A Practical Philosophy Reading List

April 21, 2014 — 22 Comments

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Very few people wake up and think “I need philosophy.” This is perfectly understandable. But of course, everyone has their own problems and are dealing with the difficulties of life in some way or another.

The irony is this is actually what ancient philosophy was intended to ameliorate. “Vain is the word of a philosopher,” Epicurus once said, “which does not heal the suffering of man.” Centuries later, Thoreau expressed this same thought: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school . . . it is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

Suffering might be a strong word to describe most our travails in love, in business, with our egos, with our urges, with our jerk of a neighbor who keeps stealing our parking space. But it turns out that this was exactly what philosophy can help with.

Whatever problem you’re facing right now, someone else probably already went through it. And their advice and wisdom comes down to us through philosophy. It was jotted down by slaves and poets and emperors and politicians and soldiers and ordinary men and women to help with their own problems and with the problems of their friends, family and followers. This wisdom is there, available to us.

Some of the best philosophers never wrote anything down–they just lived exemplary lives and provided an example which we can now learn from. That too, was philosophy. It was practical and it was applicable and it made life better.

In a humble continuation of that tradition, I’d like this post to serve as a quick introduction to the world of practical philosophy–philosophy you can actually read and use in your own life. I won’t pass along any of that academic stuff that Schopenhauer once dismissed as “fencing in the mirror.” I want to give you the opposite of what you probably experienced in college, which despite the good intentions of your professor, you understandably resented and immediately forgot. I’m also giving you only the original texts, all of which I promise are totally readable and will change your life.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditation is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made. It is the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his positions. Trained in stoic philosophy, Marcus stopped almost every night to practice a series of spiritual exercises–reminders designed to make him humble, patient, empathetic, generous, and strong in the face of whatever he was dealing with.

Well, now we have this book. It is imminently readable and perfectly accessible. You cannot read this book and not come away with a phrase or a line that will helpful to you next time you are in trouble. Read it, it is practical philosophy embodied. Letters from a Stoic

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Seneca, like Marcus, was also a powerful man in Rome. He was also a great writer and from the looks of it, a trusted friend who gave great advice to his friends. Much of that advice survives in the form of letters. Now we can read those letters and they can guide us through problems with grief, wealth, poverty, success, failure, education and so many other things. Seneca was a stoic as well, but like Marcus, he was practical and borrowed liberally from other schools. As he quipped to a friends, “I don’t care about the author if the line is good.” That is the ethos of practical philosophy–it doesn’t matter from whom or when it came from, what matters if it is helps you in your life, if only for a second. Reading Seneca will do that. (Other collections of his thoughts are great too: Penguin’s On the Shortness of Life is excellent.) The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus

The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus

A Syrian slave in the first century BC, Publius Syrus is a fountain of quick, helpful wisdom that you cannot help but recall and apply to your life.

“Rivers are easiest to cross at their source.”

“Want a great empire? Rule over yourself.”

“Divide the fire and you will sooner put it out.”

“Always shun that which makes you angry.”

Those are a few I remember off the top of my head. But all of them are good and worthy of re-reading in times of difficulty (or boredom or in preparation of a big event). Fragments by Heraclitus

Fragments by Heraclitus

This is as ephemeral as I am going to get. While most of the other practical philosophy recommendations I’m making are bent towards hard, practical advice, Heraclitus might seem a bit poetic. But those beautiful lines are really the same direct advice and timeless, perspective-changing observations as the others.

“Try in vain with empty talk / to separate the essences of things / and say how each thing truly is.”

“Applicants for wisdom / do what I have done: / inquire within.”

“Character is fate.”

“What eyes witness / ears believe on hearsay.”

“The crops are sold / for money spent on food.” Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man is sent to a concentration camp and finds some way for good to come of it. Finds some way to turn it into the ultimate metaphor for life: that we have little control over our circumstances, complete control over our attitude, and our ability to make meaning out of the things which happen to us.

In Frankl’s case, we are lucky that he was a brilliant psychologist and writer and managed to turn all this into one of the most important books of the 20th century. I think constantly of his line about the man who asks, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer is that you don’t get to ask the question. Life is the one who asks and we must reply with our actions. Essays by Montaigne

Essays by Montaigne

Montaigne was deeply influenced by some of the books I mentioned above. He was the epitome of Heraclitus’s line about “inquiring within.” So much so that he spent basically the entire second part of his life asking himself (and other people) all sorts of interesting questions and then exploring the answers in the form of short, provocative essays. (A favorite: Whether he was playing with his cat, or whether he was the toy to his cat). These essays are always good for a helpful thought or two–be it about death, about “other” people, about animals, about sex, or anything. Nature and Selected Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nature and Selected Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

While Montaigne’s essays are good for making us think, Emerson’s essays make us act. They remind us that we are ultimately responsible for our own life, for making ethical choices and for fulfilling our potential. I prefer Emerson to the more indolent Thoreau and because unlike most classic writers, he embodies that uniquely American drive and ambition (but in a healthy way). If you have not read Emerson, you should. If you have–and you remember fondly his reminders about recognizing our own genius in the work of others, or his reminders to experience the beauty of nature–that counts as philosophy. See how easy it is? Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer

Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer is another brilliant composer of quick thoughts that will help us with our problems. His work was often concerned with the “will”–our inner drives and power. “For that which is otherwise quite indigestible, all affliction, vexation, loss, grief, time alone digests.” But he also talks about surprisingly current issues: “Newspapers are the second hand of history”–and that the hand is often broken or malfunctioning. And of course, the timeless as well: “Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing for its probability.” The Essential Epicurus

The Essential Epicurus by Epicurus

First off, Epicurus’ philosophy has almost nothing to do with our definition of the word “Epicurean.” I mean look: “Live your life without attracting attention.” He who has the least need of tomorrow will most gladly greet tomorrow.” “It is better for you to be free of fear and lying on a bed of straw than to own a couch of gold and a lavish table and yet have no peace of mind.” Epicurus was a teacher and a philosopher, and very little of his work survives. But the fragments which do are humble, noble and mostly about avoiding needless fear and anxiety in life. Those are all good things are they not? Ironically, Epicurus also has another more “scientific” side to him and there are few essays which go into great depth about “atoms.” I mostly skip those and stick to the lessons on imperturbability and self-reliance. This classic essay on the life of Epicurus is also great.

Misc Biographies

This last thought will probably get me into a little trouble because I am veering off what is more directly considered “practical philosophy.” But I think I am on good ground here. For starters, Cato the Younger–considered one of the most influential stoics–never wrote anything down. He was a philosopher by action and so many people studied his “work” through biography and anecdote. This was a Roman tradition. For instance, Plutarch wrote many biographies of famous historical figures–from Demosthenes to Mark Antony–which function as philosophy and moral example. A few biographies worth picking up for their practical philosophic value: Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (Pat Tillman embodies the tragic hero). Titan: The Life of John D Rockefeller (unflappable, disciplined, ultimately generous and humble–there are a lot of good stories here). I mentioned Cato earlier–the most recent biography by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman is quite good. I like Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom as well as Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great (the modern business translation is most readable). I try to read at least one such biography a month, to get recommendations start here.


This list is by no means conclusive. Absent are many other great works of practical philosophy, and of course, other great works of theoretical and systemic philosophy. I’m not saying those are without value. I’m just saying that when most people wake up and try to make the most of their lives–or often, just struggle to get by–that’s not what they’re looking for.

They’re looking for help. Well, philosophy can be that help. Most of us are just suspicious because we wrongly associate it with long lectures or confusing translations. That’s a shame.

Because the works above have long been resources for people with all sorts of problems, from fighter pilots to kings to accountants to convicts to parents to athletes. In other words, unlike most of the big intimidating (usually German) philosophers whose names you cannot pronounce, this is philosophy for outside the classroom. Take it with you, use it, depend on it.

I’m sure some philosophy purists are going to object to my use of the books above and my characterization of some of their favorite thinkers. But I hope they understand that we have the same goal in mind: more people using philosophy as it was intended (improving lives).

I hope the rest of you find some solace, aid or inspiration in these recommendations. Those books changed my life and I hope they’ll change yours.

The post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

The Guilty, Crazy Secret That Helps Me Write

April 14, 2014 — 14 Comments

GEORGE: I can’t get it out of my head. I just keep singing it over and over. It just comes out. I have no control over it. I’m singing it on elevators, buses. I sing it in front of clients. It’s taking over my life.

JERRY: You know, Schumann went mad from that. He went crazy from one note. He couldn’t get it out of his head. I think it was an A. He kept repeating it over and over again. He had to be institutionalized.

GEORGE: Really? What if it doesn’t stop?

JERRY gestures “That’s the breaks.” – Seinfeld “The Jacket

I won’t say that I present the picture of mental health or anything, but most people would be surprised to find out I harbor a habit that hints at deep insanity.

I listen to the same song over and over again. Alone in my office, or on my iPod, or on my phone, I play them on repeat over and over and over again. Loudly.

In my iTunes library there are certain songs of an embarrassing nature that I have played more than 300 or 400 times in a row (that is a full 24 hours each). I’ve gone through so many computers over the last few years that I don’t have an accurate tally, but if I were to add them up, the numbers and the songs would seem preposterous, even to me. They are my version of the backyard shed, covered in incomprehensible gibberish in A Beautiful Mind, or the wall in Carrie Mathison’s apartment after a manic fit. And then I wake from my stupor and discard the songs like used condoms and pretend it never happened.

As a result, I no longer enjoy “music,” a fact that the 16-year-old version of myself–the one who was in a band and had hard drives full of rare music–would have found unthinkable. God knows, I never thought I’d find myself 142 listens in on a Taylor Swift song on a Tuesday morning.

But there is a method to the madness. I found that this secret habit has been the fuel for my creative output.

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See, part of writing–or really any creative endeavor from brainstorming to marketing–requires tuning everything out. There are a couple ways to do this. You have your noise canceling headphones or ambient noise machines. You can put your phone on “Airplane Mode” or tell everyone to leave you alone.

The problem with these reductive techniques is that they leave everything a little empty. In my experience, it’s not about quiet, it’s about finding your zone.

I think melodic music, played on repeat, puts you in a heightened emotional state–while simultaneously dulling your awareness to most of your surroundings. It puts you in a creative zone. The important facilities are turned on, while all the others are turned off.

Sometimes “good” songs can help you with that. But Bruce Springsteen only has so many songs that work for this (Try “I’m On Fire”). You exhaust them soon enough and have to start listening to songs on the Top 40. And you stop caring who wrote them–as long as it brings you closer to that state.

Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side, The Big Short) has spoken about this too. Writing a book–or really any major creative project–puts you in an “agitated mental state.” It’s hard to sleep, it’s hard to concentrate, it’s hard to be present in everyday. But you can’t afford that when you’re actually working. He fixes that by doing the following:

I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

You might ask, can you accomplish this by listening to music like a normal person? I would have thought so too, but the answer is no. Repeat on the same song or the same two or three songs allows the songs to fade into themselves–to become a more or less a continuous stream. The reason I gravitate towards radio singles is that they normally have big, catchy choruses. The idea is that after enough listens to song becomes a perpetual chorus.

Time stops. Distractions stop. Extraneous thinking stops. (Proof of which is the fact that you’re not bothered by the fact that the song is looping every three minutes and thirty seconds.)

All that’s left is the work at hand. All that’s left is that little voice inside your head that you’re attempting to hear and translate onto the page. All that’s left is the book or the paper you’re reading. All that’s left is problem you’re trying to crack when you go for a walk. All that’s left is the workout you’re trying to complete.

The bullshit–well, it disappears for a fleeting second.

Creative work isn’t about pleasure. It’s not always fun. It’s about reaching something inside yourself–something that society and everyday life make extraordinarily difficult. This is one way to do it.

The fact that it basically ruined music for me is a cost I am willing to pay. I’ll take my fix from anyone–and I’m not ashamed to say that I have. Even if that means I have to listen to the Black Eyed Peas or some other god-awful group.

Every writer (or painter or thinker or adman) finds their own way. This is mine. Maybe it will work for you. Or maybe you’ll try it and never look at me the same way again.

The post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

The Obstacle Is The Way: My New Book & A Bunch of Reading List Bonuses

April 3, 2014 — 24 Comments

I’ve waited to write this post since I was 19 years old. I’m coming to you, my readers—many of whom I’ve known since I started on this journey—to officially announce my book, The Obstacle Is The Way, and offer these amazing bonuses as a thank you for your support.

It started with a decision to really get into reading, which brought me to an old book (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations). That amazing book guided me to many other books (many we’ve read together) and eventually led to the creation of this book (which I am as proud of as I have been of anything I’ve ever done).

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all the connections I’ve made over the years with you. So let’s get to it.

The Book

The book is The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs. As all of you know, I’ve always been a student of Stoicism, a practical philosophy favored by influential Greek and Roman statesman and thinkers. I’ve long written about these things on my blog but never in a book. That changes now. This book isn’t about Stoicism, though. It’s a book about using the best parts of Stoicism to solve the actual problems that ambitious, hardworking people face. The premise of the book is based on a simple maxim by Marcus Aurelius:

“The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.”

From this maxim I’ve created a manual for overcoming obstacles and turning them into opportunities—illustrated with dozens of stories (many of which we read here first) from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs to George Clooney to Barack Obama to Laura Ingalls Wilder to Arthur Ashe to Demosthenes to Abraham Lincoln to Thomas Edison. It is a book that will become more valuable to you as you revisit it, using it when faced with the challenges we all face in life.

Here’s the blurb from Steven Pressfield (for more, read them here):

“Follow these precepts and you will revolutionize your life. Read this book!”
Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art and Gates of Fire

My Offer To You

Like last time, I want this book to reach people and make a difference. I also want it to be a bestseller and I’m asking for your help to do that. To make it worth your while, here’s the offer:

If you pre-order 1 copy of the book before May 1st, you’ll receive:

*1 supplementary PDF, “How I Wrote The Obstacle Is The Way”, which details the process that allowed me to write the book in three months, and how a chance encounter with Tim Ferriss and a trip to Rome helped me finish the manuscript.

*1 exclusive copy of “The Obstacle Is The Way Reading List”, which details all the books that led to me writing The Obstacle Is The Way.

*1 exclusive copy of my entire archive of Reading Recommendations, which includes every book I’ve recommended over the past four years. I’ve never compiled a full list of everything that’s ever been in the list before—it will be hundreds of handpicked books not available anywhere else.

Click here to pre-order 1 copy, then email your receipt to ryholiday@gmail.com with “Preorder #1″ in the subject.

If you pre-order 5 copies before May 1st, you’ll receive:

All of the above (PDF about the book, the reading list and an archive of the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve recommended) PLUS:

*1 private/confidential copy of my Mastery of Marketing Reading List (required books and articles) that I used to train myself and now each of my new employees.

*1 one-of-a-kind, original signed 4×6 notecard that I actually used while researching and writing this book. I’ll pick one at random, sign it, and mail it to you. You can use it as a bookmark, paste it inside your copy of the book, or put it on your wall.

*3 personalized book recommendations that I’ll select just for you. You tell me a little about what you like to read and I’ll personally pick out three of my favorite books that I think you should read and will love.

*1 invitation to a one hour private group Q&A webinar where I’ll answer questions live about The Obstacle Is The Way, my previous books, and anything else anyone asks.

Click here to pre-order 5 copies, then email your receipt, mailing address, and your reading interests to ryholiday@gmail.com with ”Preorder #2″ in the subject.

If you pre-order 15 copies of the book (to give to friends, family, colleagues) before May 1st (Limited to the first 50):

On top of all of the above, you will get a private 30 minute Get Unstuck one-on-one call with me. In this call, we can talk about whatever you’d like, whether its strategy, books, or obstacles. It will be your open forum. As you can see, I usually charge $1500 for an hour call like this—even more when I talk to companies and public figures. Because you guys have supported me and have been along for the ride over the years in the creation of this book, I wanted to give you a ton value for this release.

Click here to pre-order 15 copies, then email your receipt, mailing address, and your reading interests to ryholiday@gmail.com with ”Preorder #3″ in the subject. My assistant will email you to schedule our call together.

The Choose Your Own Bonus

Maybe you have a better idea for a bonus? Well, make me an offer of how many books you’d preorder for it (Hint: Start with more than 15). I’ve worked with billionaires, politicians, actors, artists, and musicians. I’ve written book proposals, created bestselling books, spoken at conferences all over the world, and lectured at world-renowned universities. All of that is on the table.

Want to work together? Want me to do a keynote for your company or conference? Advise your startup? Have a daylong personal consult? Let me know what you have in mind, I’d love to make something big happen. Put “Choose Your Own preorder” in the subject line and email ryholiday@gmail.com and I’d love to talk.

Pre-order 1 Copy, Get 3 PDFs
Pre-order 5 copies, Get 3 PDFs, plus a private/confidential copy of my Mastery of Marketing Reading List, a signed Commonplace Book notecard, 3 personalized reading recommendations, and a private invitation to an hour long webinar with me.
Pre-order 15 copies, Get all of the above plus a private 30 minute call with me

To get these bonuses, all you have to do is email ryholiday@gmail.com with the subject line preorder #1, #2, or #3 (depending on which one you choose), and a screenshot of your Amazon or B&N or other receipt. The PDFs and reading lists will all be sent in mid-April, possibly earlier if I decide not to batch them. My assistant will email you to schedule our call together.

You can buy the book anywhere, including through the following links:

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
iTunes
800  CEO Read
Indiebound
Books A Million

The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing And Using Everything You Read

April 1, 2014 — 28 Comments

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After the response to this recent LifeHacker piece, I thought I would explain the system I use to take notes, research books and keep track of anecdotes, stories and info I come across in my work.

This isn’t the perfect system. It might not work for you. All I can say is that since learning it about 7 years ago, it has totally transformed my process and drastically increased my creative output. It’s responsible for helping me publish three books in three years, (along with other books I’ve had the privilege of contributing to), write countless articles published in newspapers and websites, send out my reading recommendations every month, and make all sorts of other work and personal successes possible.

Now to be clear, this is not “my” notecard system. If anything, I use a perverted version of a system taught to me by the genius Robert Greene, when I was his research assistant. What he taught me was neat, clean and orderly. Mine is more of a mess. But it’s still be hugely helpful to me and I think I’m in a unique position to explain this method to people.

I hope it inspires your own method.

The System

-It’s difficult to describe this in any linear way so I am just going to do this in kind a brain dump way. By the end of it, I promise the system will make sense.

-If I have a thought, I write it down on a 4×6 notecard and identify it with a theme–or if I am working on a specific project, where it would fit in the project. For instance, as I was preparing for my next book, The Obstacle is The Way, I filled out thousands of these cards for ideas and concepts that I wanted included in the book. Some examples:

“Don’t be the slave of circumstance.” (intro)

“We know objectively that we learn from failure, yet we spend all our time trying to avoid it. Why?” (intro)

“Gaman–the Japanese word for endurance” (Persistence)

“Our actions our constrained, our will is not. We always decide whether we continue or not.” (Will)

“Ulysses S. Grant–incident at Mathew Brady’s studio where glass fell on him and he didn’t move. Also, where he ran toward the explosion at City Point. See: Simpson’s bio” (Nerve)

So those are the kinds of notes I write to myself. Either sentences in my own writing, words I like, questions I have, or examples I think might fit somewhere and want to learn more about.

-Most of the time, what I write down are quotes (I used to put them on a blog instead but it was too unwieldy). They’re either famous quotes or quotes from the writer that I think are smart. It’s very important that you mark quotes properly so you never risk forgetting to attribute. To make this extra clear, I always put a circle around the first quotation mark. If I am quoting someone quoting someone else, I’ll usually write “qtd in.”

-If it’s a really long story or example, I will just jot down a few notes on the key points and then put something like: “For a story about _________ see: pg 14 in [insert book].”

Here are some quotes from my Strategy cards:

“It is better to see once than hear a hundred times.” – Gorbachev

Retort: “You may not be afraid to have your hand cut off, but your body will suffer.” – John D. Rockefeller

“Politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax.” – Schopenhauer pg 77

“Pursuit should be to the last breath of man and beast.” – (Prussian Maxim qtd in Knights Cross)

“All men work more zealously against their enemies than they cooperate with their friends.” – Caesar qtd in Schiff’s Cleopatra pg 19

“Find them! Fix them! Fight them! Finish them!” – Gen. Ridgway/military slogan in Korean War. qtd in Savior Generals.

So those are the kinds of quotes I grab for one particular topic. Most of the quotes are longer than that, but space is constrained here in this post so I won’t rewrite the longer ones for you. For longer quotes, I will type them out and print them. Then I cut them out and tape them to a notecard.

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-I’ve talked about this before, but the key to this system is the ritual: Read a book or an article and diligently mark the passages and portions that stand out at you. If you have a thought, write it down on the page (this is called marginalia). Fold the bottom corner of the page where you’ve made a note or marked something (alternatively, use post-it flags).

-A few weeks after finishing the book, return to it and transfer those notes/thoughts on to the appropriate note cards. Why wait? Waiting helps you separate the wheat from the chaff. I promise that many of the pages you marked will not seem to important or noteworthy when you return to them. This is a good thing–it’s a form of editing.

-In the top right hand corner of each card, put a theme or category that this card belongs to. If a card can fit in multiple categories, just make a duplicate card. Robert uses color coded cards for an extra layer of organization.

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Some categories I currently use:

*Stoicism

*Life (General advice about life)

*The Narrative Fallacy (Something I’d like to write a book about one day)

*Strategy (Examples of strategic genius or wisdom)

*Post Ideas (Many cards here have been turned into articles you’ve read)

*Animals (Weird stories about animals. For instance, according to the book One Summer by Bill Bryson, the hotel that Babe Ruth lived in for most of his career had a live seal living in the lobby fountain)

*Trust Me, I’m Lying (Media manipulation)

*Writing (Wisdom about the craft)

*Education (Wisdom and ideas about learning)

*Misc (Naturally)

-As you compile cards and study different things, it’s not uncommon to organically begin coming across unexpected themes. This is how new categories are born.

-If you are working on a book project where there are a limited amount of themes or you know exactly what they are, it makes sense to introduce a shorthand. For instance, with my last book Growth Hacker Marketing, I had 6 themes that roughly corresponded with the chapters and structure of the book:

1) Intro

2) Growth Hacking

3) Product Market Fit

4) Growth Hacks

5) Virality

6) Optimization and Retention

(Misc)

-If anyone hassles me about my sloppy handwriting in the photos, I swear to god…

-Originally I would do one set of note cards for a whole book (numbering the cards 1,2,3,4,5 etc–but I found that limited my ability to move the pieces around because unrelated but important ideas were wrongly joined together.

-I think it’s important that the notes are not just about work. In mine, my two most important categories are “Life” (which is mostly advice for myself) and another called “Me”, where I put things that I think are important criticisms or places for improvement in my own life. (By that I mean stuff about dealing with parents, relationships, etc. Just little reminders that help.)

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Here are some cards from those sections:

“He’s detached about your pain, but God knows he takes his own pain more seriously than cancer… It finally dawned on me that my father, for all his protestations and lectures and writing about detachment, is a very, very needy man.” Margaret Salinger, qtd in Salinger pg 570 (Me)

These people don’t work hard enough for their opinions to matter to you. (Life)

“Just because you’re winning a game doesn’t mean it’s a good game.” Seth Godin, Icarus Deception (Life)

“Q: Ok, but what should I be most worried about here? A: Nothing should worry you” conversation with a friend (Me)

“Character is fate.” Heraclitus (Life)

“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.” – Taleb

Don’t pick fights with members of your own team. (Life)

“You know workmen by the chips they leave.” – Old saying (Life)

-Don’t stress about filling up whole cards. I have hundreds that just have a ONE or TWO words on them. These might be cool new words that I’ve never heard before, words I think have a lot of meaning in them, reminders about topics I want to mention.

-Helpful tip: If you end up using the back of the card (I do it fairly often), put an arrow on the front side. Sometimes when you’re flipping through them, you miss the fact that there is text on the back.

-Get in the habit. If you have an idea, put it on a damn card. If you don’t, you’ll regret it. I can’t tell you how many times I saved my ass writing down a title idea or a thought, I otherwise would have forgotten. It’s a good thing when your own cards surprise you.

-When I go back through the cards, I’ll often remember other things from more recent reading or thinking and add to them. This is why, if you went through all mine, you’d see different colors of ink on the same card.

Other People Who Use This

-I want to be clear that I’m not the one who invented this. I didn’t even perfect it. I’m just explaining it because people asked.

-Here’s Robert explaining his system in an interview with Andrew Warner at Mixergy (he shows one of his boxes on camera if you feel like looking):

I read a book and I take, as I’m reading it, I underline it and put notes on the side and then I go back and put them on notecards. And I can gauge a good book will generate 20 to 31 notecards. A bad book will generate two or three notecards and I will find themes in this book and I will take a book that’s maybe not organized very well and I will do the organizing. On page 30 you talk about this and you talk about it on page 180, you should have put those two together but I’m going to put those two together. And I find the themes in there and I break the book down into the gist of it, the heart of it.

And, I categorize it later as I move into the process, I see these themes and patterns that you were talking about that an apprenticeship, creativity, working with a mentor, social intelligence. Slowly the chapters come to life and I’m now able to organize it in various chapters. Each part has the title of the book on it and is color coded, having different colors of cards, depending on the kind of subject that I’m dealing with. If it’s the arts, science, politics, etc. It’s elaborate. You don’t want to know everything about it, but with this there now, if I’ve done all that work and I sit down to write, I have at my fingertips, all of this. If I want to do Leonardo da Vinci, I have 50 notecards that break him down from every possible angle. I can now, with that, write in a much fuller, deeper, dimensional way because I’ve taken all this information and I’ve organized it.

-Someone also asked him about it in his Reddit AMA. Here is that exchange with some info about the color coding:

user: Robert, I’m a big fan of yours. In one interview you mentioned your research method for your books (with index cards and shoe boxes). Could you provide some more detail on the process of your method?

[–]robertgreene I read a book, very carefully, writing on the margins with all kinds of notes. A few weeks later I return to the book, and transfer my scribbles on to note cards each card representing an important theme in the book. For instance, in Mastery, the theme of mirror neurons. After going through several dozen books, I might have three hundred cards, and from those cards I see patterns and themes that coalesce into hardcore chapters. I can then thumb through the cards and move them around at will. For many reasons I find this an incredible way to shape a book.

user: Ah–found it! Still curious about the colors, but I guess the obvious answer is that they would represent categories, topics, and the like. :)

[–]robertgreene The colors represent categories, you are correct. So, for instance, with the War book, blue cards would be about politics, yellow strictly war, green the arts and entertainment, pink cards on strategy, etc. I could use this in several ways. I could glance at the cards for one chapter and see no blue or green cards and realize a problem. I could also take out all the cards of one color to see which story I liked best, etc. It also made the shoebox look pretty cool.

user: That’s ingenious–so you’ve effectively created a relational database in a shoebox, because you can have many to many relationships between card colors and chapters. Your passion for organization is one of the (many) things that makes your work so incredibly fun to read and reference. Thank you for sharing some of that with us.

-It looks like the system is also very similar to Luhmann’s Zettelkasten. Though again, his discipline seems to exceed mine because I am a lot less ordered.

-Ronald Reagan also kept a similar system that apparently very few people knew about until he died. In his system, he used 3×5 notecards and kept them in a photo binder by theme. These note cards–which were mostly filled with quotes–have actually been turned into a book edited by the historian Douglas Brinkley. These were not only responsible for many of his speeches as president, but before office Reagan delivered hundreds of talks as part of his role at General Electric. There are about 50 years of practical wisdom in these cards. Far more than anything I’ve assembled–whatever you think of the guy. I highly recommend at least looking at it.

-It’s not totally dissimilar to the Dewey Decimal system and old library card catalogs.

-I’m sure there are other awesome people who use a similar system. If anyone has examples, send away!

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FAQ

What do you use these note cards for? Whatever I want! Recently I started tweeting quotes that I had taken note of. But that’s just a little thing. I use these notecards for my life. When I have a problem, I flip through them. When I am looking for material in my writing, I use them. For instance, I wrote this post exclusively off my notecards (if you couldn’t tell).

How do you know what to write down? You just write down whatever you want. Don’t stress about it. This is your system. We all have our own preferences. Personally, I look for actionable, small sized chunks.

Where do you put the cards? I have one big box that I used that’s actually meant for photos. It’s called a Cropper Hopper. But it took me a long time to acquire enough cards to need that. Before, I used the smallerVaultz 4×6 Index Card File boxes. There are also cheaper cardboard versions out there.

What do you do when a box gets full? If I am taking notes for a specific project, like a book, I give it it’s own box. For instance, my Cash Money book is just about at the stage where it can fill up a Vaultz box. After another hundred or so notecards, I’ll move it into it’s own Cropper Hopper.

Wouldn’t digital be easier? Yes. But I don’t want this to be easy. Writing them down by hand forces me to take my time and to go over everything again (taking notes on a Kindle is too easy and that’s the problem). Also being able to physically arrange stuff is crucial for getting the structure of your book or project right. I can move cards from one category to another. As I shuffle through the cards, I bump into stuff I had forgotten about, etc.

Isn’t it hard to carry around? Yeah, a little. But so what? It pays off so it’s worth it. Joking aside, what I tend to do is just take the section I am working on with me. If I am working on chapter 2–I take those cards. If I am writing a post about education, I’ll take the education cards with me. Very rarely do I find that I need the whole thing with me.

How do you remember it all? That’s why doing it physically is so important. I am invested in each one of these cards. I made them and arranged them with my own hands. This tactile relationship helps. As one reader put it, it helps make a “memory palace.” I don’t vaguely remember what I put on the note cards, but where I put it, what it’s connected to, what’s around it, when I did it, etc.

Do you review the cards? Absolutely. If I am lacking inspiration or just kicking something new off, I always try to flip back through them. It doesn’t have to be all of them either. Just grab a few. Another example: When I wrote the new foreword for Trust Me I’m Lying, I started by going back through the cards. When I starting prepping the paperback of Growth Hacker Marketing (out in 2014), I went through the cards and was able to find a place for some that I hadn’t used the first time.

But wouldn’t Evernote be better? Maybe for you but not for me. If that’s what you want to use then go for it. But I think there is something irreplaceable about the physical aspect. Physical books, physical notecards, that’s the best in my opinion.

What if something happened to your box? My house recently got robbed and I was so fucking terrified that someone took it, you have no idea. Thankfully they didn’t. I am actually thinking of using TaskRabbit to have someone create a digital backup. In the meantime, these boxes are what I’m running back into a fire for to pull out (in fact, I sometimes keep them in a fireproof safe).

Remember there is no right and wrong way to do this. The system that I have was taught to me by someone and I made my own modifications. His way works best for him, and I have a way that works better for me.

Make your own way. But I think you’ll love this system.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

8 Simple Rules To Live By From The World’s Greatest Deep Sea Diver

March 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Before he became arguably the greatest deep sea diver who ever lived, John Chatteron was a medic in Vietnam. What he saw there, as men died around him and as he was continually sent out into the jungle on essentially pointless missions in a probably unjustifiable war, were glimpses into deepest recesses of humanity.

What came from this were rules—certain heuristics for how to live, how to fight, how to escape death, how to face death, how to help others and how to be prepared for just about anything.

What he learned in Vietnam—not as a soldier, but as a medic whose job it was to save lives and not take them—guided Chatteron much later in life when he faced even more unimaginable stressors and trouble. He turned to them when he found himself in the water, diving just feet from the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, when he was one of the first to dive the wrecks of the Lusitania, the Britannic and the Titanic. You can imagine that he turned to them when he became stuck inside a lost German U-Boat off the coast of New Jersey, and you can be damn sure he thought of it when he was later diagnosed with cancer (likely due to his exposure to Agent Orange).

You see, it’s often in times of deep shit that we discover truths about life. It’s when we realize that cliches and common sense and passed along wisdom are usually right and common for a reason. We can lean on them because they can support our weight.

John Chatterton’s rules deserve to be thought of in that league.

Here they are, adopted from the classic book, Shadow Divers.

— If an undertaking was easy, someone else already would have done it.

— If you follow in another’s footsteps, you miss the problems really worth solving.

— Excellence is born of preparation, dedication, focus, and tenacity; compromise on any of these and you become average.

— Every so often, life presents a great moment of decision, an intersection at which a man must decide to stop or go; a person lives with these decisions forever.

— Examine everything; not all is as it seems or as people tell you.

—It is easiest to live with a decision if it is based on an earnest sense of right and wrong.

— The guy who gets killed is often the guy who got nervous. The guy who doesn’t care anymore, who has said, “I’m already dead—the fact that I live or die is irrelevant and the only thing that matters is the accounting I give of myself,” is the most formidable force in the world.

—The worst possible decision is to give up.

These are literally battle hardened principles. They are rules for how to live not from some university professor but from someone who saw what life truly is—both good and bad, violent and peaceful, beautiful and terrifying.

They’ve been tested 200+ feet below sea level and in helicopters under fire in South Vietnam. I think it’s safe to say they may be of some value to you today, wherever you happen to be and whatever you happen to be doing.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.