5/19/22: The subtle influences of the right books

Sent 5/19/22

  • I had a fun trip to Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island. We visited Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, and Kumamoto, with a mix of cities and nature. I put a couple photos at the bottom for those of you interested.
  • Also read below for some changes I'm considering for this newsletter.

This week's Think Better Newsletter is about the effect a book can have on your mental approach.  

The Idea

In the summer before seventh grade we received a summer reading list. I don't remember all of the books on the list, but I definitely read Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. When we checked into our small B&B last week, there it was sitting on the shelf. I plowed through it in a few hours of free time and it struck me how different it felt rereading it.

I had only vague memories of the plot, but I remembered ice nine and Felix Hoenikker, its inventor. I particularly remembered being enamored with the idea of "the scientist who is completely detached from the real world." I even wrote a short story with a main character who invents a time machine but is oblivious to the people he sees when he travels. 

I wouldn't say I idolized that approach to life, but I certainly idealized the idea of "detachment from the day-to-day." There's something alluring to the idea of spending all your time focused on what you want and letting other people be responsible for all the sucky parts of life. (Parents, I know you feel me.)

As I reread the book, it struck me just how different the character seems to me now. His disengagement is so clearly a negative quality, and I have trouble identifying with the young me who thought it so alluring.

Now having written a book about how to think better it strikes me there's two ways to look at this character. On one hand, he's completely disengaged from everyday life, including his kids and everyday responsibilities. On the other, he's 100% engaged in whatever thing he's working on at that moment.

In this reading, his engagement destroyed his family and, eventually, the world. I doubt Vonnegut saw his book as a treatise on the power of engagement, but given all of his characters are engaged in their pursuits to the point of absurdity, perhaps he was simply answering the question: what if we all were engaged at all costs?

If you want to get better at anything, my first recommendation is always to engage more. Read more, study more, ask more questions, be more present. Take productive action in the area you want to improve.

But there's always a breaking point. A point at which the net effect will tip negative if you don't maintain the other areas of life. If you're engaging to the detriment of your health, your relationships, or your community, be aware and conscientious enough to find a reasonable balance. 

As for me, my default has always been to disengage, to be the observer versus the actor, to analyze instead of actively participate. I wonder if my reading Cat's Cradle as a 12 year-old played any role or if that's just a coincidence I notice today. I suspect a little of both.

It also makes me wonder just how much the right book at the right time can change somebody's entire perception of the world.

The Newsletter Going Forward

I'm considering some changes to how I write this newsletter. The One Idea, One System, One Question approach doesn't generate the interaction or feedback I'd like. Plus I often feel there's no place but the "Updates" to say anything interesting or off topic.

So, I think I'm just going to write about an idea/system together and then have a section for interesting links or other ideas that may or may not relate. For example, I wanted to share these two articles about clocks that I read recently:

Wadokei - While at Dejima island in Nagasaki city, I learned that Japan had its own way of telling time, where the length of an hour changed with the seasons. How interesting! We often can't think of our world in any other way than how we've experienced it. I love learning that something as fundamental as time can be thought of so differently. This article gives an intro for those interested. (Dejima had a working "pillar clock" - see the link.)

Mechanical Watch - Shortly after visiting Dejima I found this article by Bartosz Ciechanowski explaining how modern mechanical watches work. It's a long article, but the interactive diagrams make it worth it. They enable you to see exactly how watch makers solved the challenge of mechanically measuring seconds, minutes, hours, and then the daily calendars. People are amazing.

A couple photos

my daughters at Dejima island in Nagasaki, Japan - standing in front of the scale model of Dejima island

My daughters at Dejima, the tiny island in Nagasaki where Dutch traders were required to do business in Japan. If you could go back in time to one place, 1860s Japan would be a pretty incredible place to visit.

Amano Iwato Shrine in Miyazaki, Japan, with countless stacked stones inside the cave

Amano Iwato Shrine in Miyazaki Prefecture. The legend is that Amaterasu, the goddess of light, fled to a cave and the gods and goddesses all gathered in this cave to lure her out. It's one of Japan's oldest shrines and the cave environment and the stacked stones makes it a special atmosphere.


Go Be More,

Bryan Green
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast

“Live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle



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