“Best Book” Lists of 2016

I have not yet compiled my list of favorite reads of 2016.  I have been busy, however, perusing some great lists of book recommendations from individuals I trust to steer me to good material.  Keep in mind that these lists are not all of books published in 2016; rather, they are lists of great books discovered, read, and sometimes published, in 2016.  The distinction is not a meaningful difference.

Farnam Street’s “Best Books of 2016” – Farnam Street is a treasure trove for readers, especially readers who take pleasure in a greater understanding of the world.  This is a great list of nonfiction and fiction alike.

Bil Gates’s list of “Favorite Books of 2016” – Gates releases a list of great reads every year, sharing that “Never before have I felt so empowered to learn as I do today.”

Ryan Holiday’s list of the “(Very) Best Books of 2016” – Ryan Holiday is a great resource on reading, how to read more effectively, and what to read.

Bonus: Shane Parrish, curator of Farnam Street, has released his list of all books he read in 2016.  Not a “best of” list, it’s still well worth a look.


How to Read a Book Analytically to Build Understanding

How do you read a book?  You know how to read, of course, but have you paid attention to the purpose or the method of your reading?

We read in different ways at different times.  The way we read is influenced both by what we are reading, and why we are reading.  We can read for entertainment, for information, or for understanding. Appreciating the distinction between these modes will allow you to pull more value from the reading material you choose.

The classic text on how to read a book is (funny enough), How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.  Adler outlines his goals and methodology in his preface:

How to Read a Book attempts to inculcate skills that are useful for reading anything. These skills, however, are more than merely useful—they are necessary—for the reading of great books, those that are of enduring interest and importance. Although one can read books, magazines, and newspapers of transient interest without these skills, the possession of them enables the reader to read even the transient with greater speed, precision, and discrimination. The art of reading analytically, interpretively, and critically is indispensable only for the kind of reading by which the mind passes from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more, and for reading the few books that are capable of being read with increasing profit over and over again. those few books are the great books—and the rules of reading here set forth are the rules for reading them.

Purposes of Reading

The first question when reading is to understand why you are reading. Adler first divides reading into (1) reading for amusement and (2) reading for knowledge.  Reading for knowledge, in turn, consists of (1) reading for information and (2) reading for understanding.

Let’s break this down.  There are times we read casually or light material – magazines, vacation paperbacks, mystery novels.  In these moments, you are reading for amusement.

You might also casually read for information – a newspaper or weekly periodical, for example.  This requires slightly more attention than reading for entertainment, as you might commit new facts to memory. Reading a newspaper, however, does not require an analytical approach to the text itself.  You read the newspaper for the facts it contains, but rarely for the language or the structure of the piece.

Reading for amusement or for information are perfectly fine.  They are the most common types of reading, and it’s still better than a lot of things on which you could waste your time.  It’s a question of your goals.  If you have a goal of getting better, building skills, gaining a competitive advantage, you need to improve your understanding.

Reading for understanding is reading to learn.  This type of reading requires thinking and analysis on your part, because you’re spending time with the book to find its insights and its essence.  Books present us with the opportunity to improve ourselves and to get smarter.  To do that, however, you need to work. You need to challenge yourself by finding books written by people smarter than you about subjects you don’t fully understand.

Four Types of Reading

Adler defines four types of reading:

1. Elementary – This is basic entry-level reading.  It answers the question, “What does this sentence say?”

2. Inspectional – Inspectional reading is skimming or superficial reading.  It answers the question, “What is the book about?”

3. Analytical – Analytical reading is the beginning of higher-level reading. It answers the question, “What does the book mean?”

4. Syntoptical – This requires a comparison of a book to other texts. It answers the question, “How does the book’s meaning compare to other books?”

Tools of the Active Reader

I particularly like Adler’s focus on the “kind of reading by which the mind passes from a state of understanding less to a state of understanding more.”  It breaks down a demanding task to an understandable and concrete objective.

How do you read a book inspectionally, analytically, or syntoptically? Adler offers a fantastic list of questions and approaches to help you work through a book.

Inspectional Reading

While inspectional reading may be a superficial skimming of the book, it may also be the initial “pre-read” that paves the way for a deeper second look.  Look at the title page and read the preface to determine what type of book it is.  Study the table of contents and index to gain an understanding of the book’s structure, key terms, and topics.  Reading the opening and closing pages of key chapters can be helpful.

I have always been of the belief that many books should not be finished.  If you’re choosing the right books, this won’t happen very often, I hope.  But if you determine that a book isn’t worth the time it will take to finish, put it down.  There’s plenty of other things to read.  I was glad to see Adler echo this thought, writing that “many books are hardly worth even skimming.”  As for the rest, “some should be read quickly,” and only “a few should be read…quite slow…for complete comprehension.”  As a result, you need to develop different reading speeds.

Analytical Reading

Reading analytically requires work, but the framework is simple and straightforward.  Adler outlines four questions to ask about any book:

1. What is the book about as a whole? (i.e., what is the subject?)

2. What is being said in detail, and how? (i.e., what terms does the book use and how are those terms interpreted?)

3. Is the book true, or partially true? (i.e., how do you evaluate the book?)

4. What of it? (i.e., why does it matter and what is the significance?)

Seizing a Book and Making it Your Own

If you’re reading a book for knowledge and understanding, you should have a pen in your hand.  Adler recommends a list of common-sense actions:

-underline key sentences
-mark key sections with vertical lines
-star in margins
-insert page numbers in margin to parallel or contrasting sections
-note key words, phrases, and terms
-margin notes

You might have notes that are structural, about the content of the subject. The next level of note taking will be conceptual, concerning the truth and significance of the book.  Finally, dialectical notes will mark the shape of argument in the larger context of the topic.

One tool that works particularly well for me is to create my own index of important topics on or near the title page.  The beauty of this type of index is that the topics and entries are entirely up to you.  I try to save these index entries for definitions of the author’s key terms, beautiful quotes, and other important themes.

Remembering What You Read

If you read a book with a pen in your hand, asking yourself Adler’s key questions along the way, you will already be ahead of the game of reading to improve your understanding and knowledge.  Unless you have an encyclopedic steel trap of a memory, however, you’ll pull even more value from books if you have a system for cataloguing and cross-referencing the material you read.  I use a commonplace book.

When I finish a book, I put it and all of my notes, dog-eared pages, and post-its down for at least a week.  Two weeks is preferable.  After that time has passed, I review my marked passages and notes.  Some of the marked passages no longer seem worth recording to me, and I ignore those.  I write down those that remain onto paper notecards.  I write the quote, along with the author, title, and page number on the card.  In the top right corner of the card, I label the card with a theme. Themes are obviously more useful if you pick topics that are applicable to a broad enough set of quotes that you can gather related ideas.  Examples from the last four or five books that I’ve read might be: “zen,” “stoicism,” “cognitive bias,” “leadership,” and “work.”  Placing them on notecards as opposed to a fixed journal allows me to organize notes, or take a small set of notes with me if traveling or working remotely.

As you collect more and more notes, you will find that these themes develop and emerge across multiple texts.  This will allow you to become a comparative and a more analytical thinker.  How do different texts and different writers illuminate these themes in different ways?  What similarities do you find?  What differences?  Ultimately, your focus should shift to developing your own analytical viewpoint and insights into these areas of thought.  When that happens, you know that you have moved from just “reading” to “thinking,” from “consuming” to “analyzing,” and ultimately, from “observation” to “creation.”

The Best Books I Read in 2015

I read approximately 50 books this year that were new to me and re-read a few others that were important to me for various reasons.  At this time of the year, I try to narrow down the dozens of books that I read to a list of five or six that I drew the most from or were the most interesting or beneficial to me for some reason.  People are very busy, and most of you do not have time to read everything you’d like to read.  The same is true for me.  No matter how much you read and learn, there will always be an infinite amount that you haven’t read or learned.  The key is to use the time that you have, and pick the right books when you read.

I read more this year than I have in the past few years, but not as much as four, five, and six years ago.  I’d like to think that increasing trend will continue for 2016 and beyond.  I read less fiction this year, and was focused on reading a lot of books that I hoped would provide insight into mindfulness and clearer insight into appreciating the everyday moments of life.  Here’s the list, in no reasoned order:

Rebecca Solnit – A Field Guide to Getting Lost

This year I spent a lot of time reading books and thinking about the hidden uncertainties in nature and life and whether there were ways I can access them more easily.  The product of this, I hope, will be a more immediate and creative life.  Solnit’s essay collection is a marvelous and enchanting inquiry into what it means to be “us,” and how the unknown can affect us.  Reading this, I was genuinely jealous of Solnit’s insight and approach to what it means to human.  She writes, “The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”  Ultimately, Solnit’s view is that living life well requires surrendering to uncertainty and lack of control, which is advice that I am trying to take to heart as the year turns.

Pico Iyer – The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (TED Books)

This books pairs wonderfully with A Field Guide to Getting Lost.  If you live and work a typical life in today’s world, you almost certainly struggle with the unrelenting press of productivity – email alerts, text messages, to-do lists – that presses further and further into our private spaces as time goes on.  Knowledge workers sacrificed evenings and weekends long ago, and now it is common practice for people to check their phones for new emails as the very first task of the day. Recognizing the serious negative consequences to this trend, Pico Iyer shares a recipe for reclaiming space and ultimately, envisioning a pathway to mental piece.  This book gave my struggling meditation practice a big boost in 2015, reminding me to take time to simply sit still and pay attention to the life in front of me, even if for only five or ten minutes each day.  In a world that presents us with more and more easily and immediately available information, Iyer succinctly argues that sitting still and freeing yourself from information is a “necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources.”

Christopher McDougall – Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

This was the most exciting book I read this year, and centered around a World War II story that I had never heard.  In April 1944, Nazi General Heinrich Kreipe disappeared without a trace and without any bloodshed on the island of Crete.  McDougall then reveals this fascinating  tale of the Cretan resistance against the Nazi occupation and a British clandestine operations agency known as “the Firm,” whose greatest stunt was kidnapping Kreipe and then leading Nazi forces on a wild chase over mountain ranges and throughout the treacherous island.  What makes McDougall’s book more than a history text is his exploration of “becoming a hero.”  Crete is known as the “Island of Heroes,” and McDougall uses the kidnapping story as a kernel to sprout a much larger study of the tools and methods of heroes.  Comparing the British commandoes to the exploits of mythological characters and historic Greek champions, McDougall explains how “the art of the hero wasn’t left up to chance; it was a multidisciplinary endeavor devoted to optimal nutrition, physical self-mastery, and mental conditioning.”  This is a fantastic read and a reminder to develop competence in as many areas of life as possible.

Sam Harris – Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris delivered a book on mind, meditation, and mindfulness that is unique in its reliance on scientific analysis and secularity.  Harris’s thesis is two-fold: first, with a basic practice of mindfulness meditation, you can achieve insight into the nature of consciousness through the relentless chatter in your mind; and second, with that insight, you can develop an increased sense of pleasure in your life.  Bookstores are cluttered with self-help books that are useless in their tautologism: if you want to feel better, understand the world, find peace, etc., you just need to feel better, understand the world, and find peace.  Harris is different because he writes with razor sharp insight explains a method to insight:

[O]nce a person has his basic needs met, how he uses his attention in every moment will spell the difference between happiness and misery. In particular, the habit of spending nearly every waking moment lost in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts happen to be. Meditation is a way of breaking this spell. Focus is one aspect of this: One discovers that being concentrated—on anything—is intrinsically pleasurable.

Harris is a wide and varied thinker who writes on topics including religion, artificial intelligence, free will, and moral realism.  I’ve enjoyed all of his books, but I think that Waking Up is his most important book because it offers a blueprint for meaningful change to anyone willing to look into the nature of his or her own mind.

Homer – The Iliad (trans. Robert Fagles)

I read the Iliad during my freshman year of college, which is to say that I glanced at a few pages of it before being sucked back into more important things like Super Tecmo Bowl and donut holes.  I’ve recently investigated the idea of building for myself a great books curriculum for the next few years, and The Iliad was a natural place to start.  What struck me in returning to this book after so many years was how remarkably human it is.  The book occupies in collective consciousness the position of a classical war epic, but the book is essentially about the consequences of human folly – of conceit, narcissism, jealousy, and revenge.  The book starts with the rage of Achilles, who after ten years of bloody war, leaves the Greeks in the lurch by abandoning the fight when the Greek king Menelaus wrongs him.  The book circles back to the same rage of Achilles, who has vanquished and dishonored the Trojan hero Hector in vengeance for the death of Achilles’s companion Patroclus.  In between these bookends, men die terrible wartime deaths.  The book sets humanity against – and frames humanity within –  violence, time and time again.  It is a strong reminder for our present times exactly what violence against another human being entails, requires, and leaves behind.

Daniel Tammet – Thinking In Numbers

I wrote a piece about this book just a week ago and detailed the remarkable ability of Tammet to find hidden beauty and patterns in what would otherwise pass as arbitrary or unorganized moments in life.  This light-hearted collection of essays carries an ultimate point: that mathematics offers a reminder of our own finite capacities, and an opportunity to discover new beauty in patterns within our reach.  “Properly understood,” Tammet writes, “the study of mathematics has no end: the things each of us does not know about it are infinite.”  This book shatters the parochial viewpoint that relegates math to the classroom and textbook.

Miscellaneous Others

I read a lot books on food and cooking, as the kitchen is a place for my restorative and creative time.  In that vein, I really enjoyed La Bonne Tableby Ludwig Bemelmans, a collection of essays about kitchens, dining, and good food. Also Dane Huckelbridge’s Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit.  Mark Divine’s  The Way of the SEAL is a great business planning book that provides great tools for defining your mission and setting goals to make you and your organization accountable through the year.  Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is a magnificent meditation on the American West and the change that modernity has brought to it.  I didn’t read nearly as many biographies as I would have liked in 2015, but the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was a great read and full of strategic and moral lessons for life drawn from Grant’s Mexican and Civil War experiences.

That’s it for the year.  Enjoy, and please let me know what made an impact on you this year.

Best wishes for 2016!

Savant Daniel Tammet on Finding Beauty in the Mathematical Patterns of Life

I had the pleasure this weekend of devouring Daniel Tammet’s 2012 essay collection, Thinking in Numbers.  Part mathematical inquiry, part memoir, Tammet’s wonderful collection offers a wonderfully creative window into a new vision of life – a vision in which we are able to separate ourselves from a rigid common view of life and find awe and beauty in the swirling patterns that we pass each day without notice.

Tammet was born in London in 1979, and experienced early childhood epileptic seizures and unusual behavior.  In 2004, at the age of 25, he was diagnosed with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome.  The same year, he set a European record at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science when he recited from memory the mathematical constant of pi to 22,514 places.  It took him 5 hours and 19 minutes, and he made no errors in the process.

Tammet began writing in 2005 with the autobiographical account of his childhood and young life, Born on a Blue Day.  He followed soon after with his overview of contemporary neuroscience, Embracing the Wide Sky.  Thinking in Numbers is his first book of essays and draws inspiration to live a more complete and wide-open life from the mathematics he observes in subjects including snowflakes, chess problems, and Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger.

Tammet starts his collection with the essay “Family Values,” in which he describes his family relationships with his eight siblings as an example of set theory.  Set theory is the branch of mathematics that is concerned with sets, or collections of objects.  In describing his his siblings and himself together, Tammet described them as a set:

We are, my brothers, sisters, and I, in the language of mathematics, a “set” consisting of nine members.  A mathematician would write:

S = {Daniel, Lee, Claire, Steven, Paul, Maria, Natasha, Anna, Shelley}

Put another way, we belong to the category of things that people refer to when they use the number nine.

In considering his familial set, Tammet ponders the number of potential combinations of different Tammet children in any given location at a random time.  Mathematics tells us that a combination of two, three, or seven siblings is a subset of the Tammet family set, and that the number of subsets in any set is 2n, where represents the number of set members.  The potential combinations of the author and his siblings in any place and time is 29, or 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, or 512.  To Tammet, a visit to the bakery with one brother and one sister represents just one of a defined 512 combinations of family members that might show up in that store that day.

Tammet explains the significance of this mathematical representation of his family.  Viewed through this lens, his family instantly shares some a communal aspect with other sets that have this characteristic.  These include members of a baseball team (9), planets in the solar system prior to 2005, before Pluto’s demotion (9), and United States Supreme Court Justices (9).  New commonality appears where before were only family boundaries.

Reminding us that “Our mind uses sets when we think and when we perceive just as much as when we count.”  Tammet then marks a consistent theme of his book, that familiarity with mathematics can change one’s point of view in everyday life:

Defining a set owes more to art than it does to science.  Faced with the problem of a near endless number of potential categories, we are inclined to choose from a few of those most tried and tested within our particular culture.  Western descriptors of the set of all elephants privilege subsets like “those that are very large, and “those possessing tusks,” and even “those possessing an excellent memory,” while excluding other equally legitimate possibilities such as Borges’s “those that at a distance resemble flies,” or the Hindu “those that are considered lucky.”

Tammet’s point is that our descriptions, categorization, and even view of the objects and people in our lives are mechanical, when so many different and accurate points of view are available to us.

In “Eternity Within an Hour,” Tammet begins a discourse that spans several essays regarding the numerical mysteries that surround us during every waking moment.  He recounts discovering that, as a child on his walk to school, that it took him eight seconds to travel from one lamppost to the next.  These regular intervals repeated themselves, eight seconds to each lamppost.  It occurred to Tammet that at four seconds, he was halfway to the next lamppost.  He halved the distance again at six seconds.  One second later – seven seconds had elapsed – he had cut the distance in half again.  This would repeat itself infinitely, over and over again, with the intervals becoming half as long and taking half as much time.  But the presence of infinity was obvious to Tammet, who marvels over this hidden dimension of the “infinity of fractions that lurked between the lampposts on my street.”

Tammet reveals observations like these to be much more than mere curiosities.  They are, in Tammet’s view, moments in which we may find meaning as human beings.  In his essay Einstein’s Equations, Tammet considers the explosion of meaning that comes from the analysis of whether a number – 75,007 – is a prime number.  In wrestling with this question, Tammet processes the subject number, first to a sum of 74,900 and 107.  As 74,900 is 10,700 x 7, 75,007 becomes 10,700 x 7 + 107.  More precisely still, the number becomes 1o7 x 100 x 7 + 107.  Tammet notes that the mathematician’s “blood leaps with joy to recognize the repeated factor: 107.”  The problem solved, he writes 75,007 = 107 x 701.  It is not a prime.

This is a moment of human meaning, revealing natural beauty:

Human beings’ quest for meaning is perpetual; lack of meaning is offensive to the mind, and whatever the scale of the problem, a solution is a thing of beauty.  Einstein’s equations solved problems such as “What do we mean by the words ‘time’ and ‘mass’?” A mathematician could tell us that the number 75,007 means to travel from 0 to 107, and then repeat the same distance successively 701 times.  Other meanings, like those found in music or cricket, while more intimate and inexpressible, can prove just as powerful.  Where chaos is subdued and the arbitrary averted, there lies beauty, and it is all around us.”

This discovery of beauty in the natural order hearkens all the way back to Pythagorus and his followers, who believed that the identities of all objects depend on form and not substance, and could be described using numbers and ratios.  Thus, Pythagorus taught that the “entire cosmos constituted some vast and glorious musical scale.”  Tammet admires the group as “the first to understand the world not on tradition (religion), or observation (empirical data), but through imagination – the prizing of pattern over matter.”

Tammet’s greatest successes in this book is his ability to extrapolate these abstract appreciations of natural beauty to an application of mathematics to life.  In A Novelist’s Calculus, he reminds us of Leo Tolstoy’s considered use of calculus as a metaphor for the story of history in War and Peace.

As geometers study shape, the student of calculus examines changes: the mathematics of how an object transforms from one state into another, as when describing the motion of a ball or bullet through space, is rendered pictorial in its graphs’ curves.  In these curves, smooth and subtle, girding the infinitesimal movements behind every human life, Tolstoy thought he was the blindness of contemporary historians.

Specifically, Tammet explains how Tolstoy believed calculus’s ability to identify and analyze the rates of change of extremely small events was akin to study of history:

The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous.  To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history… only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation … and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.”

Tammet summarizes, “Kinds and commanders and presidents did not interest Tolstoy.  History, his history, looks elsewhere: it is the study of infinitely incremental, imperceptible change from one state of being (peace) to another (war).”  Ultimately, “change appears to us mysterious because it is invisible.”  Nonetheless, Tammet recognizes that the impact of change renders a writer powerless to control his or her message to an ever-shifting audience.

If Tolstoy is right, his book cannot be understood with prior assumptions, rules, and theories.  Everything has its moment, its context.  Earlier, in one state, you began this essay, and now later on, you finish it in another.  What do you think?  I cannot tell you.  In everyone and everything, the process of change always asserts its own meaning.

Tammet’s ultimate point is that mathematics simultaneously offers a reminder of our own finite capacities, and an opportunity to discover new beauty in patterns within our reach.  “Properly understood,” Tammet writes, “the study of mathematics has no end: the things each of us does not know about it are infinite.”  He closes his opening essay on his family and siblings with these fine words:

Like works of literature, mathematical ideas help expand our circle of empathy, liberating us from the tyranny of a single, parochial point of view.  Numbers, properly considered, make us better people.



A Zen Buddhist Teacher Explains Death to a Child and Explains That Names Are Not the Same as Things

I am currently working my way through Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, ed. Stephen Mitchell.  Originally published in 1976, the book is a collection of correspondence, lectures, Zen interviews, between the Zen Master and his students in the West.  I do not recommend it as an introductory book on Zen Buddhism (look to Alan Watts for survey materials written for Western audiences for that), but for those with even a small bit of background understanding of Buddhism and the quirky nature of Zen teachings, Dropping Ashes is a treasure of insight and perspective, drawn from the Soen-Sa’s direct words, often hilariously shared.

Reading today, one particular anecdote caught my attention, both for its sweetness and for the broader lesson it contains.  Zen teaching often demonstrates an ability to reduce questions of overwhelming complexity to simple language and demonstrations.  Soen-sa gives an example of that propensity in recounting his talk with a seven-year old girl named Gita at the Cambridge Zen Center after the Center’s resident cat died after a long illness.  The girl was troubled by the cat’s death, even after watching the cat’s traditional Buddhist burial rituals.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

Gita said, “Yes.  What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-Sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa then explains, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing.”  He draws an analogy for Gita between a cookie factory and the universal nature of life force, explaining that all of the different cookies “have different shapes and different names, but they are all made form the same dough and they all taste the same. ”

“So all the different things that you see – a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor – all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

“People give them many different names.  But in themselves, they have no names.  When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes.  But when you are not thinking, all things are the same.  There are no words for them.  People make the words.  A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’  People say, ‘This is a cat.’  The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’  People say, ‘This is the sun.’

We often have a tendency to confuse our names and labels for the things we encounter with the nature of the observed object itself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as we’ve all been taught.  Soen-sa applies this insight to show the little girl the difference between the way we label the world and the world’s true nature:

“So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’ how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words.  So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’ what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-Sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God.”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of.  You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard.  Then she laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Very very good! That is how you should answer any question.  That is the truth.”

Soen-sa ends the episode with a humorous observation by Gita that the wonderful Maria Popova described as “a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:”

“Gita bowed and left.  As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school.  I’m going to give regular answers!”

Soen-sa laughed.

Couple this with “A Child’s Advice on Life and Fear.

Richard Feynman on the Value of Straight Talk

Do you speak freely and communicate your ideas directly?  Or do you filter, hedge, calculate, or adjust your message based on what you believe your audience wants to hear?  Richard Feynman highlights the value of straight talk through a short story found in his collection of autobiographical adventures, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

Richard Feynman’s Direct Communication

Feynman (1918-1988) was an American theoretical physicist, lifelong learner, and academic adventurer.  His work spanned many decades, and he made gigantic contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, and particle physics.  He participated in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, taught at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology, and assisted in the investigation of the Challenger Shuttle explosion.

Aside from his professional accomplishments, Feynman is often admired for his humorous and bawdy adventures in life.  His direct communication style often startled conventional thinkers: when learning feline anatomy, for example, his question was reported to be, “Do you have a map of the cat?”

Deliver an Honest Opinion Directly

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, Feynman recalls the opportunity to meet and work with Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the Manhattan Project.  At the time, Bohr was a giant in the field, while Feynman was still in the early stages of his career and relatively unknown.

“I also met Niels Bohr.  His name was Nicholas Baker in those days, and he came to Los Alamos, with Jim Baker, his son, whos e name is really Aage Bohr.  They came from Denmark, and they were very famous physicists, as you know.  Even to the big shot guys, Bohr was a great god.

[…]In the morning of the day he’s due to come next time, I get a telephone call.



‘This is Jim Baker.’ It’s his son. ‘My father and I would like to speak to you.’

‘Me? I’m Feynman, I’m just a-.’

‘That’s right.  Is eight o’clock OK?’

So, at eight o’clock in the morning, before anybody’s awake, I go down to the place.  We go into an office in the technical area and he says, ‘We have been thinking how we could make the bomb more efficient and we think of the following idea.’

I say, ‘No, it’s not going to work.  It’s not efficient …Blah, blah, blah.’

So he says, ‘How about so and so?’

I said, ‘That sounds a little bit better, but it’s got this damn fool idea in it.”

This went on for about two hours, going back and forth over lots of ideas, back and forth, arguing.  The great Niels kept lighting his pipe; it always went out.  And he talked in a way that was un-understandable -mumble, mumble, hard to understand.  His son I could understand better.

‘Well,’ he said finally, lighting his pipe, ‘I guess we can call in the big shots now.’ So then they called all the other guys and had a discussion with them.

Then the son told me what happened.  The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, ‘Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea.  So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr.  Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.

I was always dumb in that way.  I never knew who I was talking to.  I was always worried about the physics.  If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy.  If it looked good, I said it looked good.  Simple proposition.

I’ve always lived that way.  It’s nice, it’s pleasant – if you can do it.  I’m lucky in my life that I can do this.”

An honest opinion delivered directly can be of immense value.  Don’t waste your opportunities to share them.  Over time, the reputation as someone who shares ideas candidly will become even more valuable to your audience than the individual opinions.