How one unknown professor wrote two international bestsellers that changed our understanding of human existence.
The first question that comes to mind when considering Yuval Noah Harari’s success is: “How in the world did he do it?”
How do you write a book that gets recommended by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, and President Obama? How is it that, in 2017, people regard his work as a new and unique view on the human race? A new view on the human race in 2017!
Do you know how many historians have tried that? One thing is for sure, Yuval Noah Harari is the only one I know by name…
So how did he do it, and what can we learn from him? We’ll start our journey where he started his, as an unknown historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Yuval Noah Harari specialized in medieval military history. He was unpublished, unknown, and hungry for something more. He applied to Oxford in pursuit of a PhD. With some wind in his sails, he completed his Doctor of Philosophy in 4 years, but not before having a life-changing experience.
In an interview with Sam Harris, Yuval recalls this time as one of unrest. He had many questions about the world and very few answers. A friend of his, and one of his good friends to this day, recommended he take a meditation retreat to India.
He was skeptical at first, but after doing some research, Harari began to think this retreat might answer some of his questions.
Harari went to Burma and met Satya Narayan Goenka. A man who had such an impact on Harari the he dedicated his latest book ‘Homo Deus’ to Goenka.
Goenka taught Yuval Vipassana Meditation, rooted in two simple tactics:
First, spend two hours a day focusing only on your breath.
Then, once a year, take a silent retreat. Refrain from talking, reading, and all forms of technology for 30–60 days.
Harari credits his meditation with making him a better historian. He told The Guardian that without meditation, he’d still be researching medieval military history instead of neanderthals and cyborgs.
Yuval Noah Harari meditates two hours a day. He takes silent retreats once a year. He’s been at it for 17 years. Vipassana is still his practice of choice.
Vipassana means to see things as they really are, and it is one of the most ancient meditation techniques known to man. Its primary tenant is a focus on one’s breath.
While it sounds simple, Harari considers it to be to the most difficult things he’s ever worked on. When he first started, he couldn’t focus on his breath for more than 10 seconds. Once he did unlock this focus, he explored each of his bodily sensations.
He says that everything that happens in our mind is connected to what happens in the body. By focusing your mind on the sensations of your body, you can better understand the machinations of one’s own brain.
He goes one click deeper and remarks that mediation allows him to observe the reality of the present moment exactly as it is. Free of stories, insecurities, anxieties, and all the other distractions manifested in our brains. This skill, when honed in, allows for clear understanding of the here and now. An understanding of what is really happening.
In an interview with Ezra Klein, Harari describes the benefits of meditation as twofold:
First is focus, when you train the mind to focus only on your breath you gain the discipline to know what is important, and what to focus on.
When digging into long range histories, when it’s easy to get bogged down in the details or distracted by nuance, focus is critical.
“You need to constantly remind yourself what is the most important thing that is happening in the world — what is the most important thing that is happening in history. The discipline to have this focus is something I gained from meditation.”
Secondly, Vipassana meditation helps you learn the difference between what is real and what are just stories that we invent in our own mind. Sounds a lot like human history right?
“Most people, they get overwhelmed by the religious stories, the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and take these stories to be the reality. My main ambition as a historian is to figure out what’s really happening in the world, instead of the fictions that humans have been creating for thousands of years in order to explain or control what’s happening in the world.”
As a historian, all you have are stories. Oftentimes, these stories are massively distorted by myth, legend, and the ‘winners.’ To succeed, a historian needs to be able to distill the truth out of the story.
Even a quick read of Yuval Noah Harari’s work reveals how focus and a relentless pursuit of the truth create instant classics.
What you can learn from Yuval Noah Harari:
A focus on the real is what allowed Harari to see new avenues in the same old stories. Harari was able to answer one of the most fundamental questions — What makes us human? — because he was able to focus. He was able to craft a meaningful picture of the future because he understands the realities of the present.
Harari is the only historian I know by name. He attributes his success to meditation.
Sound like we should give meditation a go.
Let’s get one thing straight, I’m about as mindful as a mineshaft. I also believe it’s never too late to get started.
By far the most recommended tool I’ve seen is Headspace. Headspace offers Take Ten — Ten days of ten-minute meditations designed for total newbies. I’d recommend 10 Percent Happier, described as “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.”
For those looking for books, most of Eckhart Tolle’s work is gold.
We now know, however, that the best way to get started is to close your computer, close your eyes, and take a deep breath.
Focus only on your breath.
Then, after you’ve failed miserably, you can do what I always do when I’m frustrated or bored. I open Hardbound and learn something new.