The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun

I have been working more and more in a remote setting. Working from home while traveling. Partially remote teams. Fully remote teams. Tropical storms and snowstorms in a country that shuts down every time there’s a storm.

For all of the above reasons, I started researching the subject of working remotely more and more. One of the most highly publicised books in this sphere is, of course, Remote: Office Not Required, which I had read a while ago. Despite having lots of advice, extracted from the experience of 37signals/Basecamp through the year I needed something more. When I came across with The Year Without Pants, which promised an in-depth view of the day to day of working at Automattic, the fully distributed across the globe company founded by Matt Mullenweg, I almost jumped at it.

Scott Berkun was hired by Matt to lead a team of remote developers, scattered across 16 time zones. Scott proceeds to show us the anarchic operations of a small company (it was just over 100 employees in 2011 when most of the action of the book takes place). The book certainly delivers, bringing us closer to viewing how a highly successful company by any measure treats their projects, employees, and problems. I loved the details at the beginning of the book so I was a bit disappointed when Scott fast forwarded most of his last few months. I believe he probably did the right choice, otherwise the book wouldn’t be as readable as it is in its current format, but it would have been great to continue to explore the day to day work (if you’re into that sort of company porn, and yes I’m coining that term here!). In the end, I’m left wondering if the company remains the same (both in spirit and operationally) or if it has evolved since now it boasts more than 600 employees. Maybe one day Scott will make a temporary return to Automattic to grace us with a sequel.

I’ll leave you with some of my favorite passages.

One major mistake Schneider had seen was how companies confused supporting roles, like legal, human resources, and information technology, with product creation roles like design and development. Product creators are the true talent of any corporation, especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do. A classic betrayal of this idea is when the IT department dictates to creatives what equipment they can use. If one group has to be inefficient, it should be the support group, not the creatives. If the supporting roles, including management, dominate, the quality of products can only suffer.

One trick is to be the scribe. If you take on the task of taking notes, people have a chance to see how you think. If they find your recording of what happened clear and honest, you get a trust point. If the way you summarize complex things is concise but still accurate, you get another. Soon there’s enough trust to lead decisions and take bigger bets. Being the scribe is often seen as a chore, but it has big upsides, especially in a supremely informal culture like Automattic’s.

There are no big schedules, few big plans, and no enforced mechanisms for coordination. It sounds like chaos, and it is. But if everyone understood chaos and perhaps liked the uncertainty, they would find freedom and opportunity. And if everyone wanted to do great work, they’d seek out collaborators and greater order when needed. The move to teams was supposed to encourage this to happen more often.

The general work flow at Automattic had seven steps: 1. Pick a problem. A basic problem or idea for WordPress.com is chosen. It could be something like, “It’s too hard to print blog posts,” or, “Let users share from WordPress to Facebook.” There are always hundreds of ideas and dozens of opinions about which ideas are important. There’s no formal system for deciding, but many came from Mullenweg or as suggestions from the Happiness folks. After an idea is chosen, discussion begins on how it should work. 2. Write a launch announcement and a support page. Most features are announced to the world after they go live on WordPress.com. But long before launch, a draft launch announcement is written. This sounds strange. How can you write an announcement for something that doesn’t exist? The point is that if you can’t imagine a compellingly simple explanation for customers, then you don’t really understand why the feature is worth building. Writing the announcement first is a forcing function. You’re forced to question if your idea is more exciting for you as the maker than it will be for your customer. If it is, rethink the idea or pick a different one. 3. Consider what data will tell you it works. Since it’s a live service, learn from what users are doing. The plan for a new feature must consider how its positive or negative impact on customers can be measured. For example, if the goal is to improve the number of comments bloggers get from readers, we’d track how many comments visitors write each day before and after the change. 4. Get to work. Designers design. Programmers program. Periodically someone checks the launch announcement to remind everyone of the goal. As more is learned about what’s possible, the announcement becomes more precise. Sometimes the feature pivots into something different and better. 5. Launch. When the goal of the work has been met, the feature launches. It’s often smaller in scope than the initial idea, but that’s seen as a good thing. The code goes live, and there is much rejoicing. 6. Learn. Data is captured instantly and discussed, often hourly, by the folks who did the work. Bugs are found and fixed. For larger features, several rounds of revisions are made to the design. 7. Repeat.

the central way he’d evaluate me was the quality of what made it out the door. It wasn’t about the ideas I had or how I managed schedules. It wasn’t how I ran meetings or how well liked I was. Those were all secondary. What mattered was what we shipped. And he told me the only reason anything good ships is because of the programmers. They are everything. They are not factory employees; they are craftspeople, craftspeople who are the fundamental creative engine of making software. Although my job title was program manager, I wasn’t granted power to run around making demands all day. There would be days I’d need to make demands, but I’d have to earn them. I had to earn the respect and trust from the programmers and designers I worked with. With trust, everything was possible. With trust, I could discover how to get the best possible work from them.

Any manager who eliminates superfluous traditions takes a step toward progress. If removing a restriction improves performance or has no impact on performance but improves morale, everyone wins. Continuing tradition simply because it’s a tradition works against reason.

Schneider described his philosophy in this way: 1. Hire great people. 2. Set good priorities. 3. Remove distractions. 4. Stay out of the way. These freedoms at Automattic reminded me that the hardest part of work is what goes on between your ears and between you and your coworkers.

Remote work is merely physical independence, and the biggest challenge people who work remotely face is managing their own psychology. Since they have more independence, they need to be masters of their own habits to be productive, whether it’s avoiding distractions, staying disciplined on projects, or even replacing the social life that comes from conventional work with other friendships.

A trick of leading creative teams is finding creative ways to nag people. You get more mileage if you make people laugh, even if it’s at themselves, at the same time you’re reminding them of something they’ve forgotten.

The realization that everyone is different when you talk to them alone is a secret to success in life. In private you have their full attention. If you talk to two children in front of their mom and then each alone, you hear different things. The mystery for why some people you know succeed or fail in life is how courageous they are in pulling people aside and how effective they are in those private conversations we never see.

Being a good lead is all about switching hats: knowing which level of abstraction to work at to solve a problem. It’s rarely a question of intelligence; instead, it’s picking the right perspective to use on a particular challenge.

The more experienced that managers are, the longer the list of bad things they’ve seen that they’re trying to avoid. This is what I call defensive management, since it’s designed to prevent a long list of bad things from happening. Defensive management is blind to recognizing how obsessing about preventing bad things also prevents good things from happening or sometimes even prevents anything from happening at all.

But reverting code was rare. Instead programmers were encouraged to make another change that fixed the problem. As a rule, everyone who launched something was expected to stay online for a few hours to ensure things went smoothly.

It sometimes takes ugly effort to make beautiful things. People who love great things but are ignorant of how they’re made are mystified by how dirty they have to get their own hands to make anything at all: they think the mess means they’re doing something wrong, when mostly it just means they’re finally doing real work.

You should never be religious about methods of any kind. The only sane way to work is to let the project define the plan. Only a fool chooses tools before studying the job to be done.

Humor has always been a primary part of how I lead. If I can get someone to laugh, they’re at ease. If they see me laugh at things, they’re at ease. It creates emotional space, a kind of trust, to use in a relationship. Sharing laughter also creates a bank account of positive energy you can withdraw from, or borrow against, when dealing with tough issues at work. It’s a relationship cushion.

most Automatticians have tangible jobs: writing code, designing screens, answering tickets. They’re not in the stressful limbo of abstraction that middle managers and consultants live in. Instead there’s little posturing or showing off. People who know how to build things don’t worry about turf. They know they can always make more. It’s often people whose jobs are abstractions that see a company as a zero-sum game where they have to fight and defend what’s theirs to stay alive or get promoted.

I find P2 great for documenting things, ok for soliciting feedback on something, but pretty terrible for having a “discussion”. If I want to discuss something with someone (or a group of people) I just ping them on IRC. Skype, phone, etc. also work for discussions. No need to have a discussion with myself on a P2.

In retrospect, I don’t see the wider distribution of our team as the cause for our poor productivity. Instead, it was the division of labor and the low morale for IntenseDebate. When our team became more dispersed, I had the choice of switching to a simpler project and have them all work together, a good choice when learning something new.

On a team that has good morale, seeing teammates launch things inspires, and inspiration brings with it new effort and ideas.

Mullenweg clarified the importance of the project, and as a good leader should, he offered whatever resources I needed. It’s a great bullshit test of any boss who says, “X is important.” If she doesn’t match that statement with resources, she’s incompetent, insincere, or both. If it’s important, prove it.

The natural mistake engineers make is to build from the bottom up. They leave the user interface last, assuming it is the least complex technology. This is wrong. Humans are much more complex than software, and since the interface has to interact with people, it’s the most difficult to do well. By building from the bottom up, technologists paint themselves into a corner, resulting in ugly, hard-to-use things. By the time they finally got to the user interface work, so many constraints exist that even the best designers in the world couldn’t salvage the project. The answer is simple: design the user interface first. This is a mandate at any organization that makes things people love to use.

One side effect of having teams is there will always be things that fall through the cracks. Teams create territories. This is a force for good since it helps people focus and feel pride. But it creates problems for projects that fall between teams. If you try to cover everything, the teams are unfocused, and if you cover too little, there’s no room for growth. But even if you carefully design teams, the turf needs to be conceptual, not territorial. Organizations become bureaucratic as soon as people define their job around a specific rule, or feature, rather than a goal. For example, if you tell me my job is to cook the french fries, I will resist anything that threatens the existence of french fries, since when they go away, so does my job. But if you tell me my job is to make side dishes for customers, I’ll be open to changing from fries to onion rings or other side dishes, even ones we’ve yet to invent, since my identity isn’t tied to a particular side dish but instead to the role side dishes play.

In any organization, large projects require leverage, but few employees have any. People who have grand ideas but little influence wonder why no one supports them. They think the lack of support is a judgment on their ideas rather than the politics of authority. Ideas are evaluated differently depending on the mouth they come out of.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

So Good They Can’t Ignore You gives itself away starting with the title. Cal Newport suggests that in order to be successful at something you should prove that you’re really really good first. A controversial, but highly rational argument, that focuses on disproving the “Follow Your Passion” crowd while offering an alternative path where you can just be very successful and happy doing what you’re already doing (or just started doing). 

The whole book turns the premise of following our passions on its head. It reminds me of this famous Field of Dreams quote. This is exemplified by the following quote from the book.

(…) you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

Cal Newport goes on to tell us how to apply this thinking to our careers, regardless of them being passions or not. And that is where the simplicity of his message really shines. If you want to be great at something, make sure you put in the effort to become great at it. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet we can go on for years forgetting about it, complaining that our job sucks and we really should open that sushi and ice-cream food truck we keep talking about. Maybe, just maybe, if we put in the effort to learn how to do our job well, we’ll be fulfilled at the end of the day. 

I’m not saying that this is a silver bullet. There are no silver bullets, but before throwing in the towel, think about it for a moment. Do you really hate your career or are you just in a rut?

The narratives in this book are bound by a common thread: the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great, I discovered, are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job.

TRAITS THAT DEFINE GREAT WORK Creativity: Ira Glass, for example, is pushing the boundaries of radio, and winning armfuls of awards in the process. Impact: From the Apple II to the iPhone, Steve Jobs has changed the way we live our lives in the digital age. Control: No one tells Al Merrick when to wake up or what to wear. He’s not expected in an office from nine to five. Instead, his Channel Island Surfboards factory is located a block from the Santa Barbara beach, where Merrick still regularly spends time surfing. ( Jake Burton Carpenter, founder of Burton Snowboards, for example, recalls how negotiations for the merger between the two companies happened while he and Merrick waited for waves in a surf lineup.)

THE CAREER CAPITAL THEORY OF GREAT WORK The traits that define great work are rare and valuable. Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital. The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.

THREE DISQUALIFIERS FOR APPLYING THE CRAFTSMAN MINDSET The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world. The job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

It’s so tempting to just assume what you’ve done is good enough and check it off your to-do list, but it’s in honest, sometimes harsh feedback that you learn where to retrain your focus in order to continue to make progress.

The final step for applying deliberate practice to your working life is to adopt this style of diligence.

Without this patient willingness to reject shiny new pursuits, you’ll derail your efforts before you acquire the capital you need.

conventional wisdom about how people end up loving what they do. It argued that the passion hypothesis, which says that the key to loving your work is to match a job to a pre-existing passion, is bad advice. There’s little evidence that most people have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered, and believing that there’s a magical right job lurking out there can often lead to chronic unhappiness and confusion when the reality of the working world fails to match this dream.

tackle the natural follow-up question: If “follow your passion” is bad advice, what should you do instead? It contended that the traits that define great work are rare and valuable. If you want these traits in your own life, you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. I called these rare and valuable skills career capital, and noted that the foundation of constructing work you love is acquiring a large store of this capital.

it’s important to adopt the craftsman mindset, where you focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering the world. This stands in stark contrast to the much more common passion mindset, which has you focus only on what value the world is offering you.

deliberate practice, an approach to work where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.

Giving people more control over what they do and how they do it increases their happiness, engagement, and sense of fulfillment.

The Second Control Trap The point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaningful control over your working life is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent you from making the change.

The Law of Financial Viability When deciding whether to follow an appealing pursuit that will introduce more control into your work life, seek evidence of whether people are willing to pay for it. If you find this evidence, continue. If not, move on.

If life-transforming missions could be found with just a little navel-gazing and an optimistic attitude, changing the world would be commonplace. But it’s not commonplace; it’s instead quite rare. This rareness, we now understand, is because these breakthroughs require that you first get to the cutting edge, and this is hard—the type of hardness that most of us try to avoid in our working lives.

The Law of Remarkability For a mission-driven project to succeed, it should be remarkable in two different ways. First, it must compel people who encounter it to remark about it to others. Second, it must be launched in a venue that supports such remarking.

Working right trumps finding the right work. He didn’t need to have a perfect job to find occupational happiness—he needed instead a better approach to the work already available to him.

Don’t obsess over discovering your true calling. Instead, master rare and valuable skills. Once you build up the career capital that these skills generate, invest it wisely. Use it to acquire control over what you do and how you do it, and to identify and act on a life-changing mission.

 

Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

Today I’ll briefly talk about this little book by Steven Pressfield. I had read The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles before, which is a brilliant motivator for anyone struggling to put words to paper or screen, like me. Steven Pressfield emphasizes that we are in a constant struggle to create and the only way is to push through and embrace the struggle against the resistance. 

Turning Pro follows The War of Art focusing on the move from an amateur to a professional. What distinguishes between these? What makes you dissatisfied with your life? What should you do every day in your work? How to kill the resistance? 

Pressfield offers us his answers to all of the above in this book. Read, re-read and then keep it close at hand because you’ll need it again sooner than you would expect!

The thesis of this book is that what ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick or being wrong. What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs. The solution, this book suggests, is that we turn pro.

Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we ‘ll pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.

If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for. That metaphor will point you toward your true calling.

In the shadow life, we live in denial and we act by addiction. We pursue callings that take us nowhere and permit ourselves to be controlled by compulsions that we cannot understand (or are not aware of ) and whose outcomes serve only to keep us caged, unconscious and going nowhere. The shadow life is the life of the amateur. In the shadow life we pursue false objects and act upon inverted ambitions. The shadow life, the life of the amateur and the addict, is not benign. The longer we cleave to this life, the farther we drift from our true purpose, and the harder it becomes for us to rally the courage to get back.

The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habits. The human being is a creature of habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones. We can trade in the habits of the amateur and the addict for the practice of the professional and the committed artist or entrepreneur.

Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways.

Distractions. Displacement activities. When we’re living as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling—meaning our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our truest and highest selves. Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact the addiction instead of embracing the calling. Why? Because to follow a calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts. It demands entering the pain-zone of effort, risk, and exposure. So we take the amateur route instead.

Each day, the professional understands, he will wake up facing the same demons, the same Resistance, the same self-sabotage, the same tendencies to shadow activities and amateurism that he has always faced. The difference is that now he will not yield to those temptations. He will have mastered them, and he will continue to master them.

First, the pro mindset is a discipline that we use to overcome Resistance. To defeat the self-sabotaging habits of procrastination, self-doubt, susceptibility to distraction, perfectionism, and shallowness, we enlist the self-strengthening habits of order, regularity, discipline, and a constant striving after excellence.

It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true: in order to achieve “flow,” magic, “the zone,” we start by being common and ordinary and workmanlike. We set our palms against the stones in the garden wall and search, search, search until at last, in the instant when we’re ready to give up, our fingers fasten upon the secret door.

Two key tenets for days when Resistance is really strong:         

1. Take what you can get and stay patient. The defense may crack late in the game.         

2. Play for tomorrow. Our role on tough-nut days is to maintain our composure and keep chipping away. We’re pros. We’re not amateurs. We have patience. We can handle adversity. Tomorrow the defense will give us more, and tomorrow we’ll take it.

There’s a third tenet that underlies the first two:         

3. We’re in this for the long haul.

The amateur believes that she must have all her ducks in a row before she can launch her start-up or compose her symphony or design her iPhone app. The professional knows better.

The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

The Time Paradox is another book that can fundamentally alter the way you go about your day to day and more to the point, change your view on life. The fact that it accomplishes this without delving into much philosophy makes it more valuable as it should cater to the scientific minds as well.

The name of Dr Phil Zimbardo might ring a bell if you have read anything about 20th-century psychology at all. He was the Stanford professor who in 1971 led the now famous Stanford prison experiment.

But this book doesn’t focus on that study. The Time Paradox, as the name suggests, explores the relationship we have with time. Zimbardo and Boyd show how the pace of life can change the way people behave with their peers. One example is how the faster pace of life in the Northeast cities in the US (Boston, New York, etc) led to lower results on people being helpful with each other. 

We are presented with the six orientations that each person has for time:

  • Past-negative
  • Past-positive
  • Present-fatalistic
  • Present-hedonistic
  • Future
  • Transcendental-future

Each of these orientations can influence everything in our lives, from how we work to how we behave around others and how happy we are at each moment.

Past-oriented people, in general, will be more conservative and religious, but can also be more stable. They tend to live life through rituals and might suffer from excess guilt (especially if past-negative).

Present-oriented people are more fun to be around and focus on experiences which can bring them pleasure in the moment. They struggle with delaying gratification and their thinking is more concrete (versus more abstract).

Finally, future-oriented people are more goal-oriented and can delay gratification with ease. They usually thrive on control and struggle with enjoying fun, in the moment, activities and with relationships, due to the lack of control of what the partner might say or do.

In all, a great read that can help us understand ourselves better and devise strategies to deal with shortcomings for the pursuit of a meaningful life.

future-oriented people are the most likely to be successful and the least likely to help others in need. Ironically, the people who are best able to help are the least likely to do so. In contrast, present-oriented people are less likely to be successful but are more likely to help others.

The past may give you a sense of security, especially if your recollections are good ones. However, new adventures lie ahead. If you are stuck in the past, you are less likely to take chances and risks, to make new friends, to try new foods, or to expose yourself to new music and art. You want the status quo and abhor change. If the people in a culture that uses the past to evaluate current situations share a past trauma, they are likely to want revenge—even if the crimes against them were committed many decades ago. The perceived perpetrators are not forgiven; they must be punished. This vendetta mentality undercuts attempts at peaceful reconciliation and promotes violence and warfare as new generations are obligated to avenge or pay for crimes against their parents or grandparents. To the extent that people share positive views of the past, they seek to maintain the status quo culturally and politically. They do not want change; rather, they seek to conserve and re-create in the present what was good in the past. This view may blind them to newer, better ways of doing things. In a global economy, nations that live in the past will be left behind.

Yesterday is already a dream And tomorrow but a vision But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

We will win the war on terror not by destroying our enemy’s future but by nurturing it. The motivational power of the mundane future must be restored if mundane future goals are to compete with transcendental-future goals. Only by building a mundane future full of hope, optimism, respect, health, and prosperity can the motivational power of the transcendental future be balanced.

We have to respect people for their pasts and allow them to enjoy the present. The first step toward such a change must entail providing adequate resources and opportunities to those who lack them: food, shelter, and money, as well as opportunities for education, employment, recreation, relaxation, and community celebration—the basic human needs in any civilized society. A second step requires instilling a sense of personal responsibility for seizing a desirable opportunity. Individual initiative must be encouraged and rewarded. The embers of intrinsic motivation must be carefully tended and fanned. Fatalistic passivity must be replaced by an “I can do it” stance. The third step entails moderating transcendental-future time perspectives and supplementing them with more practical future time perspectives. Expecting people to change their transcendental-future beliefs is insulting, naive, and may exacerbate conflict. A more reasonable approach is to offer hope, opportunity, and fulfillment in the future on the way to the Promised Land. The development of a future time perspective requires stable political, economic, and family conditions. People must believe that their actions today will lead to predictable and desirable rewards in the future. Without stable environments, accurate prediction is impossible. Creating political, economic, social, and familial stability may require creating structures that guide and protect, stabilizing those structures, and eliminating the external forces that threaten them.

What is critical to couples’ constructive criticism of each other is to first make evident what each thinks the other person is saying: “It seems to me that what you are saying is that you don’t like X, don’t want to do Y, and believe Z is true. Is that the case, or am I misunderstanding you?” You are not accusing the other, merely opening a dialogue about perceived differences of opinion. Second, it rarely helps to nag someone about past mistakes; that only makes him guilty or defensive. Rather, reframe the criticism in terms of what he might consider doing in the future to achieve his objective. “Next time when you want me to be more socially active at the office party, let me know in advance whom you would like me to talk with, and I will do my best to oblige.” Rather than “You embarrassed me by acting like a princess who was too damn good for my friends.”

When lost in the past or engrossed in the future, you cannot be present, and happiness rushes by like a gourmet meal eaten in the car on the way to a dentist appointment. Thoughts of the past and the future can bring you happiness, but they do so by bringing happiness into the present state of mind.

Walden or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

Walden seems to have a perennial love-hate relationshop with most readers. For me it’s the first. I can easily see how this could be a life changing book for most people, assuming you can get past the descriptions of the depth of Walden Pond and the several ways to measure it.

The first half of the book itself is brilliant so I believe that even for those that don’t finish it, Thoreau, will have passed the majority of his philosophy by then. His core tennets of loving Nature, building his own life from the ground up and living, eating and doing everything by simple means are now, possibly more than ever, needed on our 24/7 news, push notifications always on life. As a friend of mine said “I’m afraid of reading for I might leave my girlfriend and city life for the woods with only a backpack to keep me company”. 

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil?

But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with”; and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.

None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.

When a man is warmed by the several modes which I have described, what does he want next? Surely not more warmth of the same kind, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing, more numerous, incessant, and hotter fires, and the like. When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.

I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this—Who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon. Often if an accident happens to a gentleman’s legs, they can be mended; but if a similar accident happens to the legs of his pantaloons, there is no help for it; for he considers, not what is truly respectable, but what is respected. We know but few men, a great many coats and breeches.

I have heard of a dog that barked at every stranger who approached his master’s premises with clothes on, but was easily quieted by a naked thief. It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.

Beside, clothes introduced sewing, a kind of work which you may call endless; a woman’s dress, at least, is never done.

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be. Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles.

At last, we know not what it is to live in the open air, and our lives are domestic in more senses than we think. From the hearth the field is a great distance. It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots. However, if one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead. Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.

In the large towns and cities, where civilization especially prevails, the number of those who own a shelter is a very small fraction of the whole. The rest pay an annual tax for this outside garment of all, become indispensable summer and winter, which would buy a village of Indian wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live.

I do not mean to insist here on the disadvantage of hiring compared with owning, but it is evident that the savage owns his shelter because it costs so little, while the civilized man hires his commonly because he cannot afford to own it; nor can he, in the long run, any better afford to hire.

If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man—and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages—it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.

The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful. Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.

Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made.

This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once. “What!” exclaim a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land, “is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?” Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.

if one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground, and that it would be cheaper to spade up that than to use oxen to plow it, and to select a fresh spot from time to time than to manure the old, and he could do all his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours in the summer; and thus he would not be tied to an ox, or horse, or cow, or pig, as at present.

I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer. Men and oxen exchange work; but if we consider necessary work only, the oxen will be seen to have greatly the advantage, their farm is so much the larger. Man does some of his part of the exchange work in his six weeks of haying, and it is no boy’s play. Certainly no nation that lived simply in all respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of animals.

I learned from my two years’ experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength.

I made a study of the ancient and indispensable art of bread-making, consulting such authorities as offered, going back to the primitive days and first invention of the unleavened kind, when from the wildness of nuts and meats men first reached the mildness and refinement of this diet, and travelling gradually down in my studies through that accidental souring of the dough which, it is supposed, taught the leavening process, and through the various fermentations thereafter, till I came to “good, sweet, wholesome bread,” the staff of life.

Every New Englander might easily raise all his own breadstuffs in this land of rye and Indian corn, and not depend on distant and fluctuating markets for them. Yet so far are we from simplicity and independence that, in Concord, fresh and sweet meal is rarely sold in the shops, and hominy and corn in a still coarser form are hardly used by any. For the most part the farmer gives to his cattle and hogs the grain of his own producing, and buys flour, which is at least no more wholesome, at a greater cost, at the store.

Furniture! Thank God, I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse. What man but a philosopher would not be ashamed to see his furniture packed in a cart and going up country exposed to the light of heaven and the eyes of men, a beggarly account of empty boxes? That is Spaulding’s furniture. I could never tell from inspecting such a load whether it belonged to a so-called rich man or a poor one; the owner always seemed poverty-stricken. Indeed, the more you have of such things the poorer you are. Each load looks as if it contained the contents of a dozen shanties; and if one shanty is poor, this is a dozen times as poor. Pray, for what do we move ever but to get rid of our furniture, our exuvioe: at last to go from this world to another newly furnished, and leave this to be burned?

“But what shall I do with my furniture?”—My gay butterfly is entangled in a spider’s web then. Even those who seem for a long while not to have any, if you inquire more narrowly you will find have some stored in somebody’s barn. I look upon England today as an old gentleman who is travelling with a great deal of baggage, trumpery which has accumulated from long housekeeping, which he has not the courage to burn; great trunk, little trunk, bandbox, and bundle. Throw away the first three at least. It would surpass the powers of a well man nowadays to take up his bed and walk, and I should certainly advise a sick one to lay down his bed and run. When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all—looking like an enormous wen which had grown out of the nape of his neck—I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry.

A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.

For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.

Above all, as I have implied, the man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.

There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me—some of its virus mingled with my blood. No—in this case I would rather suffer evil the natural way.

A man is not a good man to me because he will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one. I can find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much. Philanthropy is not love for one’s fellow-man in the broadest sense.

Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them. We make curious mistakes sometimes. Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it. I was wont to pity the clumsy Irish laborers who cut ice on the pond, in such mean and ragged clothes, while I shivered in my more tidy and somewhat more fashionable garments, till, one bitter cold day, one who had slipped into the water came to my house to warm him, and I saw him strip off three pairs of pants and two pairs of stockings ere he got down to the skin, though they were dirty and ragged enough, it is true, and that he could afford to refuse the extra garments which I offered him, he had so many intra ones. This ducking was the very thing he needed. Then I began to pity myself, and I saw that it would be a greater charity to bestow on me a flannel shirt than a whole slop-shop on him.

I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins.

a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.

After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his Genius tries again what noble life it can make. All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life—I wrote this some years ago—that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest. And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter—we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. When the illiterate and perhaps scornful trader has earned by enterprise and industry his coveted leisure and independence, and is admitted to the circles of wealth and fashion, he turns inevitably at last to those still higher but yet inaccessible circles of intellect and genius, and is sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the vanity and insufficiency of all his riches, and further proves his good sense by the pains which be takes to secure for his children that intellectual culture whose want he so keenly feels; and thus it is that he becomes the founder of a family.

Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.

While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house today is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too. Though it prevents my hoeing them, it is of far more worth than my hoeing. If it should continue so long as to cause the seeds to rot in the ground and destroy the potatoes in the low lands, it would still be good for the grass on the uplands, and, being good for the grass, it would be good for me.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows.

It would be better if there were but one inhabitant to a square mile, as where I live. The value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him.

I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

Many of our houses, both public and private, with their almost innumerable apartments, their huge halls and their cellars for the storage of wines and other munitions of peace, appear to be extravagantly large for their inhabitants. They are so vast and magnificent that the latter seem to be only vermin which infest them.

If one guest came he sometimes partook of my frugal meal, and it was no interruption to conversation to be stirring a hasty-pudding, or watching the rising and maturing of a loaf of bread in the ashes, in the meanwhile. But if twenty came and sat in my house there was nothing said about dinner, though there might be bread enough for two, more than if eating were a forsaken habit; but we naturally practised abstinence; and this was never felt to be an offence against hospitality, but the most proper and considerate course. The waste and decay of physical life, which so often needs repair, seemed miraculously retarded in such a case, and the vital vigor stood its ground.

husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him.

By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber.

These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? The ear of wheat (in Latin spica, obsoletely speca, from spe, hope) should not be the only hope of the husbandman; its kernel or grain (granum from gerendo, bearing) is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmer’s barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.

Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as be awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper.

I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

“You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass—I the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.”

I lived in a tight, light, and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to; and how, if he chose, he might in a month or two build himself a palace of his own; that I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them; again, as I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard, and it cost me but a trifle for my food; but as he began with tea, and coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef, he had to work hard to pay for them, and when he had worked hard he had to eat hard again to repair the waste of his system—and

he had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day. But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things.

I told him, that as he worked so hard at bogging, he required thick boots and stout clothing, which yet were soon soiled and worn out, but I wore light shoes and thin clothing, which cost not half so much, though he might think that I was dressed like a gentleman (which, however, was not the case), and in an hour or two, without labor, but as a recreation, I could, if I wished, catch as many fish as I should want for two days, or earn enough money to support me a week. If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a-huckleberrying in the summer for their amusement.

We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.

there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to see where housework commences, and whence the endeavor, which costs so much, to wear a tidy and respectable appearance each day, to keep the house sweet and free from all ill odors and sights. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.

I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind.

It may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to flesh and fat. I am satisfied that it is not. Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way—as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn—and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.

No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality.

I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness. I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!

“The soul not being mistress of herself,” says Thseng-tseu, “one looks, and one does not see; one listens, and one does not hear; one eats, and one does not know the savor of food.” He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise. A puritan may go to his brown-bread crust with as gross an appetite as ever an alderman to his turtle. Not that food which entereth into the mouth defileth a man, but the appetite with which it is eaten. It is neither the quality nor the quantity, but the devotion to sensual savors; when that which is eaten is not a viand to sustain our animal, or inspire our spiritual life, but food for the worms that possess us.

We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure.

From exertion come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality.

We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring.

Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South–Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The faultfinder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.

Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.

We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness.

Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber

Every once in a while I read a book that feels like opening a windows to the world, insofar as reading books about our world, presumably (can be debated, in another day) increases our knowledge of it, since apart from the oral tradition it has consistently been the best way to transfer information through the ages.

Debt is one of these books. Written by David Graeber, an anthropologist by trade, it delves into the History of Humanity and explores relationships about debt, money, slavery, war and capitalism. This is not, by any means, a light book, since it has an extensive bibliography and many notes, but the good news are that it’s very well written, to the point that I don’t feel like I’m reading a university worthy tome (it certainly is). I actually came out the other side feeling like this can probably belong on a curriculum of books that everyone should read. It’s also a book that should prove it’s value on a reread, since many of the concepts and relationships that the author uncovers will take some time to settle.

The author starts by examining the story of how debt and money came to exist. Typical assumptions have that primitive economies worked on barter and trading goods directly, and that only when this system outgrew it’s boundaries people became concerned with creating artificial instruments to carry value (i.e. money, usually in the form of coins) and when these were developed enough, more complex financial instruments such as credit and debt came to be.

Barter -> Money -> Credit -> Debt

What the author exposes is then, an inverse of the traditional story. What if the reality is that debt came at the very beginning and is the root of all economies? An example of this can be evidenced by the fact that the Bank of England, one of the first central banks in the world, came to the be after a £1.2 million loan from a group of wealthy bankers to the then King.

In a fascinating journey throughout all corners of the world, we learn about how the Abbasid Caliphate had a standing army of slaves, and how the Islamic souks could well possibly be the original free markets that libertarians today talk about. We spend some time in Medieval China too, where we learn about Buddhist monks that used financial instruments in their temples to the point that we would now call them corporations.

The author identifies periods of History which alternate between virtual and bullion currency, that is periods where systems of credit were the main currency in use and periods where gold, silver and other metals were the main currency (or backing of that currency) circulating.

These major periods of History end in 1971 with the US president Richard Nixon announcing that the US dollar will be no longer redeemable in gold, effectively dropping what had become known as the gold standard. This recent age is then a mix of what happened throughout History, with no clear conclusion on what is going to happen, but the evidence of the last 40 years stands to say that the US dollar, the de facto world currency, is again a virtual one, but this time backed by the military power of the US:

“If history holds true, an age of virtual money should mean a movement away from war, empire-building, slavery and debt peonage (waged or otherwise), and toward the creation of some sort of overarching institutions, global in scale, to protect debtors. What we have seen so far is the opposite. The new global currency is rooted in military power even more firmly than the old was. Debt peonage continues to be the main principle of recruiting labor globally: either in the literal sense, in much of East Asia or Latin America, or in the subjective sense, whereby most of those working for wages or even salaries feel that they are doing so primarily to pay off interest-bearing loans.”

It’s a frightful ending to the book, but it’s not the only conclusion. There are many more the reader should be aware of, and not all as dark as the paragraph above. It’s a great read, and one that should get better with the years.

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is now one of my favorite authors. His style reads like water flowing freely from the Icelandic glaciers, which essentially means that I can binge read one of his books in a couple of days and feel like that I didn’t got enough of that sight. His latest effort, which I came to be aware of, originally via this article in the New York Times Magazine, a couple of years ago, is truly amazing. I believe you really need to stand out as a non fiction writer to be able to deliver this level of novel like experience to an otherwise FinTech tale. I bet if I was going to tell you the story you’d drift off into some unicorn infested land after the first thirty seconds. Instead, I’ll just state a couple of main points to draw you in.

Michael Lewis comes at this story in his fast paced style grabbing you very quickly with his rogue Brad Katsuyama, the unlikely Canadian hero that brought the high frequency trading world to the public eye. By positioning our hero as an innocent bystander that happens to walk into a broad daylight robbery in action by some shady characters, seeing himself being dragged in to the plot, even though there’s no real desire on his part to be a part of it. It’s a great premise which delivers all the way to the end with a few twists and interesting revelations in the middle.

If you’re anything like me, you are also craving good stories that have some element of software engineering on it. While Neal Stephenson and William Gibson provide some good alternatives, it feels like there’s nothing really out there apart from cyberpunk and sci-fi tales to cover for it. It’s refreshing then to see a non fiction tale that uses a few characters, real world people, that really do put technology in front, despite the dollar signs to do otherwise. I’m referring of course to Sergey Aleynikov, one of the central figures of the story and a very interesting one at that. The fact that you can actually learn something from such a good story like this one in this sense it was a surprise. The explanation of all the different types of orders and puzzles that our high frequency traders unravel was particularly interesting. It’s also interesting to note that the complexity that governs financial markets today eclipses whatever 99% of the world thinks its happening at any moment in time. Think about it this way: if you think that calculating your taxes is something that only your math wiz cousin really can do, imagining him telling you that really only his math wiz PhD third degree cousin/acquaintance who also holds a dual degree in Genetic Engineering and Statistics has some idea of, should do the trick.

Overall, you’ll feel you’re not only one step closer to understanding our world after reading this book, you’ll probably feel like you understand even less, which is fine too. If it leaves a few burning questions on your head than that’s worth your time.

One final scary thought. The book was published back in 2014, which means that whatever is happening now should be changing a lot faster and be a tidy bit more complex.

Happy readings.