Five Steps to Epiphany

Over at the Praxis blog, I challenge anyone interested in education, entrepreneurship, career success, wealth, happiness, or personal growth to read five books this summer.

Each book is described with an endorsement from someone in the Praxis network.  Check out the article.

The books are:

  1. The Education of Millionaires
  2. The End of Jobs
  3. The Last Safe Investment
  4. Zero to One
  5. How to Find Fulfilling Work

See the full text for details and links to the books.

My Current Reading List

I asked three of my best go-to’s for reading recommendations when I’m in Ecuador.  I’m going to try to read ten books in the six weeks there.  We’ll see if I can do it.  To create my list, I took two recommendations from each of the people I asked plus four of my own.

First, here are the books I’m trying to finish this week before we embark:

  • Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn (Nearly done, but will continue to reread)
  • Flatland by Edwin Abbott (Rereading (actually audiobook) and nearly done)
  • Evolve by Chad Grills (Halfway done)

And these are the 10 selections I’ve loaded up on my Kindle for the time away:

I’ll be reviewing one of these selections in the next monthly newsletter.  If you’re not signed up for it, join today!


New Blogs to Check Out

Praxis participants and alumni are pretty prolific and I love reading their stuff.  Check out some of their posts and other projects.

Some Current Participant Blogs

Mitchell Earl

Startups and Caffeine

Nick B. Tucker

The Nonconformist Playground

J. Taylor Foreman

Brad Matthews

Ryan A. Ferguson

James Bumanlag


Some Praxis Graduate Blogs

Derek Magill

Nicole Rene Lough

Laurie E. Barber

James Walpole

Kristina F. Miller

The Situation Network


*Interesting observation: The ladies are far more likely to give their blog a name other than their own.  Maybe men are more narcissistic?…

Why I Don’t Read the Comments

Because it makes me less happy.

That’s it. There’s no other deep principle or reason. This is also why I occasionally do read them. It (rarely) can be enjoyable. 

I don’t dislike commenters or discussion. For some reason it detracts from my enjoyment of life to read comments. Maybe that’s a shortcoming of mine. Who knows. All I know is that my life is better and I get more done and am happier when I completely ignore them.

It’s freeing to remind myself that I don’t owe responses to critics or commenters. Realizing I can ignore them actually makes me a little more likely to occasionally engage them.  But it’s still a rare occasion. 

Life’s too short to do things you don’t like doing.

Read More by Reading Less

From the Praxis blog.

It’s an absolute necessity for those who want to seize the entrepreneur-rich future to have excellent grit, work ethic, professional skills, communication, confidence, a network, and creative problem solving. These roll-up-the sleeves habits and skills must be mastered. But it’s also a necessity to read. A lot.

You need hundreds of mental models to draw from and lay over each other to find breakthroughs at the intersections. You’ve got to wrestle with age old questions like how to have a good inner life, no matter what’s going on with your startup or job. These cannot be gained by hacks or tricks. They can only be gained by a ceaseless consumption of high quality ideas.

I once heard said that the older the problem, the older the solution. Maybe SEO secrets are best found in webinars, but the secret to reducing stress and finding meaning in your work is more likely found in a time-tested intellectual tradition or great book. All the best entrepreneurs I’ve met are relentlessly philosophical and voracious readers. Not just of business books. In fact, business books are probably the least read among the most successful people I’ve met.

There’s so much great stuff out there. How can you consume it with all the demands on your time? You want to read Hesse, and Milton, and Seneca, and Feynman, and Hemingway, and on and on. But you’re barely keeping up on your email!

First, relax. Stressing about reading or doing it out of guilt is unlikely to do you much good. Try to enjoy it. Next, carve out an hour, or at least a half an hour, each day where you’re not allowed to do other stuff. Just read. Do it before bed to calm your mind and feed new ideas into your brain before you enter the dream world.

Then – and here’s the big secret that’s hard for me and most others I know – stop reading when the book isn’t interesting. Or skip ahead. Pick up a new book. Go right to the good chapter. Don’t treat books like sacred objects that must be read in their entirety, in order, or not at all.

You go to blogs and scan for a good post. You ditch it halfway through if it’s clear the headline was the beefiest part. You scan Twitter and Facebook and feel no guilt for not reading every word. Great books are deeper, richer sources of important ideas, but you don’t have to approach them with fear and trembling. Better to consume one good chapter of Walden than to keep it on the shelf waiting for that perfect weekend vacation where you’ll read it all and take copious notes. It’s probably not going to happen.

Dive in to great books every week, or better yet every day, and keep consuming them. You need a lot of mental models at your disposal to build great stuff and enjoy the process.

How My Son Learned to Read When We Stopped Trying to Teach Him

We were homeschooling and our son was six years old.  He had a good vocabulary and comprehension of ideas beyond many kids his age.  We knew reading would open up the world to him, we knew he’d like it, and we knew he was very capable of doing it.  But he didn’t.

We tried flashcards.  We tried read-alongs.  We tried playing hardball and we tried being fun and exciting.  We tried restricting activities until he’d done his reading lessons, and we tried giving rewards.  All these efforts had two things in common: they didn’t help him read one bit and they made our relationship with him worse.  Being a parent and being a child cease to be fun when you’re at odds all the time.

So, at an age when we were starting to worry about his lagging behind, we simply stopped trying.  We quit the whole effort.  He was nearly seven when we gave it up in favor of more peace and harmony in the house.

Daily life was a little easier, yet we still had this nagging worry about him.  What will happen if he’s behind where he’s supposed to be for his age?  Still, everything about our efforts to make him read felt wrong, so we simply ignored the fears.

I was reading a lot of great books on how kids learn and I knew intellectually that kids need no instruction to learn to read.  They will learn when they find it valuable and if they are in an environment where it’s possible – one with books and other readers.  Still the head and the heart are very different things.  I knew kids were better at self-teaching than being taught, but I had to watch my own son, sharp as he was, remain completely outside the wonderful world of the written word.

Then it happened, just like so many of the books said it would.  You believe it in stories, but it’s still a surprise when it happens in real life.  One night I overheard my son reading aloud to himself in his bed.  And the first thing he read wasn’t Dick and Jane, but Calvin & Hobbes.  Not light fare for a brand new reader.

Let me back up a bit.  We would often read to him for a few minutes before bed, and lately he had been in love with some old Calvin & Hobbes comics I had from my adolescence.  We’d read him a few pages and say goodnight.  One night it was later than usual and he asked me if I’d read.  I was a bit grumpy and tired, and I said no, I was going to bed.  He protested a bit but could see I wasn’t up for it so he let it go, seeming defeated.  Ten minutes later I heard him reading.

He later told me that he wasn’t actually reading it that night, nor the first several nights after when he spoke the words (and often laughed) aloud.  He had heard us read it so many times he had the words memorized.  He was looking at the pictures and reciting the words like lines to a familiar song.  I didn’t know this until long after he could clearly read without first memorizing, but it really doesn’t matter.  In fact, it’s probably better that my wife and I assumed he was reading it when we first heard him, or we might have been tempted to intervene and try to cajole him into reading it without the cheat of memory and illustrations.  I know too well the kind of unhappy outcome that would have created.

For a year or more we fought with a kid who clearly had all the tools to read and we got nowhere.  He wasn’t faking his inability, he really couldn’t read.  Reading was always an activity that interrupted his day and was associated with expectant and often visibly (despite attempts to hide it) stressed parents.  It was a concept as useless as it was foreign.  But once he had a strong desire – to enjoy his favorite comic strip – and his inability to read was the barrier, he overcame it in no time and never even celebrated or announced it to us.  It was utilitarian, not some lofty thing to perform for a gold star or a pat on the back.  His ability and interest in reading, then writing and spelling, only intensified as he found it indispensable for playing games like Minecraft and Scribblenauts.

We’ve since made a full transition from the imposed curriculum of homeschooling to the kid-created structure of unschooling.  Looking back I’m a little ashamed of the silly way we approached things before, but at the time it was so hard to let go, with all that crippling fear.  There are so many “shoulds” pumped into parents brains from the moment they conceive.  There are percentiles and averages and tests and rankings galore.  But these are useful only to the statisticians and none of them have your child’s interest or happiness in mind.  Aggregates aren’t individuals.  Living your life, or attempting to shape your child’s life, to conform to the average of some population is not a recipe for success.  At best it will produce blandness.  At worst a broken spirit.

You can read any number of thinkers like John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, or Peter Gray on why our son’s experience is not exceptional, but normal.  You can look at studies that show kids who learn to read at age four and kids who learn at age nine have the same reading comprehension by age 11.  You can get story after story from places like the Sudbury Valley school about kids who taught themselves to read in a few short weeks once they got the interest, and even one girl who didn’t become interested until age 13 and then went on to win a literary prize.  But it’s all theory and myth until you experience it with your own child.

Read the books.  Look into the unschooling movement and literature.  But above all, take a step back from your own kids and realize that they are only young once and for such a short time.  Do you really want your memories with them to consist of fights and forced lessons?  Enjoy them.  Let them go their own way and navigate the world.  There are few things more exciting than when they come to you to ask for your help or insight because they really want it, or when they never do because they figure it out on their own and gain a confidence that cannot be won any other way.

The world we live in does not lack for natural incentives to learn to read.  The rewards are massive, as are the costs of illiteracy.  We don’t need to artificially incentivize reading the way a poor farmer might have a few hundred years ago.  When we do we do more harm than good, if not to our children’s ability to read then at least to our enjoyment of our time with them.  They figured out how to speak – the most difficult, nuanced, and complex skill a human can master – without any formal instruction.  They can learn to read too.


Here are a few other examples of learning by doing from my own life:

Why LEGO is more valuable than algebra

Why Mario Maker is better than a marketing major

Why I Hate Citations

There was a time when citations were almost nonexistent even in academic work.  Today the word academic is not applied to anything that’s not full of citations.  It drives me nuts.

In my teens I remember writing a paper where the teacher required a minimum of five citations.  It seemed arbitrary and irritating to me so as a small act of rebellion I made the first citation something like, “My own mind”.  A childish and arrogant move to be sure, but I stand by the protest at the heart of it.  We were asked to write a paper making an argument on a topic.  Yet we were graded in large part by how many citations we had, regardless of the weight and cogency.  If I made a compelling case based on the internal logic of my argument, I could not get an ‘A’ unless I also had five citations, no matter how disconnected and useless the citations.  The academic world isn’t as bad as that class, but sometimes it’s not far off.

I understand the point of citations.  You want to maintain intellectual honesty and respectfully acknowledge those upon whose ideas you’ve built your own.  Unless you are doing a survey of literature or a study on a specific text, all of this seems possible in simple sentence form within the body of your work rather than via formal citation.  When formalized, a subtle citation seduction can sweep in and impresses readers, clouding their judgement of the content itself.  The appeal to authority or the demonstration of how common an idea is often becomes an argument for it’s validity.  I’ve even heard academics mock papers simply because they lack a sufficient number of citations, without addressing any of the ideas.

You might argue that all of those problems are problems with the way readers and writers use citations, not the system itself.  There is some truth to that, but I also think the formalization of the system has much to do with it.  When you are trained to rigorously cite everything and stop mid-sentence for footnotes*, the power of the argument suffers, and the readability definitely declines.  It also carries traces of the false and dangerous notion that ideas are scarce like physical property, having but one owner.  Citing someone implies they were the originator of the idea, which is almost never the case.  A great comedy sketch would be a scene in which a thinker was forced to cite everything, including the sources for the citations, and the sources of the sources, etc.  Tying an argument to a single source can be just as misleading as not tying it to anyone.

Prior to the formalization of citations thinkers still got credit for their work.  It’s not difficult to mention in the body of a text inspirations or sources.  It’s not difficult to add a “Further Reading” list at the end.  Both of these better reflect the truth of the situation, that all thinkers through time and space are engaged in a kind of great conversation, responding to and building on one another.  We all know that none of us is spinning original ideas absent outside inspiration.  We are part of a lineage.  If you read C.S. Lewis, for example, you have no trouble seeing the influences and ideas of Milton.  Sometimes Lewis mentions him by name, often he does not.  There aren’t citations to speak of (one of the reasons Lewis is considered popular instead of academic), but there is no lack of respect or pretension to originating ideas that came from elsewhere.

Citations sometimes seem more, not less arrogant to me than their absence.  They imply that anything not cited was perfectly original.  They imply a neat and tidy set of ideas, disciplines, and intellectual evolution.  If we’re honest, we can’t even remember our own intellectual development enough to source and cite the origin of many of our ideas.

This is not about not giving credit.  It’s not about being lazy.  In fact, it’s about pushing oneself to give credit in the much more difficult way.  To work it into the writing in a way that’s not awkward or disruptive or overly formal.  It’s about forming excellent and clear arguments that bring something new to the table, but that any intelligent person can see emerge from a larger tradition or body of knowledge.  It’s about intriguing and leading people to that body of knowledge rather than just listing it by publication date and publisher next to a tiny number.

I try not to cite as a discipline.  Most of my writing is in blogs and articles so there isn’t much need to cite anyway, or much cost to me for not citing, but after my initial youthful distaste for the undue respect given to citations qua citations, I gave myself this rule to see what would happen.  Everything I write comes from some other set of ideas or thinkers I’ve encountered.  My goal is to give credit and respect generously, and it almost feels demeaning to stick a great work into a little footnote.  If I can’t work their ideas into my own and, when I’m doing it more directly, communicate that I’m doing it, I think I’m missing something.

This is not a wholesale protest against the practice of citation.  It has uses, and probably many that I’m ignorant of since I’m not an academic.  My claim is simply that it’s over-used and that writing – especially academic writing – and thinking often suffer for it.



*I also hate footnotes