All the World's a Classroom
Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of timelines. Timelines are a great visualization technique to see a “slice” of history–what events take place at the same time in different places? This time, my subject of choice is the U.S. Presidential Timeline.
As an immigrant who did not grow up in the U.S., and someone who pursues a STEM education through and through, it so happens that I have never studied American History in a classroom setting. But ever since I became a permanent–as opposed to alien–resident, and now have given birth to an American, my interest in this nation’s history has increasingly grown. It’s hard to fully engage and understand today’s sociopolitical and cultural conversations without proper background, something like walking into somebody else’s conversation, and the American conversation is often rapt with historical jargon.
Everything I’ve learned about American History is self-taught, from reading, watching, listening, basically consuming all kinds of media. Thanks to my friend, Amy, my current obsession is binge-listening to the Presidential podcast by Lilian Cunningham of the Washington Post. It’s a great first pass of the last 241 years of history. I’ve thought about reading one of each U.S. President’s biographies–sounds like a great education–but since they’re typically 1000 pages apiece, this will be slow going. (Anyone else interested? Let’s form a support group, maybe? By the way, the Presidential podcast has a great reading list here.)
In any case, it’s hard for me not to see data whenever I delve into history. I have a long term project of synthesizing everything I read into a big giant timeline, to gain perspective of how things relate, or don’t, across the globe. For the U.S., this is the start.
U.S. Presidential Timeline
(Click image to enlarge)
This U.S. Presidential Timeline has both each President’s lifespan and their presidency. The trivia masters among you can probably spit out the-most facts of presidential history, like the shortest presidency, the longest, the youngest to take office, the oldest, who died in office, etc. For the rest of us, maybe we can turn this timeline into a game.
One thing that jumps out to me though is the gaps in the Presidents’ ages between before and after Eisenhower, and before and after George H. W. Bush. It seems like the presidency skips a generation born circa early 1900s and 1930s (WWI and WWII? Is this real?). Internet, please enlighten me.
What do you observe from this timeline? Comment with your interesting observations!
As usual, if you’re interested in the source file for this timeline, let me know! There are more details there than displayed here.
It’s time for the mid-year highlights of the best reads of 2017! I’ve been having an especially voracious appetite for reading this year. Since I no longer have to commute to work, the amount of reading time in my life has multiplied. You can view the complete list of the books I’ve read in 2017 and 2016 below. Click here for Part 2 of this list.
These are my best picks from this year’s list:
This was the first book I finished in 2017. It is both hilarious and insightful. Trevor Noah, a comedian from South Africa, is a brilliant storyteller. Noah was born during apartheid, and grew up in the complex post-apartheid South Africa. His life stories are out of this world. If you can, I would recommend listening to the audiobook version. He narrates it himself, which is awesome, since he speaks many languages and does accents very well. You’ll get the full characterization of the people he mentions in the book.
Blog posts inspired by the book:
This concise and poignant volume is a critical view of modern society and its isolation. Junger elucidates the power and importance of living in communities, most of which is lost in our typically individualistic lives.
Blog post inspired by the book:
Homegoing is a beautiful novel that traces the lineage of two half-sisters, spanning about 300 years of Ghanaian and American history. Through the story of this split family, we are carried along through history, seeing the impact and legacy of colonization and slavery to individuals, families, and societies. Incredible work of fiction.
Blog post inspired by the book:
4. Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss
This is the mother book of all business and self-help books. Lots of inspiring quotes and life hacks from top performers of all fields.
If you’re into science-fiction, this is a fantastic collection of short stories. One of these stories became the basis of the acclaimed movie Arrival, starring Amy Adams. It’s great writing, combined with provoking exploration on how humanity would behave in alternate realities.
A book by a great storyteller, on a great friendship story between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israeli psychologists whose work on the mind’s judgment-making processes have influenced probably everything in modern psychology. Kahneman is the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of my all time favorite books, where he describes the key conclusions of his and Tversky’s work. The Undoing Project is the behind-the-scenes story on how the research and collaboration took place between these two great minds.
I read several of Adichie’s books this year and though I enjoyed all of them, I especially appreciated Purple Hibiscus. She portrays the inner life of the novel’s protagonist–a teenage daughter of a deeply religious and abusive man–and her complex relationship with her family very powerfully.
For a book about death, this book is a surprisingly delightful read. Doughty works in the death industry and takes us through her reflections–both humorous and serious ones–as she learns about her work in a crematory. It has just enough irreverence to be funny, but it also poses deeper questions about how modern society handles death and the dead.
Other best books lists
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There’s a satisfaction that comes from crossing off many items from a to-do list that each only requires 15 minutes or less. But there’s also a type of satisfaction that will never come from just crossing off 15-minute items.
The latter type of satisfaction is the one that you get after doing deep work, a work that takes long incubation and construction time, that squeezes your brain until it is fried, that produces something big, whose process seems like childbirth.
Often, the adult life is filled with scattered type activities. Chores, bills, errands. They are short-term activities that never end. It takes a different kind of endurance to do these activities.
But even in artistic endeavors, with the pressure to be visible and noticed throughout social media these days, tend to be quick work at the expense of depth.
Yet, it’s still so satisfying when you read a lengthy investigative journalistic piece, or listen to a story that you know have been crafted for a very long time, with much thought and intention, research and revisions. These are examples of deep work, a type of work that chisels a piece of your soul and you’ll never be the same again as a result of producing it.
Quantity Produces Quality
I tend to believe in a proportionality rule. Things that develop over time don’t disappear over time. Things that get done quickly tend to get forgotten quickly too. And it’s not just the total amount of time required to complete the work, it’s also the amount of time put in for any given work session. There are thoughts you will never get to unless you spend two, three, four contiguous hours thinking about the work.
Which is a problem in today’s distracted world. There are a plethora of things that demand our micro-attention constantly, and it takes immense discipline to switch off and focus about one thing for a long time. The trade is this: what is the opportunity cost of being distracted? It’s that valuable work that would otherwise be produced if we were not distracted.
I remember the first time I transitioned into an 8-hour work day schedule. At first, it was so boring to sit in one place for 8 hours, waiting for that 5 o’clock to come. To pass the time, I checked Facebook, browsed the world wide web, switching between work and distractions to help pass the time, or so I thought.
But then I tried another experiment, which was to block off all distractions for that 8-hour time period and just work. Incredibly, by doing this, I was able to get into another level of focus that made work even more interesting. I got into the zone. More questions emerged. The brain was working, plugged into another gear, and time ceased to be felt. The 8-hour passed by so much quicker, and none of it was boring.
Getting Over the Dip
To get to a state of flow in deep work takes some initiation effort. There’s a dip that we all have to get over–where most people abandon their efforts–to get to the other side. It’s not easy, and sometimes laziness prevails. But past this threshold, there’s something valuable, a combination of our own creativity and individuality, a contribution that only we can make.
The labor of producing something good will be painful in some degree. But it’s always worth it.
A book that I want to read on the subject of deep work is Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.