Category: Self-help

On Reading and Writing Articles

On Reading and Writing Articles

Some time back, I wrote about the skill-sets that you acquire while doing a PhD. One of them is public speaking. Another one is reading and writing articles. Every PhD student spends a lot of time reading research articles. As you keep on doing this for years, you develop a skill that is necessary to survive under the constant onslaught of information.

The structure of a research article is a little different from a normal magazine article. When you read or write a research article, you always imagine a devil’s advocate, who asks after each sentence “says who?”. And then you either provide the reference of the source, or if it is your own idea, justify it. Failure to do so will never get you published in a scientific journal. This is the reason scientific papers are full of citations.

If you ever get a chance to observe a scientist in her natural habitat, look closely how she reads a new research paper. It is not a linear process – start in the beginning and finish at the end. Most probably she will read the abstract, skip the introduction, take a closer look at the figures and images, skim over the procedure and read the conclusions. When you have read hundreds of research papers on one particular field, you just want to know what’s the new idea. This saves a lot of time. I follow more or less the same procedure when I read normal articles or blog posts on any topic. After reading many articles, reviews and blog posts, certain patterns start to emerge.

Take movie reviews. Many movie reviews can be skipped because all they do is tell you who made the film, who are the actors, what is the movie about and finally the plot – sometimes this last one is given in such detail that there is no need to see the movie. Then there are seasoned reviewers. Often when you read these reviews, you get more information about the reviewer than about the movie. If you already have set ideas in your head about what makes a great movie – for instance, commercial and popular movies are of low quality – then you discard movies that do not fit the bill even before watching them. Many reviewers seem to be doing this either consciously or unconsciously.

So why are articles/books of say, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael so engaging? Because they are full of original thoughts and ideas. Even when they borrow an idea, they will expand on it and transform it into a different idea. There is a danger here, however. If you read a Kael review before watching the movie, you will already have firm opinions about movie. This is the reason why I avoid 99% of movie reviews, at least before watching the movie.

On to words. Often, the article contains a lot of new or uncommon words. I have nothing against it but is the author using the best word possible? Reading an unclear article with lot of unknown words is like reading a dictionary. While reading Charles Dickens or W. Somerset Maugham, I do not let even one unknown word go by because I know that the way these authors use words is unique.

A side note : I feel sorry for the critics who dismiss Dickens because of Deus ex machina or Maugham because.. I don’t know..why would anyone dismiss Maugham? The profound knowledge of human affairs that these authors exhibit is unparalleled. It is said that when Somerset Maugham walked into a room full of strangers, he would instantly and intuitively know the complex layers of relationships that they have with one another. How did he do it? The answer may well be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.

Sometimes the article is just a jumble of thoughts. Reading through it is like untangling yarn balls after you have left them for an hour in a room full of meowing kittens. The thoughts run in all directions and you go back and forth trying to find the point of the argument or some common thread. For me, clarity is the most important criterion. As an example of clear thinking, watch any interview of Javed Akhtar or Gulzar. The thoughts would be crystal clear.

It is for the same reason that I don’t read articles with lot of buzz-words. Read, for example, the Wiki entry for phenomenological ontology in Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness. And saying that the subject is complex is not a valid argument. If you cannot explain it in simple terms, you have not understood it completely. People have simplified complex theories of quantum mechanics or relativity. This does not mean that the reader becomes an expert after reading the article but she does get a sense of what the theory is all about.

Paul Graham’s essays are a good example of clear and interesting writing. Another example is author and translator Tim Parks. Tim is British but he also speaks Italian and has translated many Italian books in English. His essays and criticisms in The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books are a delight to read. Also, James Wood. Do read his How Fiction Works. I have already mentioned Malcolm Gladwell. These are just few examples. There are many non-fiction writers whose articles are exemplary.

The Proud Unhealthy Indians

The Proud Unhealthy Indians

Exercise
Image credit : Pixabay

Despite being one, I am no closer to understanding Indians. Why is it that we were always ruled by foreign powers but never ventured too far from home to become rulers? If our ancient rulers had spent even half of the time and resources on science and innovation instead of religion, things would have been much better today. Or why, despite having the manpower and the resources, do we rank so low in most indices that indicate a better life?

But these are complex economic and sociological questions with no clear-cut answers or more than one answer. So lets turn our attention to a smaller problem : individual health. It would be fair to say that majority of Indians are not health conscious. I am excluding here the minority that you see jogging in parks or going regularly to the gym. You guys are doing great. Keep it up! There is also the younger generation whose sole purpose for going to the gym is to get six packs or zero size like the ones that their Bollywood screen idols flaunt. This is better than not doing anything, but the motivation is misplaced and may not last long enough. Fitness is much more than just looking good, although you do look good if you are fit.

If you look at the crowds on Indian streets, one thing that stands out are the bellies. Leaving aside the middle-aged or the seniors, it’s really sad to see twenty-somethings sporting generous bellies. And it’s not just bad only from the aesthetic point of view. India has as many as 50 million diabetic patients and according to experts, the number of heart disease patients is on the brink of an epidemic. Life expectancy in India is about 68.3 years (both sexes) and we rank 125th in the world. No 1 is Japan with 83.7 years. Countries ahead of us include Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Iraq! Of course, life expectancy depends on many other parameters such as health care for the poor etc. What’s remarkable is that the health awareness is poor in higher middle class as well, where adequate resources are available.

If you struggle everyday to find time to exercise or eat the right food while dealing with complexities of modern life, I empathize with you. I have been unhealthy most of my life. I know the struggle. It is not easy to be healthy in today’s world. Work pressures, deadlines, family commitments – anything and everything can get in the way. Of course, there are many ways to overcome these hurdles. (Tip : It’s okay to start very small. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Consistency is more important.) I understand people who realize that they are not healthy and that they should do something about it.

There is another class of Indians who have a different attitude towards health. And it is this group that I fail to understand. What I find most surprising is that these people are actually proud to be unhealthy. There is a certain devil-may-care attitude. To a certain extent, this is understandable if it’s a group of teenagers. Hopefully, they will come to their senses in due course of time. But when this attitude carries over into the thirties and beyond, that’s when it gets problematic. A side effect of this attitude is the belief that it is more hip or cool to live recklessly without any regard to your health. And this also means that people who do take care of their bodies (and their minds) are somehow uncool.

What is the origin of this illogical belief? One is the assumption that if you follow healthy routines, you are missing out on life. This, of course assumes that excessive drinking, smoking or eating everything that tastes good is the only way to enjoy life. So if you are not doing these things, you are uncool. QED.

What these people have never experienced is this. When you have slept a good night’s natural sleep, when your body is well rested, when you have eaten food that does not make you drowsy or sluggish, when you are brimming with so much energy that after a workout you feel more refreshed and energized instead of feeling exhausted, this feeling is your body saying “Thank You!” And no amount of external stimulation can match this wonderful feeling of being healthy.

The other illogical belief prevalent in Indians is that they are too conscious of their age. Now, one would assume that if this were the case, they would be more careful about their bodies as they age but what we see is the exact opposite. They just hang up their boots as they go into their thirties. They avoid physical activities, prefer vehicles even for smaller distances, some have trouble in simple tasks like getting up from a chair. Gradually they become sluggish and devoid of energy. Automation in every aspect of our lives only exacerbates this tendency.

Internet is full of interesting videos and news bits. Every so often, there is some interview of the oldest man or woman, telling us about their diet or their philosophy of life. There is a video of a 99 year old beating a 92 year old in 100 m sprint.

Jiro Ono, one of the most celebrated chefs in Japan, is still active as ever at the young age of 91. Clint Eastwood, 86, made Sully with Tom Hanks last year. What this means is that not only are they physically fit at their age, but they have exceptionally creative and sharp minds as well. I have already written about Jiro-san. Clint Eastwood also deserves a separate post.

Or there is Alan Alda, 80, doing a cartwheel. Caption was, “I will try again when I’m 85.”

Think carefully. What was the last time you read such a news about an Indian living in India?

Debunking the Self-help Myths

Debunking the Self-help Myths

Even after spending about 85% of my life in India, I don’t understand fellow Indians. For instance, why don’t we understand the simple concept of keeping our surroundings clean? One might think that maybe the people who behave this way did not have benefit of education. Well, yes and no. How do you explain the mountain of garbage outside the Coldplay concert venue in Mumbai after the night of the concert? I am pretty sure no villagers came all the way to Mumbai to listen to Coldplay. Many of those who attended this concert belong to the elite class who behave like model citizens when they go abroad.

India abounds in such contradictions. What gives me hope are two things. First, India has the largest youth population of 356 million 10-24 year olds (2014 U.N. report). It was a team of 60 young volunteers from Global Citizen India who came the next day and cleaned the Coldplay concert venue. Second, sales of self-help books are rising in India. There are many misconceptions about self-help in India. I have seen people react violently to anything that can be remotely called self-help, as if it’s something contagious. In an age where cynicism rules (and gives you likes and retweets), mocking and deriding everything and everyone has become a norm.

I am not worried about the cynics. I don’t think about them. My concern is the still impressionable youth who have not made up their minds. If the young people in India are interested in self-help, then they should know what it is. But first some debunking of myths is in order. These myths are prevalent in India, I am not sure to what extent they are applicable in other countries.

Myth 1 : I don’t need self-help. It’s for those (insert your favorite bashing group) people, not me.

Here’s a fun fact. Each and every one of us has used self-help at some point in our life. Let us say you want to start a blog but you have no idea how to go about it. You search on Google, find out about WordPress and Medium, watch some videos and finally register. You write your first “Hello, World” post. Congrats! You have just used self-help to improve your life a tiny bit.

Myth 2 : I am an artist with a sensibility that is finer-than-the-finest-of-the-fine-Indian-silk. I don’t need these mundane pursuits of the common people.

The image of the eccentric genius artist with devil-may-care attitude is powerful. Many critics also consider themselves in the same class (I may not have the talent but I have the same finer-than-the..etc sensibility). They shun everything that can be remotely connected to self-help and positivity. Usually such critics also reject en block everything the masses love. The irony is hard to miss. While these critics are busy singing paeans of their chosen exalted artists, those artists are busy applying the self-help methods in order to produce the masterpieces.

Here’s the thing. It was different in the older days of Counts, Lords and Maharajas. In today’s world, you cannot be a successful artist without strong work ethics. Sure, there are those one-hit wonders but they come and go as fast as the boy bands. (Who remembers Boyzone? Or Savage Garden?) Consistently producing high quality work requires many attributes than just talent – hard work, discipline and finding ways to prevent burnout, to name just a few. That is why Haruki Murakami runs marathons and triathlons. It’s not easy to shut yourself off from the world for months and write consistently, day-in and day-out. He needs that physical stamina for writing a thousand page novel.

Myth 3 : Self-help is all that sugary sweet positivity.

Yes and no. Keeping a positive attitude does not necessarily mean being unrealistic. Indians are very fond of praising the Japanese while making cynical comments on the conditions here. How do you think Japanese people achieved this excellence after having been through WWII? Without positive attitude? (Tip : Google Kaizen.) One of the philosophies that is becoming popular in the self-help community is the Stoic philosophy of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and others. Being realistic (and often pessimistic about the future) is one of the main tenants of this philosophy. Self-help also involves deep introspection and taking full responsibility.

Self-help is much more than just the labels. In one sense, it is what you choose it to be. Be judicious in your choice.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

 

Tim Ferris likes to call himself human guinea pig and his approach is that of a passionate scientist. NYT Bestselling author, entrepreneur and advisor to multinational companies, Tim has mastered the art of learning skills. Be it cooking, archery or learning a new language, Tim has gained mastery over these skills in a record time.

In The Tim Ferris Show, Tim interviews world class performers in order to gain insight into what makes them who they are. His guest list ranges from chess champions to celebrity actors and performance coaches to best-selling authors. These people have achieved excellence in their respective fields. How did they do it? That’s what Tim aims to find out in each of his podcasts. With nearly 200 guests in the last two years and close to a 100 million downloads, TFS is at the top of podcasts list. Tim’s latest book, aptly named Tools of Titans, distills these podcasts into a format that is easier to absorb.

Tim’s approach is very logical. With each guest, he is looking for the underlying beliefs, habits and philosophy that makes them who they are. What is their morning routine? Their favourite books? What are the essential rules to succeed in their area of expertise? Which philosophy do they live by?

Tools of Titans is probably unlike any book you have read. First of all, it is not meant to be read from start to finish. As Tim says in the introduction, skim through it, pick up what you need and come back to the skipped part later. I don’t think I will ever finish reading Tools of Titans. This is like a reference book that you come back to time and again.

A Personal Experience

One of the podcasts on TFS that changed my life was the one where Tim interviewed Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel is former physical training instructor to the Soviet special forces and current subject expert to the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Nave SEALs. Now most of the stuff that Tim and Pavel talk about – very advanced physical training techniques like deadlift techniques or one-arm swing – is not remotely applicable to me. I am never going to do it. But it took just one simple advice from Pavel that proved extremely effective. He says (and I quote from the book), “To increase your pull-up numbers, start doing half the reps you’re capable of (e.g., sets of 4 if your personal best is 8) in repeated sets throughout the day with at least 15 minutes rest.” Pavel also describes the biochemistry behind this approach.

Think for a moment how simple and counter-intuitive this advice is compared to the popular “no pain, no gain” advice. Normally when you decide to work-out (most probably during first week of January every year), you try to surpass your maximum capability every day. Your body aches or worse you get injured. The workout resembles punishment for prisoners in eighteenth century and in two or three weeks, you suddenly get ‘too busy’ to find time for workout. Pavel’s approach is a complete paradigm shift. You need not do your best every time, just do half and repeat many times during the day. “Training is something that should be enjoyed”, Pavel says.

Using this approach my fitness level has increased beyond expectation during the last year or so. (A big Thank You to Tim and Pavel!) I am still far from where I want to be but I feel much healthier that I ever did in my life. Since I started using this approach, my HDL cholesterol level gradually rose from a measly 43 mg/dl to a whopping 81.5 mg/dl! This approach is not for bodybuilding by the way, but for strength training. Pavel’s father-in-law, 64, went from 10 to 20 strict pull-ups using this approach, something he could not do even when he was a young marine.

This is just a tiny glimpse of the ‘Healthy’ section of Tools of Titans. There are two more sections called ‘Wealthy’ and ‘Wise’. Do not be fooled by the simplicity of many of the rules and tactics described in the book. As Tony Robbins says, “Tiny changes produce huge results”. Tony is world’s best known performance coach whose client list is, in fact, a Who’s Who – Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mikhail Gorbachev – to name just a few. In Tools of Titans, Tony shares his routines, hacks and beliefs that help him achieve peak performance every day.

Well known author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn used to say, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Spending time with people leads to you picking their habits, ways of thinking and attitudes – both consciously and unconsciously. Reading Tools of Titans is equivalent to a unique opportunity to spend time with some of the world’s best performers. This is supplemented by amazing quotes throughout the book. One of my favorites is by Maria Popova – creator of Brain Pickings – when she describes formula for greatness as “Consistency driven by a deep love of the work.”

I have stopped buying physical books in favour of Kindle but in this case I am thinking of getting a hard copy as well. Simply opening Tools of Titans at random and see where it takes you can be a revealing experience. And a hard copy makes it much easier to mark passages and stick post-it notes.

An added delight in Tools of Titans was to read the foreword by none other than the great Arnold Schwarzenegger who also features in the book. What a remarkable man! (The number of times I have seen the Terminator series is well into double figures now.) In a moving essay, Arnold describes his hardships in Austria and his journey to America and states quite passionately that contrary to popular belief, he is not a self-made man. His ending is what I liked the best,

“Now, turn the page and learn something.”

The Tim Ferriss Show is here.