The little book of ass-kicking

“Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be” by Steven Pressfield

This is a fun little book about grit, about the drive and passion to pursue our goals.

As the title suggests, we need to put our ass where our heart wants to be. And this includes packing up everything and move our ass to the epicenter of what we want to do. Want to be a country singer? Move to Nashville. Want to be a Broadway actor? Move to New York. Not only that we will be present in the environment, but there’s where the peers and mentors are residing, as well as the opportunities.

“Magic happens when we put our ass in the same space with other dreamers that already put their asses there” says Pressfield, “these are our peers.”

He gives a delightful list of examples for this, from Hemingway in Paris trading writing tips with other writers, John Lennon in London sharing stages with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, Arnold Schwarzenegger moving from Austria to California to chase his Hollywood dream, none of whom would be as successful had they stay at their respective homes.

Now of course “being there” could also means being presence in the state or mind or even virtually, but it doesn’t matter whether we’re there physically or mentally, once our ass is there we have to work our ass off, so to speak. That’s where the part of “never take no for an answer” comes, taking one rejection after another without losing our optimism and spirit, while still giving our all to the process.

In fact, Pressfield argues that self reinforcement is a character trait that is more important than talent, as there are plenty of talented people who didn’t succeed because they have given up halfway the battle.

The book has the feel of what Enchiridion did for Stoicism, it’s the very essence of Steven Pressfield’s philosophy (i.e. the War of Art) re-written to accommodate and elaborate one specific part (the ass kicking part). And it’s so pleasant to read, where we can just feel that the author also enjoyed writing it.

An interesting life of a mischievous genius

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character” by Richard P. Feynman

This is a fun and witty memoir by an immensely curious person that sees life from a child’s adventurous eyes. It is filled with crazy self-experiments to answer his queries, from many physics problems, to animal behaviour, unlocking the Mayan codex, debunking a “mind reader”, performing magic himself, how to smell people like dogs do, his weird obsession in breaking a safe, experimenting with mysticism and hallucination, to the more serious matters such as the Manhattan Project that he was a part of.

Throughout the book Richard Feynman seems to be able to demonstrate a quick understanding of anything he’s focusing on at that time, and he can then makes the complicated things into more simplistic and efficient. He also shows a consistent display of integrity as the fundamental part of his carefree attitude, that he can live life without burden because he’s always honest and never breaks his values. In fact, if there’s something out of line and conflicting with his values, he will just quit (like what happened in his role in approving physics textbook for schools).

And if there’s only one key lesson that we can take away from his life, it is this: to never take data at face value, even opinions by the many experts, and instead question everything and test it yourself. And more often than not he defies the common consensus and prevailes as the logical winner. That’s why he stands out from the rest of the pack and can create so many breakthroughs.

While he is undoubtedly one of the greatest physics minds that have ever lived, and a solid role model for living with integrity, the appeal of the book is actually not the achievements of Feynman. But instead, it is his lighter human side that makes it so enjoyable to read. He hanged out in Vegas to learn about gambling, learned to pick up women in a strip bar in Arizona, volunteered to work for the army, self-taught himself engineering, went to Brazil and join a bongo group and performed with them at a carnival, how he ended having his name on a patent for a nuclear-powered rocket propelled airplanes, that one time he almost got beaten up in a bar in Buffalo, picking up a hobby of nude drawing, failing a mental health test, and the list goes on.

It is quite surprising to find the genius man – who won the Nobel Prize in physics and rub elbows with the likes of Einstein, Bohr and Oppenheimer – is such a goofy character enjoying his curious life. I especially love the way he dismisses the Nobel Prize as something menial and unimportant (he even considered refusing the award) and looks more enthusiastic on, for example, the way the Watusi tribe in Belgium Congo play their drums. And this it what makes this scrappy diary a truly entertaining one.

A crucial read to understand modern China

“The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers” by Richard McGregor

Richard McGregor is the bureau chief for the Financial Times in Washington DC. But a lifetime ago he was once its China bureau chief, where he has reported from north Asia for nearly 2 decades and had a unique first-hand access and experience in one of the world’s most mysterious countries.

And decades of reporting and building network there have culminated in the writing of this book, a some kind of behind the scene account of the secret world of China’s communist rulers. And it is an eye opener.

The book shows how the Communist Party creeps into every fabric of Chinese society, it provides the structure and the personnels of the Party, the politics inside the Party, the business environment in the country, the delicate balance between profitable enterprise and meeting the Party’s political objective, its long and bloodied history (including the dark days of the famine that killed 35 million people), and the ever present cult-like worship of Mao Zedong.

The book also confirms some of the well known allegations towards the Party. Such as heavy censorship over its dark past, the omitted names and events from record, the massive cover up over things that are happening (such as the denial of SARS epidemic before a foreign media blow it up), the nasty treatment over outspoken journalists or whistleblowers, how the propaganda department controls the media, even the proof of half-truths or blatant lies published by the Party to eliminate competing narratives.

It also addresses the deep corruption inside the Party, and the ironic inequalities where a contrast of extreme poverty and mega riches exist inside the supposedly socialist country.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the name dropping of some of the lesser known personnels of the Party, but equally as instrumental as Deng Xiaoping in being the architects of modern China. Names such as Chen Yun (long-serving economic planner), Chen Yuan (the man behind China inc’s move into Africa), Zhu Rongji (the corruption eradicator who was indispensable in China’s overhaul of the banking system and its entry to the WTO), as well as the oppositions such as He Weifang (the idealist university professor) and Yang Jisheng (a journalist critical towards the Party).

All in all, the book is so well written as an exposé it astonishes me how McGregor can possibly published it without getting into any trouble. But he’s still alive and free, and get to tell the truth about the Party to the world. A crucial read to really understand the puzzle piece of modern China.

The exciting life of the nicest rock legend

“The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music” by Dave Grohl

This is quite possibly the most intriguing autobiography that I’ve ever read. It tells the tale of Dave Grohl’s life, from childhood to 1/3rd of Nirvana to the lead singer of Foo Fighters, and many more in between, including trips to the ER, cramped vans, freakin ghosts, his beautiful relationship with his mom, the KFC-champagne pairing, fatherhood and the many star-studded cameo appearances in his life.

The memoir really does matches Dave’s very likable personality and his maestro-like ability in mashing up words together to create an art. It’s amusing, weirdly wise, and funny as hell. It’s like the cherry on top of an already delicious – 16-time Grammy-winning – cake.

And the audible version, with Dave himself as the comical narrator, makes the book even harder to put down once you begin reading/listening to it (with all the attempts of Swedish accent or the poorly disguise references to obvious songs to avoid paying licensing free, the audible version provides even more hilarious edge).

Now, I’m not going to spoil out anything more, because the strengths of the book are in the stories, the plot twists, the jokes, and the poetic way that it is written. But let me just share 2 of the examples:

Dave on his goal to grow old until he looks worn out and don’t give a fuck anymore about his appearance: “Not everything needs a shine, after all. If you leave a Pelham Blue Gibson Trini Lopez guitar in the case for fifty years, it will look like it was just delivered from the factory. But if you take it in your hands, show it to the sun, let it breathe, sweat on it, and fucking PLAY it, over time the finish will turn a unique shade. And each instrument ages entirely differently. To me, that is beauty. Not the gleam of prefabricated perfection, but the road-worn beauty of individuality, time, and wisdom.”

And a glimpse of the kind of poetic jokes that are scattered throughout the book: “Like a weepy Hallmark moment, the kind those hyperemotional Super Bowl commercials are made of (the ones that would leave even the hardest monster truck enthusiast crying in their buffalo chicken dip), this is a memory that I will cherish forever.”

How efficiency can create an abundance of free time

“The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss is where it all started for me, the concierge of knowledge. One day I began reading Tools of Titans and it led me to his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, the first podcast I’ve ever listened to. And now few years later all the podcasts and book recommendations that began from Ferriss and his guests have contributed into a healthier, happier, and more mindful lifestyle for me.

Along the way, I read the Tools of Titans twice, read Tribe of Mentors, listened to a shitload of his podcast episodes, listened to many more podcasts that interviewed him (the one on Cal Fussman’s podcast is my favourite), and I of course subscribed to his 5-bullet Friday. But I’ve never read this book yet, the OG of Tim Ferriss’ philosophy. Until now.

As Ferriss himself admitted in one of his many interviews, he has since evolved away from some of the ideas in this book. He said that some points even become irrelevant and obnoxiously wrong (although for the life of me, I cannot tell which ones).

But still, it’s the last (or to be exact, first) piece to complete Ferriss’ jigsaw puzzle of philosophy. It provides the big picture on everything that he believes in and his tools and methods to do them. Funny how his first book is the last one that I read but somehow can neatly summarized everything that he’s been doing for so many years. Now that’s consistency.

So what’s the book really about? In a sentence: eliminate, simplify, automate, and delegate.

It is a fun, weird, witty and very informative book, written in an unmissable Tim Ferriss signature approach: having out-of-the-box hypotheses, test them himself (the ultimate human guinea pig), and then he provides us with references for links, types of gadgets or devices used, and many other list of stuffs that work out.

The book is also full of tips and tricks with plenty of real-life stories and case studies, to assist us in so many things in life – from minimalism, to organising our day, to building a business – in a pretty detailed manner that makes the book a true guidebook for a lot of practical things.

But it is not one of those “get rich quick and retire young” kind of scam, as the title of the book might implies. But instead, it’s about making our work efficient and automated in order to free up time for us to pursue other things, such as our bucket list or simply to live a relaxed life. This, is the core premise (or the goal) of the book.

Indeed, contrary to most personal finance books, the goal of this book is not necessarily to get rich monetarily. As Ferriss remarks, “Gold is getting old. The New Rich (NR) are those who abandon the deferred-life plan and create luxury lifestyles in the present using the currency of the New Rich: time and mobility.” That’s right, the goal is instead to have an abundance amount of the most precious commodity: time.

One of the ideas that Ferriss advocates is to have “mini retirements” spread out over our lifetime, rather than having a big finale at the end of our lives (when we’re already old and not in our prime physical years) or to retire young (which is an unrealistic option for a lot of people). And as Ferriss shows in the book, mini retirements doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, and we can still do it while still functioning and doing an efficient work.

Another idea that stands out from the book is the way Ferriss approaches any goal in low-risk attainable steps. For example, we can micro testing our product before launching to get the immediate feedback, or borrowing the puppy before we committed to adopt, or postponing our education rather than dropping out entirely (or the work equivalent for it) so that if things don’t work out we can always go back.

Because “Reality is negotiable” explains Ferriss, and “Outside of science and law, all rules can be bent or broken, and it doesn’t require being unethical.” And the book has this stretching feel about negotiating reality out of the usual norm.

The funny thing is, the book looks like a perfect precursor before the pandemic, because it is exactly what eventually happens to a lot of people, especially for the remote office thing. Had I read this earlier, I would’ve been skeptical of the feasibility of the ideas in this book. But as it turns out, it is proven to be effective during the pandemic and the ideas in the book are working out very well in this era of new normal.

Inside the mind of a guru

“The Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda

This is a rare book about life as a guru, from the first-person vantage point in a form of an autobiography. It tells the tale of Paramahansa Yogananda’s life, from childhood, to his apprenticeship, his many teachers, to becoming a monk of the Swami order, to eventually establishing his own teaching of Kriya Yoga meditation.

The book is raw and unfiltered, which is part of the appeal as well as the downside. Here we can see clearly the honest human side of an often deified guru, the everyday scenes at the ashram, even some mystical aspects that will render us with disbelieve. But sometimes the rawness of the stories can be a little bit bland and uneventful.

But nevertheless, through the pages and the many stories, The Master shares the wonders that he saw and the wisdom that he gained, where he emphasizes a life of self-respect, self-realisation, calmness, mindfulness, the power of intiatives, frugality and minimalism, even a simple diet and the importance of exercise.

But most importantly, as the master of Kriya Yoga, Yogananda provides an in depth explanation about the practice, including the science part and the astral system behind it. And perhaps also important for the American readers was the 15 years that Yogananda spent in the US to be one of the firsts (or indeed the pioneer) that teaches people about spiritualism and Yoga.

It is no wonder that it becomes Steve Jobs’ favourite spiritual book, which he read over and over again many times. And it is said that before he passed away Steve Jobs requested that this sole book to be handed out to those who attended his funeral. Because at the end of the day, after we strip out all the worldly material things, all we have left is arguably the most important aspect of our lives: our spirituality.

Why The Satanic Verses is so controversial?

“The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie

On 12 August 2022 Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage, stabbed multiple times that left him wounded including on the right side of his neck where he lost a lot of blood.

The attack is still related to this 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which became controversial because of the blasphemous nature towards Islam.

But what exactly is the blasphemy?

According to a theory that the likes of Rushdie believe, The Satanic Verses is a reference to a few lines that were said to be temporarily included in the Qur’an by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that mentions about Al-Lat, Al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt, which, according to the pagan religion that existed in Mecca before the spread of Islam, are the daughters of Allah.

The theory suggest that the lines acknowledge the existence, worship, and worthiness of these three goddesses, and it went like this: “Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzzá. And Manāt, the third, the other?”

Eventually, however, according to the theory the Prophet (PBUH) informed the Islamic community that these specific verses did not come from Allah through the angel Gabriel, but deceptively whispered by Satan (hence, the satanic verses). And thus the verses were said to be omitted from the Qur’an, never made it into the hadith compilation, and erased from history (due to its false idolatry nature).

So, what did Salman Rushdie wrote in the novel that becomes so controversial?

The controversy is centred at the disrespectful portrayal of a character “inspired by” the Prophet (PBUH). Starting with the choice of name, Mahound, that was used in the past by medieval Christian writers in a derogatory tone to depict the Prophet (PBUH) as a demon who inspired a false religion. In addition, the exact age, vocation, family situation, even the physical description of Mahound is also identical with the Prophet’s (PBUH).

Furthermore, in the novel Mahound is portrayed as a deceitful person with self interest (unlike the real Prophet), who, for example, casts doubt on the divine nature of the Qur’an, and misattributes certain actual passages in the Qur’an that puts men “in charge” of women and gives them the “right” to strike wives, thus indirectly attempted to portray the Prophet as sexist (Sure, plenty of hardliners are doing it, but not the Prophet).

The novel itself is nothing like I’ve seen before. It paints a multi-layered picture on life, magic, and spirituality, with multiple narrations occurring through dream sequences that centers around 2 main characters that fall from a plane crash but miraculously survived. But then one character (Gibreel Farishta) turned into an angel, while the other (Saladin Chamcha) turned into a devil.

What comes afterwards are bizarre sub-plots in a form of those dream sequences. While some sub-plots tell the love triangles and ordinary human interactions between the characters, others are notable for their stance that made the book so controversial.

For example, one sub-plot seems to attempt to re-write the history of early days of Islam. It briefly mentions about the story of Siti Hagar (PBUH) and the zamzam water, but most significantly it describes the life of the character Mahound in 7th century Jahilia (Rushdie’s name for Mecca) that includes the debatable satanic verses incident, where in the attempt to escape persecution Mahound publicly acknowledges the existence of Allah’s daughters, but later after safety he declared that the revelation came from Satan and not God through the angel Gabriel (while according to Rushdie the revelation did come from Gabriel, thus portraying Mahound as a deceptive character and questioning the tenet of his “Submission” community – aka Islam – as a monotheistic religion).

Another sub-plot attempts to re-write the history of the incident where the Prophet (PBUH) and his followers came back to take control of Mecca without a bloodshed, but in Rushdie’s version the character Mahound became a vengeful dictator that ruled Jahilia with heavy self-interest.

Another notable sub-plot depicts a character that was sitting in exile and received a revelation from an angel (aka Farishta himself) to fight the goddess Al-Lat (one of Allah’s daughters) in the battle to control Desh (an analogy for Iran). The character resemblance the real-life Ayatollah Khomeini, which is why the Ayatollah then issued a fatwa to kill Rushdie (not necessarily because of Rushdie’s depiction of Islam, but could be because of the depiction of him), which FYI goes against the real teachings of Islam.

So, is the book worth the risk of controversies, anger, and even decades worth of death threats for Rushdie, not to mention several failed marriages that may or may not caused by the threats?

The theme of the book appears to be based around Rushdie’s own background as an Indian-born British citizen to a Muslim Kashmiri family, which could be a clue on the tone of victim of racism (of the Indian characters, by the British) and his biased view towards Islam.

Moreover, although there’s no record of Rushdie’s falling out with his liberal Islam upbringing, he self-proclaimed himself as a “hardliner atheist” that would put him in the same category as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, rather than Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders. In other words, more pretentious intellectual snob looking down on “organised religion” than someone who had a traumatic personal experience which turned them into a “free speech” warrior.

But at the end of the day, freedom of speech is one thing but the book doesn’t look to be an attempt for a healthy scholarly religious debate, but instead it is a thinly veiled attack on an entire religion’s history that emboldens its false negative stereotypes, which reflects the author’s atheist hardliner way of thinking. Because Salman Rushdie studied history at the University of Cambridge, so any historical inaccuracies are not the result of ignorance or lack of research. He knows exactly what he’s writing about.

And speaking of historical inaccuracies and lack of research, the so-called “Satanic Verses” actually still exist in the Qur’an, in Surah 53:19-20, and if you read on to verse 21-23 you’ll see clearly that they are a part of a longer sentence that addresses the false idolatry nature. Again, Rushdie knows exactly what he’s writing about.

Now, of course any attacks on him are not justifiable, but I understand the anger. Just like I don’t agree with what Rushdie is trying to portray, but from looking at his background I also understand why he did it. We don’t need to like it (or choose a side, for that matter) in order to understand it. Funny what one book can do to someone’s life.

But objectively and purely from a reader’s point of view, like I said the big picture of the story is a bit out of the box and nothing like I’ve encountered before, with a plot line that could even become an interesting movie (although it can do without the insults). But as a book, the writing style is generally painful to follow, and in need of a further editing (and not even for the content, but for the structure and poor punctuations). Which makes me wonder whether all the awards that it gets are the result of a genuine literacy excellence or due to its “freedom of speech” controversies.

All in all, I believe one sentence from the book can summarise his whole motive for writing it. “What is the opposite of faith?” Rushdie asks in part II of the novel. “Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.” No, the opposite of faith is “doubt.” And he’s attempting to install this doubt through insulting the fundamental premise of a religion, the integrity of its Prophet, and oh I almost forget, he also portrays the Prophet’s (PBUH) wives (Peace Be Upon Them) in the novel as whores in the most popular brothel in Jahilia, “The Curtain, Hijab.” That’s why it’s so controversial.

The scrapbook of a pro writer

“Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process” by John McPhee

This is a charming little book about the inner workings behind the professional writing process. It has the feel of a scrappy note book of a pro writer, with the narration can jump from explanations to stories to memoir to stories to explanations in a fast-paced manner.

The book is indeed written by an actual pro, in fact it is none other than John McPhee, a four-time finalist of the Pulitzer Prize (winner of the 4th) who is considered to be the pioneer of creative non-fiction writing.

And his credentials are reflected in the book. With so many tips and tricks on writing, and plenty of anecdotes from McPhee’s decades of experience and war stories in the publishing industry, it is such an intriguing book to read.

All behaviour is communication

“The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read: (And Your Children Will Be Glad You Did)” by Philippa Perry

All behaviour is communication, according to psychotherapist Philippa Perry, and behind the behaviour we’ll find feelings. Therefore, unraveling where the feelings are coming from becomes a key component in any form of communication.

This is a phenomenal book about our range of emotions, about the awareness and the ability to label our feelings, and understanding our triggers and reactions so that we can develop the ability to control and channel our emotions properly.

The book is also about empathy, about understanding where people’s behaviour are coming from, and about the communication tools to properly approach them.

Indeed, all behaviour is communication and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a baby, a young kid, a teenager, or an adult. As long as we keep our lines of good communication open (without judgement, dismissal, lies, or negative reaction), it will be easier to share our honest emotions and trust with each other in order to build a healthy relationship.

But first and foremost, this book is about parenting. It’s about acknowledging our kids’ feelings, the balance between praising and criticising, the environment that we provide for them, how to healthily help them during distress, how to create a normal childhood (even in the case of a divorce), how to fight and argue in the correct way that it doesn’t damage the child’s psychology, how to repair a ruptured relationship, with the book actually begins with passed down parenting, about what our parents taught us or did to us that we pass on to our kids.

Yes, unlike any other parenting books, this book’s aim is to first analyse (and maybe fix) us first, before we can teach our kids about healthy emotions and relationship. And it does take the pressure off from being a picture perfect parent.

Because we’re humans with emotions, this is hands down one of the most practical parenting books (even relationship books) I’ve read so far. And with 230 highlights in Kindle out of 262 pages, there are so many great lessons and actionable advices from it. So highly recommended.

The pessimistic vs. optimistic approach on the environmental problem

“The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World” by Charles C. Mann

This is a story about William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. They are two relatively unknown people who have long passed away, but both are responsible for the creation of two contradictory intellectual blueprints that we all use today for understanding our environmental dilemmas and how to survive in it.

Vogt laid out the fundamental ideas for modern apocalyptic environmentalism, which believe that unless humans drastically reduces consumption its growing population and appetite will eventually overwhelm the planet’s ecosystem.

Borlaug, meanwhile, has become the emblem of the so-called “techno-optimism”, the believe that science and technology, if properly applied, can help us produce our way out of consumption problem. He was the primary figure in the research in the 1960s that created the “green revolution”, a mix of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvest around the world.

While both men thought of themselves as environmentalists facing a planetary crisis, Vogt believes that affluence was the problem (i.e. economic over consumption), and by contrast according to Borlaug affluence is actually the solution (i.e. only by getting richer and more knowledgeable can we create the science that can solve our environmental problems).

One sees the problem from a pessimistic view, the other from an optimistic view. One is a prophet of doom and the other is a wizard unveiling technological advances.

Written in a novel-like style by Charles C. Mann, this book is the epic debate between the worldview of the prophet and the wizard, supported by perhaps the grandest scientific findings of the Earth and the history of its most vicious residents, the homo sapiens.

The book tells the background stories of these 2 men, the hopes and despairs, the luck encounters, opportunities not taken, the overlapping social circles that nearly made them physically meet, the many friendships gained along the way, and the long journey on how they eventually get to shape their worldview and earn the stage to tell it to the world.

And more significantly, it also tells the story about the many, many scientists that somewhat become the disciples of these 2 opposing categories, with all their backgrounds, the many experiments, their findings, what we do with the findings, and all the politics and vested interests by multiple sides.

All in all, the book doesn’t give us the easy solution for our climate change problem, if any solution at all. But instead, it points out the vast problems, presents the debates, and the complex human dynamism in the road to solve it. With this in mind, this book is a crucial puzzle piece to understand the big picture of the environmental catastrophe. Simply unmissable.