Thinkers and writers should train like athletes

A few months ago Tyler Cowen posted a link to David Perell’s article “Learn Like an Athlete,” which you can read here, and then followed it up with his own post on how he, well, learns like an athlete. Check out those links before proceeding.

I’m definitely on board with the concept of intellectual training. I already do some of the practices that Cowen and Perell mention, given my former immersion in self-development blogs and books, but I hitherto didn’t conceive of them as part of a specific training mindset.

Athletes will tell you they’re always trying to “get better.” Michael Jordan had a relentless work ethic because he had an intense drive to get better. It didn’t matter that he had an abundance of natural talent or that many already considered him one of the all-time greats. He knew there was always room for improvement. And the same applies to those of us who are serious about shaping, sharing, and defending ideas.

Being an athlete is also a lifestyle. If you want to distinguish yourself as a thinker and writer, thinking and writing needs to be a lifestyle. That doesn’t mean you have to use all of your waking time doing serious intellectual work. It’s just that you can’t treat your graduate program, PhD program, or academic post like high school or a 9-5 punch-in, punch-out job. Roger Scruton lives and breathes ideas. Tiger Woods lives and breathes golf. I’m sure you get the point.

The most intellectually gifted are not always the hardest workers, and the hardest workers are not always the most intellectually gifted. Hats off to you if you belong to both camps, but regardless of your intelligence or work ethic you can never run out of ways to be more deliberate in your thinking and your habits. Working like an athlete will take time, toil, and daily sacrifice, but it’ll all be worth it.

Health care as a personal duty, not a right

Modern rights talk is often framed in terms of positive rights (obligations to action) with little regard for the corresponding duties. Take health care, for example:

P1. I have a right to health care because health care is a human right.
P2. But health care is too expensive for me because I’m one of millions of uninsured or under-insured people.
C. Therefore, my human right to health care is being denied.

It is implied but not stated that if you have a right to health care, someone has a duty to provide you with it. The obvious answer is the federal government. But the federal government can’t just print money out of thin air to implement a system that guarantees this right for every man, woman, and child in the US. It would instead have to dip into its revenue stream—taxes. Thus we can say that the federal government can secure the right to health care only in a qualified sense, for they are using taxpayer money to do so. So in essence, the duty to provide you with free health care ultimately falls onto everyone in society rather than on the government alone.

I don’t see how you can escape this if you believe that health care is a human right. For my part, I see health care as a personal duty you have towards yourself rather than a right that you’re owed and thus a duty that others have towards you. Why? For most people, physical and mental health can be maintained or improved by just paying attention to the quantity and quality of what you eat and how much you exercise. Eating healthy does not break the bank as is commonly thought, and exercise can be cheap if not free: walking in your neighborhood, walking on a trail, bodyweight exercises, and so on.

I also question the second paragraph syllogism on the grounds that health care and health insurance are distinct issues. People often blame their health insurance for the rising costs of health care, but that’s because we’ve come to believe that health insurance ought to cover everything from medications, to check-ups, to urgent care visits, and so on. But you know what’s actually behind the rising costs of health care? Nurses, doctors, technology, and a population that’s been getting older and fatter over the past few decades. Hence I stress the importance of taking care of your own health and understanding it as a personal duty towards yourself. In the long run, it’s significantly more expensive and stressful to be unhealthy than it is to be healthy.

Tweet of the day

Amen to this. Some of the times I’ve felt least lonely: when I’m engrossed in reading a book, writing, or thinking. Some of the times I’ve felt most lonely: when I’m at gatherings or parties, or when I’m walking around a busy mall or city.

Being alone and loneliness are two different concepts. I enjoy being alone but rarely do I feel a sense of loneliness. As IM likes to say, “lesson in there.”

An extended analogy between bodybuilding and the intellectual life

The mind is like a muscle group. Exercising it not only requires consistent stimulation, it also needs progressive overload in order to grow. Bodybuilders progressively overload by lifting heavier weights, while builders of the intellect progressively overload by reading and thinking about increasingly complex topics.

But don’t forget that bodybuilders take rest so they avoid overtraining, injuries, and other negative consequences. For the person into the life of the mind, it is beneficial to periodically get away from the books and entertain yourself with music, a movie, a sporting event, going out and shooting the shit with your buddies, etc.

Reading challenging material to perfect the intellect is like going to the gym to work the muscles. It’s hard work and you’ll feel like you’re suffering at times, but if you don’t feel that way, can you really say you’re growing?

Muscle groups need a variety of exercises to optimize their growth. Likewise, the mind needs a variety of disciplines—history, philosophy, religion, political theory, the various sciences like chemistry and physics, etc.—to optimize its growth.

Not being open to different training methods or types of workout equipment is like closing yourself off to intellectual viewpoints that differ from your own. Try them on for size and if they don’t work for you, don’t use them. The best bodybuilders know exactly what works for their training and what doesn’t, while the best minds know all sides of an argument and can argue for and defend their own position.

Spending time thinking about what you have read—e.g., through note-taking, a blog, just quiet contemplation, or all of the above—is like eating enough protein, fats, and good carbs. This makes all the difference in whether you’ll grow or not. A reader who doesn’t ponder what he reads is like a bodybuilder who doesn’t eat enough. You’ll have nothing to show for your hard efforts.

A bodybuilder who eats too much junk food is like an intellectual who consumes too much dreck. Not all foods are good for you and not all knowledge is good knowledge. If you’re serious about building muscle, you have to cut out the junk food. If you’re serious about being a thinker and writer, you have to cut out the fake news, the sensationalized tabloids, the poorly reasoned opinion pieces, and bad writing and scholarship in general.

Older can mean better. The bodybuilders of the past swore by some training principles that are still valid but have been somewhat lost. Ancient and medieval thinkers proclaimed certain teachings and values that are timeless and wise but have been forgotten.

And, to conclude, just like there’s always someone out there bigger and stronger than you, there’s always someone out there smarter and better-read than you. Stay humble, learn from everyone, drink from every stream.

The best way to prolong your life?

Hint: It’s not dieting, quitting smoking, quitting drinking, or working out…

The meaning of life is a question that has plagued philosophers for millennia, and there is no single correct answer. But increasingly, scientists are finding that having a sense of purpose, whatever yours may be, is key to well-being.

Now, a study published on May 24 in JAMA Current Open adds to the growing body of knowledge on the link between health and a driving force, finding that purposefulness is tied to longer lives. Researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health analyzed data from nearly 7,000 individuals over 50 years old and concluded that “stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality.” They believe that “purposeful living may have health benefits.”

Here’s the link to the paper if you’re interested.

Why you should take time to do nothing

I enjoyed this New York Times article titled “The Case for Doing Nothing.” First few paragraphs:

Keeping busy?

Running from place to place and laboring over long to-do lists have increasingly become ways to communicate status: I’m so busy because I’m just so important, the thinking goes.

Perhaps it’s time to stop all this busyness. Being busy — if we even are busy — is rarely the status indicator we’ve come to believe it is. Nonetheless, the impact is real, and instances of burnout, anxiety disorders and stress-related diseases are on the rise, not to mention millennial burnout.

There’s a way out of that madness, and it’s not more mindfulness, exercise or a healthy diet (though these things are all still important). What we’re talking about is … doing nothing. Or, as the Dutch call it, niksen.

It’s common in self-development culture, especially of the red-pilled masculine variety, to glorify “the hustle” or “the grind,” which values around-the-clock busyness with every minute of your time meticulously planned out and accounted for. This can be valuable if you’re looking to, say, rid yourself of procrastination or begin radical improvements in multiple areas of your life, but after a certain point it becomes unnecessary and even detrimental. I sometimes need to remind myself that I’m a human being with varying desires, interests, and energy levels, not a robot programmed for maximum efficiency and activity. In fact, doing nothing actually makes us more efficient, productive, and happy in the long run, as you will soon see. Anyway, back to the article:

It’s difficult to define what doing nothing is, because we are always doing something, even when we’re asleep.

Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist who studies boredom and wrote the book “Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World,” likens niksen to a car whose engine is running but isn’t going anywhere.

“The way I think about boredom is coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be,” she said.

Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, added that niksen can be “when we’re not doing the things we should be doing. Because perhaps we don’t want to, we’re not motivated. Instead, we’re not doing very much.”

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

We at Smarter Living have long been fans of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity.

In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.

I’ve discovered that there’s a difference between busybodies and productive people. Busybodies are those people who rush from task to task, see inactivity as stagnation or weakness, and can’t ever seem to chill out. They compulsively check their smartphones and emails and conceive of productivity as the practice of squeezing as many tasks into their waking hours as possible while refusing to rest until they’re all completed. Productive people get their tasks done, but they prioritize a couple big tasks over numerous smaller tasks, which allows them to work more deeply and not feel so stressed out. Furthermore, they understand that rest is important in both their short- and long-term health, that spending some time “being” instead of “doing” allows them to be more creative and be better problem solvers. Productive people are consistently energetic and efficient, whereas busybodies eventually feel overwhelmed, run out of energy, do their tasks inefficiently, and burn out. The article continues by affirming exactly that:

Generally speaking, our culture does not promote sitting still, and that can have wide-reaching consequences for our mental health, well-being, productivity and other areas of our lives. Technology doesn’t make it any easier: The smartphone you carry with you at all hours makes it almost impossible to truly unplug and embrace idleness. And by keeping ourselves busy at all times, we may be losing our ability to sit still because our brains are actually being rewired.

Indeed, the benefits of idleness can be wide-ranging.

Ms. Mann’s research has found that daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” For that to happen, though, total idleness is required.

“Let the mind search for its own stimulation,” Ms. Mann said. “That’s when you get the daydreaming and mind wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity.”

Counterintuitively, idleness can be a great productivity tool because “if our energy is totally shot, our productivity is not going to be good because we’re not going to have fuel to burn with which to be productive,” said Chris Bailey, a productivity expert and author of the blog “A Life of Productivity.”

Niksen can help you solve problems as well.

“It takes you out of your mind, and then you see things clearly after a while,” said Manfred Kets de Vries, a professor of leadership development and organizational change at Insead in Paris.

The article ends with a few practical tips on how to implement more rest in your life. The first one, my favorite, is to figure out the times of day when you’re at your most and least productive, and set aside time to do nothing at those least times of day. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sit there; you could get up and move around, go for a walk, eat lunch or snack, or put away all your technology for a few minutes.

Go here and scroll down for the rest of the tips. Again, if you’re a lazy person with hardly any goals or ambitions, this is not the article you should be reading. But if you’re overly busy or stressed out, then by all means read and absorb it.

Against perfectionism

I hope Bill Vallicella doesn’t mind me quoting his entire post on perfectionism. After all, it’s brief and brilliant:

Some, of modest ability, publish too much; others, of greater ability, are stymied by perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a curse!

Leave perfection to the gods. The most that can be asked of a mortal is that he strive for excellence within the limits of time, talent, and circumstance. Striving is not achieving, and excellence is not perfection.

You will never get to the point where you have read all the literature on a topic, even a well-defined one. Some of the material is out of print or otherwise unavailable, some of it is in foreign languages. Should you hold off on writing something about mereology until you can read Polish?

My favorite part is the last two paragraphs:

Too much reading blocks the channels of one’s own creativity. Forever reading, never read.

Writing is the best way of working out your ideas; so if you wait until you know exactly what you want to say before writing, you will miss the best way of determining exactly what you want to say.

My reading habits

People who know me know I read a lot. I will read most anything I can get my hands on: news articles, philosophical and theological academic papers, books on numerous nonfiction topics, contemporary fiction, classic literature, and magazines. I also enjoy reading about what other people like to read, so if you’re like me in that regard, you will enjoy this post.

I cannot start my day without first making a cup of coffee, sitting down with my laptop, and firing up Google Chrome. Several pages automatically open up for me: my Gmail and Facebook accounts, FeedlyDrudge ReportGoogle News, Encyclopedia Britannica’s “On This Day,” and the scoreboards for the NHL, MLB, NBA, and men’s college basketball. In my Feedly are ~20 blogs, some of which include ProHockeyTalk, HardballTalk, NASCAR Talk, Vox Day, Maverick Philosopher, Pat Buchanan, Roosh V, and Rogue Health and Fitness. I use Facebook to keep up with friends and family but also for links to news articles in German, French, Italian, and Spanish. Waiting for me in my Gmail are newsletters from the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, USA Today, and Russia Today. While reading all this I start to form ideas for the day’s blog posts.

If I’m struggling to find stuff worthy of blogging about, I will constantly refresh Drudge and Google News and also check up on Rod Dreher, Steve Sailer, and a few other daily bloggers. If I’m not struggling, I will typically read those guys’ posts in the afternoon as opposed to the morning. I also check Twitter around this time. I never tweet and only use it to lurk, so there’s no point in giving you my account handle. Even when I’m not blogging and have class, work, or other responsibilities, I still check my Feedly, Facebook, Gmail, Drudge, and Google News multiple times throughout the day. I also make my way over to the Jeopardy! Reddit page and PokerNews at some point.

The only magazine I regularly read anymore is Men’s Health, though sometimes I’ll go to the library and check out an issue of Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, Psychology Today, or Scientific American, depending on whatever catches my fancy. I like to read a magazine after dinner and before starting to read the books I want to read. Typically I’ll do something in between, like go to the gym, in order to not succumb to reading fatigue.

I don’t like reading in complete silence. Typically I’ll have music or a sporting event on at low volume when reading nonfiction, though I do admit that I prefer reading fiction, especially classic literature or poetry, without any background noise. I can speed read nonfiction when I want to but prefer slowing down with fiction. I also skim and scan parts of books I either don’t find as interesting or as relevant as the others. Most nonfiction books can be sufficiently understood by reading only the table of contents, introduction, the first few and the last few paragraphs of each chapter, and the conclusion. Sometimes an entire couple or few chapters can be skimmed or ignored altogether.

I’ve gotten better at quitting books that don’t hold my interest, and this abundance mentality allows me to give more books a chance and read more widely. As of this writing I’m reading Steven Jensen’s The Human Person: An Introduction to Thomistic Psychology, Stephen King’s The Dark Half, and will start Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times and/or Tucker Carlson’s Ship of Fools tonight. Also waiting on my nightstand are two books by Antonia Fraser: Love and Louis XIV as well as The King and the Catholics. I prefer print books over e-books, though I do love my Kindle as well. I like using my Kindle for books in foreign languages and books that are 300 pages or less.

I do have a good social life and enjoy other leisure activities, so it’s not like I read books at this volume every night. And yes, I’m human and sometimes I’m not in the mood to read books. If that’s the case I opt to watch sports, a sitcom, a documentary, read articles online, or watch informative yet entertaining YouTube videos.

My language learning hacks

These are adapted from Kato Lomb’s Polyglot: How I Learn Languages. I find her language learning method works best for me, and maybe it’ll work for you too.

1. Get a good dictionary as well as a book with lots of grammar and vocab exercises. Doing all the exercises reinforces concepts and expedites your learning. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and get some wrong. Learn why your wrong answers are wrong, correct them, and move on.

2. Immediately start reading books or articles in your target language on topics or genres you like. Now of course there will be plenty of words you don’t recognize, but learn to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and plow through anyway. After the first read-through, write down words and phrases you recognize or are able to deduce from the context. After the second, write down those you don’t know and aren’t able to deduce. Learn those. Then do a third read-through, and you’ll amaze yourself at just how much you now know.

3. Learn phrases, not words isolated from any sort of context. Languages are made of phrases, so it’s best to learn nouns, verbs, and adjectives through, well, phrases. Memorizing stand-alone words will not help you read, write, or speak your target language well. It took me a long time to figure this out.

4. You will have to rote memorize certain things. There’s no way around it. For example, irregular verbs and their conjugations, grammatical cases, noun and adjective declensions, etc. Using a good memorization program like Memrise or Anki will help you significantly.

5. Make sure you’re always having fun. If it feels like drudgery, mix it up a little bit and try something new. If you’re sick of constantly reading, try writing something or thinking in your target language, for example.

6. Five minutes on a day you don’t feel like learning is much better than zero. But ideally, you should spend at least 30 minutes a day on your language, if not up to an hour. You have to put in the work, plain and simple.