capital is widely regarded as the best venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. They were early investors in Apple, Google, Oracle, PayPal, Stripe, YouTube, Instagram, Yahoo! and WhatsApp. This memo from 2005 shows how they think about an investment. If you’re still curious and want to learn about the firm, I recommend this podcast about Sequioa’s history.
Power to the People: Rich Barton is a rare breed. He’s built three billion-dollar consumer technology companies — Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor. This post tells the story of Barton’s strategy for building all three companies, which look different at first glance but are the same under the hood. If you’re interested in Internet business models, this essay is for you.
A History of Stripe: My friend Conor Witt (my co-writer for Naked Brands: The Future of Finance) joined CB Insights, and kicked things off with a mega deep dive into Stripe’s relationship to the global payments system and their plans for the future.
Rethinking Economics: I’m torn about the value of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a metric. On one hand, it’s highly correlated with happiness indices, and people like Tyler Cowen have gracefully argued that we should pursue a strategy of maximizing sustainable GDP, with a low discount rate on the future. With that said, the headstrong pursuit of GDP has perverse side effects for physical and emotional health. In the past 100 years, in America, we’ve seen the decline of community, the death of the nuclear family, and a country that is increasingly obese and diabetic.
Great Assistant: I hired my first personal assistant using this company. It’s pricey, but worth it in my opinion. For $4,000, they help you with all the logistics of hiring and training an assistant. If you choose to work with Great Assistant, tell them I sent you. On another note, If you ever need to delegate a project, I recommend their 360 Delegation process, which I summarized here.
Crisis in Higher Education: An obscure book about the future of higher education, focused on how small liberal arts schools can save themselves. The short answer: increase enrollment. It’s written by Jeff Docking, the President of Adrian College. I had breakfast with him and he’s exceptionally sharp. In 2005, the school had 840 enrolled students and had a tuition income of $8.54 million. By fall of 2011, enrollment had soared to 1,688, and tuition income had increased to $20.45 million.
Basecamp’s Legal Policies: An open-source GitHub repository with Basecamp’s policies, legal contracts, and terms of service. If you run an online business, starting here instead of with a lawyer could save you thousands of dollars. They are free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution license, so you can copy them and put them to work.
The Ladders of Wealth Creation: This essay from Nathan Barry lays out the roadmap for transitioning from an employee to running your own business, similar to the one I walked before starting my business.
The Startup School Library: If you’re interested in building startups, this page is for you. It’s a collection of the best things Y-Combinator has learned about growing companies, from recruiting, to marketing, to fundraising.
Manias and Mimesis: An outstanding paper that applies Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory to Financial Bubbles. It looks at a series of case studies, from the 1840s railway mania to the ICO boom and collapse, and even to present-day mimesis-driven market distortions. If you want a shorter analysis of a similar theme, I recommend this essay on bubbles as innovation accelerators.
Saudi Aramco: An introduction to one of the world’s wealthiest oil companies, which earned $366 billion in revenue in 2018, with a net income of roughly $110 billion. Most people don’t know this, but it was a wholly US-owned company until 1974 when Saudi Arabia got a 25% stake in the company (today, The Kingdom owns the entire company). This line says it all: “Saudi Aramco is—more even than Apple or Alphabet or Facebook Inc. or all the traditional champions—the greatest machine for the generation of money that the world has ever seen.”
Working in Public: I read this new book about the economics of open-source software and online creators, in part because I interviewed the author, Nadia Eghbal. She worked at GitHub for roughly five years, where she interviewed hundreds of open-source developers. For a lighter introduction to her writing, I recommend Being Basic as a Virtue and The Tyranny of Ideas.
CleanShot: This app solves a simple, but important problem: taking screenshots on a Mac. If that’s something you do a lot, check out CleanShot. It solves a simple problem very, very well.
CommandE: A cloud search tool for your computer so you can open any document, from Google Docs, to Dropbox, to Evernote, to Slack, to Asana, with a single search.
Bar Talk and Innovation: This paper measures the importance of informal social interaction for innovation. It does so by measuring the decline in innovation when wet counties turned dry during the Prohibition and banned alcohol consumption. It turns out, the negative effects of banning alcohol on innovation lasted only three years, after which groups found new ways to socialize and generate new ideas.
An Introduction to Thomas Sowell: An excellent introduction of Sowell’s work by Coleman Hughes. If you don’t know Sowell, he’s a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. This essay tells the story of his life, from growing up without electricity or hot water in North Carolina, to moving to Harlem in 1939, to receiving his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago.
The Story of Uniqlo: The CEO of Uniqlo shares his principles for the soul of his company. Maybe I like the article because Uniqlo is one of my favorite brands, but it doubles as a window into the kind of Japanese craftsmanship I learned about in my podcast episode with Patrick McKenzie. For years, Uniqlo was seen as an undesirable brand. But that changed with the 1998 launch of a flagship store in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood, and today, Uniqlo is a global brand with ~$16 billion in yearly sales.
Loom: This is one of my favorite software tools. I use it for screen and video recordings whenever I need to explain something to a coworker. Suppose I have feedback for my assistant. Instead of writing up my thoughts, I record a video to show my thinking, which saves time and improves our communication because I can point to specific things on my screen.
Palantir: One of the most interesting companies in America. Palantir specializes in giant data analysis projects, mostly for governments and multinational companies. For balanced introductions to the company, I recommend this explainer from Kevin Simler about the product and this one from Byrne Hobart about the business model.
Starbucks’ Monetary Superpower: I use the Starbucks app all the time because it’s one of the best payment apps in the world. This article explains how investing in it has turned the company into a quasi-bank. They have ~$1.6 billion in stored value card liabilities outstanding (6% of the company’s liabilities), which come from physical gift cards and the total digital value of balances in the Starbucks mobile app. All that money doubles as free debt that customers loan to the company.
What is Snapchat?: An old video from Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, where he explains how images are changing conversation. “Snapchat has to do with how the photographs have changed. Today, pictures are being used for talking. That’s why people are taking and sending so many pictures on Snapchat every day.”
Burger King’s Advertising Genius: Marketing at its finest. I won’t give away the 90-second video, but Burger King used a clever marketing trick to attract millions of dollars in free attention and associate the brand with the world’s best soccer players.
The Death of Sears: A story about the fall of Sears, formerly one of America’s top retail brands. The company decided to implement an internal market where departments, stores, trucks, and suppliers competed against each other for cash and attention. But the market-based strategy was a total failure. My favorite anecdote was how Sears’ famous appliance brand, Kenmore, was divided between the appliance division and the branding one. Since non-Sears branded appliances were more profitable to the appliances division, they began to offer better placement to Kenmore’s rivals, which undermined overall profitability. Yikes. Thanks to the excellent Sid Jha for the recommendation.
What is Amazon?: This is everything an essay should be and more. The author, Zack Kanter, is the founder of Stedi and understands how Amazon works better than anybody I’ve ever met. This essay is a long-form explanation of his analysis. My favorite part is his thesis that Amazon is a perpetual motion machine that innovates by discovering what works and amplifying the highest leverage experiments — evolution in real life.
Alex Karp Interview: A two-part conversation with the CEO of Palantir, who is a fascinating guy. He runs a controversial company, and he addresses many of the critiques in this interview with admirable levels of intellectual rigor. Just as interesting, he has a PhD in what amounts to progressive philosophy from the Frankfurt School in Germany. For more about Karp’s background, here’s an excellent long-form essay about his academic career.
Long Haul by Simple Flying: I’m an aviation geek, so I can’t believe I just found this YouTube channel, which eloquently describes trends in commercial aviation. In particular, I enjoyed this history of the Boeing 737 (which I wrote about here) and this one about the rise & fall of the Airbus A340.
Airlines and Frequent Flier Points: Airlines look like they make money from flights, but they actually make money from loyalty programs. Without its loyalty program, Delta would be worth -$7 billion. With it, it’s a $19 billion company. This quote stuck out: “The mechanics of a loyalty program are simple: Flyers earn rewards, generally by flying or using branded credit cards. They redeem those rewards for flights.” If you prefer video, you’ll like this explainer from Wendover Productions.
20th Century Technology Theorists: The gift that keeps on giving. Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media is probably the most influential book I’ve read to date. Looking through the footnotes has led me to other philosophers of technologies like Lewis Mumford, who wrote Technics and Civilization and Water Ong’s Orality and Literacy (here’s my book review). Their work gives you a framework to evaluate all kinds of new technologies and reveals how the Internet is changing society.
Society & Philosophy
The Bible Project: Whenever I eat alone, I open YouTube and watch videos about learning. I learned economics by watching Marginal Revolution videos, and now, The Bible Project has fast become my go-to source for studying the best-selling book in human history. The Bible is somehow underrated. The Bible infuses nearly every aspect of Western culture, from our legal codes to human rights (as I wrote in Why You’re Christian). These short animated videos are a good way to learn about it.
Hiring for the British Parliament: Here’s a job description from Dominic Cummings, the brilliant architect behind Britain’s Vote Leave campaign. He’s bringing a fresh approach to politics by changing how political decisions are made and welcoming the dissent required to make radical changes to government. Cummings isn’t looking for the kinds of well-spoken and well-networked people you usually find in government. No. He’s looking for weirdos, scientists, and mathematicians. My friend called this post “the most promising thing I’ve seen out of Western government in a decade.” And he might be right. If you’re looking for an introduction to Dominic Cummings, I recommend this 30-minute talk.
The Meaning of Marriage: The institution of marriage isn’t as strong as it once was. Divorce rates have doubled since the 1960s and the percentage of American adults who are married has fallen from 72 percent in 1960 to only 50 percent in 2008. What’s gone wrong? The premise of this book is that we’ve become disillusioned with marriage because our expectations of it are too high. Using Christian principles, largely from the book of Ephesians, the author argues that successful marriages happen when two people are committed to serving others more than they serve themselves. If you prefer to watch a lecture by the author, this is a good one to start with.
Why American Architecture Looks the Same: Drive around America and you’ll see the same blend of chain hotels, restaurants, and apartment complexes. This video outlines how incentives come together to make different parts of America look so similar. The video explores the same tradeoff I posed in The Microwave Economy: scale is beneficial because it lowers costs and makes the world more efficient but comes at the cost of personality and local diversity.
A World Split Apart: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist and critic of both communism and the Soviet Union. In his 1978 commencement speech, he warned against the West’s wholehearted embrace of individual rights and the decreasing responsibilities towards God and society. Voluntarily self-restraint is almost unheard of now. Sexual and economic norms have been forgotten. Ideas like sacrifice and selfless risk aren’t celebrated like they once were either. Instead, in the name of liberation, the West has caved into the allures of consumption, hedonism, and short-term thinking.
The Use of Knowledge in Society: The most important economics paper I’ve ever read. It shows how price signals can help societies make the best use of resources, especially in an ever-changing world that’s impossible to plan for. The price system allows people to coordinate at scale. If there’s a shortage of a given material like copper, the price will rise and thereby incentivize people to produce more of it. When the price fall, the opposite will happen. By following the price system, individuals can contribute to a spontaneous global order by following their incentives. Here’s an excellent summary, and here’s Hayek’s original paper.
Northrop Frye’s Biblical Lectures: This 25-part series explores the synthesis between the Bible and English Literature. It’s worth watching because the Bible infuses just about every aspect of civilization. To the extent that the ideas feel so obvious, it’s only because they’ve been so influential. They’ve become the water we swim in. These lectures explore the metaphorical side of these canonical texts. In one of his lectures, Frye said: “The accuracy of history in the Bible is in inverse proportion to its spiritual value.” You’ll find a full transcript and show notes for every lecture here.
David Foster Wallace, on Consumerism: Few people understood modern American culture like David Foster Wallace. In particular, he saw how young people in the upper-middle class lived sad and empty internal lives even though their external ones were defined by tremendous comfort. One of his more interesting observations is the decline of quiet in modern life. We listen to music when we’re on our computers, move through our homes with TV in the background, and insist on playing pop music at our restaurants. What’s going on there? Beyond the ideas, this interview is a revealing window into Wallace’s psyche: his fears, his insecurities, and the trepidation he feels about telling the truth.
How Trends Begin: The people who are early to a trend often look so weird that people point and laugh at them. By showing one person dancing at a music festival, then two, then ten, then hundreds, this video reveals how trends — which are too weird to take seriously until they’re too important to ignore — begin.
Brave New World, Revisited: Brave New World is a dystopian novel by Aldous Huxley, which explores the bad outcomes of a world of abundance where we host hedonistic pleasure in the highest esteem and make people happy with happiness pills. He revisited the core themes in this short non-fiction book. Additional topics include censorship, authoritarianism, thought control, and propaganda.
Zohar Atkins: One of the best up-and-coming writers on the Internet, with one of the most intriguing resumes you’ll find. Zohar is a rabbi based in New York City who holds a PhD in theology from Oxford. If you’re looking for something short, start with his Twitter threads on Leo Strauss or Martin Heidegger. If you prefer articles, I recommend this critique of people who are “spiritual but not religious” or this one about Peter Thiel’s perspective on the Cain and Abel story.
A Guide for the Perplexed: I’ve long been interested in the shortcomings of Enlightenment thinking. Most of all, I’m skeptical of our commitment to materialism and the scientism that surrounds it. E. F. Schumacher argues that “materialistic scientism” began with the writing of Descartes and Bacon. Since then, intellectuals have de-emphasized the importance of spirituality, beauty, and meaning. The book is short, and if you’re looking for a summary, here’s the Wikipedia page.
Shantaram: From a quality of writing perspective, this is among the best books I’ve ever read. It’s a 900-page beast, and when my friend told me about it, I said: “Nope, too long. There’s no way I’m reading that.” Then he read me the first page, and I was immediately hooked. Maybe it’s because the first sentence encapsulates the book so well: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
History of Western Philosophy: A great book to have on your nightstand because you don’t need to read it in one sitting. It’s a survey of the Western Cannon, from the pre-Socratic philosophers to the early 20th century. You can think of the book as a series of 10-25 page essays, which you can refer to whenever you read a canonical work.
Why Winners Keep Winning: Our social universe has very few rules. But if I had to pick an iron law, it’s that winners keep winning. We’ve known this since the New Testament. Specifically, the book of Luke says: “I tell you, that to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Here, we have empirical evidence from Stephen King and JK Rowling. Outside the world of writing, this article shows how a small financial advantage at the beginning of your career can lead to outsized gains over time.
Where are the Thought Police: Why are people in Democratic countries expected to have an educated opinion on so many policy matters, from abortion to foreign policy? Here, Johnathan Bi argues that it’s downstream of our political structure. Since people in a Democracy are theoretically in charge, they should have strong opinions about how a society should be structured. But there are tradeoffs, such as the politicization of social life and, counterintuitively, the suppression of free speech in the private sphere. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that bottom-up thought control is more pervasive than the top-down alternative because even the mightiest of monarchs don’t have the power to police the average person’s speech. No society can ever escape the political and achieve unlimited freedom of thought. But the organization of a society will determine what kinds of thought control exist.
Applied Divinity Studies: I don’t know who is behind this blog, but the writing is excellent. The writing orbits around themes of progress, rationality, economics, and technological growth. In particular, I enjoyed an article called The Murder of Wilbur Wright, a pioneer in the early days of flying. At the beginning of his career, Wilbur was obsessed with the mechanics of aviation. But as he became successful and gained worldwide notoriety for his flight machine, he started to drown in patent disputes and business obligations. Though he was a genius at the frontier of flight, the world pushed him towards administration instead of invention. Tragically, Wilbur died at 45 years old. In the words of Applied Divinity Studies: “What hits me hardest is not the material loss, but the squandering of human spirit.” If you’re looking for other recommendations, I suggest Beware the Casual Polymathand Asymmetric Opportunities and the Cult of Optionality.
When Breath Becomes Air: If there was ever a book for the heart, this is it. The author, Paul Kalanithi, was born into a Christian family before double majoring in English literature and human biology at Stanford. He was tragically diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and penned this book in his final days. Above all, I enjoyed his exploration of where science ends, and the soul begins. He writes: “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”
The Mysteries of Eleusis: Jesse Michels runs a YouTube show called American Alchemist, and is a master at finding interesting guests from outside the media spotlight. I enjoyed his interview with Brian Muraresku, who penned The Immortality Key. The interview explores the mysterious rituals that once took place in a city called Eleusis, 13 miles north of Athens, which may have shaped early Christianity. Those who partook in these rituals were forbidden from talking about them, so we know very little about what took place. The contents of the Muraresku interview are somewhere on the spectrum between “absolute nonsense” and “the secret history of the world’s biggest religion.”
Lewis Mumford and The Magnificent Bribe: So much of what we know about how technology shapes society originates with Mumford. He argued that people mistakenly assume that what’s good for the technological system is good for individuals, which isn’t always true. Thus, people need to be bribed with a shiny object that looks appealing in the short term, even if the long term consequences are harmful.
Richard Hanania: The Internet has created a new class of “citizen journalists” who own their audiences and produce better writing than many of the major media publications. When it comes to politics, Richard Hanania comes to mind. I recommend two posts in particular: Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV and Why is Everything Liberal?
Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus: Reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody was one of those moments where I realized how transformative the Internet could become. This speech is a good place to start. He compares modern sitcoms to gin during the Industrial Revolution. People didn’t know what to do with their lives, so they drank and drank and drank. Now, they watch and watch and watch. Only later did society wake up to new ways of living, made possible by the Industrial Revolution. Shirky argues that something similar has happened since World War II. But this time, the social lubricant wasn’t liquor but sitcoms. We spent most of our free time watching TV. Now, with the Internet, we have a giant cognitive surplus. Americans watch 200 billion hours of television every year. Meanwhile, the whole Wikipedia project — every page, every edit, every line of code, and every translation — represents the result of roughly 100 million hours of human thought. Every year, we therefore devote ~2,000 Wikipedia projects to watching television. What if we could transfer some of that energy into something more generative?
Why Liberalism Failed: People increasingly see freedom from attachments as an unalloyed good. But Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen argues that the push for freedom from the constraints of family, tradition, and religion have actually reduced liberty. The more individualistic a culture becomes, the more it needs a big state to support it. If you’re interested in the ideas but aren’t ready to commit to the book, I recommend this talk with the author and this podcast (with a worthy list of critiques in the comments section).
The World’s Most Influential Intellectual: If you’ve never heard of Wang Huning, it’s time to change that. As one of Xi Jinping’s closest advisors and arguably China’s leading ideological theorist. In Chinese literature, his position is known as dishi, which translates to “Emperor’s Teacher.” For 20 years, he’s predicted that America will decline because of nihilism and hyper-individualism — both of which have led to skyrocketing inequality, the destruction of the family, and the utter destruction of its heritage. This piece offers an introduction to his ideas, while this piece dives into the man himself.
Formula One: One of my recipes for learning faster is to do something with people who are obsessed with that thing. It’s not just that ultra-passionate people know more than the average person. Even if they did, you can look up most information online. The benefit of surrounding yourself with passionate people is that their passion rubs off on you through a process of osmosis. Humans are mimetic and always will be. The faster we acknowledge how much others shape our interests, the better. To that end, the Internet can be a portal to people with particular passions — crafts, countries, people…whatever. . This YouTube channel illuminates the technical beauty of Formula One racing. Start with this video about corners or this one about tire wear. For an entry point into the culture of Formula One, I recommend this Netflix documentary.
Where Ideologies Come From: Why are so many old ideologies coming back into the public sphere? This essay offers an answer through the prism of a social science article called Ideologies of Delayed Industrialization. It describes the persistent cultural patterns that follow the same kinds of rapid and transformative societal changes that the Internet is now bringing to society. When the tectonic plates shift, leaders jostle for power by integrating old ideologies with the fashions of the present. From Gandhi to Confucius to The New York Times, this essay describes the persistence of this cultural pattern.
Process Knowledge: The author Dan Wang is one of those essayists who continually inspires me to level up my craft. He’s one of the most learned people I know. One time, he spent an hour breaking down the structure of Chinese politics for me and some friends. It was so well done that if it had been public, it would have been a viral YouTube video. Anyways, this essay laments the decline of America’s manufacturing base. Specifically, through the lens of process knowledge which he defines as earned experience that can’t be written down. Beyond that, he paints a vision for Silicon Valley as a place where people give hardware manufacturing the respect it deserves.
Louis C.K. on Progress: If you want to understand the human condition, don’t just listen to poets and philosophers. Listen to comedians. These two Louis C.K. clips are as dense with insight as a good book. First, in a clip called “Everything is amazing & nobody is happy,” he talks about how fast even the most magical technologies can go from magnificent to mundane. In the second one, he explores the perils of smartphones and specifically how they distract us from our emotions. When you impulsively pick up your smartphone, you’re often running away from an emotion you don’t want to feel.
Ideological Subversion: Yuri Bezmenov was a Soviet journalist and a former KGB informant who defected and moved to Canada.He issued a warning to America in a 1985 interview, where he explained how US public opinion could be manipulated. Most frighteningly, he says that under a state of ideological subversion where a person becomes demoralized, new evidence won’t change people’s minds. Under the pen name Tomas D. Schuman, he also wrote a book called Love Letter to America, which is strangely hard to find online.
Prestige: This essay, inspired by Pedigree, argues that corporate recruiters don’t actually care that much about good grades or what students learn in school. Instead, they care about prestigious extracurriculars. They want their employees to be attractive, energetic, articulate, and socially smooth. They choose candidates who optimize not for skills or knowledge but for prestige. For more on this topic, here’s my mini-essay: Beware of Chasing Prestige.
Time: The clock is one of the defining technologies of the Industrial Age, but most people are blind to the strength of its stranglehold on modern life. It’s a coordination mechanism today, but it began as a measure of sacrifice that inspired the time-rate wage. Until then, there was no fair and fungible way to measure how hard people worked instead of the results of their work.
A Theory of Verbal Inflation: How is inflating the money supply just like telling verbal lies about social phenomena? In both cases, people who set the rules benefit from Cantillon Effects. If you’re close to the money supply or own stocks, you are first to reap the rewards of money printing. In the social world, you can benefit from “inflations in the word supply.” The author, Justin Murphy, argues that we’ve entered a world of verbal hyperinflation where “public intellectuals today are forced to outbid each other with increasingly insane takes.”
Max Weber: When I was living in New York, I audited a philosophy class at Columbia University. The entire semester was focused on one writer: Max Weber. I’ll outsource my recommendation to Zeynep Tufekci, a writer at the New York Times. She said: “90 percent of what you want to understand about the current public health crisis is there in his sociology.” In particular, I recommend his book: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism — especially the section about Ben Franklin. If you’re looking for an introduction to his work, start with this article or this one.
CCK Philosophy: This channel is like Nerdwriter for philosophy. Most of the videos have a Marxist bent, even when the focus is on 20th-century philosophers like Theodor Adorno and Felix Guattari. My favorite video is Capitalism, Cultural Disintegration, and Buzzfeed. It breaks down a paper that BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti wrote about modernity’s influence on identity and the company’s place in our capitalist system.
Eric Weinstein: Eric is one of the most generative thinkers I know but doesn’t put much effort into explaining his ideas visually. Luckily, one of my Write of Passage students named Jake Orthwein has been doing the work for him. He’s published two videos about Eric’s worldview: the one about why politics feels like professional wrestling and another about the spooky relationship between growth and violence.
Before I Go: Death has a way of bringing clarity to life. Paul Kalanithi had a way of turning those epiphanies into words. You might know him as the author of a lovely book called When Breath Becomes Air. He wrote this essay, Before I Go, just before he died. My favorite section was about the way time takes a different shape when you’re on your deathbed. Two hours can feel like a minute, and a minute can feel like two hours.
Why Are People So Fat?: Put this one in the “interesting, but I don’t know what to make of it” category. It’s a multi-part series about the reasons why Americans have gotten so much more overweight. 100 years ago, the average American male weighed 155 pounds. Today, that number has climbed up to 195. Horses and wild animals are getting fatter too. Craziest of all, the author argues that maybe, just maybe, the obesity epidemic isn’t the direct result of diet, carbs, sugar, fat, calories, or any of the conventional culprits. This is a longggggg series and you can find all the installments here.
The Principles of Urbanism: For all the progress we’ve made, we’ve somehow lost our ability to build cities that nurture the soul. A pseudonymous writer named Wrath of Gnon argues that we’re ignoring the principles of urbanism and humane architecture — which we discovered many centuries ago. Here, he critiques our contemporary approach to urbanism and offers a classical alternative.
The Technological Society: Jacques Ellul is worth reading because his work synthesizes two influences you rarely see together: Christianity and Karl Marx. He comes to similar conclusions as Marx, but instead of focusing on capitalism, he focuses on technology. Though his writing is dense with insight, it can be dry to read. Thus, in addition to The Technological Society (skip the mass market paperback edition), I recommend this essay, this controversial reflection, or this book-length synopsis of his work.
Peter Thiel’s Worldview: Most of the jibber-jabber about Peter Thiel is superficial and doesn’t cut to the heart of his worldview. As I wrote in Peter Thiel’s Religion, you can’t understand Thiel if you don’t understand the influence of Mimetic Theory and, by extension, Christianity on his worldview. This Amazon book review offers a succinct explanation. The author explains why Thiel fears globalization and the “one-world state” that’d come with it. That kind of homogenization would lead to runaway Mimetic conflict and perhaps, the apocalyptic outcomes that Girard and the Book of Revelation warn against.
Intelligence Killed Genius: Where did all the geniuses go? They were killed by the concept of intelligence. The author argues that our obsession with intelligence discourages people to work on ambitious problems because people talk themselves out of pursuing them.
The Inner Ring: C.S Lewis gave this speech in 1947 and the ideas are as relevant today as they were back then. My favorite concept is that there are two systems of influence in any organization: the official one and the unofficial one. There are explicit org charts and implicit ones. Train yourself to make sense of the implicit ones, where the true dynamics of power lie. Also, if you’re a C.S. Lewis fan, you’ll like my essay: Why You’re Christian.
Ugly People, Beautiful People: For all the talk of privilege, nobody talks about “beauty privilege.” Beautiful people are more likely to be hired for jobs, are assumed to be more competent and trustworthy, and are much more persuasive. One study found that when it comes to criminal sentencing, looks were more than 10x more important than race. Ugly people receive “120-305 percent longer sentences than attractive ones.” Even if the effect size is large enough to make me question the study, I think it’s directionally correct. To that end, David Brooks asked Why is it Okay to Be Mean to the Ugly?
José Ricón: I met José at an Emergent Ventures meetup. It took me ~30 seconds to realize he had one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever come across. He can process information faster than just about anybody I’ve ever met. His posts are long, but if you find one that interests you, I can almost guarantee that it’s one of the best introductions to the subject online. If you’re interested in education, I recommend this primer on Bloom’s Two-Sigma Problem. And if you’re interested in cities, I recommend his post on rising construction costs.
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: I found this book through an excellent Twitter thread. I looked up the author, saw that he was famous for translating Dante, and immediately purchased the book. It’s about the way modernity suppresses childhood imagination. My favorites are “cut all heroes down to size” and “replace the fairy tale with political cliches and fads.” Awe and wonder are under-rated virtues.
Oops, Simon Sarris Did it Again: This man doesn’t miss. Sarris is an engineer living in New Hampshire. He published a wonderful essay called The Most Precious Resource is Agency. It’s about our inability to deal with ambitious children, and in turn, beat the drive out of them. In all his writing, I admire the way he balances the spiritual and the material. And though he has a special reverence for beauty, he always remembers to appreciate the mundane. For something longer, I strongly recommend his essay: In Praise of Gods, which explores the limits of rationality.
The Condition of the Working Class in England: I’m perpetually interested in how the Industrial Revolution changed society and consciousness. This account from Friedrich Engels was written in 1845 and had a major influence on Karl Marx. It describes the horrid working conditions in industrial cities like Manchester and Liverpool, where people were divorced from nature, suffered through horrid working conditions, and disproportionately died from diseases like measles and smallpox. Though the whole book is available for free, the introduction and Wikipedia page provide good introductions. If you want more, you’ll enjoy this lecture.
McLuhan Unbound: This is a hidden gem, but I’m not sure how to describe it. I could call it a book, but it’s too short for that. I could call it a collection of pamphlets, but the ideas are too sophisticated for that too. We’ll go with an anthology of essays. They were written in the most creative period of Marshall McLuhan’s life after he published The Gutenberg Galaxy but before he published his seminal book: Understanding Media. I like it both because it’s colorful (which means I can keep it in my living room) and because it’s designed to be read for 10 minutes at a time. Since it’s so easy to read, it doubles as spaced repetition for one of my favorite writers. If you’re looking for an intro to McLuhan, I also recommend The Medium is the Massage and this talk with Terrance McKenna.
Losing Your Freedom: This one is heavy. When my friend texted it to me, he said: “I need a cigarette with this.” It’s written by Ross Ulbricht, who founded the Silk Road marketplace. He wrote this speech from prison because he’s been given a lifetime sentence without parole. It’s worth reading, no matter what you think about him. He talks about the way we dehumanize prisoners and the torture of losing your freedom. If you prefer audio, listen to this.
The Tyranny of Time: There are two kinds of time: body time and mechanical time. Body time moves by the rhythm of your heart. You eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired. It moves fast when we’re in the flow and slowly when we’re bored. Mechanical time is the opposite. It always moves at the same speed and does not respond to the needs of individuals. When I’m relaxing, I try to be on body time as much as possible. That’s why I don’t wear a watch and why there are no clocks in my apartment. Though people used to protest against time, we’ve accepted it as an inevitable part of the modern world. This essay shows how that happened.
Michael Sugrue’s YouTube Channel: This guy is an outstanding speaker and delivers all kinds of philosophy lectures about topics ranging from Nietzche and the Death of God, to The Frankfurt School, to Romantic Literature. The channel is such a hidden gem.
Tribe: File this book in the “we should be skeptical of modernity” camp. The author makes the case that the design of tribal societies make us happier by giving us loyalty, belonging, and meaning. For all the benefits of modern society, it causes modern people to not feel necessary. I picked it up after my nature retreat. Out there, it didn’t matter who you were. The summer heat doesn’t hold back against anybody and rattlesnakes don’t care what you do for a living. That forced our group to come together and led to the kind of communal bonding experience that cities make difficult. On this topic, my friend Joe Wells wrote an excellent essay arguing for compulsory public service in America.
Dominion: My essay, Why You’re Christian, explores how Christian ideas underpin the Western view of morality. To construct the ideas for my essay, I’m built upon this stellar, 600-page piece of historical scholarship from Tom Holland. He argues that the Bible shaped Western thought, even if we’ve painted over those ideas with Enlightenment notions of truth and reason. On that note, it’s filled with golden nuggets like this: “That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths… The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic—no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think—was the book of Genesis.” What a provocative argument. For an introduction, I recommend this video interview and this book review.
Free Parking: Lewis Mumford once wrote: “The right to access every building in a city by private motorcar in an age when everyone owns such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.” To that end, I joke that Americans travel to Europe to visit the kinds of cities they’ve made illegal to build in their home country. For now, we’ll focus on the high costs of parking. Making parking free drives up the cost of housing, increases pollution, and reduces urban density. This statistic stands out. The Walt Disney Concert Hall cost $274 million to build. Of that total, the first $100 million went to pay for the underground parking structure, which is not a cultural landmark.
The Imitation of Christ: This is the most widely-read Christian devotional book outside of the Bible. It was published in the 15th century, and by 1650, it was one of the most published books in existence with a grand total of… 745 copies. The book was published anonymously. With humility and inspired by Christian teachings, the author wrote: “One should love to be unknown… Do not let the writer’s authority or learning influence you, be it little or great, but let the love of pure truth attract you to read. Do not ask ‘Who said this?’ but pay attention to what is said.” Amen to that.
Pete Davis’ Harvard Commencement Speech: My life improved dramatically once I stopped chasing optionality and committed to the things that mattered to me most. The catalyst was an article called The Trouble With Optionality, which I can’t recommend enough. On the same theme, this commencement speech is a critique of what the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman called “Liquid Modernity,” a state of ambivalent identities where people switch between identities without committing to any of them, just so they can “keep their options open.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel: I discovered Heschel on a recommendation from Rabbi David Wolpe. And boy, am I glad I did. He’s an artist with words. I started with The Sabbath, and last night, I read the vast majority of Man’s Quest for God in one sitting. No matter your faith, you will enjoy his books if you’re feeling contemplative.
LSD and Acid in the 1960s: I’ve spent the week reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehemand Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Both are reflections on a time when the government experimented with these powerful substances, and drugs took over parts of San Francisco’s social life. Didion’s take is the pessimistic one, Wolfe’s is more optimistic. The movement began in 1959, when the US government began testing the effects of acid and LSD on its citizens as part of a CIA mind control program called Project MKUltra. For a video introduction, I recommend this YouTube documentary.
Philosophize This and Critical Theory: The Frankfurt School is one of the most important philosophical hubs of the 20th century. It began in Germany, but most of the philosophers ended up at Columbia University in New York. They were critical of capitalism and Marxism, so they tried to reimagine both of them. But unfortunately, even though their ideas are worthwhile, their writing me want to bang my head into a wall of nails. For help, I turned to Stephen West’s excellent 7-part series, which is the best explainer I’ve found about the Frankfurt School. His archives are impressive. You may also enjoy his episodes about Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, and Gilles Deleuze.
Beauty is the Privilege We Never Talk About: Being beautiful makes life much, much easier. First, we’ll start with the obvious. Speed dating research shows that beauty is the most important factor in choosing a mate. But attractive people are also more likely to be hired for a job and seen as competent. This quote from the article stands out, even though it’s so extreme that I’m skeptical of it: “This bias for beauty can cause real harm. In a meta analysis of the role of attractiveness in criminal sentencing, it was found that unattractive people received 120–305 percent longer sentences than attractive people. As a comparison, another study found that black people received 6–20 percent longer sentences than white people. Yes, in criminal sentencing, looks were over 10x more important than race.” Beauty, then, is the ultimate privilege.
The Dream of Philosophy: A two-part series about the history of modern philosophy. The first book, The Dream of Reason, begins in Ancient Greece and goes to the Renaissance. The second,The Dream of Enlightenment, picks up where the first one left off and focuses on The Enlightenment. The ideas are clearly written but aren’t dumbed down, which is what you want from a book about philosophy.
The Geopolitics of Oil: Word-for-word, this is the best introduction to the oil industry I’ve found. Though the article is about oil, I particularly enjoyed learning about copper production, which is concentrated in only four countries: Chile, Peru, China, and the United States. Collectively, they produce more than half of the world’s copper. Relative to oil, it can be easily stockpiled. And every year, the United States consumes 1.8 million tons of it, one-third of which is imported.
Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition: This is one of my all-time favorite short essays. Like much of my favorite writing, it takes a mundane concept and makes you realize that it’s filled with depth. Gardens are everywhere in mythology. As a metaphor for life, it’s no coincidence that the bible story begins in The Garden of Eden. They balance order and chaos, life and death, nature and nurture. By holding opposites in harmonious tension, they are sites of epiphanies in the world of literature.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: One of the best ways to find good things to read is to look for the essays that were so good that they eventually became books. For a series of essays that eventually became books, I recommend this compilation from Joe Wells. This essay reveals the downsides in the transition from physical labor to knowledge work. Manual trades have lost their honor and the material world has lost its mystique. So has craftsmanship, where people pursue excellence for its own sake. Part of the challenge is that the media narrative is shaped by urbanites who prioritize knowledge work and vaguely scoff at manual laborers. But in praise of craftsmanship, the author writes: “The tangible elements of craft were appealing as an antidote to vague feelings of unreality, diminished autonomy, and a fragmented sense of self that were especially acute among the professional classes.”
Lewis Mumford: What an under-rated talent. Mumford is the forefather of the media and technology studies movement that gained steam in the mid-20th-century. I’ve been reading his book, Technics and Civilization. The owner of my local Austin bookstore knows my taste, so she also picked Architecture as a Home for Man up for me, which I plan to read afterward.
An Intro to Marshall McLuhan: If there’s a recurring theme in this newsletter, it’s that more people should study McLuhan’s ideas. Here’s an excellent podcast introduction from Philosophize This, with a full transcript.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky is one of the most thought-provoking intellectuals alive today. He’s at his best when he’s talking about how the media controls thought. In one interview, a reporter asked him: “Do you really think I’m self-censoring right now?” Chomsky replied: “I’m not saying that you think you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe every word you’re saying. But I’m saying that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” For more, I recommend this explainer, this YouTube interview, or Chomsky’s book on the subject.
Chartism: A friend mentioned this idea and I can’t get it out of my head. Apparently, it goes back to the British male suffrage movement in the mid-19th century and the work of Thomas Carlyle, who was critical of Chartism’s hold over decision-making. Here’s how I interpret the practical implications of the idea: Policymakers fall somewhere on the spectrum of pro-chart and anti-chart. Pro-chartists think that data can explain the world, and the more we have, the better. But anti-chartists think that relentless data accumulation is misguided because it offers false certainty and misses the big picture interpretation. As the saying goes: “More fiction is written in Excel than Word.”
The Death of Ivan Ilyich:A heartfelt but sad meditation on life by Leo Tolstoy. It tells the story of a high-court judge in 19th century Russia who suffers from a terminal illness. Unlike Tolstoy’s other books, this one is short enough to read in one sitting.
Paris Review Interviews: When I think about epic series from classic media publications, the Paris Review interviews come to mind. They’ve interviewed some of the greatest minds of the past century: Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Caro come to mind. And they are consistently the best interviews I’ve seen of them. You’ll need a subscription to read them, but damn, it’s worth it. This week, I read interviews with the documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman and novelist Milan Kundera.
The Problem with Human Rights: Trigger warning: this video might shatter your worldview. At least, it did for me. The substrate of human rights rests on Judeo-Christian theology, and in particular the idea of imago dei (every human is made in the image of God), which is one of the biggest reasons I’ve been drawn towards faith. So with that, take a big ol’ swig of water and confront this red pill.
Land of the Free: I love articles like this: sharp, witty, and fearless. Vibrant rhetoric inevitably follows from such a spiky point of view too. You’ll leave feeling a little dizzy, having passionately agreed or disagreed with so many of the author’s points. But you sure as hell won’t feel indifferent, and that’s what good writing is all about, eh?
Human Nature: This video is a masterclass in psychology. The first person to do something always looks weird. People laugh. Then somebody else joins. Then the crowds come in, and the person who started the whole thing goes from looking like a goon to looking like a genius.
Economics as a Moral Philosophy: I‘ve always been annoyed with the idea that economics is a complete science. It isn’t. Humans are too unpredictable and the ideas break down too often. But in particular, everybody should know the basics of microeconomics. Though this article doubles as a critique of the discipline, I like the idea that economics is a value system that shapes our decision-making in ways that are so ingrained in society that they’re invisible to us.
Adam Curtis: The creator of one of my favorite documentaries, The Century of the Self (full transcript here). It’s about the intersection of psychology and consumerism and builds upon the ideas of Sigmund Freud (who shaped modern psychology) and Edward Bernays (who founded public relations). As a member of the BBC staff in the 1980s and 90s, he’s created a bunch of other documentaries too.
Gut Feelings: Michael Polanyi once said: “We know more than we can tell.” All of us have centuries of evolutionary wisdom inside of us that we ignore whenever we ignore our intuition. That’s why I’ve long been skeptical of the way we bash cognitive biases. There’s wisdom in things like the sunk cost bias and the availability bias. Though we should educate ourselves on the shortcomings of intuitive thinking, this book argues that we should give heuristics and gut feelings more respect. If you’re looking for something shorter, this article is a good introduction to the author’s thinking.
Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology: Dense, but for all the right reasons. Though Carl Schmitt is quite a controversial political thinker, his work has been recommended to me many times. This introduction focuses on the Venn diagram of political theory and Judeo-Christian thought. The main claim is that the contemporary political environment relies on a Christian substrate. If so, the justification for many of our laws come not from the Enlightenment, but from Christianity. I particularly like Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty: “The person who gets to decide upon the exception to the rule.” If you want to see who really holds power, look there.
The Enlightenment and Human Rights: Lots of people wrote to me with recommended links after I published the Why You’re Christian essay. This was the best one. It shows the relationship between human rights and the Enlightenment, with a focus on the French Revolution. While writing the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizenin 1789, French intellectuals wanted to uphold their ideas with reason instead of tradition. As a result, the words “France” or “French” never appear in the actual declaration.
The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ: I’m recommending this one as much for the writing style as the content itself. Yesterday, I was reflecting on my education when I realized that I went through K-12 and then all of college without ever reading the Gospels. Even if I’m not religious, that’s insane. Word-for-word, it’s hard to find a document that’s shaped Western thinking more. Among other things, such as the myopia of utilitarianism (ruling by Excel spreadsheet) and the relationship between science and belief, this essay explains why.
Martin Gurri Summary: If you asked me to name a writer who is virtually unknown today but who will be hailed in history books, Martin Gurri would be my answer. He’s absolutely brilliant. His book, The Revolt of the Public, was the inspiration behind my What the Hell is Going Onessay. His book is worth reading in full, but this 2-minute summary is an excellent synopsis of his thinking.
Social Status: Humans are wired to think about social status. E.O. Wilson argued that prestige took off spectacularly because our ancestors lived in semi-permanent home-bases that needed to be guarded collectively. Protecting the fort gave them an incentive to team up and cooperate. This article by Kevin Simler is the best read about our uniquely human ability to quantify prestige and the way we lust for more of it. It builds upon the work of Joe Heinrich, who I interviewed last year.
Einstein’s Dreams: A splendid collection of short stories from the philosopher-physicist Alan Lightman. All of them are about time, relativity, and physics as if they were the dreams of Albert Einstein. My favorite one is about body time vs. mechanical time. Body time is the world of hunger, moods, and circadian rhythms, while mechanical time is the world of clocks and alarms. It‘d be fun to switch between these time speeds throughout the year. To help myself enter the calm flow of body time, I’ve deliberately chosen not to put any clocks in my home.
On Urbanism: An epic Twitter thread on the design characteristics of traditional urbanism. Though humanity has progressed on many fronts, we have undoubtedly regressed in our ability to build cities. Modern cities have none of the charm as the ones we built in Europe 500 years ago. This thread is the best explanation of what modern cities are lacking.
Thomas Aquinas: One of my main intellectual explorations of late has been the way Greek ideas have fused into the Christian worldview. Plato’s influence came through Augustine, and Aristotle’s influence came through Aquinas. Most thought-provoking to me is Aquinas‘ idea that philosophy and theology don’t contradict. Instead, he believes that they play complementary roles in the quest for truth. He saw human knowledge as a pyramid with science at the base, philosophy above it, and theology at the top. Thus, he believes that faith does not contradict nature, science, or human knowledge. Together, he says that they cooperate in the advancement of truth.
Thorstein Velben’s Theory of the Leisure Class (Updated): Written by one of my favorite up-and-coming writers, Rob Henderson (whose entire body of work is worth exploring). This article is an introduction to his theory of “luxury beliefs,” where high-class people adopt beliefs that take a toll on the lower class but don’t cost them anything. To prove his argument, he points to research that shows that the desire for status is a positive feedback loop, where the highest status people are the most likely to want even more status.
The Cult of Optionality: I was afraid of commitment for too long. I thought that committing to a project for multiple years would limit the number of opportunities at my disposal. But the opposite has happened. Branding myself as “The Writing Guy” and focusing full-time on Write of Passage (which I intend to do for the next decade) has paradoxically increased the number of professional opportunities available to me. Luckily, many authors have made this point more eloquently than I just did. I recommend this piece from Byrne Hobart, this one from Applied Divinity Studies, and especially this one from a Harvard professor named Mihir Desai.
Oil Industry Propaganda: The idea of a “personal carbon footprint” may have come from a 2005 marketing campaign from British Petroleum, which was designed to deflect responsibility away from corporations and onto consumers. For more, here’s a short history and here’s a New York Times opinion piece written by a guy who worked on the advertising campaign. For more on the subject of propaganda, I recommend a documentary called The Century of the Self.
Completing Girard: Johnathan Bi, one of the smartest up-and-coming philosophers I know, just published a short book about Rene Girard. It’s all available for free on his site. Together, we plan to produce an interview about every chapter in the book, which we‘ll publish in the summer.
Christopher Hitchens Interview: This one is a conversation between a unitarian minister and the atheist philosopher Christopher Hitchens. It’s worth reading, partially because it’s so awkward. The conversation cuts to one of the core questions of modern religious thinking: should you think about religious stories literally or metaphorically? And if you treat them metaphorically, are you really religious?
What the Mouse Knows: A lovely short story from one of my favorite online writers: Simon Sarris. It explores the difference between the map and the territory, which I discussed in Expression is Compression. Though we make maps to make sense of the world, actual reality is always more complicated than we think. That limitation presents opportunities if you know how to look at the world. As Ishmael, a character in Moby Dick says: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Given that, we should find opportunities in map-less spaces and look for blindspots on the map of human knowledge.
Geography and History: It’s wild that we spent so much time memorizing dates in history class because they’re legit one of the least important things about history. Dates are important insofar as they give you a sense of timelines and overlapping events which may have influenced each other. But relative to how much attention they receive, they’re trivial. So why do we study them? Here’s a guess: Because they’re easy to grade on tests. This essay offers an alternative approach to studying history. And the opening sentence is so provocative and so attention-grabbing that I’m going to share it with my writing students: “We think we’re taught History. But we’re really taught Propaganda.” Yep, you just clicked.
How Politics Became Pro Wrestling: There’s an idea in professional wrestling called Kayfabe, where people pretend something is serious even though everybody knows it’s fake. This video, made by a Write of Passage alumnus, is the best description I’ve seen. Ten minutes and you’ll forever enhance your understanding of contemporary, media-driven politics (which I also discuss in this essay).
Jaques Ellul and Marshall McLuhan: I’ve been pulling at a bizarre intellectual paradox. I am simultaneously a strong believer in progress, but believe we ignore the wisdom of tradition at our own peril. Drawing on the two edges of a single string makes me a progressive and a reactionary. I’ve been studying mid-20th-century technological theory to resolve the tension. I’ve cited McLuhan in a handful of essays, and Ellul’s ideas mesh with McLuhan’s observations. This is the best introduction I’ve found to the similarities and differences between them. You’ll enjoy the ideas, even if you don’t have any background knowledge on Ellul or McLuhan.
Dishwashers: There are two ways to read this article. First, you can read it for the literal interpretation. Dishwashers aren’t as powerful as they used to be. They used to wash our dishes in less than an hour, and leave them shiny and clean. But today, it takes 3-4 hours to clean your dishes, and dishwashers don’t work as well as they used to. That brings me to the second way you can read this article. Deep down, it’s a story about the downsides of regulation and environmentalism. Read the article with both lenses.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act: One of the core failings of the U.S. political system is that we focus so much on the executive branch that we lose sight of crucial pieces of legislation in other parts of the government. These days, certain lawmakers are fighting to repeal Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act. Basically, it protects publishers of information from the repercussions of distributing ideas created by another content provider. I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not repealing the act is a good idea. But to help you learn about it, here’s the Wikipedia introduction, the law itself, and an explanation from the Federal Communications Commission.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Damn, what a magnificent book. The story isn’t very good, but only because it’s a canvas to explore the philosophy of love and the tensions of a life well-lived. This quote is a wonderful summary of what makes the book so magical: “The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But … the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes a man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.” Earlier this year, one of my favorite painters told me he‘ll never live a luxurious life because it’ll distance him from the human experience. Pain can be challenging, he said. But it can also magnify the experience of being alive.
The Psychology of Human Misjudgment: This one is all the way on the opposite spectrum of life. Charlie Munger gave this speech at Harvard University in 1995. In it, he outlines shows how humans make bad decisions by drawing upon lessons from behavioral psychology. You can read the full transcript or listen to the audio.
Designing a New Old Home: Simon Sarris writes with a level of soul that you rarely find on the Internet, which I aspire to whenever I tap my keyboard. This two part series outlines his thought-process behind designing a rural home in New Hampshire, from ceiling heights, to room sizes, to the carpets in the kitchen. On his recommendation, I’ve also been enjoying a book called Get Your House Right, which applies the wisdom of traditional architecture to modern living.
The Disadvantages of an Elite Education: I’ve always liked William Deresiewicz. In the past, I’ve recommended his Solitude and Leadershipessay, but he’s at his best while writing about higher education. He spent two dozen years at Yale and Columbia, where he dissected the psychology of elite students. Though almost every American student wants to attend an Ivy League school, this essay highlights the drawbacks of doing so, and he does it with awe-inducing prose.
On Re-doing Things: Kevin Kelly once said: “To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.” The essay explores this idea in a kind of soul-driven fashion that you rarely see on the Internet. It made me realize that heart-wrenching creative work is driven by two forces: the desire to produce and the pain of actually doing it, and only once the thirst of desire is stronger than the anguish of hard work can you do great work.
Michael Polanyi: A very smart friend turned me onto Polanyi’s ideas. Most of his work is about the intersection between markets, capitalism, and society, but I also enjoyed learning about Polanyi’s Paradox — the idea that we know more than we can explain. If you’re interested in Polanyi, start with this essay called The Uruk Machine, which also talks about the work of James Scott and Eric Hoffer.
Solitude and Leadership: This speech is fantastic. It’s about why leaders need to spend time alone, even though most people think of solitude as the antithesis of leadership. It was delivered by William Deresiewicz at West Point. It’s as spiritual as it is insightful.
Roger Scruton: When one of the leading conservative thinkers died, and I knew almost nothing about him. I wanted to change that. As Nassim Taleb wrote: “Rest in Peace, Roger Scruton. Your memory and your work will be remembered. Ad vitam aeternam. Fiercely independent, he was one of the last thinkers who used their own head.” Of everything he’s published, I think he’s best while talking about beauty, and I recommend his documentary on the subject. BBC took it down because it didn’t stand with their values, so the only available version is pirated and has Portuguese subtitles. Of course, this is how you know it’s a great documentary. He also has a short book called Beauty. For an introduction, I also recommend this 11-minute video on why modern culture is degenerating and this essay on the cultural significance of pop music.
Mimetic Theory: This is an unbelievable explanation of Mimetic Theory, and it’s probably the best one I’ve ever seen. The theory was developed by Rene Girard, a cultural anthropologist who history will remember as one of the greatest scholars of all-time. If you’re looking for a video summary, I recommend this series of five interviews with Girard himself. Peter Thiel and Girard were close friends. Thiel spoke at Girard’s funeral, and I wrote extensively about the influence of Mimetic Theory on Thiel’s worldview in this essay.
John David Ebert: Ebert is a brilliant orator, with a rich understanding of observant, but under-the-radar thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and Oswald Spengler. Ebert’s work is a fusion of religious studies, media studies, and contemporary philosophy. Start with this serious of videos on Marshall McLuhan. And if they catch you, check out Ebert’s collection of published books.
Interfluidity: This is an obscure but fantastic blog. It sits at the intersection of government, economics, and technology. In particular, I enjoyed this essay called Economic Geography of a Universal Basic Income, which argues against the economic consensus that we should help as many people move to cities as possible. To date, it’s the best counter-argument I have seen against my essay, Grow the Merry-Go-Round.
The Liquid Self: A prescient essay from 2013 which predicted the shift in identity brought by the Internet. It re-thinks the permanence of the social media profile and imagines the possibility of a living, fluid, and always changing identity made possible by the Internet. The post used to live on Snapchat’s website. If you’re interested in Evan Spiegel’s early thinking, I also recommend this 4-minute video about social media culture and online communication.
The Electricity Metaphor: I’m surprised that this 2007 TED talk is so rarely shared. In it, Jeff Bezos uses electricity as a metaphor for the Internet’s future by comparing the dot-com boom and bust not to the Gold Rush, but to the early days of the power industry.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: This is my go-to resource for everything philosophy. It’s like a better philosophy-focused Wikipedia with more information than you’ll ever be able to consume about the major ideas and thinkers. Fair warning… if you like philosophy, this is a black hole.
Postscript on Societies of Control: In this short essay, Gilles Deleuze argues that modernity has been characterized by three stages: (1) before Napoleon, we lived in societies of sovereignty, (2) after World War II, we lived in societies of discipline, and (3) we’re now moving into a society of control. The essay anticipated many modern developments, such as the ability for big technology companies to shape speech and behavior without ordinary people realizing how strongly they’re being controlled. Before reading, here’s a summary.
Based Deleuze: Justin Murphy published a book called Based Deleuze, about a philosopher named Gilles Deleuze, who history will remember as one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. Depending on the tier you choose, the book comes with a series of lectures from Justin himself. I recommend Murphy’s introduction because Deleuze is notoriously difficult you understand (you know, those French philosophers), and his talks will help you ease into the material. If you’re interested in philosophy, you might also enjoy Johannes Achill Niederhauser’s YouTube channel about classical philosophy.
The Nuclear Family: This is an exceptional explanation of why big families aren’t as common as they used to be. Many of the major political battles, such as free healthcare and universal basic income, are downstream from the way family structures have changed. This string of ideas summarizes the essay well: “We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families.” But this piece goes deeper in order to ask: What happened?
Justin Murphy: I’m wildly impressed with this up-and-coming philosopher. Murphy’s work is a reaction to the intellectual claustrophobia of academia. I can say with 100% certainty that you won’t agree with all his ideas. Nevertheless, I admire his intellectual courage, so I hope more philosophers can use the Internet to pursue fringe ideas that need to be discussed. Start with his podcast, his Twitter account, or his YouTube channel.
Aaron Lewis: When it comes to the intersection of technology, culture, and society, this guy is one of the most under-rated thinkers out there. In particular, I recommend his articles on post-truth in the age of the Internet, and writing pseudonymously on the Internet.
Battling to the End: If you’re interested in Rene Girard, start with his interviews instead of his books. This heuristic applies to many great thinkers who are hard to understand because people tend to be easier to understand in spoken word than text. Here’s a collection of quotes from Battling to the End, a series of conversations about the apocalyptic threats hanging over our planet and the mimetic laws of violence.
David Foster Wallace: I’ve been whirling down the David Foster Wallace rabbit hole for three weeks now, and it’s showing no signs of stopping. At the big-picture level, I find his novels too sprawling and hard to follow. But his interviews are fantastic. To begin, I recommend this book of five interviews he conducted towards the end of his life and this article about his writing process (excerpted from a book called Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors).
Generic Drugs: A fascinating podcast with Peter Attia and Katherine Eban discussing widespread fraud in the generic drug industry. Attia hosts one of my favorite podcasts. Eban is an investigative journalist and the author of Bottle of Lies, which outlines the history of corruption in the generic drugs industry through the lens of an Indian drug company named Ranbaxy. This episode is an absolute roller-coaster.
The Moral Equivalent of War: An 1906 essay from William James where he argues society needs a way to re-create the strengthening, hardening, and uniting factors that war provides. Without a “moral equivalent of war,” our society will degenerate. The essay inspired a number of American service programs like the Peace Corps, VISTA, and AmeriCorps. If you resonate with the essay, I recommend Tribe by Sebastian Junger.
Nassim Taleb’s Book Reviews: If you’re looking for book recommendations, I recommend Nassim Taleb’s book reviews on Amazon. If you’re interested in evolution, investing, or statistics, this page is for you. Of all the books, Explaining Social Behavior caught my attention the most.
Eric Weinstein’s Old Edge Articles: First, I need to make sure you’re familiar with Eric Weinstein’s podcast, The Portal. If not, stop what you’re doing and start listening as soon as you can. I recommend the opening episode with Peter Thiel or his conversation with Anna Khackiyan. But I also recommend the articles Eric wrote for Edge magazine. You’ll find all the articles here. I recommend this article on excellence or this one about string theory.
Seeking Wisdom: Peter Bevelin is one of the most under-rated authors there is. His book Seeking Wisdom was one of the first books that made me realize how little I knew about the world. Building off the ideas of people like Charles Darwin and Charlie Munger, it shocked me into intellectual curiosity. If this is your kind of thing, I recommend a 75-minute speech by Charlie Munger called The Psychology of Human Misjudgement which I listened to on repeat all week.
Capitalism and Schizophrenia: This is the best rabbit hole I’ve been down in a while. In the essay, Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed laid out the theory behind his company years before he started it. His essay builds upon the work of Fredric Jameson, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to present a new perspective on the relationship between identity and capitalism. The best explanation of Peretti’s essay comes from a YouTube channel called Cuck Philosophy. I also recommend this background article from Vox.
Jose Ricon: This is one of the most under-rated blogs I know. Jose writes about the intersection of science and technology with more thoroughness as anybody I know. Imagine if all journalism was this good. To start, I recommend his deep-dives into longevity, the slowdown in physics, and Bloom’s two-sigma problem for mastery learning. This blog will make you say “I can’t believe this is free.”
Beauty: When Roger Scruton passed away, Nassim Taleb wrote: “Fiercely independent, [Roger Scruton] was one of the last thinkers who used their own head.” I didn’t know who he was, so I watched as many of his interviews on YouTube as I could find. I also read his book Introduction to Beauty: A Very Short Introduction and watched his documentary on the same subject — both of which are excellent. Start with the documentary, though. It’s superb.
Breaking Smart: Venkatesh Rao is brilliant and this is his best piece of work. With only eight reviews on Amazon, it’s the ultimate hidden gem. The book is about how “software is eating the world,” and it includes topics like the dismantling of the traditional life script and the evolution of online work. You can purchase the book on Kindle or read the entire thing for free online. These ideas are a decade ahead of their time.
David Harvey: This is the best introduction to Karl Marx I’ve found. I binge-listened to the Reading Capital podcast series and bought Harvey’s book, A Companion to Capital. They are both fantastic. The problem with studying Marx is most modern scholars twist his ideas into a political agenda. But Harvey does none of that. He focuses on the text instead. If you want to read Marx, you can visit Marxists.org instead of buying his books.
Horseshoe Theory: I see this idea everywhere. Extreme opposites have a tendency to look the same. For example, a far-right movement and a far-left movement can be equally violent or desire a similar outcome. People on both sides are more similar to each other than they are to people in the center. Here’s a summary.
Common Knowledge: One of the most important ideas I know. Often, it’s not enough for one person to know something. The dynamics of a situation change when everybody knows that everybody knows something. That’s why sermons are repetitive and often have a call-and-response style. Read Ads Don’t Work that Way if you want something quick or Rational Ritual if you want a book-length treatment of the idea.
Tools for Conversation: A fun and very detailed re-imagination of what chat messaging should look like. Basically, the structure of modern messaging platforms doesn’t reflect the way the brain works or the way people engage with ideas in real life.
Google Platforms Rant: This might be the most famous memo in recent Silicon Valley history. It was written by a Google engineer named Steve Yegge. Focusing on the differences between Google and Amazon (where he used to work), the memo was supposed to be shared internally, but it accidentally leaked.
Predicting Horse Races: When it comes to predicting the future, too much information can be a bad thing. This transcript tells the story of a study done by a world-class psychologist named Paul Slovic in 1974 and shows how horse gamblers can deceive themselves as the amount of information increases. Substitute horse gamblers with investors and this article becomes even more interesting. (If you’re interested in predictions, check out Dominic Cummings’ review of Superforecasters).
OkCupid Dating Blog: This blog is so interesting that most of the posts were deleted. Here’s the backstory: an online dating platform named OKCupid shared its best insights on online dating, and focused more on the data than political correctness. Here’s a Reddit thread about the blog. In particular, I recommend the articles about people lying about their height and attractiveness distributions between men and women.
Seth Godin’s Blog: Nobody writes short articles better than Seth Godin. If you’re looking for something to read, start with his top 100 articles. They’re a masterclass in clear writing. You can also check out my interview with him here.
The Love that Lays the Swale in Rows: Woah, what a fantastic essay. It’s an excerpt from the last chapter of Nicholas Carr’s book, The Glass Cage. To date, it’s the best argument I’ve seen against automation. The whole piece is thought-provoking, and the writing quality is the cherry on top.
The Right to Useful Unemployment: Every now and then, it is my duty to put Ivan Illych on your radar. He wrote in the 1970s, but his ideas still feel prescient. He argues that expertise and technology are Faustian Bargains — deals with the devil that destroy communities, tarnish mental health, and dehumanize people. You won’t necessarily agree with him, but his books will introduce you to critiques you won’t find elsewhere.
The Origins of Entrepreneurship: This paper explores the core personality traits of entrepreneurs. The authors identify a few, the most interesting of which is that they’re more likely to have done “illicit activities.” But the key line is that “the number one predictor of entrepreneurship is asymmetric information about skill levels.” By that, the authors are talking about people who are more talented than they are credentialed. For example, they’re the kinds of people who know how to build a business, even though they never went to college.
A Critique of Stoicism: Simon Sarris is one of my favorite up-and-coming Internet writers, and this essay is an excellent place to begin with his work. It’s a critique of Stoicism, using David Foster Wallace’s This is Water speech. Sarris’ essay is the best place to begin, but if you want to dive deeper down the Stoicism rabbit hole, read this essay on the ethics of Stoicism.
Nassim Taleb Statistical Videos: I’ll outsource this recommendation to some rando in the YouTube comments: “Taleb is the only guy who can make a 3-minute video, and get 30 minutes of watch time per video.” That’s exactly right. Start with this 3-minute video on single point estimates in statistics, then browse the entire channel.
Johnathan Bi: This guy is one of the best up-and-coming writers I know. He writes exceptional book summaries, such as this one on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. If that’s not your style, I recommend this one on Rene Girard’s Battling to the End or this short one on Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.
David Foster Wallace Interviews: I devoured David Foster Wallace’s interviews, trying to understand why he’s the voice for a generation. His writing is exceptional, but also sad, depressing, and at times, mopey. History will remember him as one of the most iconic authors of the late 20th century. Start with this unedited interview, which is as revealing as it is awkward. Then, watch his interview with Charlie Rose. As you do, pay attention to his awareness of the moment and his obsession with what other people think of him.
Kevin Kwok: I first met Kevin in New York City. After two hours of conversation over a cocktail, I called a friend and said “I just got drinks with one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.” I can confirm that’s true. I hosted Kevin on the podcast six months later, and now I’m a passionate consumer of his ideas. In particular, I recommend his essays on the origins of populism, and this one about Rich Barton, the founder of Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor.
Fourth-World Country: Everybody is familiar with the ideas of first-world, second-world, and third-world countries, but this short article describes a model for a fourth-world country. It shines a light on the social and economic distress people now feel in first-world countries.
Peter Turchin: I can’t believe I just found this guy. I’ve only read one of his essays: Intra-Elite Competition: A Key Concept for Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Societies. Phenomenal.
How Long-Haul Trucking Works: Supply chains impact all our lives, but they are mostly outside our field of view. Trucking moves the vast majority of the world’s freight, and 73% of America’s domestic freight. This video explains the economics of the industry, from driver salaries to truck stops on the highway. The video was made by an excellent channel called Wendover Productions. One of the commenters described it best: “Wendover is like a solar eclipse: He doesn’t come out often, but when he does it’s a treat.”
Age of Abundance: This article deserves way more attention. It was first published in 2016 by Tal Shachar (here’s my podcast with him), and so much of it has come true. For years, I used Tal’s essays as a roadmap for how the future would unfold. He predicted it with stunning accuracy. This essay focuses on the shift from information scarcity to abundance, and how it will invert the media industry.
My Instagram: If you haven’t heard of n + 1 magazine, it’s time to change that. Each of the long-form essays provides a window into modern culture with a writing style that reminds me of the Paris Review. This Instagram essay tells the story of the author’s evolving relationship with the platform, and how the world around her became optimized for the Instagram aesthetic.
Awakening from the Meaning Crisis: A thought-provoking YouTube series where John Vervaeke explores why modern citizens are so desperate for meaning in their lives. His premise is that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis, highlighted by increases in anxiety, despair, and depression. Here’s a 3-minute introduction. If you’re just getting started, here are some notes on the first episode.
Tradition is Smarter Than You Are: As a general rule, the faster information flows, the less a society will value tradition, and today, information flows faster than ever. Our respect for the wisdom of our ancestors is further diminished by social media’s bias for the present, which I call the Never-Ending Now. But tradition is often a strategy for helping culture survive over long periods of time, even though the people within it are short-term oriented. This article does a superb job of explaining the now-forgotten value of tradition.
The Geopolitics of the United States: A superb two-part series on America’s geography and how it shapes the country’s politics. The USA has a lot of structural advantages. For example, it has a big ocean on both sides of the country, the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland, more major ports than the rest of the Western hemisphere, and more navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined.
In Praise of Idleness: A 1932 essay from Bertrand Russell where he talks about the cult of workaholism, and what we should do to avoid it. He talks about the problems with seeing hard work as inherently virtuous, and how our obsession with hard work leads to a concept for stillness. Here’s a summary from Maria Popova.
Webster’s 1913 Dictionary: Write with a better dictionary. Modern dictionaries have lazy definitions that focus too much on simplicity at the cost of precision. Instead of using the default one on your computer, bookmark this site, and start using the Webster’s 1913 dictionary. Alternatively, you can download it for your Kindle or computer with this link.
Netflix: An 8-part essay series about Netflix from Matthew Ball, who is the best big media analyst I know. Every essay in the series covers a different aspect of how people misunderstand the company. Topics include the company’s content budget, their product & technology stack, how they think about scale, the paradox of the original series term, and how bond markets or cash losses will shape their future.
The Utopia of Rules: David Graeber is one of those authors who is often wrong, but always interesting. In this interview, Graeber talks about how society has squeezed the eccentrics out of institutions, homogenized academia, and invented drugs to cope with bureaucracy’s tedious, all-consuming sprawl.
Alice Schroeder on Warren Buffett: An illuminating interview with Warren Buffet’s biographer. I particularly enjoyed this quote: “He’s cautious and non-confrontational. He’s wary of extremes in all forms. He’s insistently reluctant to criticize anyone and hypersensitive to criticism himself. He needs to be liked and needs approval, but paradoxically is not a people-pleaser.” The best parts were about his relationships and hyper-awareness of risk.
My Struggle: We’ll close with a couple of books. First, we’ll start with the first volume in a 6-part series by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I picked it up in San Francisco on the recommendation of two friends, who both rated it among the best memoirs they’ve ever read. I also enjoyed the author’s interview with Tyler Cowen, who called him one of “the great writers of our civilization.” If you read nothing else, I recommend the first four pages about death. My goodness, they’re well-written. They’re anchored by this (now famous) opening string: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.“
Definite Optimism as Human Capital: This is one of my all-time favorite online essays. In it, Dan Wang makes the case that optimism is a goal worth striving for. He suggests we do that by gaining a greater appreciation for industry, extending the technological frontier, and the benefits of economic growth. Ideas from this essay are sprinkled throughout my 15,000-word essay about Peter Thiel.
George Soros’ Theory: One of the most successful investors of the 20th century laid out his Karl Popper inspired investment philosophy in a series of lectures about the Open Society, reflexivity, capitalism, and the financial crisis.
Bryson DeChambeau: During my freshman year of high school, I played in a golf tournament in Fresno and watched Bryson his balls on the range next to me. I had never seen a golfer swing a club so smoothly. From the instant I saw him play, I knew he would turn pro. Today, he is the 7th ranked golfer in the world. He also hits the ball farther than any other golfer on the PGA Tour. Most impressive of all, he’s climbed up the world golf rankings with a tactful fitness regimen and on-course strategy. His rise to stardom is one of the most interesting stories in the sports world. For more, I recommend this Golf Digest article, this interview with his swing coach Chris Como, and this interview about his off-season fitness regimen. People call him “The Golf Scientist.” Even if you aren’t a golfer, there’s a lot to learn from him. His rise should be a much bigger story.
Music and Burial in Human Evolution: If you aren’t familiar with Kevin Simler’s writing, it’s time to change that. He writes at the intersection of anthropology, psychology, and evolution. His entire archive is worth reading but I recommend this essay on music in particular. Humans are the only ground-dwelling species that sings (the others like birds, gibbons, dolphins, whales, and seals sing from water or the air). Of all the animals that sing, humans are the only ones that use rhythm. This essay explores why.
Andrew Kortina: One of my new favorite essayists. I recently read his article called Virtualization, Forklifts, Microphones, Shipping Containers, Video Conferencing, Stethoscopes. In it, the author talks about the acceleration of certain kinds of technological adoption because COVID created winners and losers in the economy. When it comes to the intersection of technology, labor, and automation, Kortina is one of the best writers I know. Here’s his full essay archive. You might like his essay Social Systems are Computations that Minimize Uncertainty.
Mark Zuckerberg Interview in 2005: “It’s essentially an online directory for students, where people can go and look up other people and find relevant information about them. Everything from what they’re interested in, to their contact information, what course they’re taking, who they know, who their friends are, what people say about them, and what photos they have now. It’s mostly a utility for people to figure out what’s going on in their lives and in their friends’ lives, for people they care about.”
My Life Pouring Concrete: One man’s haunting perspective on the construction industry, which he says is plagued by alcoholism and opioid addiction. This quote stuck out: “Most of the men I worked with had little formal education. Many had a criminal record. Men working in construction and extraction have the highest suicide rate of any industry, as well as the highest rate of opioid addiction and (predictably) overdoses. Alcoholism rates are second only to the mining industry.” An excellent read, even if it’s a difficult one.
Plato’s Views on Education: I read Book 7 of The Republic by Plato and wanted to dive deeper into his philosophy of education. At the childhood level, he believed in a free approach to learning. As he famously wrote: “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore, do not use compulsion, but let early education be rather a sort of amusement; this will better enable you to find out the natural bent of the child.” For a detailed summary, I recommend this excellent Quora answer.
The Closing of the American Mind: This book is worth returning to, in part because it was one of the best-selling books in America in 1987. It remains as controversial today as it was when it was published. But the author Alan Bloom isn’t a shmuck. He wrote one of the canonical translations for The Republic (free PDF here) and studied under Leo Strauss too. Since this was so popular, there are excellent analyses of it too. For a written one, I recommend this praise-filled article in the American Conservative or this critique in Rolling Stone. Or, if you prefer audio, here’s a one-hour summary.
The Liquid Self: Most people don’t know this, but Snapchat used to publish outstanding blog posts. Luckily, the articles are still live. They’re like little Easter eggs which are hidden so only the initiated can find them. For example, this prescient 2013 article about identity in the Internet age is still the best thing I’ve read on the subject. It was penned by Nathan Jurgenson, who just published a fun little book called The Social Photo.
David McCollough Interview: One of my all-time favorite interviews with one of the great American biographers. My father read his book about the Wright Brothers and said it was superb. The Pulitzer Prize award winner has also written books about John Adams, Harry Truman, and The Brooklyn Bridge. Not a single one of his books has ever gone out of print. I actually haven’t read any of them yet, so I can only recommend this excellent interview.
Robert Kurson: Woah. His books are non-fiction narratives at their best. Rocket Men is an excellent recounting of the Apollo 8 space mission where three astronauts flew around the moon. I was reading snippets from the book and enjoyed them so much that I immediately purchased another book of his: Shadow Divers.
Post Office: Aaron Gordon wrote a newsletter about the New York City subway system. After, he created a newsletter about the United States Postal Service. Gordon is at his best when he writes about bureaucracy, incentives, and organizational management. He nailed it with the subway system and to date, I haven’t found anybody who writes about those topics better. If you want to read about the NY subway system, I recommend this article about “The Subway Action Plan.”
Academy of Ideas: A series of short podcasts and YouTube videos, with transcripts of every episode to make note-taking easy. In particular, I enjoyed this one about Modern Art and the Decline of Civilization, which builds upon Nietzche’s Will to Power and Nikolai Berdyaev’s The Meaning of History, which looks like an excellent book. I’ll remember Carl Jung’s quote that art is “the unwitting mouthpiece of the psychic secrets of [the] times.” Through their creations, artists give form to the underlying psychology of their culture.
Christianity: Studying Christianity is one of the best ways to understand the West. I can’t believe I just discovered Peter Kreeft. His website has in-depth articles about evidence for the resurrection of Christ and the uniqueness of Christianity. The friend who introduced me to Peter’s work is a Rene Girard scholar and he recommended this introduction to Christianity as the best book-length treatment of the subject.
Elena Shalneva: We need a word for the sadness you feel after you’ve read everything an author’s ever published, and there’s nothing new left to explore. That’s exactly how I feel about Elena’s work. Start with this essay In Defence of the Humanities or this one about work as the tragedy of our age.
Why the West Needs Plato: A good overview of Plato’s philosophy of government. He was skeptical of too much democracy, so he wanted society to be run by guardians who focused on long-term prosperity and weren’t influenced by the winds of culture. Too much democracy, he said, would give way to anarchy and tyranny.
Julian Lehr: One of the Internet’s best up-and-coming writers. This essay is a critique of note-taking apps, inspired by Basecamp’s new Hey email product. He argues that the current paradigm of note-taking apps such as Evernote and Notion suffer from being stand-alone apps. Note-taking should be more spacial and should work more like an operating system for your life. Right now, there is too much context switching between apps.
An Introduction to the Kelly Criterion: A formula that calculates what percentage of your net worth you should wage in order to maximize your expected wealth increase. This quote explains why the formula is important: “A trader with mediocre strategy and a great risk model will become fairly successful. A trader with a great strategy and a mediocre risk model will become bankrupt.” I also enjoyed this one from Ed Seykota: “There are old traders, and there are bold traders. There are very few old, bold traders.” But the most interesting part of the article was learning that traders shouldn’t actually bet on the Kelly-optimal formula because the real world rarely has known probabilities and payoffs.
Marshall McLuhan: This newsletter only has one rule: You must be somewhat familiar with McLuhan’s ideas. They’re too important to ignore, and unlike most intellectuals, he’s a blast to listen to. He was a media theorist who did most of his work in the 60s and 70s. With that in mind, here’s my starter guide. If you want to read something, start with The Medium is the Massageor McLuhan Misunderstood. If you prefer to listen, you’ll like this explainer from Terrance McKenna or my conversation with his grandson (Listen on iTunes or Spotify).
Athletes Don’t Own Their Tattoos: Here’s an interesting question: Should athletes own the tattoos on their bodies? Some legal experts say that tattoos are technically owned by the tattoo artist, not the person with the actual tattoos. Some artists are suing video games that display their tattoos, such as the ones on LeBron James’ body. To avoid the commotion, some professional athletes now sign contracts with artists before the needle goes into their body. Here’s a short introduction.
Ted Polhemus: An under-rated fashion theorist who writes about the sociology of the body and how we communicate with style. In particular, I recommend his articles on the relationship between appearance and identity and why body decoration makes us human. If you’re feeling ambitious, he wrote a short book in 1978 called Fashion & Anti-Fashion.
WEIRD Societies: Joseph Henrich is one of my favorite academics (here’s my podcast interview with him). I found him through his excellent book, The Secret of Our Success. More recently, he’s been studying WEIRD societies (the acronym stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic). For more, I recommend his talk at UBS, his 2010 paper on WEIRD societies, or this article about the Church’s influence on Western kinship.
It’s Charisma, Stupid: An old article from Paul Graham, where he argues that the more charismatic candidate has won every election since 1964. Why? Television, which rewarded a different kind of presidential candidate. He cites an exception from the 1968 election but says it actually proves the rule because television debates were still evolving. Here’s a relevant data point from my What the Hell is Going On essay: “During the U.S. presidential election in 1968, the average soundbite—that is, any footage of a candidate speaking uninterrupted—was still a little more than 40 seconds, but that had fallen to less than 10 seconds at the end of the 80s and 7.8 seconds in 2000.”
Oxford Very Short Introductions: I worked through the founding articles of the United States and starting with this book about the Constitution. It’s part of this excellent series of introductory books from Oxford. If you read nothing else but these books for three years, you’d be the smartest polymath in your entire social group. It’s not that exciting, but it’s an excellent learning strategy.
McLuhan Galaxy: Marshall McLuhan is one of my all-time favorite writers, but he’s notoriously hard to read. Luckily, the folks at McLuhan Galaxy curate his ideas and put them into readable prose. Understanding his ideas is table stakes for understanding how the Internet is changing the world. But instead of reading his books, start with this website.
Why Be Jewish?: I read this short book to prepare for my interview with Rabbi David Wolpe. It’s written for people considering a return to the faith or people who are drawn to conversion, but it doubles as an introduction to Jewish values for anybody interested in the subject. For a more secular treatment of the same idea, I recommend Oxford’s short introduction to Judaism.
Michael Nielsen’s Quotes Page: This page is so good that it makes me jealous that I don’t have something similar. Michael Nielsen (who I interviewed here) compiled his favorite quotes from people like Richard Feynman, Brian Eno, and Susan Sontag. Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t heard of Michael, it’s time to change that. Start with this essay about developing transformative tools for thought.
Oswald Spengler: One of the most under-rated philosophers out there. As an early 20th century writer, his work is a blend of Joseph Campbell, Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. His most famous book is called The Decline of the West, which hints at his pessimism about the future of civilization. For an introduction, I recommend this short article or John David Ebert’s lecture series.
In Praise of the Gods: A soul-filled essay from Simon Sarris, where he critiques rationality as one of our most powerful tools, but also one of our worst excesses. The essay is an argument for post-rational wisdom and a more intuitive orientation towards the world. This is a masterpiece.
Lee Kuan Yew Speech: Lee Kuan Yew served as the Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 – 1990, and this is my favorite speech of his. It conveys a seriousness that the American government should learn from. This is my favorite quote: “I ignore polling as a method of government. I think that shows a certain weakness of mind, an inability to chart a course. Whichever way the wind blows. Whichever way the media encourages the people to go, you follow. You’re not a leader.”
Andrey Miroshnichenko: I’m going to do something I rarely do and share a book I haven’t read. But this one is worth it. Miroshnichenko wrote one of my favorite books of all time: Human as Media. He’s a criminally under-rated media theorist, and on Tuesday, he messaged me to tell me about the launch of his new book: Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers.
Preference Falsification: One of my favorite ideas from Timur Kuran. It comes from a book called Public Truths, Private Lies (here’s a written summary and a podcast about it), where Kuran shows how people lie about their beliefs to look good in social situations. As Martin Luther King once said: “Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideas hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.” Once you learn about preference falsification, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. For more ideas like this, here’s a list of 50 that shaped my worldview.
Mimetic Traps: This article belongs in the “everybody should read this category.” The author reflects on his experience in academia, where he was so focused on imitating his peers and pursuing competition that he ended up wasting his time on meaningless work.
Reflections on Asperger’s Syndrome: Peter Thiel has long condemned the modern world for making it so difficult for people to follow-through on original ideas that founders with Asperger’s account for the lion’s share of successful startups. Too strong a dose can obviously be crippling. People with Asperger’s are unemployed at rates that far exceed the general population. But a smaller dose may increase the chances of making a breakthrough innovation.
The Sabbath: Rabbi David Wolpe strongly recommended this little book when I interviewed him. It’s 100 pages, so you can read it all in one sitting. The writing is exquisite too. The author argues that we need the Sabbath to honor time because we spend the rest of our lives honoring space. We work in service of the grand, the concrete, and the magnificent, but only with the Sabbath do we honor the majesty of time.
Loneliness and Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt is famous for her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and this summary of her thoughts on loneliness as it pertains to totalitarianism is superb. In particular, I resonated with her distinction between loneliness and the state of simply being alone.
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: I have such a love-hate relationship with this book. I can’t stand the writing. It’s written like an ultra-conversational blog post, which makes it hard to take it seriously. But some parts of the book are fantastic. It’s written by a Portland-based Christian pastor who makes a strong case for taking a weekly Sabbath and re-thinking our relationship with time. With that said, the people in my book club loved the book. One guy has already read it three times this year.
Fallibalism: I discovered this idea in The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. It outlines a philosophy of constant learning and a consistent march towards truth. In addition to correcting your past mistakes, you aim to question the assumptions that everybody takes for granted. Or, as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it: “Fallibilism is the epistemological thesis that no belief can ever be rationally supported or justified in a conclusive way. Always, there remains a possible doubt as to the truth of the belief.” To begin, I recommend this quote from Deutsch.
Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality: Robert Pirsig is famous for a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s an excellent book that has almost nothing to do with motorcycles. But instead of recommending the entire book, I’ll point you to his metaphysics of quality. In the book, he tries to define quality even though it precedes any intellectual description of it. Like beauty, it exists as a perceptual experience that words cannot describe. Start with the Wikipedia article or this Philosophy Now explainer.
Elite Overproduction: Peter Turchin is one of America’s fastest up-and-coming social thinkers. He presents a grim picture of America’s future in his book, Ages of Discord. Specifically, he blames “elite overproduction” for many of America’s challenges and argues that there’s a surplus of smart young Americans fighting for admission to elite colleges and graduates fighting for the same job slots. All that competition, he says, causes society to fracture and is one of the chief causes of political instability. In both cases, the number of people fighting for admission is rising much faster than the number of available slots. That’s partially why schooling and urban housing prices are rising so fast. For an explainer, I recommend this Atlantic article or this explainer from Bloomberg’s Noah Smith.
The Enlightenment: I’ve been studying the Enlightenment. The Wikipedia page is superb and introduced me to people like Cesare Beccaria, who condemned torture and the death penalty to become one of the founding thinkers in the field of criminology. Inspired in part by the article, I read The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon. For a different perspective on the Enlightenment, I recommend Johnathan Bi’s masterful summary of Dialectic of the Enlightenment, which is one of the most important works of philosophy to come out of the Frankfurt School.
Arthur Chandler: There are few things I enjoy more than finding an ugly website with excellent information. It makes the information feel like a secret. Arthur Chandler is a professor at San Francisco State University. Though I recommend playing around on his website, you should start with this article on Oswald Spengler’s morphology or this one about Plato’s Cave. You’ll also find ideas about style, mathematics, dance, photography, and technology.
Münchhausen Trilemma: This idea comes from the world of epistemology. It shows the impossibility of proving any truth, even in the fields of logic and mathematics. Whenever somebody asks for further proof on an argument, there are only three places the speaker can fall back on: (1) the circular argument, in which the proof of some proposition is supported only by that proposition, (2) the regressive argument, where each argument requires further proof, and (3) the dogmatic argument, which rests on accepted principles which are merely asserted rather than defended. Those definitions are from Wikipedia, which provides an excellent introduction.
Peter Thiel and Garry Kasparov: I’ve written extensively about Peter Thiel, and this is one of his most insightful videos. In it, he speaks with chess champion Garry Kasparov about technology, chess, human rights, and the future of the global economy. I wish there were more videos like this of two smart people hanging out and having a casual conversation, beyond the standard interview format. For a preview of the full video, I recommend this six-minute clip.
Century of the Self: A 2013 documentary about how people in power have used Sigmund Freud’s theories to control and manipulate crowds. It discusses the relationship between Freud and Edward Bernays, who was Freud’s nephew and the founder of the public relations industry. If you’re interested in advertising, narrative control, and crowd psychology, you will love this documentary.
Zena Hitz: Hitz is a tutor at St. John’s College, which is famous for its Great Books program, and the author of one of my favorite recently published books called Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. Instead of diving straight into the book, I recommend her interview with Russ Roberts or her essay called Freedom and the Intellectual Life. If you really want to fall down the rabbit hole, she collected all her work here.
The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class: Hitz turned me onto this 550-page book. When we think of the classics, we usually think of academics and aristocrats. But this book shows how erudite the British working classes have historically been with stories about their passion for classic literature and philosophy. The book goes into more depth than I’d like, so I recommend either this review or this one.
History, Science, & Math
What it Means to be a Historian: And… now I’m obsessed with David McCullough’s work. I devoured his Wright Brothers biography, and now I’m pouring through his interviews. So far, my top recommendation is an interview and lecture he gave at a National Endowment for the Humanities ceremony. It’s no coincidence that McCullough, like many top writers, is a painter. To write is to be a professional observationalist. You have to look more closely than others. Nothing illuminates the wondrous complexity of sight like trying to paint what you see.
Learn Numbers to Leave Numbers: It’s easy to hate on rote learning because it’s boring, but here, Josh Waitzkin presents an argument for the utility of it. Learning can be fun. There’s no doubt about it. But mastering the boring basics deeply is the price you pay to eventually move onto higher-order creative tasks. The potential for mastery begins when technical information has been studied and practiced so deeply that it comes to feel like natural intelligence. Once you’ve mastered a subject, you should hand the keys of control to your intuition. Waitzkin gives the example of chess. Beginners learn that each piece has a point total. Pawns are worth one point, bishops and knights are worth three, a rook is worth five, and a queen is worth nine. Novices should count these point totals in their head. But once you’re an expert, the point totals disappear and become more fluid. He writes: “The pieces will achieve a more flowing and integrated value system. They will move across the board as fields of force. What was once seen mathematically is now felt intuitively.” Start with rote learning so you can transcend it.
Alexey Guzey, on Sleep: It’s so rare for somebody to question the idea that more sleep is better. This is a fairly compelling argument against not sleeping so much, though I think the comparisons to fasting and weightlifting are over-stated, mostly because I hate being tired so much. Here’s how the author summarizes the piece: (1) since comfortable sleep is an unnatural modern phenomenon, we should expect sleepiness to be normal, like hunger; (2) depression comes from oversleeping, while mania comes from acute sleep deprivation; (3) occasional acute sleep deprivation is good for your health and promotes more efficient sleep; (4) we should be skeptical of the consensus on sleep research; (5) decreasing your sleep by 1-2 hours per night won’t have serious negative side-effects in the long-term. Of everything here, I’d like to see more research about the idea that your sleep can become more efficient in the long run. For now, the only change I’m going to make is pulling all-nighters every once in a while if I get into a writing trance.
Brian Keating: I became friends with Brian after he hosted me on his podcast, Into the Impossible and he’s fast become one of my favorite dinner partners and astrophysicists. He speaks so clearly about the universe that, even though you’re talking about mind-bending distances and time scales, you feel like you’re talking to a friend at the bar. If you want to dive into his work, I recommend his explanation of the origins of the universe on Lex Fridman’s podcast or this explainer about time on his YouTube channel. If you’re looking to explore the universe, let Brian be your guide.
Einstein’s Dreams: A splendid collection of short stories from the philosopher-physicist Alan Lightman. All of them are about time, relativity, and physics as if they were the dreams of Albert Einstein. My favorite one is about body time vs. mechanical time. Body time is the world of hunger, moods, and circadian rhythms, while mechanical time is the world of clocks and alarms. It’d be fun to swing between these tempos at different times of the year. To help myself enter the calm flow of body time, I’ve deliberately chosen not to put any clocks in my home.
Breath: The average person will take 670 million breaths in their lifetime. And yet, even if they listen to you breathe, doctors rarely check on their patients’ respiratory rate or the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in their bodies. Maybe it’s time to change that. Among mammals, humans are uniquely bad at breathing, which partially explains why we’re the only ones to routinely have overbites and misaligned jaws. One major issue is that humans increasingly breathe through their mouths instead of their noses. Mouth breathing is the number one cause of cavities — not sugar, bad hygiene, or a poor diet. This book instantly inspired me to change my behavior. To encourage nose breathing, I’m now sleeping with tape over my mouth.
Mechanical Paradise: How did the machine transform human consciousness? At first, the Eiffel Tower promised unlimited control over the world. Standing at the top made humans feel like birds and, by extension, guardians of the future. The view from the top was as breathtaking as the sight of the Earth from the moon almost 80 years later. Around that time, Ford rolled out the car, Edison invented sound recording, and Einstein invented the Theory of Relativity — the basis of the largest change in humanity’s view of the universe since Newton. As this documentary shows, the perspective shift is most evident in the art of the age. Specifically, in two shifts: one from nature to machine, and another from impressionism to cubism.
Why Sperm Counts are Declining: Male sperm counts of Western men dropped by 59 percent between 1979 and 2011. The quality of that sperm declined too, as the percentage of damaged DNA increased. Maybe that’s why the miscarriage rate has risen by 1 percent per year over the past two decades. What’s going on? Our environment is partially to blame due to pollution from chemicals like Bisphenol A, which interferes with the conception process and increases the likelihood of a miscarriage. This interview explores the impact of declining fertility and the increase in gender fluidity and what both trends say about the health of humanity.
Slowed Progress in Science: Here’s a theory I’ve never considered: What if scientific progress is slowing because there are too many papers being published? What if, out of a desire to increase the rate of scientific progress, we’ve actually made it hard for scientists to grapple with transformative ideas? That’s the thesis of this paper. Basically, the authors argue that past a certain point, the more papers that are published in a given field, the more citations flow to already well-cited papers — which ossifies the canon.
Civilization: A 13-part documentary on the history of art, culture, and philosophy since the Dark Ages. When it was published in the 1960s, it received unprecedented viewing numbers for a high art series. More than 2.5 million people watched it in Britain. In America, that number totaled more than 5 million. Each episode is about an hour. The documentary was so popular that it inspired a book on the same subject.
The World Chessboard: Man, this series of articles is everything that history class should have been. The premise is that geography creates certain inevitable outcomes in the game of human achievement. This piece is about America’s advantages. Specifically, it has huge oceans on two sides and more miles of internal navigable waterways than the rest of the world combined. Yeah, you read that right.
The Shape of Failure: Word for word, this is one of my favorite things Nassim Taleb has ever written. But somehow, people rarely recommend it. Taleb explains the math behind cultivating serendipity in your life. By creating “convex” payoff functions for yourself (where the upside of success is greater than the downside of failure), you can systematically create long-term gains for yourself.
The History of Silicon Valley: Marc Andreessen was one of the first people to ignite my intellectual curiosity. I still remember the way his tweets made ideas come alive when I was living in North Carolina, and I’m bummed that he stopped being so prolific. I enjoyed this two-part series where he narrates the history of Silicon Valley with the kind of clarity that only somebody who was in the trenches can deliver.
The Current and the Wind: Our society is stuck in a Never-Ending Now, where we’re obsessed with the present and blind to history. I love the way Seth Godin describes a similar phenomenon in this article about sailing. While inexperienced sailors focus on the ever-changing wind, experienced ones study the currents because they persist through time and often have a bigger effect.
Life History Theory: A fascinating theory of genetics, most of which was developed in the 1950s. Basically, the theory explores the biological tradeoffs animals make to adapt to their environment. For example, some animals focus on increasing the number of children they produce, while others have fewer kids but devote more attention to them. As for humans, we have uniquely large brains, long lifespans, and a later age of first reproduction. This Wikipedia article and six-part essay series provide good overviews.
The Beauty of Golf: This one is for all my fellow golfers. Growing up, I used to play a little nine-hole golf course called Northwood, which was located 90 minutes north of San Francisco. It’s designed by Alister MacKenzie, the architect behind two of the best courses in the world: Augusta National and Cypress Point. This video does a masterful job telling the story of the course, its owners, and the beauty of the game. If you like golf, it’s a must-watch.
Reality Has a Surprising Amount of Detail: Speaking of the 50 ideas that have influenced me the most, it might be time to add another one to the list: Reality has a surprising amount of detail. The idea comes from this outstanding essay, and it applies to just about every discipline. People overestimate what they know and underestimate the complexity of the world. If you enjoy the essay, I also recommend this derivative piece.
J.D. Unwin: As a historian, Unwin studied 86 societies and civilizations to see if there was a relationship between sexual morality and human flourishing. He found a direct relationship between promiscuity and cultural decline. Cultures where people remained virgins until marriage were much more likely to be an “advanced civilization.” Combined with rationality, that prenuptial chastity sets the conditions for a successful society. I’m skeptical of big history claims like this, but after reading this summary of his book, I’m looking forward to a deeper exploration of his work.
A Guide to Demographics: I put on my scavenger hat whenever I write these emails. Most of all, I love finding old things on the Internet that have retained their relevance. Demographics are one of the most dependable ways to predict the future, so I enjoyed this three-minute cross-cultural analysis from Peter Zeihan. Globally, the world’s population is aging. One of America’s biggest advantages in the next decade is a young population.
Pepsi’s Giant Military: As part of his budding 5-minute history series, Nick Yoder wrote about how Pepsi once had the 6th largest military in the world. Yeah, you read that right. The soda company had 20 warships, 17 submarines, and a destroyer.
Peer-Reviewed Knowledge: A short video about the limits of peer-reviewed knowledge. Yes, we should be skeptical of anecdotal ideas and celebrate the scientific method. But that doesn’t mean we should discount the wisdom of intuition and observation. There are many claims that are obviously true even if we don’t have an academic paper to support them. As Paul Chek said so forcefully: “I don’t need a randomised controlled trial to know that a kick in the testicles is going to hurt.”
We Should Drink Less Alcohol: It seems like every time I look into the science of alcohol, I realize how unhealthy it is. And it’s not just health. It’s all the stupid stuff you do when you drink because of the way alcohol lowers your time horizons. Half the people in prison were drinking when they committed their crime (though the causality is hard to measure). Here, one researcher makes the case that any drug policy that doesn’t include “raise alcohol taxes” is missing the point. That said, I’m still not ready to quit 100%.
A History of Private Life: A five-volume set that reveals how people lived in the ancient world. I’ve only read the first one, which covers the era from Pagan Rome to Byzantium. Author Paul Veyne shows how idleness was considered a virtue in the ancient world. Leisure was considered the essence of a well-lived life, which is the opposite of today’s cities where saying “I’m busy” has become such a status symbol. If you’re interested in the everyday lives of people in the ancient world, this series is for you.
What the Hell Happened in 1971?: Something eerie happened in the early 1970s, and this website has the data to back it up. For example, wage growth stagnated for the bottom 90% of workers, leading to rising inequality. City growth froze too. In 1970, Los Angeles was zoned for 10 million people. By 2010, the city was zoned for only 4.3 million people, and the rate of new housing developments has fallen since the 1970s. Adjusted for population growth, we have about 350% fewer housing starts than we did in 1971.
Martin Luther Rewired Your Brain: Joseph Henrich is the kind of person who I stop everything for when he publishes a new article. That’s why interviewing him a couple of months ago was so enjoyable. His most recent article is about how the printing press rewired our minds, with empirical data coming from the post-Protestant Revolution era.
The Tyranny of Numbers: We live in a society where the numbers have the final say. When revenue goes up, the business is healthy. When GDP goes up, so does the economy. But focusing too much on numbers can lead to adverse side effects. Not everything that counts can be counted. By obsessing over numerical improvements, we often ignore the aspects of life that can’t be measured and lose sight of what ultimately matters.
The Science of Storytelling: Storytelling is like an operating system for humanity. Some scientists have said that the brain is processing 11 million bits of information at any moment, even though we aren’t consciously aware of more than 40. Even though the actual numbers sound like pseudoscience to me, the general point is profound: our brains can’t make sense of all the information in the world, so we simplify it with narratives. This empirical look at how we do that will make you a better storyteller and a more effective communicator.
The Mathematics of Beauty: If you want to consistently find interesting ideas, find a corner of the world where there’s an explosion in the amount of data we have about it. Then, follow the writers who make sense of it all. One example is the OkCupid blog. To the best of my knowledge, many of the best posts have been removed from the Internet because they were so spicy. That said, you’ll find many of the ideas in a book called Dataclysm. But some of them were saved, such as this one from Gwern. For an interesting rabbit hole, check out the recommendations on the right side of the page.
The Age of Entitlement: A take on American history so different from what I learned in high school. People say it’s a critique of the Civil Rights movement, but I don’t think that’s it. The author is actually quite supportive of it. Rather, it’s an illustration of the unintended consequences of it: rising federal power, bureaucratic bloat, and increasing government debt. Here’s an example. Federal loans and grants to college students, adjusted for inflation were $800 million in 1963-64, $15 billion in 1973-74, and $157 billion in 2010-11. Moreover, students at the University of Phoenix, the largest collector of Pell Grant tuition, now owe $35 billion in taxpayer-backed federal loans. To add insult to injury, their default rate is higher than their graduation rate. That’s bonkers. If you prefer an interview with the author, here’s a good one.
Are the Gospels Mythical?: Friends often say that the Gospels are mythical because they resemble some of history’s most popular myths. Here, Rene Girard attempts to dispel that myth. Basically, he claims that the Gospels are unique because the victim is innocent. Though this article isn’t that long, it’s extremely dense. If you want to dive into Girard’s work, start with my long-form essay about Peter Thiel where I discuss his ideas in depth.
Andrew Batson: If you want to learn more about China, I recommend Andrew Batson’s blog. He writes for Gavekal as their Director of Chinese Research. Start with this post on the battle for ideas in China.
Peace of Westphalia: The Thirty Years’ War was one of the most deadly periods in European history, and led to the deaths of roughly 8 million people. The violence was settled with a series of peace treaties in 1648. Scholars have identified the treaties as the beginning of the modern international system, and in particular, the concept of sovereign states.
Bowling Alone: Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone is one of the most influential pieces of American sociology ever written. In it, he talks about the decline of social life in America, including the fall in church membership, attendance at public meetings, and the number of Americans who participate in associations. This is an excellent summary of the book.
Singapore: A series of four outstanding Reddit posts, which summarized Lee Kuan Yew’s book, From Third World to First. The posts will take you a few hours to read, but you’ll leave with a deep understanding of how the country operates. If these ideas interest you, you’ll also enjoy my essay on the history of Singapore.
How to Remove CO2 From the Sky: These are exactly the kinds of articles we need more of. Anything that touches climate change is politicized, so when I find an article from a trusted source, I have to share it. The author (friend of a friend, so I trust him) spoke with more than one hundred experts to write a beginner’s guide to Negative Emissions Technologies.
Space in High Definition: An ultra-high quality photo of the stars and the sky. Open it on a computer browser, zoom in as much as you can, and open your heart to the vastness of the universe.
Mushrooms and the Birth of Christianity: Okay, this one is a mind-bender. It falls under the probably-not-true-but-super-interesting category. John M. Allegro was an archaeologist and who studied the Dead Sea Scrolls. His book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross was particularly controversial because it argues that Christianity began as a shamanistic cult. Then, when the Gospels were written down, the Evangelists confused the meaning of the scrolls, which means the entire Christian tradition is based on a misunderstanding of them. One scholar called it “possibly the single most ludicrous book on Jesus scholarship by a qualified academic,” and Allegro was banished from the academy after it was published. Honestly, I have no idea if his claims have any legitimacy. I don’t know how to evaluate them, but this article does a thorough job arguing that we should look into Allegro’s theories again.
Open: This is an excellent biography of Andrei Agassi, the former #1 tennis player in the world. It’s an emotional journey through the sacrifices required to become a top-tier athlete. For example, even when he was the world’s top tennis player, Agassi didn’t enjoy tennis. And as it turns out, the book’s ghostwriter named J.R. Moehringer also penned Shoe Dog, the biography of Phil Knight, which tells the story of Nike.
How Airplanes Fly: The physics of flight has interested me ever since I was a kid. I took flying lessons during high school, in part because of a program for Bay Area teenagers called Young Eagles, which allowed kids like myself to fly airplanes for free. Yes, it was as cool as it sounds. To this day, I still turn my head whenever a plane flies above me. This article explains the science of aerodynamics as well as anything I’ve ever seen.
Will Durant: What a criminally under-rated author. Along with his wife Ariel, he wrote an 11-volume, 13,974-page tome on the history of human civilization. From what I hear, it’s as thorough as anything that exists. But what if you don’t have time to read thousands of pages? Well, I have good news for you. Towards the end of his life, Durant summarized his learnings in three short books: Lessons of History is for your mind, The Story of Philosophy is for your heart, and Fallen Leaves is for your soul.
3Blue1Brown: Grant Sanderson (one of my podcast guests) makes excellent math-related videos on YouTube. You’ll find videos on topics like linear algebra, neural networks, calculus, the math of Bitcoin, and quantum mechanics. With every video, he turns abstract symbols into concrete visualizations. Then, he adds narrative to a mathematical concept. Start with this video on the virality of Coronavirus or this series about calculus.
Edge: This website is a hidden treasure. On it, you’ll find all kinds of interviews with great writers and articles about forgotten scientific ideas. I don’t know how this website has managed to fly under the radar for so long, but it’s worthy of your attention. Start with this essay on Composers as Gardners, this one on the problems with String Theory, or this interview with Rory Sutherland.
Requiem for the American Dream: A book and a documentary from Noam Chomsky, focused on 10 principles for the concentration of wealth and power. Chomsky tells the story of how society has transformed from the 1970s to now by focusing on ten themes: democracy, ideology, redesigning the economy, shifting the burden, attacking solidarity, running the regulators, engineering elections, keeping the rabble in line, manufacturing consent, and marginalizing the population. If you agree with everything he’s saying, you’re not thinking hard enough. But Chomsky’s bold perspectives will force you to take a stand. And if you want a summary, here’s the Wikipedia page.
A Brief History of the Corporation: If you’ve never heard of Ribbonfarm, it’s time to change that. It’s mostly written by Venkatesh Rao who is absolutely brilliant, even though he’s often more obscure than I’d like. This essay about the corporation is one of the best things he’s ever written. I also recommend essays like The Throughput of Learning and A Big Little Idea Called Legibility.
The Plague in Literature and Life: This essay builds on Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment novel to show that the social anarchy after a plague is usually worse than the plague itself.
The Story of Oprah Winfrey: Oprah might be the most successful media personality in American history. This two-hour podcast episode is the best explanation of her story I’ve seen, from the adversity she faced as a teenager to becoming one of the wealthiest women in the world.
Outbreak: This is the best COVID-19 related visualization I’ve seen. It was created by Kevin Simler, one of my all-time favorite writers. It’s a “playable simulation,” meaning that you can change the variables to visualize how they impact the spread of a disease. If you like these visualizations, I also recommend this one from the Washington Post.
Nicky Case: Building upon the theme of playable simulations, I recommend Nicky Case’s entire website. The complex systems simulation is my favorite, but I also recommend this interactive comic on the science of memory, and this one about game theory, which is inspired by a book called The Evolution of Trust, which I summarized here. If nothing else, these visualizations are a window into the future of online writing.
Labor Supply and the Attention Tax: A long-form essay about why labor force participation has declined for men between ages 20-34. The authors propose that the drop in labor participation rate of young men is a result of a combination of factors: (i) a decrease in cost of access to media entertainment leisure, (ii) increases in both the availability and (iii) quality media entertainment leisure, and (iv) a decrease in the marginal signaling utility of (conspicuous) consumption goods for all but the highest earners.
Ole Peters: A fascinating talk by a researcher from the Santa Fe Institute. It’s about ergodicity, which is one of the most insightful ideas I’ve heard in the past few years. Peters builds upon Boltzmann’s 1870 probability theory and cutting edge mathematics to question economic doctrines. His conclusion is surprisingly accessible and impacts how we think about risk, market stability, and economic inequality.
Unlimited Information is Transforming Society: This article is pure fun. It’s basically a short, “Big History” piece. It tells the story of how technologies like electricity, nuclear energy, and heavier than air flight evolved and shaped humanity. It follows the march of progress into today’s world of computers and the Internet.
Building in Singapore: A gorgeous 5-minute video that shows how fast new buildings are rising in Singapore. Right now, the architecture of the future is centered there more than any other city in the world. While I’m certainly not a fan of everything Singapore does, Westerners should spend a lot more time studying them. A little envy for the quality of their infrastructure would be a good thing too.
History of the Idea of Progress: There are two predominant ways to think about time: linearly and cyclically. Today, we tend to think about it linearly, which wasn’t always the case. The linear conception of time has its roots in the Christian tradition where the world starts in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Old Testament and moves towards a New Heaven and a New Earth at the end of the New Testament. I wrote extensively about this idea in my essay about Peter Thiel. Most of the ideas were inspired by this outstanding essay by Robert Nisbet. You might also enjoy this slide deck from Arthur Chandler.
The Scholar’s Stage: This is an outstanding collection of essays, all from a single writer named Tanner Greer. The site focuses on history, strategy, and geopolitics. To date, my favorite essays are Tradition is Smarter Than You Are and Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously. But Tanner is particularly a must-read if you’re interested in China. If so, I recommend The Chinese Strategic Tradition and China’s Stalinist Heritage. If you’re looking for a rabbit hole to fall down, this is an excellent place to jump.
How Aristotle Created the Computer: This essay traces the history of logic from Aristotle to modern computing. It builds upon the early days of Euclidean geometry, when mathematics was considered a hopelessly abstract subject with no practical use. Later, it moves into Claude Shannon’s work on information theory, which runs the computer you’re using to read this sentence. Here’s a good summary: “Logic began as a way to understand the laws of thought. It then helped create machines that could reason according to the rules of deductive logic. Today, deductive and inductive logic are being combined to create machines that both reason and learn.”
A History of American Families: Future historians will look back at the second half of the 20th century as a time when the American family unit suffered. It was a time when mobility and opportunity surpassed family loyalty on the hierarchy of values. As the author writes: “We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families.” This essay is the best narrative I’ve seen about the nuclear family’s decline and what it means for American culture. Beyond a history, it explores tensions such as the stability of family vs. the dynamism of capitalism; close communities vs. the sociological constraints that make them possible.
Birds and Frogs in Physics: I’ve always liked the Fox vs. Hedgehog distinction between people who know a little bit about many things and people who know a lot about one thing. This essay makes a similar argument that people are either birds or frogs. Birds see things from, well… a bird’s eye view where they have a vast landscape in front of them without a lot of detail. On the other hand, frogs like to get dirty and dive into the nitty-gritty details. But this essay goes beyond that and tells a brief history of physics. Einstein and Feynman were birds, while Fermi and Hubble were frogs.
Richard Feynman: A theoretical physicist known for his work in quantum electrodynamics and a Nobel Prize in 1965. A friend had a three-volume book with all his lectures. Walking by them regularly inspired me to watch his YouTube videos and read the transcripts (freely transcribed on CalTech’s website). Beyond physics, Feynman achieved the impossible: he became a brilliant adult but never lost the playfulness of a child. To appreciate his fun, start with this YouTube video about jiggling atoms, rubber bands, and intellectual puzzles.
Creativity & Learning
Kanye West’s Career: Watching this, I couldn’t believe how many stages Kanye’s been through. His discography has morphed from the audacity of Through the Wire, to the electronic sounds of 808s and Heartbreak, to Christianity-inspired albums like Jesus is King. Away from the music, he’s spoken his mind and generated tons of controversy. This video essay explores how his music and personality have evolved and made him one of the most influential artists alive today.
Tiger Woods’ Biography: One of my favorite biographies because it forces you to ask: “When does pain facilitate greatness?” Parts of Tiger’s life are enviable. Between 1997 and 2009, he was the greatest athlete in the world and it wasn’t even close. But he’s also had more than six surgeries and suffered through the most public divorce the world’s ever seen. You can’t understand Tiger’s psychology without learning about his father, Earl Woods, an abusive alcoholic who subjected him to “psychological warfare” tactics he learned in the military. That way, Tiger would be mentally tougher than any of his competitors. It worked. But in Tiger’s story, you can’t take the greatness without the pain, which makes his biography so exhilarating.
Mr. Beast’s Story: This is the story of one of the most popular YouTubers in the world. Mr. Beast struggled in school and couldn’t stand sitting in class and listening to boring lectures. To his mother’s chagrin, he became obsessed with YouTube during his teenage years, and along with a group of friends, obsessed over the mechanics of viral YouTube videos — from choosing topics, to editing, to thumbnails, to video coloring to the pacing of videos. Today, he has more than 100 million subscribers across all his channels.
Richard Feynman, on Textbooks: The Nobel Prize-winning physicist once served on the state of California’s curriculum commission. He was tasked with determining which math and physics textbooks should enter public schools. He insists that he was among the few committee members who actually read the textbooks. The rest, he says, “judged the books by their covers.” He points to one textbook which received high marks even though it consisted entirely of blank pages. Even when the textbooks had information, they were characteristically lousy, false, hurried, ambiguous, and useless. Feynman writes: “I was the only guy on that commission who read all the books and didn’t get any information from the book publishers except what was in the books themselves, the things that would ultimately go to the schools.” Yikes.
Jordan Peterson, on Music: One of the most beautiful descriptions of music I’ve ever heard. Peterson argues that music is multiple patterns layered on top of each other, just like the structure of reality — which is made of patterns as much as objects. Thus, music is an analog of the structure of existence itself. Music also represents life by putting you on the border of chaos and order because good music is predictable enough to be coherent but unpredictable enough to surprise you.
Cercle Music Sets: Let’s talk about beautiful music. If you’re looking for deep house sets to listen to while you work, the Cercle DJ sets are fantastic. All of them are produced in beautiful places, from a stage on the Argentinian salt flats to a hot air balloon in Turkey’s Cappadocia region. Start with this one from Ben Böhmer or this one from Above & Beyond. Given the production values, make sure you peek at the screen every few minutes as you go about your work.
Beethoven’s Genius: Piano meets Guitar Hero. Instead of looking at a bunch of tapping fingers, this video illustrates the wondrous complexity of how to master the piano. Watching it, you can see my Practice Analytically, Perform Intuitively theory in action. There’s so much happening that the rational mind can’t possibly be in charge. With enough expertise, the intuitive self can take the wheel and perform something beautiful.
Deconstructing Kanye West’s Voice: Kanye recorded his first single, Through the Wire, after a car accident with his jaw completely wired. On the track, his voice is muffled and his words are hard to make sense of. On the track, he says: “Yo, Gee, they can’t stop me from rappin’, can they?” This video deconstructs how Kanye used autotune to alter his voice early in his career on albums like 808s and Heartbreak. And on Graduation, he even used synthesizers that sound like the human voice.
The Great Courses Lecture Series: Audiobooks are boring because books are made to be read, not listened to. Thus, only the narrators who also wrote the book have the liberty to adjust the content in order to make it memorable and enjoyable. As a substitute, I recommend the Great Courses lecture series from Audible. Though I wish the lectures had better notes or transcripts, they’re almost all high-quality. I’ve enjoyed this series on Plato’s philosophy in The Republic and this one on St. Augustine’s City of God.
Jacob Collier: To be honest, I don’t even know if I like Collier’s music. But man, I could listen to him talk about music all day. I discovered him through an interview he recorded with Porter Robinson about the mechanics of music theory. You might also like this masterclass on harmony and rhythm.
Rick Rubin Documentary: Meet the man behind artists like Kanye West, Jay-Z, Mac Miller, Johnny Cash, Weezer, and the Beastie Boys. I’m not just impressed by the names. I’m impressed by the diversity of genres. Rubin started as a formal music producer and the co-founder of Def Jam, but he’s grown into a creative psychologist who provides a space where artists can be vulnerable and emotionally naked. He’s intuitive instead of technical, and in the studio, he aims for invisibility. Instead of putting his stamp on the music, he tries to recede into the background. The more excess he can remove, the better. As Kanye once said: “Rick’s not a producer. He’s a reducer.”
Compulsory Schooling: The most popular TED Talk of all time is Do Schools Kill Creativity? But here, Brett Hall argues that the talk’s core thesis doesn’t go far enough. The problem with education isn’t the Common Core curriculum or the fact that we teach to the test. It’s compulsory schooling. Hall’s pedagogy is simple: Let students learn what they want. Then, get them to guess what’s correct and test it. And remember, learning begins with inspiration.
How to Take Smart Notes: You know me: I love things that demystify the creative process. If you want to improve your writing, build a note-taking system. This is the best book I’ve seen about how to do that.” It’s about the creative strategies of a prolific sociologist named Niklas Luhmann. For a synopsis, I recommend Tiago Forte’s written summary and his interview with the author. In typical Tiago fashion, he nailed the pitch for reading this book: “Instead of squeezing as many pages as possible out of one idea, How To Take Smart Notes squeezes as many ideas as possible onto every page.”
Venkatesh Rao’s Book Reviews: His writing on Ribbonfarm was like a North Star for me when I started writing online. It attracted all kinds of up-and-coming writers, many of whom I contacted directly and later became friends with. Tiago Forte even became my business partner. I recommend Venkatesh Rao’s book reviews on Seeing like a State and A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100.
Why Read the Odyssey?: In Saving the Liberal Arts, I argued that college students are too young to study the Liberal Arts. Even Plato said that people aren’t prepared to study the Liberal Arts until the age of 30. In Book VII of The Republic, he writes: “Let us take every possible care that young persons do not study philosophy too early.” In this interview, Daniel Mendelsohn explains why ancient stories like The Odyssey still have practical benefit. He says: “When your father dies, your accounting degree is not going to help you at all to process that experience. Homer will help you.” I also resonated with this comment: “The crude preoccupation with moneymaking as the only goal of a college education is giving us a citizenry that is extremely degraded, as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s only the crudest and least interesting practicality that has no time for the humanities.”
Madonna Who Shows the Beauty in Going Overboard: I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed something so much from the New York Times. I continue to be frustrated by the quality of art education. Even the world’s top museums don’t always do a good job of providing context about their paintings. For inspiration, they should look at this series. If you like impressionist art, you’ll like this one. If you prefer a classical vibe, start here. This too reveals how software can make learning more enjoyable than books.
Gatto’s Seven Lessons: John Gatto spent 30 years as a New York City school teacher. In this critique, he argues that the modern education system is designed to produce confused, passive, dependent, and materialistic children. The most surprising idea is about literacy rates. Gatto points to a paper released by Senator Ted Kennedy’s office that the literacy rate was 98% before the advent of compulsory education. By 1990, that figure had dropped to 91%. Though the argument doesn’t quite pass the sniff test, I’ve long doubted the validity of literacy rate measurements. No matter what, Gatto’s speech is worth reading in full.
John O’Donahue: My all-time favorite poet, and I discovered him via this magnificent interview with Krista Tippett after he passed away. O’Donahue’s at his best when he talks about nature, friendship, and conversation. In the synthesis of all three, our souls come alive. Beyond the podcast interview, I recommend his books Anam Cara and Walking in Wonder.
The One World Schoolhouse: Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, and his book offers a lovely vision for the future of education. More than anything, he changed my mind about the value of testing. The problem with school is that tests feel like a form of insane judgment, which make students nervous and insecure. Tests should be matter-of-fact instead. With software, tests will motivate students, automatically generate a curriculum for them to follow, and show them where to direct their learning. For a scaled-down version of the book, I recommend this 10-minute talk by the author.
Andy Matuschak, on Education: Speaking of Khan Academy, my friend Andy used to lead the Research & Development team. He published three extended essays during his time there. My favorite one is about reasoning skills, and specifically, the challenges of scaling feedback with open-ended projects. It’s pretty technical though, so I only recommend it for people who are deeply interested in pedagogy. For something simpler, you may enjoy my podcast with Andy and what I consider to be his best essay: Why Books Don’t Work.
Federer as Religious Experience: Most writers describe the world with the clarity of a flip-phone camera, but reading David Foster Wallace is like looking at a 16-megapixel photo. This essay is my favorite example. Wallace describes Federer’s tennis game with a level of technicolor detail that almost makes it difficult to read. It’s actually hard for my mind to process such vivid descriptions because they’re so beyond what I’m normally capable of. Whether you’re a tennis fan or not, you’ll enjoy this essay if you appreciate good writing.
Why Books Don’t Work: Why do we remember so little from the books we read? Books carry certain assumptions about the way we learn. Like a lecture, they assume that if you just give a student enough information, they’ll learn something. But information is like food. You can’t just consume it. You have to digest it. When it comes to knowledge, that digestion happens in activities such as writing, Socratic dialogue, and working on difficult projects. Without active implementation, the vast majority of what we read will never be stored in our long-term memory. In this essay and this podcast, the author Andy Matuschak explores the problem and presents a solution rooted in spaced repetition.
Da Vinci: Tiago Forte turned me onto Leonardo Da Vinci’s biography because he was an obsessive note-taker and prolific creative. His lack of an education stands out. He was mainly self-taught and learned mostly through experience and experiments. His story reminds me of the impressive homeschoolers I’ve met who think outside the box because they don’t even know the box exists. As a society, we care too much about education and too little about learning.
Quentin Tarantino’s Writing Process: In writing, there’s a precious liminal state that comes between the time you stop writing and start transitioning into the normal world. It’s like waking up. Though you’re technically awake in the first 30 minutes after your eyes open, you aren’t fully aware of what’s going on. That’s why Tarantino gives himself time to wander during his workday. Here’s a short video about his “write, wander, plan” methodology and a longer one about how he wrote Inglourious Basterds.
Becoming a Magician: Here’s a fun heuristic for personal growth: find the magicians. You’ll know that you’ve found one when their results are attractive, but their methods confuse you. Embody their perspective deeply enough and they’ll give you new ways of seeing. From the outset, it’s hard to explain how because, by definition, their methods look like voodoo to you. Ultimately, finding magicians is one of my favorite meta-principles for learning.
Interview with Frederick Wiseman: I had never heard of Wiseman before reading this interview, but it’s the best thing I’ve read about the creative process in a long time. I always say that writing is like making a statue. First, you need a giant ball of marble. Then you need to shape it. Wiseman follows a similar process of collecting tons of material, looking through it all, and waiting until the end to determine the final structure. Since the interview might be paywalled for you, here’s a page with my favorite segments.
Letter to a Young Songwriter: This piece is written for musicians, but it applies to writers too. When you’re new to a creative medium, you want to be prolific. Only after you’ve published many pieces do you know what makes a song great and what you need to do your best creative work. Creation also changes how you consume. All of a sudden, you don’t just absorb the content. You absorb the structure, the rhetorical tricks, and all the ways creators make their work captivating. It’s like X-ray vision. Knowledge of your craft transcends the intellect and enters the body. Eventually, you realize things about the creative medium you couldn’t have possibly anticipated when you were starting out.
Eminem’s Creative Process: The more I study the greats, the more I realize that top-tier production begins with attentive consumption. This video of Eminem is the best example I’ve seen. Watch the way he obsesses over details and describes his craft. Then watch this interview on 60 Minutes, where he talks about rhyming and note-taking. Excellence is a beautiful thing.
The 11 Laws of Showrunning: This is the best thing I’ve ever read about managing creatives. It’s an obscure PDF, written in the 70s. It’s written for people in Hollywood but applies to anybody who does unbounded work. My favorite point is how sentences like “I’ll know it when I see it” are a cardinal sin. As a manager, you need to set a clear vision. Preach it day in and day out until it becomes gospel. But you want to do it in a way that ignites the creative spirit in people who work for you. For example, the design brief for the original Coca-Cola bottle in 1915 said: “A bottle so distinct that it could be recognized by touch in the dark or when lying broken on the ground.”
J. Cole: I took a Hip-Hop appreciation class during my freshman year of high school. I still remember one of the seniors doing a non-stop freestyle for upwards of 90 minutes. It was amazing. How did he come up with ideas so fast? This video of J. Cole gave me the same sensation. He exudes a special magic in the room — the kind you only find when you combine natural talent and cultivated excellence.
Krista Tippett: Some people make the world a better place just by being exactly who they are. Krista Tippett is one such person. Her podcast, On Being, is like a touchstone to me. It pairs the presence of meditation with the awakening of scripture. My all-time favorite interview is the one with John O’Donahue. It inspired my essay: The Fruits of Friendship.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: Well, this was fun! I’ve regained the excitement I used to have around weightlifting after I found a kick-ass gym in Oaxaca. People drip with sweat as they move through the gym, and the walls are covered with photos of professional bodybuilders. It’s awesome, partially because gyms in America are afraid to be so intense. After seeing this snippet on Twitter, I picked up Arnold’s book about bodybuilding. It begins with his story of winning five Mr. Universe and seven Mr. Olympia and Mr. World titles. In the second half of the book, he shares practical lessons for diet and a weightlifting routine. I devoured the entire book.
How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart: Sometimes, great performers have such a natural talent that they’re unable to describe what makes them so great. This essay by David Foster Wallace explores that phenomenon through the lens of tennis. Though it focuses on sports, it’s not an essay about sports at all. I recommend listening to the essay because Wallace is somehow so good at reading his own writing. Or, here’s the PDF if you prefer to read it.
Pixar’s Guide to Storytelling: Short, simple, and fun. A few years ago, a Pixar employee wrote down what she’s learned about effective storytelling. I have two favorites. First, “You won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.” And second, “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.“ If you want to fall down the Pixar rabbit hole, I recommend Creativity Inc.by the co-founder of Pixar.
Rolf Degen: The link is a collection of the most popular tweets from one of the best researchers I know. Scroll the feed and you’ll find academic studies about the psychology of trauma, gender relationships, and the non-existent relationship between intelligence and susceptibility to foolish beliefs. By the way, advanced searches are one of the best ways to use Twitter. Picking an account and ranking their tweets by likes will help you find hidden gems.
How a Chess Master Concentrates: On the “Practice Analytically, Perform Intuitively” front, I enjoyed this article from a chess master with a Life Title from the World Chess Federation. This quote is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read about mastery: “My search to do the right thing feels fundamentally aesthetic in nature… Good moves have the qualities of truth and beauty. They are discoveries of how things are, and should be.” That’s right. Beauty and excellence become synonymous at the highest levels of performance.
How Art Arrived at Jackson Pollock: I’m obsessed with Nerdwriter’s channel. Most of his videos are about painting, movies, and poetry. His videos move at a slower pace than what you’ll otherwise find on YouTube, but that’s because his ideas are so deep that you need time to process them. If you’re in the rabbit hole mood, I recommend his “Understanding Art” series.
Lessons from Mr. Beast: With 52 million YouTube subscribers, Mr. Beast has become a cultural force. This 30-minute conversation is an excellent introduction to his storytelling capabilities, and in particular, how he creates tension in his videos. The lessons they present are applicable to every creative medium too.
Neil Gaiman: I spent the week listening to interviews from one of the most successful fiction writers of our time, who’s written comics like The Sandman and novels like Stardust and American Gods. To begin, I recommend this interview and this YouTube video. Next up for me is his Masterclass.
MKBHD: If you’re a creator and feeling down about the quality of your work, remember this clip from MKBHD — who is one of the biggest tech YouTubers in the world. Today, his channel has more than 15 million subscribers and his videos have been viewed ~3 billion times. But his 100th YouTube video looked like this.
Ken Burns: A friend texted me and said: “I think Ken Burns is the greatest storyteller in American history.” I can’t believe it, but I’ve never seen a full documentary of his. But once my friend sparked my curiosity, I listened to this outstanding interview. The most surprising figure was that his 11.5 hour Civil War documentary was culled from 22.73 miles of film.
Manufacturing Intellect: This is the best place I’ve found to discover old interviews. While the rest of the Internet is focused on the here and now, it offers a chance to disconnect from the never-ending now and explore the wisdom of brilliant but oft-forgotten figures like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag.
Ava’s Writing: I’ve shared her writing before, but it’s time to do it again. I don’t know her last name, but Ava is one of my favorite up-and-coming Internet writers. Reading her work makes you feel like you’ve been invited into her social circle, but it stands out because she’s so absurdly observant and candid about her thoughts. At times, it even achieves what David Foster Wallace wanted for his own writing, when he said: “Most of the modern writing I like the best is both sophisticated and colloquial—that is, high-level and complicated but at the same time intimate, sort of like a smart person is sitting right there talking to you—and I think I do little more than try to achieve this same high-low blend.” Sometimes, she writes about shame. Sometimes, she writes about the creative process. This week, she wrote about how psychedelics influenced her mental state.
Richard Wagner: I’ve always been familiar with Richard Wagner’s music, but only recently did I begin to understand its tense history. At once, Wagner’s work set the stage for the kinds of dramatic movie scores you see in movies like Interstellar. His music wasn’t just sound. It was theater. But at the same time, his work has always been associated with antisemitism, in part because he was Hitler’s favorite composer. But that’s what makes him such a fascinating person to study. As the music critic Alex Ross said: “With Wagner, you never leave reality, and everything sublime and magnificent and moving in Wagner is inseparable from this corruption, this darkness, this evil. And I think that makes him a very human, unfortunately, exemplary human phenomenon, where the greatness and the darkness are all mixed together because that’s who we are as a species. And Wagner really exemplifies our species, in some ways, in terms of this mixing together of creative and destructive energies all at once, and you can never separate them — if that’s not too drastic.” Damn, that’s good. To learn about Wagner, I recommend Alex Ross’ interview with Tyler Cowen and this one on Open Source.
One More Time: Daft Punk, the legendary pop music duo, split this week. Their hit song is called “One More Time” and this 51-second video breaks down how a 1979 song called “More Spell on You” by Eddie Johns builds a foundation for its memorable beat. Don’t just watch this video for the entertainment. Watch it because it’s a masterclass in the kind of visual education that no book could ever provide.
The But & Therefore Rule: The creators of South Park share their favorite storytelling advice. Drive your story with words like “but” and “therefore” instead of “and then.”
Destruction and Creation: John Boyd was a US military strategist during the middle part of the 20th century. He’s known for the concept of the OODA loop, but I like this paper even more. Though he was writing about military battles, his ideas about creating an accurate model of the world apply to just about anything. He says that creativity is less about simple creation but rather a constant oscillation between destructive deduction and creative synthesis. My friend Taylor Pearson wrote the best summary I’ve seen of the paper, and here’s how he summarized it: “Destruction is related to deduction, taking the big parts and breaking them down into constituent pieces. Creation is related to induction, synthesis, and integration. It’s taking the little bits and re-building them into a coherent whole.” Or, as I wrote earlier this week, divergence and convergence.
The Most Unruly: I appreciate how much Internet culture focuses as much on the behind-the-scenes of a craft as the craft itself. This YouTube channel, which focuses on Hip-Hop, is a stand-out example. In addition to mini-biographies of rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem, you’ll find making-of videos for The Life of Pablo and 808s and Heartbreak (my favorite Kanye album).
Venkatesh Rao’s Quora Answers: Venkatesh is one of those writers who has influenced almost all of my friends’ thinking but is virtually unknown outside of my social circle. That’s partially because his recent writing has been so hard to parse. But his early writing on Quora is unbelievably clear, and his article on improving your writing is a must-read.
The Courage to Be Disliked: This snippet is everything I want Friday Finds to be: a place to explore crazy questions, even when I haven’t reached my own conclusions and especially when those questions contradict the mainstream consensus. Here, I want to pose some questions: What if trauma doesn’t exist? What if all our focus on trauma traps us in the past instead of helping us look towards the future? That’s the thesis of this book by Ichiro Kishimi. It’s based on the ideas of Alfred Adler, an oft-forgotten psychologist who was a contemporary of Jung and Freud. Once again, I’m still in the exploratory phase here. But given the rise of depression and suicide rates in the West, something seems off about the psychological consensus. In Kishimi‘s words: “[Adler] is not saying that the experience of a horrible calamity or abuse during childhood or other such incidents have no influence on forming a personality; their influences are strong. But the important thing is that nothing is actually determined by those influences. We determine our own lives according to the meaning we give to those past experiences. Your life is not something that someone gives you, but something you choose yourself, and you are the one who decides how you live.” For a contrasting perspective about the harmful effects of trauma, I recommend this summary about a book called The Body Keeps the Score.
John Cleese on Creativity: John Cleese was the inspiration for my Beer Mode vs. Coffee Mode article. He stresses the importance of free time in the creative process: “If you get into the right mood, then your mode of thinking will become much more creative. But if you’re racing around all day, ticking things off a list, looking at your watch, making phone calls, and generally just keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.” For more, I recommend this short video and his short book about creativity.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Element” Music Video: This was a beautiful exploration about the music video he created for “Element.” To be honest, I’ve never really understood the popularity of music videos. They rarely add meaning to the music, and as an outsider looking in, they feel like the most corporate part of the music industry. And yet, they’re consistently the most popular videos on YouTube. But the “Element” music video is an exception, as the Nerdwriter beautifully shows here.
Golf’s Holy War: I tore through this book. It told the story of the battle between art and science in the game of golf, which I’ve been thinking about for more than a decade. Some people like Bryson DeChambeau are embracing cutting-edge tools to measure the physics of ball flight and the biomechanics of the golf swing. But others think all that new technology is destroying the game. This book is about that “holy war.”
A Writing Masterclass: George Saunders has spent the past twenty years teaching a Russian short story class at Syracuse University. He studied writers like Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The essays provide a technical explanation for why their stories have resonated for more than a century. But this book isn’t dry like most of its counterparts. It’s alive with philosophy and deep questions about human existence.
The Inner Game of Tennis: File this in the category of books that seem like they have to do with one thing but actually have to do with something else. On the surface, this book seems like it’s about tennis. But it’s actually about the relationship between body and mind, as they relate to performance. The author Tim Gallwey observed that most tennis players are plagued by too much judgment and technical instruction. Instead, he suggests that people learn through intuitive awareness and trust the ancient wisdom of their motor skills. This YouTube video provides a good overview. Now, I’m reading another one of his books: The Inner Game of Golf.
Behind the Curtain: A series of video essays about the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. The videos are curated interviews with big shots like Quentin Tarantino, writers of popular shows like Rick and Morty, and tactical ideas like “How Pro Screenwriters Beat Writer’s Block.” Instead of inserting their editorial voice, the editors scavenge the Internet for clips and let their subjects speak for themselves.
Parasite: I finally watched Parasite. It was as good as everybody said it would be. Beyond the movie, I enjoyed this 15-minute string of interviews with Bong Joon Ho about how he wrote the movie, and this YouTube video from Nerdwriter about the movie was filmed.
Theories of the World: I have a new thesis. Many ultra-successful people have one big idea, and found success by doubling down on it. There’s more complexity here, which you can read about in my essay One Big Idea. But if you’re looking for some examples, I recommend this series of lectures by George Soros (Reflexivity) or my essay on Peter Thiel (Mimetic Theory).
The Note that Defines Pop Music: YouTube is the best thing that’s ever happened to music education. It’s instant, fun, and visual in a way it’s never been before. This video is a good example. One strategy in particular has taken over the pop world. Listen to enough pop music and you’ll start hearing the same note over and over again. It’s called “The Supertonic,” otherwise known as the second note in the scale. While we’re at it, I also recommend this sample deconstruction from Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”
A Steve Jobs Tribute: This one moved me to tears. Casey Neistat made this video after the iPhone’s original release in 2007 but didn’t release it until Jobs’ death. It’s filmed in the first person vlog-style that Casey made so popular on YouTube almost a decade after the video was published. If you’re an Apple fanatic, this will pull on all your heartstrings.
Tiger Woods and Collin Morikawa: Here’s a self-indulgent recommendation. It’s a conversation between the greatest golfer of all time and the reigning PGA Champion about how they think about hitting golf shots. For golf lovers, this is the kind of conversation you’ve always hoped you could listen to. So rarely is Tiger this honest! If you’re not a golfer, this is a window into the magical complexity of the game.
Shock of the New: A book and a documentary from the famous art critic, Robert Hughes. It’s by far the best thing I’ve seen about the history of modern art, from the 1870s to the 1970s. It focuses on a variety of themes, from the failure of modern architecture, to the rise of pop culture, to the legacy of the world wars, to the transition from impressionism to cubism (which is my favorite part of art history). It’s a dazzling piece of scholarship and I can’t recommend it enough.
The Lost Tools of Learning: A talk from poet Dorothy Sayers, given at Oxford University in 1947. In it, she argues that education began to lose its way in the Middle Ages. By bringing back the three lost tools of learning — grammar, logic, and rhetoric — we can foster self-directed learners instead of sleepwalking automatons.
Amazon’s Great Courses: You’ll find lectures from just about every topic under the sun. I purchased two lecture series: one about the history of Christian theology another on about the Book of Genesis. In college, I remember listening to this series on economic history, which outlined the theories of people like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx.
Minerva: This is one of the best books I’ve ever read on education. My friend Andy Matuschak, the former Director of Research at Kahn Academy, recommended it to me. Most books about education are rooted in opinion. But this one is grounded in empirical research. It tells the story of a new university called Minerva, a San Francisco based school that re-thought education from the ground-up. Their pedagogy is based on a 1972 paper called Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. If you’re interested in education, this book is for you.
Where Greatness Comes From: I keep coming back to this short movie clip from Whiplash. In it, a drummer breaks up with his girlfriend because he wants to focus on his craft. I won’t tell you any more because I don’t want to spoil it. Apparently, Whiplash was one of Kobe Bryant’s favorite movies, and after you watch this short clip, you’ll understand why. Pair it with this interview with Kobe Bryant and a short article called Whiplash and Extreme Greatness.
Jack Butcher: If you aren’t familiar with Visualize Value, now is the time to change that. Jack is fast becoming one of my favorite online creators. He has the two things every online illustrator needs: stellar taste and a distinct style. He illustrates famous quotes to share timeless wisdom in ways that ring in your mind long after you read them.
Childhood: I’ve been studying the sociology of childhood. In particular, I recommend two books: The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman and Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. Both of them wrote in the 70s, and offer perspectives that you won’t find in today’s mainstream commentary. Even if you aren’t interested in childhood, I recommend both authors’ backlog of books about the social effects of technology and industrialization.
Note-Taking: I went deep down the note-taking rabbit hole. I now have a firm grasp on Notion and Roam, each of which has radically different philosophies for how information should be stored, organized, and synthesized. If you want to learn Roam, I recommend Nat Eliason’s introductory course. Or, if you want to explore the philosophy of note-taking, I recommend Andy Matuschak’s notes on the subject (follow his hyperlinks).
David Cole’s Cannon: More writers should do this. Heck, I should too. A former designer at Quora shares the works of scholarship underlying his worldview. Topics include purpose, process, product, user experience, and craft. If you like design, this page is for you.
Stephanie Tolan: You know somebody’s writing is going to be good when the articles are old, the design is ugly, and the articles are still popular. This site is Exhibit A. Stephanie writes about childhood education, mostly through the lens of gifted children. To begin, I recommend an article called Is it a Cheetah?
How to Take Smart Notes: This book has become a cult-classic, and this is the best summary I’ve read about it. Taking notes is the fastest way to remove writer’s block and become a more prolific writer, which is why it’s such a focus in Write of Passage.
Yale Courses: I realized I knew almost nothing about Karl Marx. He’s arguably the most important philosopher of the past 200 years, and I hadn’t engaged with his ideas. Concepts like alienation, exploitation, and the labor theory of value. Yale lectures are the first place I look whenever I want to study a new subject. I start with lectures and only start reading the books once I have foundational knowledge. As for Marx, I listened to the lectures from SOCY 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory. Here is the YouTube video. No matter what subject you’re interested in, Yale lectures are a good place to begin.
JUMP: This is about the implications of a world where everybody can broadcast their ideas, and once shared, an idea can spread to the entire world in a matter of days. File this in the “I wish I wrote this essay” category, which is the highest praise I can give.
Every Frame a Painting: An exceptional YouTube channel with video essays that talk about how movies are made and how directors make films. I recommend this video about how to compose visual movement or this one on Jackie Chan’s action scenes.
Leisure: The Basis of Culture: My friend recommended Andrew Taggert’s work to me, and after hearing about his philosophy of “Total Work,” I went back to the source of it all: a 1948 manifesto about the problems with our contemporary work culture. In only 145 pages, it argues that we should learn from the Greeks, retreat from our culture of workaholism, and live a life of spiritual and intellectual nourishment. Here’s the book summary from Brain Pickings.
Contemporary Art: I’ve fast become a huge fan of John David Ebert. He is able to summarize shifts in art, media, and culture as well as anybody I know. I’ve been floating between his summaries of Spengler’s Decline of the West and the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. I found this 59-part series on contemporary art, based on his book Art After Metaphysics.
Robert Sapolsky Lectures: You know me. I love a good lecture series. Sapolsky is one of those professors whose enthusiasm radiates through his talks. Much of his work covers the impact of stress and spiked cortisol on the mind, much of which is inspired by his work with baboons in Kenya. Eventually, you may enjoy his 25-part series on human behavioral biology, but start with excellent this 52-minute lecture about depression — which is a must-watch for anybody interested in mental health.
The Danger of Silence: I first found this 4-minute slam poetry video from Clint Smith when I was in college. I’m blown away by it every time I come back to it. In the video, Smith reminds us to read critically, write consciously, speak clearly, and tell your truth. To me, this is the pinnacle of public speaking.
Mary Oliver Interview with Krista Tippett: Mary Oliver passed away, but her memory lives on through this rare interview with Krista Tippett. I recommend it as a starting point for the entire On Being podcast. She explores the spiritual life of writers, entrepreneurs, and religious figures with an emotional tenderness you won’t find on any other show. When you listen to one of Krista’s podcasts, you know you’re going to investigate the choir of the soul and the mystery of the universe. The environment she creates is as contemplative as a meditation retreat and as homey as the stuffed animal you used to hug as a kid.
TV Tropes: I love finding websites that remind me how little I know about the world. TV Tropes is a pop-culture wiki that catalogs common plot devices, archetypes, and tropes in all forms of media. The site is a little hard to navigate, but if you like storytelling, you’re going to have a blast exploring it. I suggest starting with this page on Flanderization or this one about why everything sounds sexier in French.
Good Old Neon: Of all the David Foster Wallace short stories, this is my favorite one. It’s a difficult window into the mind of a depressed person, narrated by a ghost from beyond the grave. Given that the author took his life a couple years after it was published, I suspect that it was a way to grapple with the warfare inside his own mind. Here’s the audiobook, and here’s a free 41-page PDF. The heaviness of it reminds me of The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, which I equally recommend.
Liberal Arts: The West’s faith in the liberal arts is declining and I’m on a mission to find out why. To do so, I tore through Fareed Zakaria’s short book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, which argues for the benefits of studying ideas from different disciplines and using college to expose students to many ways of thinking. In my study, I was happy to find a series of annual lectures at the University of Chicago called The Aims of Education. Here’s the archive of speakers. You can find most of the speeches with a Google search. In particular, I enjoyed Robert Maynard Hutchins’ speech from 1943.
Liberal Arts: I enjoyed Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education. I also read Beyond the University by Michael Roth, which was a historical deep dive into how the liberal arts became what they are today. I recommend them both. If you’re looking for a personal narrative, read Zakaria’s book, and if you’re looking for history, read Roth’s.
Porter Robinson Interview: Woah, this is the best thing I’ve read about the creative process in a long, long time. I don’t know if it’s really good or if I’m just such a big Porter Robinson fan that anything he says will entertain me. Probably a little bit of both. If you do creative work, you will resonate with what he’s saying.
How Music Works: While we’re on the topic of music, I recommend How Music Works by David Byrne. It’s written for a mass audience of people who like music enough to attend live concerts but haven’t studied it formally. Just like me. If you want to read a review of the book first, consider this one from the New York Times.
Christopher Alexander: The news of Alexander’s death is heartbreaking to me. He was the person who best articulated how spaces can feel alive, whether they are a collection of atoms or bits. To date, A Timeless Way of Building is one of the best books I’ve ever read because of the principles it presents for quality design — and by extension, a quality life. The book is written so masterfully that I feel a spiritual connection to it. Some of my favorites are: (1) Change the walking surface and the light quality to create a “transition space” between home and street, (2) the best rooms have light from two sides, and (3) in the northern hemisphere, if you want to maximize the natural light in your home, make sure the southern side has large windows. If you’d like to learn more about Alexander’s work, I recommend this Twitter account and this talk by Ryan Singer.
Swedish House Mafia: I love watching creativity in action. This video is a behind-the-scenes of the making of One. Notice how the DJs are throwing out ideas, keeping what works, and throwing away the rest — all while having fun. Here’s the extended video with Swedish House Mafia playing the song at Ultra. I like it because it shows how an idea can go from an experiment in a studio to the night of a lifetime for 80,000 people.
K-Pop: These are the kinds of articles that make the Internet great. This deep-dive on K-Pop focused on why it’s so popular, how it represents an alternative to Western pop music, why the fandom is so intense, the arduous process of becoming a K-Pop star, and why it’s such a centralized and hierarchical industry.
Beautiful Performances: When I first moved to Austin, a bunch of friends and I rented a house together for three months. One benefit of living with friends is the number of new videos you watch that you would’ve never discovered otherwise. From my time there, two live musical performances stand out: Alicia Keys’ performance at the Grammy’s where she honors songs she wishes she’d written and this Michael Jackson performance of Billie Jean where the audience is moved to tears by his performance.
Brunello Cucinelli: This is an interview for the ages. He’s the founder of an eponymously named Italian fashion brand, which makes cashmere sweaters and earns more than $450 million per year in revenue. The interview is a trip through his philosophy of life and business, based on the pillars of dignity, beauty, and soul. If you’re eager for more, here are my favorite lessons from Cucinelli.
David Whyte: Whyte is an English poet, and I can’t stop listening to his interviews. He made me see how humiliation is a terrible feeling but a beautiful word. It comes from the Latin word humus, which means soil. So being humiliated is like returning to the ground of your being. Only by shedding those illusions of selfhood do you confront your own fragility. I recommend his interviews with Sam Harris and Krista Tippett. As you listen, your soul will fill up with the warmth of a fireplace on a cold winter night.
James Turrell: An American artist known for his work with light and space. Like Yayoi Kusama, his work is made for our hyper-visual age, where art is photographed and shared on small screens. Almost all of Turell’s work is magnificent, but he’s at his best when he’s playing with rectangles. For an introduction to his art, I recommend this short article, his New York Times profile, or this interview from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Letters to a Young Poet: A collection of letters from Rainer Maria Rilke, published in 1929. They double as a manual about living as an artist and doing creative work. Two creative virtues stand out: solitude and patience. The book is short enough to read in one sitting, but the writing is so beautiful that you’ll want to stop, put your book down, and reflect on the wisdom within it. Though it’s about poetry, anybody who does creative work will enjoy it.
99% Invisible: A show about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about, particularly in architecture and design. To date, this show is responsible for more of my Internet rabbit holes than just about any source I can think of. I recommend this two-part series about the Bijlmeer or this one about the carpet at the Portland airport. Every podcast comes with a full transcript, so you can choose how you want to enjoy the ideas.
Epic School in Oklahoma: There’s an online charter school in Oklahoma called Epic, which has 38,000 students and where teachers can earn more than $100,000 per year. The school was made possible by a law that gave online-only charter schools a separate regulatory structure from physical schools and didn’t have an enrollment cap. Epic is hated by most people in the traditional education industry. They’ve been the subject of multiple lawsuits, mostly around alleged fraud, but none of them have been resolved.
Gareth Hinds: This author re-creates famous books with beautiful hand-drawn images. I particularly recommend them for people with kids. It might be fun to read the original book yourself, but share the picture-books with your kids so you can talk about the famous stories together. I immediately purchased his graphic novels about The Odyssey and Gifts from the Gods, which is all about the wisdom of Greek mythology. If you purchase the books, get a paper version instead of a digital one.
How Malcolm X Learned to Read: Here’s an inspiring story if there ever was one. Malcolm X learned to read by reading the dictionary and learning each word, one-by-one. Crazy, right? He was in prison at the time, and as his vocabulary broadened, he binge-read books in the isolation of his prison cell. As he recounted: “When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P.M. I would be outraged with the “lights out.” It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing. Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when “lights out” came, I would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow. Here’s the full story.
Kobe Bryant’s Last Game: My YouTube recommendations led me to a video of Kobe’s final game when he went on such a tear that I swear a higher power was guiding his hand. The box score says he scored 60 points, but his achievement was more impressive than that. The Lakers were down by 10 points with ~3 minutes left in the game, before Kobe swooshed shot after shot to give his team the win. I particularly enjoyed the reaction shots of his wife, his daughters, and Jay-Z — all of whom seemed to sense a divine power hovering over the hardwood in front of them. Rest in peace, #24.
Cross Highway Collection: I’ve never recommended a boutique store in the history of Friday Finds, but it’s time to change that. When I was in college, I spent a lot of time with a fashion aficionado named Andrea Mathewson who is the mother of one of my best buddies. She has one of the best-decorated homes I’ve ever seen. It contains everything from mid-century modern “Mad Men” home décor to Revolutionary War memorabilia. The feel is warm and impressive, but not stuffy. I learned that she developed her taste as a buyer for Pier 1, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Dooney & Bourke. So what’s the news? This month, she launched her own retail brand. On the site, you can find collectibles like old restaurant menus, primitive antiques, rare art, delicate pottery, and vintage designer goods. The site is like a treasure hunt, and though I call dibs on the Alexander Calder print, there’s a bunch of good stuff to be discovered. I’m not getting any kickback for this, but she kindly offered a 15% off discount for Finds readers using the code: PERELL15.
Movie of the Night: The simplest way to filter and categorize movies and TV series based on genre, year released, and the streaming service they run on.
Just Watch: Gone are the days where it feels like “everything’s on Netflix.” Video is now scattered across streaming platforms, and I’ve spent way too long looking for a simple video in the past. The fix is here though. If you ever want to watch something but don’t know where you can, this app will guide you to the best place.
JFK’s Fitness Plan for America: In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy laid out a vision to get America in shape. He worried that young Americans had become fat, weak, and un-athletic after World War II, and he even published an article in Sports Illustrated called “The Soft American.” His words echoes the ancient Greek idea that sound minds are born from sound bodies. I recommend this 3-minute statement he gave in 1962 and the trailer of a documentary called The Motivation Factor, which builds upon Kennedy’s original vision.
Augusta National: I love the word Valhalla. In Norse mythology, it describes a majestic place where people live blissfully under the hand of God. Augusta National, the world’s top golf course and the host of the Masters Tournament, is the closest thing I’ve seen to that definition. It’s so immaculate that it almost feels mythical. This article describes all the ends (sometimes dark) that the club goes through to give the course a surreal glow.
Troy: This was one of my favorite movies as a kid, and I rewatched it for the first time in more than a decade last weekend. It recounts the story of The Iliad, and though the details aren’t exact, it captures the spirit of the Greek epic. If you prefer an audiobook to the movie, I recommend this short retelling of the story.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Approach to Bodybuilding: I grew up in California with Arnold as my governor, but I somehow never appreciated him. First, he became a world bodybuilding champion. Then, he said, “I’m going to become one of the most famous actors in the world.” Then, he became the governor of California. Insane. For a window into his work ethic and all the fun he had doing it, I got a good laugh out of these two pages from one of his biographies.
Matthew McConaughey: Let’s start with an airport bookstore recommendation. As you know, the purpose of Friday Finds is to escape the intellectual spotlight as much as possible. If it’s in the news, I cut it. But this week we have a glitch in the system. Mr. McConaughey’s memoir, Greenlights, is so good that it gets to hang at the top today. Unlike other celebrity books, he actually wrote it. The storytelling is top-notch, and if you’re looking to laugh so hard that tears fall from your eyes, pick up the audiobook.
Fellow Kettles: Most of my home appliances work “fine.” But there’s one that puts a smile on my face every time I use it: the Fellow Stagg EKG Electric Pour-Over Kettle. It lets you control the temperature of your drink, down to the degree. If you make pour-over coffee, it has a host of other features like a stopwatch and a PID controller to help you hold the perfect temperature over time.
Getaway: A startup called Getaway has cabins around the country that offer easy trips away from major cities. They’re 1-2 bedrooms, and they’re all in nature. It’s basically a hyper-specific Airbnb, but geared towards short escapes to the woods. I haven’t tried it yet, but am going to book a cabin for the spring.
Comparing Weather: I would’ve never expected to have this much fun playing with a weather tool, but here we are. You can see how the climate of any city changes throughout the year. Most maps will show you temperature, but everybody knows that’s only part of the story. This tool will also show you sunlight, humidity, cloud cover, and a tourism score which will tell you the best time to visit.
Obscure PDFs: This is a Reddit collection of PDFs you won’t find anywhere else. On the page, you’ll find in-depth looks into restaurant business models, the 100-year history of erotic art, the psychology of fascism, how the quantum search algorithm works, and the CIA’s simple sabotage field manual.
Barstool’s Pizza Reviews: You weren’t expecting this link, were you? Every day, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy reviews a different pizza shop. Even if the brand looks casual, Barstool’s Pardon My Take is the biggest sports-related podcast in the world. In this pizza review, Dave is with a few celebrities in Midtown Manhattan. Halfway through, a girl walking next to him recognizes Dave (the Internet celebrity), without acknowledging the traditional Hollywood ones (Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson, and Hannibal Buress). Videos like this highlight the under-estimated inertia behind Internet culture.
Criterion Collection: My writing coach Ellen Fishbein is a movie fanatic, and says this platform is the best place to find and watch movies. The service is dedicated to promoting exceptional classic and contemporary films. Each film is presented in the way the directors would have wanted them to be seen. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this.
Media Mail: If you’re an American and you ever need to send educational materials, use Media Mail. It’s a government-subsidized service from the United States Postal Service designed for media like books, movies, CDs, articles, and magazines. Best of all, there’s no catch. Using media mail is as simple as shipping a regular package.
Google Books Ngram Viewer: This tool tracks the frequency of any set of word strings found in sources printed between 1950 and 2019. With its online search engine, you can see how words and phrases have risen and fallen in popularity throughout history. At the very least, it’s a blast to play with. And at most, it’s a window into mass psychology over the centuries.
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