Stolen Focus by Johann Hari (Review)

Strangely enough, I had a hard time focusing on Stolen Focus. I skimmed through the first five chapters of this 14 chapter book. I confess that I focused on chapter topics that interested me and on information that basically reinforced my current views on attention and concentration. Regrettably over the years, my ability to sit still for 60 or 90 minutes and read a book has greatly diminished. To a very large extent, I blame it on the distraction of social media and the Internet.

Hari’s book basically confirmed what I already know – – it is very hard to be focused and to apply attention for any great period of time. Everyone has certain addictions – – for me, its carbohydrates, salt etc. I am easily distracted. As I write this, I hear a TV in my living room, I am mentally composing a checklist of things that I need to do tomorrow and I am thinking about getting ready for a trip next week.

From this book, I learned why I and everyone else become distracted. What I did not necessarily find out was how to eliminate distractions and improve my concentration.

Shown below are my notes from the book:

Teams took ordinary people and got them to read much faster than they ordinarily would; with training, and with practice, it sort of works. They can run their eyes over the words quickly and retain something of what they are saying. But if you do then test them on what they read, you’ll discover that the faster you make them go, the less they will understand. More speed means less comprehension.

Scientists then studied professional speed readers – – and they discovered that even though they are obviously better at it than the rest of us, the same thing happens. This show there’s just a maximum limit for how quickly humans can absorb information, and trying to bust through that barrier simply busts your brain’s abilities to understand it instead.

The scientists investigating this also discovered that if you make people read quickly, they are much less likely to grapple with complex or challenging material. They start to prefer simplistic statements.

Scientists discovered… When people think they are doing several things at once, they are actually – – “juggling.” They are switching back-and-forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort papers it over, to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they’re actually doing is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment to moment, task to task and that comes with a cost.

The more he studied flow states, the more Mihaly noticed something else crucial about them. They are extraordinarily fragile and easily disrupted.

When you are approaching death, I thought, you won’t think about your reinforcements – – the likes and retweets – – you’ll think about your moments of flow.

We all have a choice now between two profound forces – – fragmentation, or flow. Fragmentation makes you smaller, shallower, angrier. Flow makes you bigger, deeper, calmer. Fragmentation shrinks us. Flow expands us.

The proportion of Americans to read books for pleasure is now at its lowest level ever recorded. The American Time Use Survey – – which studies a representative sample of 26,000 Americans found that between 2004 and 2017 the proportion of men reading for pleasure had fallen by 40%, while for women, it was down by 29%.

Gallup found that the proportion of Americans who never read a book in any given year tripled between 1978 and 2014. Some 57% of Americans do not even read a single book in a typical year.

… the collapse in reading books is in someways a symptom of our atrophying attention, and in someways a cause of it. It’s a spiral – – as we begin to move from books to screens, we start to lose some of the capacity for the deeper readings that come from books, and that, and turn makes us less likely to read books.

Bittersweet Review (Goodreads)

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I chose this book because I had read and enjoyed Quiet, a book about introverts, written by the author. With that being said, I skimmed through much of the book. However I did pick up some personal insights, many of which are not surprising to me. For example, based on her Bittersweet quiz, I have a bittersweet state of mind. Or let’s just say, that I can be a very sensitive and empathetic man. As the author points out, when you experience something like a personal tragedy early in your life as I did, you tend to accept sorrow and longing.

The author also suggests that whatever paying you cannot get rid of, make it your creative offering. I do this primarily through my writing.

I can’t say this book will provide you solace or relieve your pain if you are in sorrow or mental distress. But it may explain how you feel or could feel…

Shown below are my notes from the book:

This book is about the melancholic direction, which I call the “bittersweet”: a tendency to states of longing, pregnancy and sorrow; and acute awareness of passing time; and they curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. The bitter sweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death—-bitter and sweet are forever paired.

Most of all, bitter sweetness shows us how to respond to pain: by acknowledging it, and attempting to turn it into art, the way musicians do, or healing, or innervation, or anything else that nourishes the soul. If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings, we can end up inflicting them on others via abuse, domination, neglect but if we realize that all humans know – – or world now – – loss and suffering, we can turn toward each other.This idea of transforming pain into creativity, transcendence and love is the heart of this book.

It’s long been known that the vagus nerve is connected to digestion, sex, and breathing – – to the mechanics of being alive. But in several replicated studies, Keltner discovered another of its purposes: when we witness suffering, our vagus nerves make us care. If you see a photo of a man wincing in pain, or a child weeping for her dying grandmother, your vagus nerve will fire.

Then, the reminder that we have no missing half. “Here’s a little bit of darkness,” he warns. We need to accept that there is no partner who would understand the whole of us, who will share all our of our tastes in large and small areas. Ultimately, it is always a percentage of compatibility we will only ever achieve.

Even in the healthiest relationships, belonging often returns. In these unions, you can raise children, if you want you can share inside jokes, favorite vacation spots, mutual admiration, and a bed; you can search the streets of a brand new city for a heating pad when you’re traveling and your partners back goes out. In the best relationships, you can still, every so often, go to the moon and back. But most likely your relationship will be an asymptote of the thing you long for. As LVL says, “those who search for intimacy with others are reacting to this longing. They think another human will fulfill them. But how many of us have actually ever been totally fulfilled by another person? Maybe for a while, but not forever. We want something more fulfilling more intimate.

Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make it your creative offering.

Angelou (Maya) story suggests, many people respond to loss by healing in others the wounds they themselves have suffered. Angelou did this through writing, but the process takes many forms. Indeed, the “wounded healer,” a term coined by the psychologist Carl Jung in 1951, is one of humanities oldest archetypes.

What are you longing for?

To find out how bitter sweet you are…¨

Do you tear up easily at touching TV commercials?

Are you especially moved by old photographs? ¨

Do you react intensely to music, art or nature?

Do you feel elevated by sad music? ¨

Do you tend to see the happiness and sadness in things, all at once?

Does the word poignant especially resonate with you? When you have conversations with close friends, are you drawn to talking about their past or current troubles?

View all my reviews

The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed and Happiness by Morgan Housel

Takeaways and notes from the book:

Voltaire’s observation: “history never repeats itself; man always does.“ The lowest income households in the United States on average spend $412 a year on lotto tickets, four times the amount of those in the highest income groups. 40% of Americans cannot come up with $400 in an emergency. Which is to say: Those buying $400 in lottery tickets are by and large the same people who say they can’t come up with $400 in an emergency.

Years ago I asked economist Robert Schiller, who won the Nobel prize in economics what do you want to know about investing that we can’t know? “The exact role of luck and successful outcomes,“ he answered.

The difficulty in identifying what is luck, what is skill, and what is risk is one of the biggest problems we face when trying to learn about the best way to manage money.

What Gupta and Madoff did is something different. They already had everything: unimaginable wealth, prestige, power, freedom. And they threw it all away because they wanted more. They had no sense of enough.

Reputation is invaluable. Freedom and independence are invaluable. Family and friends are invaluable. Being loved by those who you want to love you is invaluable. Happiness is invaluable.

Good investing is not necessarily about making good decisions. It’s about consistently not screwing up.

At the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in 2013 Warren Buffett said he’s owned 400 to 500 stocks during his life and made most of his money on 10 of them. Charlie Munger followed up: “If you remove just a few of Berkshire‘s top investments, its long-term track record is pretty average.“

The highest form of wealth is the ability to wake up every morning and say, “I can do whatever I want today.“

Controlling your time is the highest dividend money pays.

No one is impressed with your possessions as much as you are.

Savings in the bank that earn 0% interest might actually generate an extraordinary return if they give you the flexibility to take a job with a lower salary but more purpose, or wait for investment opportunities that come when those without flexibility turn desperate.

Having more control over your time and options is becoming one of the most valuable currencies in the world.

The most important driver of anything tied to money is the stories people tell themselves and the preferences they have for goods and services. Those things don’t tend to sit still. They change with culture and generation. They’re always changing and always will.

History can be a misleading guide to the future of the economy and stock market because it doesn’t account for structural changes that are relevant to today’s world.

The most important part of every plan is planning on your plan not going according to plan.

German tanks at Stalingrad – – field mice had nested inside the vehicles and eaten away installations covering the electrical systems. (No one had planned for this risk, hence German tanks were inoperative.)

The more you want something to be true, the more likely you are to believe a story that overestimates the odds of it being true.

Manage your money in a way that helps you sleep at night. Use money to gain control over your time.

Effectively all of our net worth is a house, a checking account and some Vanguard index funds. One of my deeply held investing beliefs is that there is little correlation between investment effort and investment results. The reason is because the world is driven by tales – – a few variables account for the majority of returns. (Author describing his financial management.)

Book Recommendation: Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

This is a very useful book especially given the current fractious times that we live in. My guess is just about all of us needs to spend some time “re-thinking.” As the author correctly points out, “We live in an increasingly divisive time. For some people a single mention of kneeling during the national anthem is enough to end a friendship. For others a single ballot at a voting booth is enough to end the marriage. Calcified ideologies are tearing American culture apart.”

Re-thinking is not only useful for politics and debate but for every aspect of your life, including financial management, marriage, children, career, social relationships etc.

Grant provides a number of interesting people, scenarios and examples where re-thinking took place with very positive results. Probably the best example was the black musician Daryl Davis who persuaded white supremacists to abandon not only their membership in the Ku Klux Klan but more importantly their racist outlooks.

This is an important book that all of us could benefit from.

I have included some of my notes from the book:

This book is an invitation to let go of knowledge and opinions that are no longer serving you well, and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency.

Part of the problem is cognitive laziness. Some psychologists point out that we are mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging onto old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones.

Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise, and in staying true to our beliefs and opinions. That makes sense in a stable world, where we get rewarded for having conviction and our ideas. The problem is that we live in the rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking. ( e.g. Mike Lazardis BlackBerry CEO)

Research reveals that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes, because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.

When we are in scientific mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles.

We should all be able to make a long list of areas where we are ignorant. Recognizing our shortcomings opens the door to doubt.

In a meta-analysis of 95 studies involving over 100,000 people, women typically underestimated their leadership skills, while men overestimated their skills.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a modest report on skill and confidence that would soon become famous. They found that many situations, those who can’t… Don’t know they can’t. It’s when we lack confidence that we are most likely to be brimming with overconfidence.

Patient mortality rates in hospitals seem to spike in July, when new residents take over. It’s not their lack of skill alone that proves hazardous; it’s there over estimation of that skill.

“Arrogance is ignorance plus conviction.” Tim Urban

Achieving excellence in school often requires mastering old ways of thinking. Building an influential career demands new way of thinking.

Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries education researcher Karen Arnold explains. They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.

Good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking. Ultimately education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads. It’s the habits we develop as we keep revising our drafts and the skills we build to keep learning.

Think like a scientist. When you start forming an opinion, resist the temptation to preach, prosecute or politick.
Define your identity in terms of values, not opinions.
Seek out information that goes against your views.
Embrace the joy of being wrong.
Build a challenge network, not just a support network.
Learn something new from each person you meet.
Ask “what evidence would change your mind?”
Make time to think again.