Nine Paragraphs I Read In 2015 That Made Me Better

“Anyone who isn’t embarrassed by who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”
 
Alain de Botton

As I’ve written before, we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day or week and underestimate what we can do in a year.

At the end of every year, I revisit what I’ve read and learned. Revisiting helps me internalise lessons and insights, and reflect on a year of growth.

Early last year, I wrote about the five best books I read in 2014. In 2015, I took a slightly different approach, and compiled the best paragraphs I read. Below are nine paragraphs that changed how I see the world and how I think about myself and others, and hopefully made me a better person.

These words speak for themselves.

1. On Practicing Discipline

“Discipline is hard — harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness. We are by nature flawed and inconsistent creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at.”

Atul Gawande — The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right

2. On Growing Into The Unknown

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down and it has stayed with me since. The student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious. The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”

Rebecca Solnit — A Field Guide to Getting Lost

3. On Dealing With Stress

“Everyone has an Everest. Whether it’s a climb you chose, or a circumstance you find yourself in, you’re in the middle of an important night in the mountain’s “death zone” and thinking, “I don’t need this stress”? The climber knows the context of his stress. It has personal meaning to him; he has chosen it. You are mist liable to feel like a victim of the stress in your life when you forget the context the stress is unfolding in. “Just another cold, dark night on the side of Everest” is a way to remember the paradox of stress. The most meaningful challenges in your life will come with a few dark nights.”

Kelly McGonigal — The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You (And How to Get Good at it)

4. On Finding Wisdom In A Contentious Culture

“An important dictum of cultural psychology is that each culture develops expertise in some aspects of human existence, but no culture can be expert in all aspects. The same goes for the two ends of the political spectrum. My research confirms the common perception that liberals are experts in thinking about issues of victimization, equality, autonomy, and the rights of individuals, particularly those of minorities and nonconformists. Conservatives, on the other hand, are experts in thinking about loyalty to the group, respect for authority and tradition, and sacredness. When one side overwhelms the other, the results are likely to be ugly. A society without liberals would be harsh and oppressive to many individuals. A society without conservatives would lose many of the social structures and constraints that Durkheim showed are so valuable. Anomie would increase along with freedom. A good place to look for wisdom is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents. You already know the ideas common on your own side. If you take off the blinders of the myth of pure evil, you might see some good ideas for the first time.”

Jonathan Haidt — The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom

5. On Productive Stupidity

“Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.”

Martin Schwartz — The importance of stupidity in scientific research (Journal of Cell Science)

6. On Finding The Essence In The Mundane

“It was during these years that I began to draw the parallels between people’s life tendencies and their chessic dispositions. Great players are all, by definition, very clever about what they show over the chessboard, but, in life’s more mundane moments, even the most cunning chess psychologists can reveal certain essential nuances of character. If over dinner, a Grandmaster tastes something bitter and faintly wrinkles his nose, there might be an inkling of a tell lurking. Impatience while standing on line at the buffet might betray a problem sitting with tension. It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone when they get caught in the rain! Some will run with their hands over their heads, others will smile and take a deep breath while enjoying the wind. What does this say about one’s relationship to discomfort? The reaction to surprise? The need for control?”

Josh Waitzkin — The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

7. On Choosing Your Way In Life

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Sylvia Plath — The Bell Jar

8. On Expectations And Happiness

“But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations. If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content. If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived. This is why winning the lottery has, over time, the same impact on people’s happiness as a debilitating car accident. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before.”

Yuval Noah Harari — Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

9. On Self-Improvement And Against Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused — How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused — What will they think?”

Brene Brown — The Gifts of Imperfection

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Originally published at www.rohanmwilliams.com on January 14, 2016.

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