Author: Peter (Page 1 of 25)

I Have Been Writing This Blog For 5 Years Now – What Have I Learned?

I cannot believe how fast time flies. Five years have passed since I started writing this blog. Over these years, I have changed the focus of the blog several times, but keep pumping out content which I hope is ground-breaking in several ways.

The main aim now is to create a framework for people who want to become Renaissance Men, versed in many disciplines, able to cross-pollinate ideas across different domains and bring in fresh new perspectives whenever needed.

The world is changing and what has worked in the past few decades seems no longer to work for most people. This means that you will have to adapt to these new circumstances. In the future, many of the menial tasks that people perform today will be fully automated, and in order to be able to thrive in such a world, you will have to bring added value.

The way to become anti-fragile for the future is through adopting the skills of an expert-generalist, the modern term for a Renaissance Man.

One thing that I have started focusing on in the past year is trying to address some of the basic problems that people have. If you cannot keep a tranquil mind and an optimistic mindset overall, you will falter on your way through all the different challenges that you face in your life.

That’s why it is important to address this first and foremost. I have found that some of the Ancients provided very good answers to these problems, ones that are very pertinent even today.

I have spent a lot of time going through some of the most powerful pieces of ancient writing and distilling the main ideas. If you apply it in your life, you can overcome some of the greatest obstacles that life throws at you.

There are different approaches that you can adopt, based on your internal preferences. Or you can always mix and choose different ideas from different perspectives.

One big school of thought in the ancient world were the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor, but also a practicing Stoic and his ideas on how to go through the day are quite powerful. You can create a system based on them to help you get through the day:

Marcus Aurelius: How to gather the strength to survive in adversity.

Then go into my series on describing the Three Stoic Disciplines:

All the articles in this mini-series:
The Introduction.
The Discipline of Desire.
The Discipline of Action.
The Discipline of Assent.

Then read the application of this in practice:
A day in the life of someone applying the system of Marcus Aurelius.

You should also read about the thoughts of the man who Marcus learned from, Epictetus, the former slave turned philosopher (as written down by his student Arrian):

The wisdom of Epictetus.

The Epicurean philosophy can also be a good fit for people who want to live a simple life and avoid all the BS:

The thoughts of Diogenes of Oinoanda on pleasure, pain and living a life of happiness.

Plutarch was a Middle Platonist, famous for writing the inspirational biographies of many famous Greeks and Romans, but he also wrote some practical advice on several subjects. His advice on keeping a tranquil mind in a turbulent world can be quite helpful for people living through the chaos of the modern world:

Plutarch and keeping a tranquil mind in a turbulent world.

Finally, Boethius was a philosopher and statesman who lived at the time when the Roman Empire in the West had collapsed. He was a Neo-Platonist (and a Christian), and composed his greatest work when he was sitting in jail, accused of a crime he did not commit. He penned his thoughts on why it seems that the bad guys always win and the good guys lose, and how to deal with the apparent unfairness of the world:

Boethius: how a man about to die found happiness.

I have tried to introduce people to these different thinkers, so that based on their ideas, they can start forming their own daily framework.

The time of the expert-generalist has come

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Plutarch’s Tips For Keeping A Tranquil Mind In A Turbulent World

At the turn of the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire was living in an era often referred to as the “Pax Romana”. This was a time of relative calm and prosperity, when most inhabitants of the Empire experienced long periods of peace.

The foundation for this era was laid under the Emperor Augustus, but it reached its height a century later. This was largely due to the rule of the so-called “Five Good Emperors”. Edward Gibbon, English historian of the 18th century, in his monumental work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” described this period in glowing terms:

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.

The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded respect.

The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”

While the previous generations of Romans knew war up close and personal and many of the males had participated in battle, during the Pax Romana, there were several generations that grew up without getting anywhere close to fighting. This encompassed also many of the other peoples that were living under Roman hegemony, such as the Greeks.

During this time, a class of distinguished gentlemen arose that never knew the taste of battle, but instead had enough time to turn their energy to more intellectual pursuits. One of these was Plutarch, now known chiefly as a historian, biographer and writer of extensive essays, but who throughout his lifetime also served in several other positions like a magistrate or priest at Delphi.

Plutarch is best remembered for his “Parallel Lives”, a series of biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, which was meant not only to teach history, but also moral ethics and character. He also wrote “Moralia”, a series of essays on different topics of morality and daily life. One of these was “On Tranquility of Mind”.

In many ways, the problems of that era paralleled many of the modern era. After all, the human mind works in similar ways. While most people were free of the dangers of war, the typical problems that make people anxious, angry, or moody persisted.

The world might have been more peaceful than before, but it was still turbulent. Rome was a megalopolis full of crime and infestation, trade brought it many goods from the outside, but also led to a hectic lifestyle.

The provinces also had their share of problems, and the lives of their inhabitants were not stress-free. Merchants worried about losing their cargo, magistrates were concerned about keeping the bureaucracy running, and in a world where medicine was still rudimentary, everyone faced the prospect of losing their loved ones early.

What many people were looking for was a peace of mind, calmness and tranquility. They wanted to know how to keep a cool head in a turbulent world.

Plutarch came with some answers. His essay “On Tranquility of Mind” offers solutions to the perennial problem. Addressing his friend Paccius, he outlines his thesis that the way to keep a cool head in a hectic world is to turn to self-knowledge and self-control. By having your reason rule over your emotions, by setting the right priorities, and not being daunted by setbacks, you can navigate through turbulent waters.

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Eisenhower Matrix: One Little Tool To Help You Decide On Priorities

Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the top American generals during World War 2, and later also became the 34th President of the United States. As can be expected, these challenging roles kept him quite busy.

In order to keep a level head and get things done, he needed to be able to prioritize. This led him to develop a simple method to determine which tasks he had to do immediately and which he could avoid. It is now called the Eisenhower Method and uses one little tool called the Eisenhower Matrix.

It involves drawing up a box, dividing it into 4 quadrants and then labeling them. Basically, whenever you are doing a task, it is usually either important or not important. It is also usually either urgent or not urgent. These are also the labels that Eisenhower used.

The top left-hand box is labeled important and urgent. That’s where you put all the things that you need to do right now and that are important.

The top right-hand box is labeled important, but not urgent. These are things that are important, but ones that you don’t have to do straight away. These things you can pre-plan for later.

The bottom left-hand box is labeled not important, but urgent. These are things that you should attempt to delegate to others.

The last box, the bottom right-hand one, is labeled both not important and not urgent. These are usually things you shouldn’t be doing at all. So eliminate them.

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Richard Hamming’s Top 11 Lessons For Creating World-Class Work

If you are like most people, then you want to change the world. You want to create something that people will remember and that can make a difference. However what do you need to do in order to do that?

Richard Hamming was a world-class scientist and a pioneer in computer engineering and telecommunications, and also worked with many other brilliant minds. He shared the lessons he learned through his lifetime of work in a series of speeches that he gave in front of future researchers.

These lessons are quite illuminating and I summarize some of his most important take-aways below:

Lesson 1: Ambition, motivation, drive. If you want to succeed, you need to be ambitious, and have the drive necessary to carry out that ambition.

Lesson 2: You need to turn failures into assets. Treat your setbacks as learning opportunities.

Lesson 3: If you can’t do a problem, try to figure out why not. Then turn it around and reframe it.

Lesson 4: You need to work hard. Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former.

Lesson 5: Hard work needs to be applied sensibly. Make priorities and focus on the right things.

Lesson 6: You need to keep an open mind. Being too rigid and stubborn can create problems, but so can being too skeptical. You always need to keep a balance.

Lesson 7: Creating important work is a matter of asking the right questions and working on important topics. If you work on unimportant stuff, you will never create anything that is of consequence.

Lesson 8: Luck is important, but luck also favors the prepared mind. You need to be able to strike when the opportunity comes.

Lesson 9: It’s not just about the brain, but other little things matter too.

Lesson 10: You need to have courage. The ability to take risk is what separates the successes from the others.

Lesson 11: And the last lesson and probably the most important is that you need to be able to sell your work. If no one sees it, it is as if it doesn’t exist.

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Appear Strong When You Are Weak

The book “48 Laws of Power” was a bestseller and a hit among many people. While an interesting read, I have always felt that the lessons were a bit cherry-picked and are very dependent on specific situations.

In order to create his laws, Green probably used such illustrious writers as Machiavelli or Baltasar Gracian as sources of inspiration. Many of these dealt with ancient history and in turn were based on sources dating from Antiquity. If you look at some of the books that still survive from that era, you can probably come up with many more laws of power.

One such interesting book, dating from the early years of the Roman Empire, is “Strategemata” by Frontinus, a Roman general and engineer. The “Strategemata” was meant to complement his more comprehensive “Art of War”, but this book unfortunately did not survive. However the book that does survive is full of interesting strategies and tactics that ancient generals used in order to win their battles and wars.

These can be a great source of lessons on strategy and tactics, and even applicable to situations in the modern world. One lesson is based on what General Minucius Rufus did in order to defeat his enemies. Outnumbered by the enemy, he used a little trick in order to make his army appear bigger and more fearce than it really was:

“The general Minucius Rufus, hard pressed by the Scordiscans and Dacians, for whom he was no match in numbers, sent his brother and a small squadron of cavalry on ahead, along with a detachment of trumpeters, directing him, as soon as he should see the battle begin, to show himself suddenly from the opposite quarter and to order the trumpeters to blow their horns. Then, when the hill-tops re-echoed with the sound, the impression of a huge multitude was borne in upon the enemy, who fled in terror.”

The lesson here? Appear strong when you are weak.

This lesson that has its parallels in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”:

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

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All That You Need To Know To Survive In The Modern World You Can Learn From The Ancients

The 21st century is upon us and with it come many changes. Just like the Industrial Revolution brought in a new era, the Internet Revolution is bringing in another new age.

The old truths and ways of working of the 20th century no longer seem to be working in this new one. This is causing headaches for many people, who often feel lost and out of touch. This new state of affairs calls for a re-examination of how things are done. This means you need to adapt.

The Renaissance started by people rediscovering the wisdom of the ancient world. This brought about a new age of creativity and progress which led to the modern world. However in the 20th century, most people forgot about this ancient wisdom and an era of narrow specialization seemed to prevail.

The challenges of the 21st century call for a new way of working. What most people don’t realize is that the answers to many of today’s problems lie right there in front of them. In fact, they have been there for over two thousand years.

By rediscovering the wisdom of the ancient world, most people can tackle the challenges of the modern world. Just like the Renaissance was born through the rediscovery of the sages of Antiquity, today’s world can greatly benefit from the return of these old sages as well. By applying these old techniques to your life, you can make sure that you are not fazed by any challenge.

General Mindset

Two of the most well-known works of world literature are the Iliad and the Odyssey. They were composed by Homer around the year 800 BC and tell of an old war that happened way before his time. They are stories of ancient heroes, with their strengths and weaknesses, and demonstrate the power of the human condition.

They were meant not only to entertain, but also to teach moral lessons and serve as inspirations for the following generations. They are structured according to the hero’s journey framework. Especially the Odyssey is about one man, who after spending 10 years fighting, takes another 10 years to get home.

On the way, he faces many trials and tribulations, loses all his companions and learns much about himself. He gets lost during the journey, has to overcome many challenges, descends down to his innermost cave, but then rises up and at the end emerges victorious.

This type of structure is inherent in the journey of anyone who goes through life, but no matter the barriers he faces, manages to climb over them and conquer. It is basically the blueprint for the life of a hero, but one which is applicable for the life of any mortal who wants to accomplish great things.

These myths and legends served as the guiding lights for people’s lives, but the ancient world also produced some very practical methods to help deal with common problems. While the Ancient Egyptians and the different Mesopotamian civilizations served as initial inspirations, the Ancient Greeks managed to come up with very original thoughts which have served as the basis of all the progress that came after. These methods and techniques were then perfected during the times of the Ancient Romans.

Many of them were forgotten during the so-called Dark Ages, and it was their rediscovery and wider spread that sparked the Renaissance and thus built the modern world. They give practical lessons and are incredibly applicable to normal every day activities. For the Ancients, philosophy was not only a way of thinking about the world, but also informed them on how to live.

At the height of the Roman Empire, there were two rival schools of philosophy that competed for adherents, the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Stoic philosophy was very compatible with the martial outlook on life of the Ancient Romans and so gained many fans among the Roman soldiers, administrators and even Emperors.

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How Elon Musk Is Applying First Principles Thinking To All The Different Processes In His Company

Elon Musk is known as a first principles thinker when it comes to inventing new things, but he has recently started applying this type of thinking across all the different processes in his company.

In a letter to his employees, he outlined how the spending practices in the company will be reformed:

“Going forward, we will be far more rigorous about expenditures. I have asked the Tesla finance team to comb through every expense worldwide, no matter how small, and cut everything that doesn’t have a strong value justification.”

“All capital or other expenditures above a million dollars, or where a set of related expenses may accumulate to a million dollars over the next 12 months, should be considered on hold until explicitly approved by me. If you are the manager responsible, please make sure you have a detailed, first principles understanding of the supplier quote, including every line item of parts & labor, before we meet.”

He wants to have his managers apply first principles thinking to all the things they do, including how they source different components from suppliers.

In an analysis of how subcontracting works in his company, Musk found out that it is a complicated system that creates a lot of overhead.

“I have been disappointed to discover how many contractor companies are interwoven throughout Tesla. Often, it is like a Russian nesting doll of contractor, subcontractor, sub-subcontractor, etc. before you finally find someone doing actual work. This means a lot of middle-managers adding cost but not doing anything obviously useful. Also, many contracts are essentially open time & materials, not fixed price and duration, which creates an incentive to turn molehills into mountains, as they never want to end the money train.”

What this means is that all his employees, especially the ones in management positions, need to be first principles thinkers, no matter whether they sit in the lab and create new inventions, or sit in front of the computer looking at Excel tables all day.

Should you be a first principles thinker 100% of the time?

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Spotting Opportunities When They Are Right In Front Of You – Or What You Can Learn From Red Bull

At the moment I am in Thailand on my third Muay Thai training trip. Something that I came out of a “fuck it” moment for me has now turned into an annual trip focused on improving my martial arts skills and also my body.

If you browse the shelves of local stores (many of the small ones like 7 Eleven or Family Mart are open 24/7), you will see that there are small glass bottles of an energy drink with a very familiar logo. The two red bulls clashing has become one of the most recognizable brands in the world today. Its popularity has virtually exploded overnight.

Red Bull is known as one of the biggest Austrian companies, one with a global reach. Its products have become quite popular with people who want to get extra energy for studying, daily activities, or parties (vodka redbull anyone?). So what is this local product on Thai shelves which looks almost exactly like this global brand?

At first thought, you might probably think that it is a cheap local imitation due to lax copyright laws. The cheap price (10 baht!) seems to infer it, especially since cans of Red Bull are usually quite expensive elsewhere.

You will be surprised at the real story though. It’s not the Austrian Red Bull which is the first Red Bull. In fact, it is the Thai one!

How did this come about? The story of Red Bull is about spotting opportunities when they are right in front of you.

Dietrich Mateschitz was a toothpaste marketer who had a quite unremarkable career. It took him 10 years to graduate from university and he worked for a string of companies until a business trip in 1982 brought him to Thailand.

There he met Chaleo Yoovidhya, who owned a pharmaceutical company, but had also invented an energy drink which was quite popular among Thai day laborers. Dietrich tried this drink and found that it cured his jet lag.

Then a brilliant idea struck him. If this drink is popular in Thailand and has these energy giving effects, maybe it could become popular in his own country too? So at 40 years old, this guy with an unremarkable career up until now decided to have his own “fuck it” moment. He quit his job and started his own company.

Together with Chaleo, they founded Red Bull GmbH. Each of these guys put up US$ 500 000 in order to create the company. The company was not an overnight success and the things that Dietrich had to do in order to bring it to the global success that it is are also quite remarkable, but they are for another story.

The key lesson here is to spot opportunities when they present themselves to you. Dietrich saw a low-cost product in a far away country and realized that it had potential to be a high-cost product in his own.

Many successful business stories are just that, spotting and then grabbing opportunities when they present themselves to you.

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Your Moral Character Is All You Have – Your Actions Define You

In 458 B.C., Rome was at the edge of defeat. A Roman force led by Consul Mincius had been sent out to crush the Aequians, a nearby tribe, once and for all, but had become stuck after being surrounded by their enemies on Mt. Algidus. This left the field open for the Sabines, another tribe which had beef with the Romans, who could now march towards Rome unopposed.

In this time of dire peril, the Roman Senate decided a swift course of action needed to be done. Otherwise Rome would be wiped off the map. They agreed that only one man could do the job, Cincinnatus.

They gathered at his farm and found him working the fields. After being told of the situation, Cincinnatus reluctantly took power as Dictator and raised an army to march against the Aequians. He defeated them and successfully relieved the trapped Roman Army.

However, this is not the point of the story. What is remarkable is what he did after all this. As a Dictator, he was in a position of absolute power. Yet, after the two weeks that it took to get the job done, he relinquished all this power, and returned to his farm.

Here was a man who was in a position that other men scheme their entire lives to get, yet he gave it all up to go back to a simple life. For him, it was the duty that was important. He did what he had to do. His duty was to command the army and save Rome.

Once that was accomplished, his duty was done. Through the ages, Cincinnatus was given as a moral example of a man of character, of modesty and selflessness. His devotion to others and the greater good became legendary. The Ancient Romans were supposed to take example of him and behave in a similar way.

The moral of the entire story is that your actions define you. The ancient philosophers believed that it was not enough to do good deeds, but you needed to do them for the right reasons. It was not just the outcome that counted, but also the way it was achieved.

In our lives, we are often confronted with moral dilemmas. Do I go the selfish route or do I take the moral high route. Often, the moral route is the tough one.

Unfortunately, often it does not yield results and is not appreciated by others. Humans, by nature are selfish creatures and will try to grab things for themselves at the expense of other people. If you use the moral compass to guide you, then you will have to be swimming against this current.

This is hard to do. Often, other people will try to drown you while you are swimming. Sometimes, you might fall prey to temptation and succumb to your human nature and decide to try the selfish route, and instead of swimming against the current, decide to take the easy route and let the current carry you downstream.

Yet, then you will be reminded of your moral duty, and once again start swimming against the current.

You will have to live with the fact that this will usually not be appreciated by others. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people just look out for Number One, and don’t care about others.

Your good deeds towards them will soon be forgotten. The fact that you went out of your way to help them, will not be appreciated. You might even end up being portrayed as the bad guy.

This should not faze you. What should comfort you, is knowing internally that you did the right thing.

I already wrote about the plight of Boethius, one of the last few of the learned Romans, who in the 6th century had been wrongly accused and ended up rotting in jail. That’s where he penned his reflection on why good men suffer, while bad men often prosper.

His conclusion was that people often focus on the wrong things. They mistake the means towards the end with the end itself. They focus on money, fame or other such things, when instead they should be focusing on virtue.

What defines a person is how they behave towards others, how they do the right things for the right reasons, and how they appreciate the few people who are good to them. This last point is often lost on people.

Many times, people focus on pleasing all the assholes that surround them, and forget to be thankful for the people that have stood by them in good and bad.

These people can be your family, the few true friends that you have, or sometimes even a person who you never knew before, but who went out of their way to be good to you in your hour of need.

Unfortunately, it is these people that very frequently, you behave the worst towards. Instead what you should do is to keep them close by your side and be thankful every day that you have them. If you wronged them, try to make up for it.

Often, your pride will get in the way of acknowledging when you did wrong, but in cases like this, you really do need to set it aside and be humble. If you want to be a hardass, be a hardass towards the assholes, not towards the people who were in your corner.

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