The science behind the Buddhist wisdoms

“The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.

This book is written by psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler, and not by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is an important distinction to make early on as it sets the tone of the book more into the clinical investigative side of happiness, since Dr. Cutler is a leading expert on the science of human happiness.

However, it is also important to distinguish that the big picture of the book is generated from the many interviews and conversations that Dr. Cutler had with the Dalai Lama, which makes them a perfect combination: the many wonderful Buddhist teachings provided by the Dalai Lama, elaborated by Dr. Cutler with the scientific explanations behind them. Now that’s a match made in Nirvana.

The result is this magnificent book, the almost anatomical break down of the determinants that create (or prevent) the multiple journeys to our end goal: happiness.

Right from the start Dr. Cutler remarks that, “If there is a fundamental principle in The Art of Happiness with the greatest potential to make a significant contribution to the new science of human happiness, it is this: There is an inextricable link between one’s personal happiness and kindness, compassion, and caring for others. And this is a two-way street: increased happiness leads to greater compassion, and increased compassion leads to greater happiness.”

Indeed, while unhappy people have the tendency to be self-focused, often socially-withdrawn, and even antagonistic in nature, by contrast happy people are generally more sociable, creative, flexible, can endure and tolerate daily frustrations more easily, and perhaps most importantly they are more loving and compassionate.

Compassion towards others, of course, includes developing tolerance and understanding even towards our enemies. As the Dalai Lama commented, “In Buddhism in general, a lot of attention is paid to our attitudes towards our rivals or enemies. This is because hatred can be the greatest stumbling block to the development of compassion and happiness. If you can learn to develop patience and tolerance towards your enemies, then everything else becomes much easier—your compassion towards all others begins to flow naturally.”

Because what if we go through life never encountering an enemy or any obstacle? If from birth to death everyone we meet pampered us, helped us, never challenge us, or in short, everyone continued to treat us like a baby? Sure, it might feel nice at first, but if persisted it could turn us into a some kind of gelatinous mass with the mental and emotional development of veal. As Dr. Cutler emphasize, “It’s the very struggle of life that makes us who we are. And it is our enemies that test us, provide us with the resistance necessary for growth.”

This last point is a form of reframing perception, one of the many Buddhist tools taught in the book to convert frictions or stumble blocks in our lives into something more positive from simply just looking at things from a different perspective. Because, if we can make even our enemies – that have bad intentions towards us – into some positive force in our lives, there is quite literally nothing that can make us upset and unhappy. You see, it’s not about what happens, but our interpretation of what happens that matter.

The Dalai Lama also teaches us about eliminating other negative forces in our minds that can rob us the joy of happiness, by seeing things from a larger perspective, by dealing with grief properly, by healing the sense of remorse, by reframing anger, and many more.

As Dr. Cutler explains, “By mobilizing our thoughts and practicing new ways of thinking, we can reshape our nerve cells and change the way our brains work. It is also the basis for the idea that inner transformation begins with learning (new input) and involves the discipline of gradually replacing our “negative conditioning” (corresponding with our present characteristic nerve cell activation patterns) with “positive conditioning” (forming new neural circuits). Thus, the idea of training the mind for happiness becomes a very real possibility.”

Indeed, happiness is actually trainable. And throughout the book the Dalai Lama has repeatedly emphasized the importance of inner discipline as the fundamental method of achieving this. It involves combating negative states of mind such as greed, anger, and hatred, and cultivating positive states of minds such as kindness, tolerance, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, contentment. And all of these are built on a foundation of a calm and stable state of mind (aka the state of mindfulness).

As Dr. Cutler concludes, “The art of happiness has many components. As we’ve seen, it begins with developing an understanding of the truest sources of happiness and setting our priorities in life based on the cultivation of those sources. It involves an inner discipline, a gradual process of rooting out destructive mental states and replacing them with positive, constructive states of mind, such as kindness, tolerance, and forgiveness.”

And the book is filled with so many examples and real-life stories about the struggle and eventual triumph to implement this.

Moreover, while the wisdoms are priceless, perhaps the best feature of the book is a glimpse of the Dalai Lama’s demeanor, which we can learn a lot from. His relaxed approach, with open mind, humility, compassion, sincerity, brutal honesty, and a heavy doze of humor and laughter all created a kind and approachable aura. He always thinks before he speaks, never attacks, listens intently with sympathetic understanding, and able to frame and reframe his interpretations and responses in an impressive speed, even when he makes a mistake.

Simply put, he is the living embodiment of every single lesson that come out from this book. And that’s why his picture is respectfully put as the cover of the book.

Life, death, and the meaning of it all

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi began to read books at a very young age, and he has always wanted to someday write his own book. In fact that was what led him to study English literature for his BA and MA in Stanford. But life had a different plan for him, as after two more impressive degrees he found himself in Yale Medical School, dealing directly face to face with life and death in his 7 years of residency.

This book is the culmination of his 2 loves, literature and medicine, where he eventually gets to write a beautifully written memoir about his experience as a top notch neurosurgeon who abruptly turned into a patient himself after he was diagnosed with a stage IV metastatic lung cancer.

Indeed, this book has a sad ending, as it is published posthumously a year after he passed away. But this isn’t a spoiler because the main point of the book is not about the ending (we’re all going to die eventually), but it’s about the journey, about hopes and dreams as a medical student, all the sleepless on-calls, the emergency room drama, the extraordinary hard work to become a neurosurgeon, the life-changing split-second decision makings in the operation room, and finally about dealing with illness and mortality along with his deteriorating health condition, the 5 stages of grief, the in and out of therapy, and the emotional toll on the family and close friends.

And somewhere between his face-to-face encounter with death as a doctor and patient lies a space and time where Kalanithi ponders about the meaning of life, and he learned them one lesson at a time in the hospital, where births meet deaths meet every disaster, hope, loss, recovery, and the mess in between, and the zen clarity of a wisdom that can only be obtained by someone who is dying but have accepted their fate.

All of these are written in a first-person vantage point that brings us the reader into his shoes, as if we’re the ones who are living it. And it was all so very moving and inspiring. The last chapter in particular almost reduced me to tears. Incredible, incredible book.

Not yet ready for a Shakespeare

“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare

For a novice in reading fiction, I thought after reading a bit of Coelho, one or two Hemingway, or accidentally read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha thinking that it was a biography of the Buddha (it’s not), I thought I was ready for the big one, THE William Shakespeare.

But as it turns out, no amount of poetries from Rumi or Kahlil Gibran could prepare me for 16th century English. In a prose format. And while The Merchant of Venice is said to be a Shakespearean comedy, I did not laugh even once. Dare I say that this is a bit of a, tragedy? Right, no.

3 stars for now, but will definitely revisit this book in the future when I’m older and perhaps a little bit more posh.

How to do things effortlessly

“Effortless: Make it Easier to Do What Matters Most” by Greg McKeown

How can we become effortless in what we do? There are so many things covered by this book, but these are the essentials:

Make the most essential activities the easiest ones. Stop filling our head with unnecessary thoughts or needless emotional burdens, clear up the clutter in our head and heart. Make our tasks fun to do. Rest properly and don’t overload ourself or push ourself to burnout. Break our tasks down into several steps and make the first step very easy to do. Set a manageable pace. Start with trash and edit as we progress forward.

Moreover, get rid of unnecessary add-ons. Simplify. Automate functions that can be automated. Have a checklist or a cheat sheet. Seek to understand the principles of things (the why and the how) rather than only the isolated info (the what). Write clear messages that are hard to misinterpret. Leverage trust. Prevent problem before it happens. Define what “done” looks like. Produce residual results. Find ways to make every day a little easier.

McKeown then ends the book with a very moving story that completes it in a full circle, story that inspired him to produce the effortless principles, which prompted him to conclude that “Whatever has happened to you in life. Whatever hardship. Whatever pain. However significant those things are. They pale in comparison to the power you have to choose what to do now.”

Indeed, whatever tasks or challenges we have in front of us we can choose to tackle them by overcomplicate things or we can decide to do them effortlessly. The way we respond is still within our control. And this is deep, coming from his own personal experience.

“The Effortless State is an experience many of us have had when we are physically rested, emotionally unburdened, and mentally energized. You are completely aware, alert, present, attentive, and focused on what’s important in this moment. You are able to focus on what matters most with ease.” McKeown couldn’t summarize it any better. Hope Eve can recover and get back into her old vivacious self.

The healing power of silence

“Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise” by Thich Nhat Hanh

According to the Buddhist tradition, there once lived a deity named Avalokiteshvara. It is said that he can listen to all kind of sounds and he can also utter 5 different types of sounds that can heal the world.

The first is the Wonderful Sound. It is the sound of the wonders of life such as the sound of the rain, birds singing in the morning, and so on.

The second is the Sound of the One Who Observes the World. It is the sound of listening and silence.

The third is the Brahma Sound. It is the transcendental sound, om, which has the innate power to create the world.

The fourth is the Sound of the Rising Tide. It symbolises the teachings of the Buddha. It can remove affliction, clear away misunderstanding, and transform everything.

The fifth is the Sound That Transcends All Sounds of the World. It is the sound of impermanence, a gentle reminder not to get too attached to particular sounds or words.

And according to Thich Nhat Hanh, if we can find silence within ourselves, we can hear these 5 sounds. So, how to achieve this? The key is to control what we consume.

“There are four kinds of food that every person consumes every day”, said Hanh. “In Buddhism, we call these kinds of food the Four Nutriments. They are edible food; sense impressions; volition; and consciousness, both individual and collective.”

The edible food is the food that we eat every day through our mouth. Sense and impression is the sensory experiences we receive through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind such as reading books, listening to music, the sound of the bus outside our window, our phone’s alerts, all of the information and ideas that we consume everyday and come into our consciousness.

The third source of nutriment is volition. It is our will, our desire, our concern that feeds our decision making and actions. And lastly, consciousness. It is the way our individual mind feeds itself and feeds our thoughts and actions. It also includes collective consciousness and how it can affect us as an individual.

Hanh then elaborates that “[a]ll of these foods can be healthy or unhealthy, nourishing or toxic, depending on what we consume, how much we consume, and how aware we are of our consumption.”

Just as we can get sick if we eat too much junk food, or drink too much alcohol to distract ourselves from our suffering, we can experience the same thing with other nutriments. We can engage in too much video games, movies or series, gossip, or other dopamine inducing activities to avoid facing our problems. Volition can also be unhealthy, where instead of having constructive motivation we indulge on craving and obsession. And likewise, collective consciousness can bring out the best in us or we can get dragged by the group’s ugly moods such as anger, gossipy, competitive, etc.

Therefore, because each nutriment affects us profoundly, just like controlling the healthy food that we eat, it is important for us to be aware what exactly we consume for other nutriments and how much we consume them. This, in short, is the essence of mindfulness.

As Hanh remarks, “[m]indful awareness is like a sunscreen protecting the sensitive skin of a newborn baby. Without it, the skin would blister and burn. With the protection of our mindfulness, we are able to stay healthy and safe and take in only those nutriments that help us thrive.”

It is about deliberately curating what we read and see and hear. It is about refraining from our indulgences. It is about stepping back and observing our environment and consciously joining or avoiding the group mood. It can even be as simple as sitting down and meditating on our breathe or absorbing the energy of our surroundings.

Indeed, mindfulness is a form of meditation, but the book teaches us that it does not have to be done through only meditation but can also be conducted through everyday activities such as washing dishes, walking, eating, brushing our teeth, etc.

As Hanh concludes, “[p]racticing silence to empty all kinds of noise within you is not a difficult practice. With some training, you can do it. In noble silence, you can walk, you can sit, you can enjoy your meal. When you have that kind of silence, you have enough freedom to enjoy being alive and to appreciate all the wonders of life.”

Because it is only after we get rid of all the distractions and noises, both from outside stimulants or inside our own head, that we can once more hear our deepest thoughts, get in touch with our innermost feelings, and eventually listen to the 5 types of sound. And this is what this soothing book is ultimately all about.

The long history of debt

“Debt: The First 5000 Years” by David Graeber

This is a story about how many different cultures behave around money. How religion provide, punish, and collect debts. How credit became the key mover of economies. And how ancient and modern societies organise themselves around these central roles.

This is also the history of collaterals, in the form of honour, death, sex, slavery, blood-debt, and of course the likes of houses, credit ratings, and businesses. And ultimately, this is the long, 5000 years, journey of how debt evolved from the Babylon days to become the form it is today in modern globalised society.

Using a big range of academic researches and an impressive array of anthropological findings, David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, presents the evolution of debt into a narration akin to what Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” did to mythology.

It covers the difference between a loan and a bond, the relationship between debt and honour, sin and redemption, the mechanism of tribute system, the value of owing a favour, the distribution of spoils, how coinage became the central part of Axial Age evolution, how traditional markets were born, the enigma of speculative bubbles, how Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were more than just about religion, and geopolitical angles such as what happened with the debt borrowed by an African nation with the money went straight to its dictator’s Swiss Bank account.

One argument that stands out from the rest of this book is the reality that barter system is actually a myth and never really happened. Instead, from the dawn of civilisation some form of credit has always existed, including the paper money that we now use. Yes paper currency is a form of credit, an IOU, just look at the Bank of England banknotes (the British Pound) that still has this written on its notes: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of five pounds.”

Graeber also concluded near the end of the book that “[a]ll that I have said so far merely serves to underline a reality that has come up constantly over the course of this book: that money has no essence. It’s not “really” anything; therefore, its nature has always been and presumably always will be a matter of political contention.”

And chapter 12, in particular, elaborates this view in great details, with the culminating example of how the US eventually control the modern world using US Dollar. The clarity of this chapter explains more than few books on the subject that I’ve read so far.

At the first time reading it more than a decade ago, the book instantly became one of my top 5 favourites, if not the number 1 favourite. I mean, what’s not to like? I am a sucker for history, culture, religion, sociology, politics, finance and economy, and especially the history of money as the central role that connects everything in a society. And now after a 2nd reading, this is still one of my top favourite books of all time out of around nearly 500 books that I’ve read so far. Simply outstanding.

An adventure fitting for a bizarre character

“Rimbaud in Java: The Lost Voyage” by Jamie James

In the year 1876, a 21 year old French poet Arthur Rimbaud completely abandoned writing and joined the Royal Army of the Dutch Indies as an infantryman and sailed for Java. After he landed there, however, he deserted the army, fled into the jungle, and then just disappeared.

Part biography, part historical investigation, “Rimbaud in Java” by Jamie James is the reconstruction of everything that is known about Rimbaud’s rogue voyage, the informed speculation about what he might have seen and done, which in turn paints a vivid picture of what life was like in 19th century Java, that include colonial rule, pre-Islamic culture, and magic.

It is also quite possibly the first history of Indonesia from the vantage point of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC).

According to James, Rimbaud’s life “changed in so many fundamental ways around the time of the Java voyage that it almost seems at times as though a doomed doppelgänger was magically substituted for the shining youth that captivated Paris in 1872, as in a weird tale by Edgar Allan Poe.”

Because, after few months missing Rimbaud did eventually resurfaces back in France, in his mother’s house tanned and bearded. He then went on to work in Scandinavia where he interpreted for a touring Danish circus, lived in a monastery for a while, became a stone quarry foreman in Cyprus, worked in the coffee trade business in Yemen, and briefly sold firearms in Ethiopia, before he died relatively young at the age of 37 not long after he got one of his legs amputated.

But if you think all of these are crazy, wait until you read chapter 1 on what he’s done before the age of 21, which includes being shot at, wrecking a marriage, experimenting with homosexuality, learning multiple languages, crossing the Alps on foot, being arrested and jailed, and at one time got so drunk and passed out in Austria he ended up being robbed and stripped of everything but his street map of Vienna.

Indeed, Arthur Rimbaud was a bizarre character, whose poetries went on to exert enormous influence on French literature, but whose incredibly random and daredevil life raises more questions than we can ever find answers.

And his few months adventure in Java could be key to figure out this man.

After the laws of physics, everything else is opinion

“Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I read this book because I wanted to learn the basics about astrophysics. But as I quickly discovered, this is not astrophysics for dummies. Yes it’s a relatively quick read but Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to wrote it with the assumption of basic knowledge from the readers.

Nevertheless, the general feel about the subject can still be understood.

Firstly, we can assert without further hesitation that the universe had a beginning. The universe also continues to evolve, with every atom in our body is traceable to the Big Bang and to “the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago.”

Moreover, while the Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago, it took another 380,000 years before we can see any matter forming, and few more billion years to form a planet that we call home. Yes, time moves slowly in the universe, and in the grand scale of things our 70-100 years of life, by contrast, is ridiculously short.

Furthermore, there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago. In fact, there are about 100 billion galaxies that we have discovered so far in the universe, one of which is our Milky Way galaxy that in turn contains approximately 100 billion more stars, with one of them is our Sun. We truly are nothing but a speck of dust in the face of the massive universe.

Meanwhile, as one star (our Sun) can have several planets orbiting it, other stars also have planets orbiting them and quite a lot of these planets are at a similar distance like the Earth to the Sun, not too close that it evaporates the water but not too far that it freezes the water. In other words, there are thousands of planets that have been found so far that are habitable and have the potential to support life just like on Earth.

I also find it particularly intriguing that Newton’s Law of Gravity also guides planets, asteroids, and comets in their orbit around the Sun and organised the orbit of the billion stars within our Milky Way Galaxy. This, as it turns out, is a common thing in the world of science: that everything from nature to space all follow certain laws of physics, while everything else, as Tyson remarks, is opinion.

The book also mentions so many fascinating facts such as different colour have different temperature, it also features the explanations of most of the elements in the periodic table, amusing speculations like the possibility that Earthlings might just be a descendant of Martians, and many, many space-science stuff that I find it challenging to digest.

Needless to say, I came here to find answers but come out with more questions. Questions like what’s in the space between galaxies? Who or what neatly organised the gravitational orbits of the planets and the stars? What is a supermassive black hole? What’s on the dark side of the moon? What’s that bright thing in the center of the Milky Way galaxy?

But I guess that’s what a stimulating book is supposed to do, and the amount of mysteries about the space that we still haven’t uncovered yet are intriguing to closely follow.

Be scared, but don’t be afraid

“Courage is Calling” by Ryan Holiday

This is book no. 1 out of 4 on the four Stoic virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. And courage is the important first piece of the four, because without courage none of the latter three are possible.

So, what is courage? first and foremost, it is not the absence of fear, but the management of fear. It is using fear as a risk alert and then follows it up with due diligence to define what we’re actually facing.

As Ryan Holiday remarks, “[f]oresee the worst to perform the best. When fear is defined, it can be defeated. When downside is articulated, it can be weighed against upside. When the wolves are counted, there are fewer of them. Mountains turn out to be molehills, monsters turn out just to be men. When our enemies are humanized, they can be better understood.”

“What we thought were incredible costs,” he then continues, “turn out to be clear calculations—calculations well worth making. The risks, it is revealed, were far outpaced by the rewards. Black swans come into view and can be prepared for. Attacks that we’ve anticipated can be repulsed. The spectrum of possibilities is reduced, the scope of Murphy’s Law is diminished. Vague fear is sufficient to deter us; the more it is explored, the less power it has over us. Which is why we must attack these faulty premises and root them out like the cancers they are.”

Indeed, courage is measuring the danger and carefully calculating our moves to tackle them. Because it’s not whether or not things will be hard (they will) or scary (they are), but it’s about our response of sizing up our obstacles, making plans to defeat them, train for them, and attack them one step at a time.

Courage is also the decision to still go ahead despite the unfavourable odds from our due diligence, when it’s the right thing to do. It is the firefighter rushing into a burning building, the whistleblower taking on corrupt powerful people, the entrepreneur going into business alone, the activist protesting against tyranny, or John F. Kennedy’s decision to help Martin Luther King Jr. to get out of jail for protesting the segregation even though the move was considered a political suicide.

Courage could also means restraint, as Sun Tzu said “it is best to win without fighting—to have maneuvered in such a way that the enemy has lost before it has even begun.” This is what Abraham Lincoln did by managing to maneuver the South into its unwinnable role as the aggressor in the Civil War. It is what Malala Yousafzai shows when asked about the Taliban that shot her in the face and left her for death, she replied “[e]ven if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him.”

One lesson that is sobering from this book is that great legendary heroes were all humans after all with the same doubts and fears like the rest of us. For example, in her version of Hero’s Journey, Florence Nightingale at first refused her “call to adventure” because “it’s too hard, too scary, because they must obviously have picked the wrong person.” But sometimes our calling is much bigger than our fear or the risk, and courage means eventually pursuing the calling even when it feel like the whole world is against us. And that is the thin margin that separates the heroes from the rest.

Churchill was 54 years old and could’ve just retired and lived a simple old days when the danger of Hitler started to appear. Steve Jobs could’ve just stayed content with his second act with Pixar and never to attempt the uphill battle to recoup his first invention Apple. And nobody would blame Charles de Gaulle if after fleeing from Nazi prosecution with his wife and kids, he chose to live anonymously in Britain far away from danger and didn’t organise a French uprising.

Courage is also contagious. I love the story from the ancient Greece where when a city-state needed a military help from Sparta, the Spartans wouldn’t send their army, but instead they only send one Spartan commander. As Holiday explains, “[b]ecause courage, like fear, is contagious. One person who knows what they are doing, who isn’t afraid, who has a plan is enough to reinforce an outnumbered army, to buck up a broken system, to calm chaos where it has taken root. And so a single Spartan was all their allies needed.”

Moreover, sometimes courage appears in a split second decision making. As Holiday remarks, “[c]ourage is defined in the moment. In less than a moment. When we decide to step out or step up. To leap or to step back. A person isn’t brave, generally. We are brave, specifically. For a few seconds. For a few seconds of embarrassing bravery we can be great. And that is enough.” And I can’t think of a better example for this than the recent tragedy where an Uvalde teacher shielded her students from a school shooter, thus saving the kids’ lives but lost her own life.

Yes, courage can also mean sacrifice. Like the act by Irma Garcia in that Texas school shooting that saved a lot of her students’ lives. It can also appear in the form of a mother who puts her career ambition aside to take care for her sick child. It is the immigrant who works in a menial job overseas despite having a medical degree from back home. It is the employee who resigned from a high-paying job in a company or industry that is making the world a worse place. It is that person who has a unfairly damaged reputation because they’re silently protecting someone else.

As we have seen, being brave doesn’t mean we are fearless. Far from it. But we can be scared and do it anyway, as the calling or the reason or the purpose are much bigger than our fear. This is what the heroes in history have figured out, that being scared is only a state of mind while being afraid is feeling the fear deeply, with novelist William Faulkner sums it up nicely when he said “be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.” And that, in a nutshell, is courage.

A billionaire’s lecture notes

“Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

In 2012 venture capitalist Peter Thiel taught a course in his alma matter Stanford about startup, entrepreneurship, and business in general. And among his many students, one in particular, Blake Masters, took very detailed and diligent notes where it then being copied, shared, and became wildly popular among the students.

This book is the polished edition of that concise notes. And it is one of the best business books I’ve ever read.

Thiel’s lessons begin with a simple message: Dominate a small niche and scale up from there. As he explains, “[t]he perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors.”

Because, it is easier to dominate a small market than a large market already filled with competing companies. Thiel gave the exaggerated example of the cure for baldness or a drug to safely eliminate the need for sleep, to make the point across. But the message is clear: if we build something valuable that never existed before, the increase in value is theoretically limitless.

However, he also throw some cold water over the common believe that great products sell themselves, as plenty of potentially great inventions were born and died without much fanfare. Thiel commented, “[i]f you’ve invented something new but you haven’t invented an effective way to sell it, you have a bad business—no matter how good the product.”

And thus he emphasizes the importance of branding, network effects, utilization of technology, etc, including choosing our market carefully and expanding deliberately within it. Chapter 11 on sales, marketing, and advertising covers this in great detail.

Alternatively, if we cannot come up with something revolutionary, as a start up we can instead radically improve an existing solution. As Thiel remarked, “PayPal, for instance, made buying and selling on eBay at least 10 times better. Instead of mailing a check that would take 7 to 10 days to arrive, PayPal let buyers pay as soon as an auction ended. Sellers received their proceeds right away, and unlike with a check, they knew the funds were good.”

And this book is filled with tactics and examples for these kinds of improvement insights. For example, Thiel mentions about the metrics that he use to set the limits for effective distribution: “The total net profit that you earn on average over the course of your relationship with a customer (Customer Lifetime Value, or CLV) must exceed the amount you spend on average to acquire a new customer (Customer Acquisition Cost, or CAC). In general, the higher the price of your product, the more you have to spend to make a sale—and the more it makes sense to spend it.”

The book then step forward to the next progress in a start up: the importance of careful scaling and expansion. Thiel says that there are 2 forms of progress, vertical and horizontal. Vertical progress means doing completely new things (like what Richard Branson have done multiple times from records to airlines to beverages etc), while horizontal progress involves copying things that work, which is a more natural progression. As Thiel commented “[t]he most successful ecompanies make the core progression—to first dominate a specific niche and then scale to adjacent markets—a part of their founding narrative.”

The best example for this horizontal progression is Amazon, where they showed how it can be masterfully done, from books to CDs to pretty much everything today. Here’s Thiel again: “Jeff Bezos’s founding vision was to dominate all of online retail, but he very deliberately started with books. There were millions of books to catalog, but they all had roughly the same shape, they were easy to ship, and some of the most rarely sold books—those least profitable for any retail store to keep in stock—also drew the most enthusiastic customers.”

Moreover, in the book Thiel also writes about his experience as an investor looking at businesses from the outside perspective, with special mention of the pareto principle, where roughly 20% of successful investments (or start-up attempts) will outperform the 80% of flops and still leave us with a net gain, sometimes even a big one. He provides a compelling argument using many examples to show the principle at work, which is nothing short of an epiphany for me. The message from him is again simple: in the end it’s about the batting average, not the once (or few) in a lifetime home runs. And this also applies in many other walks of life.

I could really go on and on about the wide range of topics in this dense book, which also teaches us about disruptions, luck, definite and indefinite views of the future. It tells us about when to fight with all we got, when to step back, or when to merge (if you can’t beat them, join them). And ultimately, it provides us with the day-to-day framework to efficiently run a business, which was the main reason why my entrepreneur friend highly recommended this book to me in the first place.