The birth and evolution of religion

“The Great Transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions” by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong refer to it as the Axial Age. It was a period of time between 900 to 200 BC where in 4 distinct regions the great world traditions came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and mythology and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

These traditions bring us the likes of Socrates, Plato, Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah, Euprides, Mencius, and the mystics of Upanishads. Even today, in times of spiritual and social crisis we constantly referred back to this period of time for guidance, as Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all latter-day flowering of the original Axial Age.

So what prompted these 4 regions to develop a similar philosophy?

This book is about the history of that period of time. It is about the people and the conflicts, the drama, and the reconciliations.  About how spiritual and religious lives evolved, with all the stories exquisitely told in impressive detail and reads like 4 different epic colossal movies. It is quite literally 4 big historical accounts combined into one dense narrative.

Now, due to its incredible wealth of knowledge this book is not only heavy to read, but also challenging to summarize. But here are the 5 main points that I learned from the book:

Firstly, the 4 Axial Age traditions were born out of a reaction of their respective circumstance of the time. Confucius was born in the middle of lawless, battle-torn, region. The birth of the dark Greek mythology stems from a period of 400 years of darkness in that region due to war and hardship. The Axial Age in India began when the ritual reformers began to extract the conflict and agression from the sacrificial contest. While Israel started their Axial Age after the destruction of Jerusalem and the enforced deportation of the exiles to Babylonia, which then the priestly writers began to create a philosophy of reconciliation and non-violence.

Even in what Armstrong refer as “the final flowering of the Axial Age”, the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) lived in a violent society when old values were breaking down, before Islam arrises. Indeed, as Armstrong remarks, “[t]he religious traditions created during the Axial Age in all four regions were rooted in fear and pain.”

The second point of the book is, when the environment changes the religion changes along with it. One of the most common occurances of change is political move, which can sometimes include or emit a deity from a culture. For example, when King Solomon made diplomatic marriages with foreign princesses, the marriages include the merging of the gods in the royal cult, where they built temples for them in the hills outside Jerusalem.

Another example of the politics of gods is the story of Elijah. In the old Middle Eastern theology, El had appointed a deity to each of the nations: Yahweh was the god of Israel, Chemish the holy one of Moab, while Milkom was the god of Ammon. But some Israelites prophets felt that their god Yahweh would be undermined in the region if a king imported a foreign deity into the royal cult. Hence, during his time, Elijah tried to keep the god of Baal in Phonecia so that Yahweh would remain thriving as the local god, where the brutal story on how exactly he did it was told grippingly in the book.

Meanwhile, Yahweh Himself was originally one god among many others (He was a god of war), but later in the 6th century BC as the circumstances changed He too evolved to become the only God in the eyes of the worshipers, which in turn evolved to eventually become the sole God that we familiar with today.

Thirdly, when the religion gets too brutal or corrupted there will be a breakaway sect, such as Christianity from Judaism, Protestants from Catholic, and the many religion out of Hinduism like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, while Islam fixed the problems of old Pagan faith that was no longer working in Arabian society.

Fourthly, all of the Axial Age changes had often occurred between two imperial-style ventures. The Indian Axial Age occurred after the demise of the Harappan Civilization and ended with the rise of the Mauryan empire. The Greek Axial Age transformation occurred between the Mycenaean kingdom and the Macedonian empire. The Chinese Axial Age got under way after the collapse of the Zhou dynasty and ended when Qin unified the warring states. And the Jews, who had suffered horribly from the imperial adventures in the region, had been propelled into their Axial Age after the destruction of their homeland and the trauma of deportation that severed their link with their past and thus forced them to start again.

And lastly, most of the Axial Age sages did not leave a book. Instead, their teachings were passed on orally, which was the custom back then. And their wisdom were eventually written down as a holy text long after they’re gone, which as you can imagine could be exposed to the many risks of human errors or misquotations or hidden agenda of the writers.

Hence, everything that have been written down ever since, everything that we now know in the modern society, are the product of many environmental changes, compromises, evolution, revolution, mergers and acquisitions, or even anihilation of deities and cults over a long and turmulous period of time.

So, in short: 1. The Axial Age were born as a response of a violent era 2. When the environment changes the religion changes with it 3. When the religion gets too brutal or corrupted there will be a breakaway sect 4. The Axial Age occurred between two imperial-style ventures 5. Most of the Axial Age sages did not leave a book, and their written wisdom could be exposed to the many “agency problems.”

Seeing this summary might prompt us to ask the next question: will this pattern repeat itself? Karen Armstrong remarks that reformation should be happening all the time, that religion cannot stand still. Because if they cannot adapt they will become obsolete and fade away, just like the many religious cults mentioned in the book that did not survive the Axial Age. And yes, according to Armstrong, we are now in the midst of a Second Axial Age.

A book that sums up anti-theist’s way of thinking

“The End of Faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason” by Sam Harris

What can you learn from someone you disagree with the most? As it turns out, there’s not much to learn from the ever biased and hypocritical Sam Harris, a person whose whole book is about condemning religious violence but yet criticises Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifism as “highly immoral.” So much for challenging my default perceptions every once in a while.

I cannot treat this book with an open mind when the very first few paragraphs consist of ficticious over-dramatized story of a terror attack to make his points, then assume without a doubt that ALL 1.5 billion Muslims are supporting terrorist attacks, that ALL baptized Christians cannot respect the beliefs of others, and that moderation is a myth in any religion.

It is astonishing for me that for a self-proclaimed atheist he’s preaching a way of thinking that are strikingly similar with the argument of every religious extremists: that their way of thinking are the correct one, others are stupid or even dangerous, and therefore should be abolished. Religious scholars such as Karen Armstrong refer people like this as anti-theist, rather than atheist, an extremist in their own way.

Yes, there’s no denying that there are plenty of religious hardliners today, as covered in “The Wahhabi Code” by Terrence Ward or even “Buddhist Warfare” by Michael K. Jerryson, but if he actually reads all of the religious texts (rather than point out some of the bad verses without providing the context, and excluding the later verses that cancel off these bad verses), Harris would find several unifying messages across many different religion for the better of humankind, in which the Rig Veda commented as “Truth is one, the wise call it by different names.”

So the problem is not religion, remarked Karen Armstrong in her brilliant book on extremism “Fields of Blood”, but human struggle for power and money. It is not religion that is violent or peaceful, says another religious scholar Reza Aslan, but it is people that is violent and peaceful. And blaming religion as the cause (rather than the tools and justification) for violence is missing a huge point, akin to blaming atheism on all the desructions and genocides caused by atheists Stalin and Mao.

But it doesn’t stop Harris for presenting what he thinks as the biggest demon in this book: Islam. He dedicate the whole 44 pages of chapter 4 on “the problem with Islam” but yet fail to mention about the ACTUAL problem with Islam: the descendants of Ibn Saud and Muhammad Abdul Wahhab that captured the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the 1920s, and forced their extreme version of the Hanbali interpretation into the world with their petro-dollars. The fact that the vast majority of terror attacks in the 21st century – from Al Qaeda to today’s ISIS – all have roots in Wahhabism is lost in this book. And instead he leave out Islam’s 1300+ years of progression (he might not even aware of the Golden Age of Islam), and thus gives the impression that Islam has always been a barbaric religion since birth. It is as if he’s portraying Christianity solely based on the conducts of the Crusades, but then fail to mention about the Crusaders.

Conversely, I can’t help comparing Harris with Alain de Botton, another atheist. Like Harris, de Botton believes that God does not exist and that religion is nothing but a human invention. But de Botton also believes that these human inventions are key to create order out of chaos in many parts of cultures and civilisations throughout history, provide good instructions for daily living, and that there are so many things that we can learn from religion and can implement in the secular world to make us a better human being.

Things such as meditation, where Sam Harris has the audacity to critise the Buddhist religion (Buddhists, he says, improperly treat Buddhism as a religion, which is “naive, petitionary, and superstitious” and that such beliefs impede the spread of Buddhist principles), but then created a meditation app with the purpose of cashing in on the teachings of the Buddha.

Indeed, apparently according to Harris the teachings we found in religion are not that bad, and in the book he actually mentions about the strong points of religion such as “strong communities, ethical behaviour, spiritual experiences”. But instead of being respectful, Harris insult them as obsolete and says “it require no faith in untestable propositions – Jesus was born of a virgin, the Koran is the word of God – for us to do this”, then proceeded to “steal” the religious teachings as if he figured them out himself from sheer logic.

Believe in the miracles, or don’t believe in the miracles. Follow the doctrines with no questions asked, or constantly seeking historical accuracy of the events. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist or a pantheist. What matters, as de Botton remarks, is that we live life as a decent human being and treat others the way we want to be treated. As progressive Christian Matthew Disterano commented, kind atheists are closer to Jesus than mean Christians. And abolishing religion alltogether – as per Harris’ big takeaway – will take away THE solution to very old problems in humankind, one that is brilliantly analysed in “A World Without Islam” by Graham E. Fuller.

Alain is wise to be a kind atheist. Alain is respectful. Alain is not a hypocritical a-hole. If you’re an atheist, be more like Alain.

The best introductory context for the Dhammapada

“The Dhammapada” translated by Eknath Easwaran

In the quest of reading all religious holy scriptures, I have so far read the Torah, the New Testament, Al Qur’an, Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads. And out of respect I gave them all 5 stars and refrained from giving any comment or sharing the many highlighted notes. And this review is no different.

However, here I am writing this on the sole purpose of commenting on the introduction of the book by co-author Stephen Ruppenthal, which takes up about 40% of the book. It is by far the most beautifully written short religious biography that I’ve ever read, with the clearest insight into the concept of Dharma and Karma, the 5 skandhas, with plenty of wonderful stories about the Blessed One, and the incredible blue print into the actual steps of reaching Nirvana.

It also notably provides the fascinating illustration of meditation steps (from the first until the fourth dhyanas) that is deeper than the 2 books on meditation that I’ve so far read, which explains a lot why the sadhus in India can meditate days at a time. Certainly neuroscientists or experts like Steven Kotler could be very intrigued with this “Eastern phenomenon” that has yet been codified in Western science, and the introduction of this book matches their level of expertise.

In fact, in the introduction Ruppenthal draws parallel between the teachings of the Buddha to modern science, in which he commented “[m]uch in the Buddha’s universe, in fact, can be understood as a generalization of physical laws to a larger sphere.” He then proceeded to highlight several similarities between Buddhism and Quantum Mechanics, Einstein’s several theories, and so on.

Indeed, the introduction section alone is worthy of a stand-alone book, but Ruppenthal did not stop there. Right before each 26 chapters of the Dhammapada he provides another clarifying context that will make the actual holy texts – beautifully translated by Eknath Easwaran – crystal clear. It is inline with the one sentence from Ruppenthal’s chapter 19 introduction, which summarizes best what his body of work do for this version of the book: “A person who understands the reason behind a law is more likely to obey it intelligently than someone who is simply ordered to obey.”

And thus, as a result, the many wonderful lessons and laws in the Dhammapada sticks.

Decision making tools to help us focus on what’s important

“Essentialism” by Greg McKeown

The simple premise of the book is pretty straight forward: it is only after we stop trying to do everything and stop saying yes to everyone, that we can direct our energy to the few things that really matter to us, the essentials.

It is about priority, the discipline pursuit of less, about getting the right things done, and doing them mindfully and wholesomely. And everything else become fairly insignificant.

I must admit that while reading the early chapters I was at first skeptical of this book, as its simple message is just another minimalism mantra that I’ve already read in several books. But as I read on, I soon realize that McKeown relies more on data and scientific findings rather than just the general zen feeling of the outcome (which have profoundly changed my life nonetheless). And the more the book progresses the more practical it gets, which starts with the concept of trade-offs.

In a perfect world we can easily eliminate all of the non-essentials. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and instead in every decision that we make we will more likely to face trade-offs. As McKeown explains, “by definition, a trade-off involves two things we want. Do you want more pay or more vacation time? Do you want to finish this next e-mail or be on time to your meeting? Do you want it done faster or better?” “Obviously”, McKeown continues, “when faced with the choice between two things we want, the preferred answer is yes to both. But as much as we’d like to, we simply cannot have it all.”

So yes, most of the time we have to choose. And this just happens to be the core specialty of this book: the intricate process of decision making.

The book provides us with the scientific and psychological researches about the underlying determinants behind our decision making process – such as learned helplessness, Pareto Principle, the Power Law theory, sunk-cost bias, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow – and guide us to the process of (re)gaining control over our options.

It then teaches us several decision making skills, such as to look at information like a journalist (by following a lead, by listening to what is not being said, by finding the essence of the information), or the 90 Percent Rule (if it’s not a hell yeah, then it’s a no – only the 90% mark out of 100% will do), or decluttering methods that would make Marie Kondo blushed, or simple methods like clarifying our purpose so that it’s changed from pretty clear to really clear.

It then analyzes some crucial factors of decision making such as the power of sleep, with the short chapter on sleep provides a more compacted findings than the 2 books on sleep that I’ve read. The fact that this book put the science of sleep into the overall context of Essentialism makes it relatively more actionable that Shawn Stevenson’s and Ariana Huffington’s excellent stand alone book on the subject.

For example, to succeed at something we need to put 10,000 hours of hard work on it (a theory founded by K. Anders Ericsson by studying violinists, and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell). But this book provides the 2nd part of the study that was rarely highlighted: that the very best violinists actually sleep an average of 8.6 hours. It was sleep that gave them the edge.

Moreover, the book also provides so many tools for the execution, including the very useful “buffer” theory and the “slowest hiker” efficiency, that ensure our execution can be efficient and precise. It also highlighted the importance of routines to switch our task to Basal Ganglia part of the brain and make it automatic and thus freeing up our minds (akin to Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habits), and a sub-chapter on triggers that would make Marshall Goldsmith proud.

The book also provides an abundance of many more examples from various walks of life, with examples from the morning routines of some of the most successful people, to the investment decisions of Warren Buffett (whom owes 90% of his wealth only from 10 investments), what Stephen R. Covey did for his daughter (that leaves a profound inspiration for my parenting style), how Britain and Norway handle their oil proceeds differently, to what Nelson Mandela did in his 27 years in prison (eliminating everything non-essential including his resentment to work on 1 clear goal: to eliminate apartheid in South Africa), or how the right NO spoken at the right time can change the course of history (such as the bus incident with Rosa Parks).

Neurologically speaking our attention span, willpower, and cognitive bandwidth are not unlimited. Hence, it is only by focusing on the essentials that we can produce deep work, flows, and other things that lead to extraordinary performances. In fact, one of the biggest differences between the average person and billionaires and top athletes is that they prioritize their time and effort differently. And this book gives us the clarity on how to do them.

Learning about retail business from the very best

“Made in America” by Sam Walton

Good ol’ Sam Walton. During my university years, whenever I visit any book store this book will always be in the top 5 books there, if not the 1st. No matter if it’s the biggest Borders (don’t you just miss Borders?) or a tiny airport bookshop. But I always thought what could this book – one that is written by the owner of Wal-Mart – possibly teach me?

And throughout the years this book kept being mentioned by some of the brightest and most successful people as one of their main inspirations, a must read business classic, with the latest one (that I read) referred to by Jeff Bezos. So after more than a decade wondering, I finally decide to read the book. And what could it possibly teach me, someone who isn’t in the retail industry? As it turns out, quite a lot.

This book was written at the last few moments of Sam Walton’s life when he became ill, with him reminiscing about his journey in building his ultimate baby, the merchant giant Wal-Mart. And there’s so much to learn from this humble billionaire. First and foremost, there are many lessons about the business: on supply chain, logistics, accounting stuff, how to size up your competitors, how to expand, all the way to their choice of locations and addressing some of the infamous stigmas, such as the one that claim Wal-Mart kills small mom and pop stores, and provide answers that make perfect sense.

The book also highlight the way he organises the structure of Wal-Mart that benefitted the family and the employees, about the fun company culture that he establishes, how they revamp every small town’s atmosphere, how they still focus on one store at a time even when they’ve become a huge corporation, and the one thing he asks to his grand children and great-grand children NOT to do, or else he will come back and haunt them: selling their Wal-Mart stocks to finance their extravagance, that would leave the family’s controlling stake vulnerable to hostile take over.

Then there are also lessons from their failures, the most expensive mistake he ever made, the tiny details of franchise and lease contracts that can safe you or screw you, how to nurture good business relationships (even with your competitors), what NOT to do through extracting lessons from failed competitors, and most importantly for Wal-Mart’s key to success (which become the core of this book): his many, many lessons on pricing, and controlling the so-called absentee ownership.

In fact, he is not shy to share most (if not all) of his formula to success, as he believed that competition makes everyone better. For example, in describing Wal-Mart’s early strategy on pricing, which became one of the key engines of growth for his stores: “The basic discounter’s idea was to attract customers into the store by pricing these items—toothpaste, mouthwash, headache remedies, soap, shampoo—right down at cost. Those were what the early discounters called your “image” items. That’s what you pushed in your newspaper advertising—like the twenty-seven-cent Crest at Springdale—and you stacked it high in the stores to call attention to what a great deal it was. Word would get around that you had really low prices. Everything else in the store was priced low too, but it had a 30 percent margin. Health and beauty aids were priced to give away.”

Furthermore, this autobiography is also lessons about hard work from early age, and lessons on frugality where despite of his riches he still drives an old pickup truk, buys his clothes at Wal-Mart, and refuses to fly first class even though he can afford to (but then again he also owns a private jet that he flew himself, but one that he purchased only after weighting the cost of travel that would be more efficient if he flew himself).

The book is also part testimonials by his family, friends, partners and associates, even his competitors, with nice little anecdotes along the way. One of my favourite stories is when he was caught taking notes in his competitor’s store, Price Club, and how he dealt with it with such grace and humor (and responded by Price Club’s owner with equal respect and warmth).

Indeed, Sam Walton has this folksy charm and wit that makes him instantly likable, as well as a wise grandfather vibe that is reflected in the way he writes the book. It is as if he is telling about his life’s stories to his grandchildren in one delightful seating, with lessons that are also applicable to any other areas in business and in life. And so, as it turns out, you don’t need to be in the retail industry to appreciate the abundance of knowledge coming out of this book.

Such a fun book to read!

“Stuff You Should Know: An incomplete compendium of mostly interesting things” by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant

Just like their many brilliant podcast episodes, this book is both enlightening and entertaining, it’s amusing without being condescending, it’s a bit skeptical but still comical.

The book covers a wide range of stuffs that we should know, from the equation for blackouts from a tequila (important), how to slow down the ageing process, whether there will be a trillionaire, all the way to answering whether Paul McCartney really died, and who the hell was John Frum and why was he so influential in Vanuatu. I cannot believe that they can even make few dull subjects such as taxation and the smell of dogs become hella interesting.

It also covers some other stuffs that aren’t that urgent for us to know but still fun, like we can fix a scratched CD with a toothpaste (I know, way too late), that the British have 3000 ways to describe “drunk”, the many types and names of facial hair, and the juicy conspiracy theory of an incident at The Price is Right whose winner guessed the price correctly at exactly $23,743.

And what about them jokes, eh? I’m not going to spoil anything, but let’s just say the chapter about how to use your pet rock, and their illustration of a pet rock, made me laugh a little longer than I should. In fact the many illustrations in the book are just downright hilarious.

Meanwhile, every once in a while the book gives us pithy sayings that set us straight in the right path in life and away from troubles. Sayings such as  “never get into a shouting match with someone whose job involves a microphone.” Or “you’re usually better off going with the guy who has all the spreadsheets.” Or “nothing good has ever happened in the back of a van in the woods.” Wise, wise words.

Weirdly, I automatically read every word of the book using Josh’s voice in my head. Because the choice of words, the jokes, all of it, you know, it’s all Josh-like. Unless, of course, the parts where it is better to say it with an Italian accent, then it’s Chuck’s voice taking over.

Anyway, the book is a light read but with a lot of knowledge to absorb, what’s not to like? I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I also came out of it gaining several potential band names, which is not useful at all for me but hey you’ll never know.

The human story behind legendary names

“Figuring” by Maria Popova

This is a beautifully written book, an art, in fact, that expressed itself through the eloquence of words. It is one of a kind book, that brings us into a journey of mesmerising flows akin to what I’ve been accustomed to with Brainpickings for more than a decade.

The book dissects multiple knowledge and wrap them up into a very gripping narrative that reads like a novel, which was seemingly unconnected at first but later brilliantly gel together into a pattern that sets the tone for the remaining of the book.

I never knew that the many historical figures mentioned in the book ever crossed path with one another, and this makes many interesting revelations. It is quite simply Maria Popova at her finest.

How to develop fact-based world view

“Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think” by Hans Rosling

Factfulness in a nutshell, taken from the book

Hans Rosling is a phenomenal human being. He’s a Swedish physician and epidemiologist whom had worked in many poorest villages in the world – like in Mozambique, Zaire, and Tanzania – had taught and gave speeches in many more places around the world from his native Sweden to India to Canada to Iran to Vietnam, and also had worked with many UN agencies, influencing global elites from Melinda Gates, to Mark Zuckeberg, to Al Gore, to Fidel Castro, and the many Davos crowds along the way.

He is one of the most qualified persons to teach about global health, and perhaps one of few people who have the right to be pessimistic about the world, considering what he had witnessed and experienced directly in the world. But yet, his life’s work and mission is the total opposite of that. In a world where the majority of news headlines are giving us the impression that the state of the world is getting worse by the day, Rosling appears with the counter perception with undisputed arguments: through data and charts.

This book is the culmination of this mission. With a kind and worldly professor vibe, which is reflected in the relaxed tone of his writing (and the fun fact that he’s a proud sword swallower),  he breaks down the paragraphs into bite size sub-chapters that makes the book easy to digest. And then with every argument he makes, he backs it up with the statistics and the charts that comes with it. And oh how he loves his charts. He has every imaginable charts there is in the world, from life expectancy, immunization, to plane crash deaths, legal slavery, to guitar per capita, new movies, even the projection of his grandson’s height.

Moreover, Rosling created 4 income levels to make it easier to analyse the condition of countries over the world, with Level 1 to Level 4 progress. Level 1 is extreme poverty: $1 per day (roughly 1 billion people live like this today). Level 2: $4 a day (roughly 3 billion people live like this today). Level 3: $16 per day (roughly 2 billion people live like this today). Level 4: more than $64 a day (roughly 1 billion people live like this today).

So, the state of the world is not getting worse, in fact if we look at the many charts in the book it is strikingly obvious that we’ve never had it better than today. For example, contrary to popular belief the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved in the past 20 years. In the year 1800 around 85% of humanity lived on Level 1, but just 20 years ago it was down to 29%, while today it is 9%. Global life expectancy has also grown from an average age of 30 years old in 1800, to 60 years in 1973, to 72 years as at the writing of the book in 2016-2017. Even the label developing and developed countries are technically wrong, since today 75% of people live in middle-income countries, or between Level 2 and Level 3. “Not poor, not rich, but somewhere in the middle and starting to live a reasonable life.”

Rosling then teaches us how to read the data more closely. For example, we can measure the “temperature” of a society from the child mortality rate, because children are very fragile and there are so many things that can kill them. He reasoned, “[w]hen only 14 children die out of 1000 in Malaysia, this means that the other 986 survive. Their parents and their society manage to protect them from all the dangers that could have killed them: germs, starvation, violence, and so on. So this number 14 tells us that most families in Malaysia have enough food, their sewage systems don’t leak into their drinking water, they have good access to primary health care, and mothers can read and write. It doesn’t just tell us about the health of children. It measures the quality of the whole society.”

Moreover, in a Daniel Kahneman-esque approach, Rosling also challenges our cognitive biases on seeing the world with such negative judgements. He explained “[i]n large part, it is because of our negativity instinct: our instinct to notice the bad more than the good. There are three things going on here: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better.”

Particularly on addressing the role of the media on selective reporting, he made a good point on the unavailability of breaking news in the past: “When Europeans slaughtered indigenous peoples across America a few centuries ago, it didn’t make the news back in the old world. When central planning resulted in mass famine in rural China, millions starved to death while the youngsters in Europe waving communist red flags knew nothing about it. When in the past whole species or ecosystems were destroyed, no one realized or even cared. Alongside all the other improvements, our surveillance of suffering has improved tremendously. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite.”

And of course there’s the common adage that bad news sell more than good news. For instance, the media report on plane crashes, that made some people afraid of flying. In 2016 a total of 40 million commercial passenger flights landed safely at their destinations, with 10 ended in fatal accidents. But of course, the 10 that didn’t make it were the ones the media wrote about, the 0.000025% of the total.

However, this is not saying that the true state of the world is all rosy and that the media is manipulating us all, this is not being optimistic for optimism’s sake. Instead, he acknowledged that everything is not fine, and that we should still be very concerned. “As long as there are plane crashes, preventable child deaths, endangered species, climate change deniers, male chauvinists, crazy dictators, toxic waste, journalists in prison, and girls not getting an education because of their gender, as long as any such terrible things exist, we cannot relax.”

But, he elaborates, “it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made.” So instead, he explain it in a simple analogy: we should see the world like we see a premature baby in incubator. Yes her health is critical and it’s bad, we should not relax and stop worrying. But the baby’s condition is improving day by day in the intensive care, so yes the situation is improving. It is both bad and better at the same time. In this light, his brilliant explanation and analysis on the reality of climate change and refugee crisis have completely changed the way I see these problems.

In this sense, he labels himself with a word that he made up himself: a possibilist. “It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.” True to his mission, he dedicate several chapters on teaching us to become a possibilist, including training us to refrain from reacting from URGENT news or message or sale or offer that prompt us to make quick (and rash and uncalculated) decisions NOW!

Hans Rosling sadly passed away in 2017, 2 months before the book was published, making this book his last ever contribution to society. In fact, his last days were spent reading and editing the draft that would become this book. And towards the end of the book he provides 5 global risks that we should worry about, the 1st of which was global pandemic, which in 2016-2017 he amazingly described a scenario similar with Covid-19 that we are experiencing right now.

Like many others, I first knew about this book because it is the book that Bill Gates gave away to all graduates in US college and universities in 2018. And after reading it, I get it. I understand why Gates specifically chose this book.

The orderly side of a chaotic reputation

“12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos” by Jordan B. Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a polarizing figure. In a world where extreme opinions become the norm, his matter-of-fact stance are often criticized by the liberals as dangerous ideas. Without ever reading or listening from himself directly I had thought that Peterson was just one of those provocative right wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh or nut job Alex Jones.

But then I listened to a podcast interview with him, and the few little things he said have actually been fact-checked and deeply analysed before he talks, and actually makes sense. Then I watched some of the several controversial videos of him, and the many criticism of him seems like taken wildly out of context.

For example when asked in an interview by a feminist whether a transgender woman is a real woman, his answer was: depends on the definition, for instance according to the biological definition a real woman is someone who can produce babies, so in that regards transgender woman is not a real woman. A bold and harsh fact, one that perhaps is not politically correct to say in this hyper-sensitive era, which eventually gives him the label of transphobic without intending to do so (because he then clarifies that he supports the choice that transgenders make, but that was not the question, and from the look of it never the intention of the interviewer).

Still, I felt indifferent. Few years passed and then I stumbled upon yet another meme of Peterson accused of some controversial stance (controversial in the context of identity politics), with me proceeded to read one of the media articles covering it. And again it feels incomplete, so I listened to another (longer) podcast interview with him to figure out the man behind the controversy.

But no matter how much snippets about him that I watched, read, or listened to, I will never get the big picture, as the things that he said and the reputation that he end up having doesn’t seem to match. That is, I thought, unless I finally read his book. And true to my tsundoku-ist nature I just happen to already bought this book a while ago. And so, I decided to give it a go.

In a world where good causes become overblown and over-exploited by the so-called social justice warriors, where the very causes that fight for human rights and equality are suddenly used for extreme entitlement and to play victim – which makes quite a lot of liberal minded people become frustrated when looking at the reverse injustice -, Jordan Peterson seems to serve as some kind of a voice of the harsh truth, an orderly reason to the chaotic reality.

And this book, with all its flaws, represents his compilation of just this: 12 rules to bring back order to the chaos occurring in our personal world. Here are the rules:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone is today.
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
  8. Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Now, as you may have noticed, in a glimpse these rules look nothing more than a back-to-basics kind of self-help advice. And you’re absolutely right. The book turns out to be such a dull one for a man as controversial as Peterson. I had expected something more edgy just like his spicy talks and debates. Moreover, the elaboration of the rules oftentimes can get way offtrack from the theme of the rules, while at other times it is filled by only meaningless gibberish and cliches.

Only occasionally that we hit upon Peterson’s true nature that provide our judgements and biases with sobering cold shower of raw truth. But when it does, it’s mind blowing, like his theory of unspeakable primordial calculator, or his description of the evolution of lie, or his interpretation and elaboration of the story “There’s no such thing as a dragon.”

And so, as it turns out, Peterson is a fantastic speaker and debater, but he’s just not that good of a writer. In fact, if you only read the 12 list above, you wouldn’t miss that much. But, BUT, it’s maybe worth sticking with the book, skim read it if you must, as the occasional bursts of brilliance really live up to his reputation as a clinical psychologist and a former Harvard professor that was popular with the students. It is also provide a glimpse of Peterson’s private life, which he’s surprisingly quite open (even vulnerable) with the stories of his family, friends, even his dog Sikko, and what happened to his daughter Mikhaila, that could give us more puzzle piece of information to the big picture about this man.

All in all, like Peterson himself, is it hard to put a label on this book. Some parts are no doubt worthy of a 5 star, others a dull 1, while most of the stuff written here are a borderline between 3 and 4 stars. So, for a book with thin margins between good and bad, I thought I’d resort to pettiness: 3 star for the overall average, and most specifically for hating Elmo (“that creepy whiny puppet”). Oh, never ever change Mr Peterson.

The definitive manual book for introverts

“Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” by Susan Cain

This book gives us the tools to still be our introvert self and use it to our advantage.

It is the same approach that Mahatma Gandhi uses to mobilize a whole nation against a mighty colonial power, what makes Warren Buffett can keep his head above the irrational herd, what gives Isaac Newton the focus to discover the theory of gravity or Albert Einstein to discover his theory of relativity, what provides JK Rowling and George Orwell their observational skills and the solitude to write them down.

So, what are introvert and extrovert? According to psychologist Carl Jung, introvert people are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, while extrovert people to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they interpret from the events happening around them, while extroverts plunge directly into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their energy by being alone, while extroverts recharge theirs by socializing. It is one of the very essence of our personality, a natural trait that cannot be forced no matter how much you try.

Take the story of introverted Rosa Parks, for example, how her calm demeanor was the perfect fit for the bus protest incident and would not have been successful had the person sitting there was the extrovert and fiery Martin Luther King Jr. Nor would it be a success if the preaching role of Dr King was forced upon the quiet Ms Parks. Indeed, it is about the best way to measure our response in accordance to our true nature, as both Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks proceeded to influence the civil rights movement with their own comfortable demeanor.

But how can someone be a natural extrovert while other be a natural introvert? Introversion-extroversion can be detected from the early age, from looking at how sensitive babies are towards the stimulus of their environment, with high-reactivity nature represents one biological basis of introversion. This is what commonly acknowledged as “being a sensitive person.” The more high-reactive a baby is (i.e. introverted) the quieter they become as they don’t seek any more stimulants, while extroverted babies (and hence, adults) constantly seek more stimulants from outside of their brain to feel more alive.

Furthermore, according to the author, Susan Cain, “[h]igh-reactive kids [i.e. introverts] who enjoy good parenting, child care, and a stable home environment tend to have fewer emotional problems and more social skills than their lower-reactive peers, studies show. Often they’re exceedingly empathic, caring, and cooperative.” Cain then elaborates, “[t]hey work well with others. They are kind, conscientious, and easily disturbed by cruelty, injustice, and irresponsibility. They’re successful at the things that matter to them. They don’t necessarily turn into class presidents or stars of the school play… though this can happen, too: “For some it’s becoming the leader of their class. For others it takes the form of doing well academically or being well-liked.””

However, in a society where extroverts are the model aspiration, being an introvert can be challenging. The book dedicate one whole chapter on the history of extrovert culture that began in the US, that covers examples of how society came to worship extrovert traits and personalities – from Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins to the Harvard Business School culture – which creates the stigma that the model of success are those who conform to this nature.

The book then analyses the cultural aspect of introversion-extroversion, with Western culture praise more of extroversion and Eastern culture promotes introversion. It also cover the risk takers and risk averse traits that can be heavily linked to extroversion and introversion, which adds a new angle on the irrational exuberance culture among majority extroverted Wall Street geniuses that fail to think rationally in the face of risk. As Cain remarks, “just as the amygdala [the emotional, flight-or-fight, part of the brain] of a high-reactive person is more sensitive than average to novelty, so do extroverts seem to be more susceptible than introverts to the reward-seeking cravings of the old brain. In fact, some scientists are starting to explore the idea that reward-sensitivity is not only an interesting feature of extroversion; it is what makes an extrovert an extrovert.”

In other words, extroverts are characterized by their tendency to seek outside reward, from the no 1 champion status to sexual highs to cold cash. Hence, their greater economic, political, and hedonistic ambitions compared with introverts. As Cain elaborates, “even their sociability is a function of reward-sensitivity, according to this view—extroverts socialize because human connection is inherently gratifying.”

However, although extroverts and introverts have contrasting personalities they can still co-exist nicely – whether it’s family, friendship, work environment, or romantic relationship -, with the book discusses through plenty of case studies where both successful and failed relationship occur. For instance, the book point out the psychological findings that introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts, while extroverts prefer those they compete with. This will be very useful in plenty of social contexts, especially in negotiation.

It also elaborates on how introverts can fully utilize our natural traits. For example, it’s so happened that for introverts they can “fake” extroversion, which stems from psychological theories covered neatly in the book, like the Free Trait Theory and Fixed Trait Theory. But in the end of the day, that will eat us inside. Instead, I found the most inspiration in the curious case of Jon Berghoff, a highly introverted person that becomes the best regional salesman by not faking an extroverted traits, but by comfortably using his introvert way of heart-to-heart communication that speaks to his strengths.

This book is such an enlightenment that I suddenly can spot the extroverts and introverts in my surroundings, complete on the spectrum of calm extrovert, anxious extrovert, calm introvert, and anxious introvert that the book brilliantly describes. All the behaviour that they are making, their reaction on things, their decision making, the choice of people they surround themselves with, the problems they are making, etc, all become clear.

And in the end of the day, as the book shows, what matters it not the cards that have been give to us, but how we use them. Likewise, it’s not about certain personality traits that would makes you successful or not, it’s how you maximize the one that you already have – whether it’s extrovert or introvert – with the right mindset and attitude, at the right environment, with the right crowd. As Susan Cain remarks, “[w]e often marvel at how introverted, geeky kids “blossom” into secure and happy adults. We liken it to a metamorphosis. However, maybe it’s not the children who change but their environments. As adults, they get to select the careers, spouses, and social circles that suit them. They don’t have to live in whatever culture they’re plunked into.”