Cara kerja pemerintah di balik layar

“Biografi Tursandi Alwi: Dekat pak JK dekat pak Boed” by S. Sinansari Ecip, Edi Sudarjat, Yadi Sastro

Bagi orang awam sosok Tursandi Alwi mungkin terdengar asing, tetapi di kalangan elit politik beliau sudah sangat dikenal sebagai orang “dibalik layar” untuk banyak hal penting di negara kita.

Memulai karier birokrasi nya dari posisi sangat bawah, Tursandi berhasil menduduki 22 posisi jabatan di dalam 40 tahun masa pengabdian nya terhadap negara, dari juru foto di suatu kabupaten di Lampung, hingga camat dan wakil walikota di Jakarta, gubernur PLT di 3 provinsi, hingga masuk ke ring 1 RI menjadi Sekretaris Wakil Presiden untuk orang terkuat nomor 2 di Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla dan penerus nya Boediono.

Prestasi di dalam setiap jabatan yang dijalankan nya juga tidak sepele: memenangkan penghargaan juara kecamatan seluruh Indonesia, mengubah Litbang menjadi efisien, merampingkan kementrian sekretaris negara, membangun provinsi baru Gorontalo dari nol, mensukseskan pilkada di Lampung dan Kalimantan Selatan di keadaan politik yang panas pada saat itu, hingga berperan besar di dalam menciptakan undang-undang otonomi daerah Aceh (yang berkontribusi besar di dalam menciptakan damai antara pemerintah dengan GAM).

Di buku inilah terpapar bagaimana mekanisme di balik layar untuk hampir setiap fungsi level jabatan di pemerintahan sebenarnya berkerja, dimana seluk beluk birokrasi dengan segala kelebihan dan kekurangan nya diceritakan dengan jelas dan lengkap dengan konflik dan rekonsiliasi nya. Buku ini juga menggambarkan bagaimana networking serta kompromi dari berbagai pihak yang berkepentingan berperan sangat kuat untuk mencapai hasil yang optimal untuk sukses tidak nya suatu wacana pemerintah. Dan disinilah dimana Tursandi menjadi salah satu ahli di dalam hal berdiplomasi, yang berhasil membawa perubahan yang substansial.

Semua ini bisa dicapai dengan watak dan karakter Tursandi yang apa ada nya, yang menghargai semua orang dari level bawah hingga pejabat ring 1, yang bekerja serba cepat tanpa ber tele-tele, disertai persiapan dan perencanaan yang sangat matang untuk mengetahui amanat penugasan nya luar dalam sebelum memulai, yang bekerja sangat keras dan menjadi contoh untuk diikuti oleh para anak buah, serta membangun struktur organisasi yang ramping untuk mengakomodir cara kerja beliau yang prakmatis ini.

Selanjutnya, yang menjadi ciri khas Tursandi adalah beliau tidak pernah memakai fasilitasi ketika menjabat sebagai gubernur, tidak dikawal vorijder, tidak menggunakan mobil pejabat gubernur (kecuali ada tamu), tidak tidur di kamar gubernur tetapi di kamar tamu, dimana jawaban Tursandi selalu “saya mencintai pekerjaan, bukan jabatan.” Tursandi juga tidak menggunakan jabatan nya untuk me mindah-mindahkan pejabat dari satu posisi ke posisi lain untuk kepentingan sendiri (kegiatan yang sering membuat masalah baru bagi banyak instansi pemerintah). Beliau juga tidak segera mengisi posisi kosong di suatu jabatan, tetapi membiarkan gubernur terpilih yang mengisi nya (untuk menghindari KKN). Dan beliau pun menghindari hal-hal yang berbau uang, seperti pelicin, uang sogok, dll.

Kebiasaan inilah yang membuat Tursandi dapat dengan mudah merangkul seluruh lapisan masyarakat tanpa terikat atau tanpa beban, yang akhirnya mengubah opini publik di setiap daerah yang beliau kembangkan dari menolak keras hingga menghargai nya sebagai salah satu “putra daerah.”

Buku ini juga menjelaskan aktivitas dibalik layar untuk wakil presiden Jusuf Kalla dan Boediono, yang menjadi akses langka untuk melihat bagaimana 2 wakil presiden menjalankan tugas nya dengan cepat, rapi, dan efisien, yang digambarkan dari kacamata staff nya dan tentu saja seswapres nya Tursandi Alwi. Bagaimana rapat non-formal dijalankan sebelum rapat resmi, bagaimana hasil rapat di tindak lanjuti dan siapa saja yang dilibatkan, peran komunikasi dengan presiden SBY, hingga bagaimana kompleks nya pengaturan jadwal wapres lengkap dengan perubahan-perubahan last minute nya, semua dijabarkan secara detail di buku ini.

Akhir kata, membaca biografi Tursandi Alwi itu sama seperti membaca perkembangan birokrasi dan struktur pemerintahan dari jaman presiden Suharto hingga SBY. Dimana banyak pelajaran berharga bisa kita dapatkan untuk mengerti urusan dapur negara kita ini yang jarang diperlihatkan di media masa. Dan seiring dengan reformasi birokrasi yang terus di kerjakan oleh pemerintah, Tursandi Alwi, sesuai cerita di buku ini, berperan besar didalam kesuksesan dalam me-modernisasi negara tercinta kita.

The master of the dark arts

“33 Strategies of War” by Robert Greene

Robert Greene is the only author that I hesitate to reveal too much in my review, due to the immense amount of tricks he teaches us in order to thrive in this rough world. His lessons are so valuable and directly applicable it feels like I’ve been given the cheat code in the game of life, one that I’d rather put in a metaphorical safe box rather than give away for nothing.

At many points in my life I can see his theses and examples from the many wars in history get analogically implemented by the most successful people and the best of the best around me, which prompted me to wonder whether they all read Greene’s books? Nah, some of them don’t even like to read books. Or do they, secretly? Even if I don’t implement them all, the book gives me so much insights from all the tricks that may be used by others, and that’s really useful.

Now, the fact of the matter is the majority of human existence are spent in wars. And this book selected some of the best stories from wars, diplomacy and many other confrontational nature throughout history, to learn from their strategies, the implementations, and the philosophies behind them. And in the world according to Robert Greene, there’s no time to be kind and be genuinely nice as it is a rough dog-eat-dog world out there, which as you can imagine have drawn many criticism from the “world peace” crowd.

But he’s a no-bullshit realist, whom approaches life as it is with no sugar coating or hope for an ideal circumstance. Indeed, instead of thinking like a religion and preaching people how to live perfectly and be naive with our imperfect surroundings, Greene acknowledges the chaotic reality of daily lives and teaches us the tools to function well in it. Some are subtle, some are even decent, but many are viciously effective.

In this regard, he’s like the master of the dark arts to the other side of the coin: Greene’s own protege Ryan Holiday’s meditations on Stoicism that approaches the chaos of life from the calm and thoughtful side, one that provide us with inner strength. Combine this with Greene’s array of strategies for our outer strength, and you’ll get one mighty set of survivor tools at your disposal in the journey of life. Ok I should stop, I’ve said too much already.

A calming perspective on living and dying

“The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche

I read this book while sitting beside my terminally ill father, and it gives me a sense of unprecedented calm and control over the scary process of dying.

Chapter 10 and 11 in particular tremendously help me to get new perspectives on letting go and being at peace with the whole process. One particular quotation sums it up nicely in my opinion: “Imagine you are standing on the deck of an ocean liner, about to set sail. You look back on the shore and see all your family and friends waving goodbye. You have no choice about leaving, and the ship is already moving away. How would you want the people you loved to be saying goodbye to you? What would help you most on your journey?”

The book itself is more than just a guide to cope with death, which is the 2nd part of the book, where the 1st part of the book focuses on how to life well. Afterall, just like what HH The Dalai Lama said in the foreword of the book: “Naturally, most of us would like to die a peaceful death, but it is also clear that we cannot hope to die peacefully if our lives have been full of violence, or if our minds have mostly been agitated by emotions like anger, attachment, or fear. So if we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well: Hoping for a peaceful death, we must cultivate peace in our mind, and in our way of life.”

The book also provide a window into the wonderful world of pre-1950s Tibetan Buddhism and its very rich local culture. It is an illustration on how life is approached very differently compared to the majority of the rest of the world, even in exile, a world that I would want to someday visit at least once in a lifetime.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with my dad. But thanks to this book, I’m ready for whatever outcome.

Big Personal Questions

Anthony Robbins said the quality of your life is a direct reflection of the quality of the questions you are asking yourself. But often the problem for us is, we don’t know what questions to ask ourselves, or worse, we are not aware of the [bad] questions we unconsciously ask ourselves repeatedly.

Don’t fret. The following is a list of questions that are designed to provoke, to ignite, to direct or re-direct, or simply to clarify your thoughts. There are no right or wrong answers but only personal answers, which could provide us with a better sense of who we are, what we need, what we want but not need, what we can tolerate, what we cannot tolerate, etc.

The constantly growing set of questions are not mine, instead I encountered them from several thought-provoking people (including the world-famous Marcel Proust’s 35 Questionnaire), and they have helped me think clearer about my life. I hope it can give the same effect on you (feel free to copy-paste them to your own notes and answer them).

Here are the questions:

Jay Shetty: [insert your name] loves….

Jay Shetty: I have no tolerance for…..

Jay Shetty: what questions do you ask yourself the most?

Jay Shetty: the accomplishment you most proud of and why?

Jay Shetty: what question do you wish people ask you more often?

Jay Shetty: [ask that question]

Jay Shetty: what have been the greatest lesson you’ve learned in the past 12 months?

Jim Kwik: if you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Vishen Lakhiani: what experiences do you want to have in this lifetime?

Vishen Lakhiani: How do you want to grow?

Lewis Howes: What is your definition of greatness?

Shane Parrish: Am I living the life that I want to live?

Shane Parrish: What would I regret if I died today?

Marcel Proust: what is your idea of perfect happiness?

Marcel Proust: what is your marked characteristics?

Marcel Proust: What is your greatest fear?

Marcel Proust: What historical figure do you most identify with?

Marcel Proust: Who are your heroes in real life?

Marcel Proust: Which living person do you most admire?

Marcel Proust: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Marcel Proust: What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Marcel Proust: What is your favourite journey?

Marcel Proust: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Marcel Proust: Which word or phrases do you most overuse?

Marcel Proust: What is your greatest regret?

Marcel Proust: What is your current state of mind?

Marcel Proust: If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

Marcel Proust: What is your most treasured possession?

Marcel Proust: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Marcel Proust: Where would you like to live?

Marcel Proust: What is your favourite occupation?

Marcel Proust: What is the quality you most like in a man?

Marcel Proust: What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Marcel Proust: What are your favourite names?

Marcel Proust: What is your motto?

Anthony Robbins: What am I happy about in my life now?

Anthony Robbins: What am I excited about in my life now?

Anthony Robbins: What am I proud about in my life now?

Anthony Robbins: What am I grateful about in my life now?

Anthony Robbins: What am I enjoying in my life right now?

Anthony Robbins: What am I committed to in my life right now?

Anthony Robbins: Who do I love? Who loves me?

Tim Ferriss: What can you learn from the people you hate the most?

Tim Ferriss: What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

Tim Ferriss: What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? My readers love specifics like brand and model, where you found it, etc.

Tim Ferriss: How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?

Tim Ferriss: If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?

Tim Ferriss: What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.

Tim Ferris: What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

Tim Ferriss: In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Tim Ferriss: What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

Tim Ferriss: What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Tim Ferriss: When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

Jay Shetty: if you could create a law based on the teachings you’ve learned for the world to follow, what would it be?

Tom Bilyeu: What impact do you want to make in the world?

Lewis Howes: I want you to imagine that you are the great person that you dream of being, and you’ve created everything you wanted to create everything you wanted to create in your life. You’ve accomplished all the dreams, all the big goals that you’ve set. You’ve made them happen. You’ve got the family of your dreams. You’ve done it all. But you have to take everything with you. Everything you’ve created, your books, your movies, you have to take everything with you so that no one has access to your information anymore… all your social media content, it’s all gone. But you get to write down the three things you know to be true about your life, the lessons you would leave behind. All people would have to remember you by are these lessons. What would you say are your three truths? From the top of your head…. what lessons would you want people to take away from your life?

Shane Parrish: You’re 100 years old, sitting in a porch alone, and it’s your last day on earth. You started to reflect on your life and every little moments in it. What would you see? What would your eulogy say about you?

And what would be the perfect eulogy?

The enigma of Jokowi

“Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia” by Ben Bland

What kind of politician who can do so much by saying so little? Who can play both ends between the elite and the ordinary people? Whose unpredictability can consistently surprise his strongest critics and disappoint his most fanatic supporters? The answer: a good one. This trait is in fact one of Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power: assume formlessness.

In that case, is Jokowi a good president? Well, not so fast.

This book does a great job on depicting the hard-to-define enigma of Indonesia’s 7th president, Joko Widodo, or belovedly nicknamed Jokowi. He was a simple local furniture businessman in small town Solo, whom the book then cheekily portray as “accidentally on purpose” at becoming the most powerful man in Indonesia in less than a decade later.

The author of the book, Ben Bland, certainly have the right credentials to be able to write a full picture of the president. He was the Indonesia correspondent for the Financial Times (2012-2015), whom was very much present from the time Jokowi was a mayor of Solo, to when he was running to be the governor of Jakarta (2012), until when he was elected as the country’s president (2014).

It is by far the most honest portrayal of the man, without hidden agenda and without partisanship bias, with the good, the bad, and most importantly the contradictive nature of Jokowi all presented within the context of complicated Indonesian political environment. Remember that crucial last point.

Along with the presidential vote, 16 parties were competing in 2014 election with 9 parties secured power in the 575-seat main parliamentary body (DPR). When Jokowi won the race, he showed his knack as a master in transactional politics where he can increase his coalition from 40% control of the parliament into 70% in just 2 years. But this move came with a heavy price tag. With patronages and compromises mean his choice of ministers were not entirely up to him, that the best of the best people for the job often overlooked to make way for the choices made by his party’s chairman Megawati, the wider coalition, and the tycoons that back him up financially.

The complication exacerbated by the fact that there are no well-defined ideology in Indonesia, no left wing or right wing, no liberals and conservatives, with the only differences between the parties are Islamic parties or nationalist parties. And even then the nationalist parties promote syariah regulations and the Islamic parties support secular policies change such as abolishing motorcycle tax. Bland also remark “[the parties] operate more as a vote-getting machines at election time and patronage distribution machines once on power. It is little wonder that Indonesians consider their political parties to be among the nation’s most corrupt institutions.”

Moreover, the book brilliantly capture one of the core problems in the country’s political environment, where “many decisions, in any case, are made in backroom deals on issue-based parliamentary committees, rather than majority votes of the whole DPR. This reflects a political culture that prioritises musyawarah and mufakat – ‘deliberation’ and ‘consensus’ – over sound policymaking” in an environment where money is the only real ideology.

It was in this context, in an environment where the elite dynasties are dominating Indonesia’s political parties (and hence political landscape), that Jokowi emerged as a fresh hope, as one of us the people. His folksy charm of blusukan (direct visit to the slumps) – where he told the author that the idea was ridiculously simple: “go to the people, ask what their problems are, and then solve them” – has since copied by seemingly all politicians in the country.

But by being constantly on the road meeting people he often criticized for always in a “support rally” mode and not working as the actual leader, a problem most obvious during his short 2 year tenure as the governor of Jakarta. And as a president with politically-appointed ministers this problem escalated into the national stage: with the absence of clear guidance from the president, our daily news are filled with shenanigans made by some rouge ministers while others became a media darling with little effectiveness, where the book commented that “Jokowi prioritised action (and PR stunts) over quality and planning.”

Jokowi also has the tendency to disregard experts’ advice and has the unwillingness to listen to analysis, and instead rely more on snap judgements and act upon stubborn desires, which also contribute to the chaos of his presidency, for better or for worse, whether it is wrecking havoc industries or become a good catalyst for change. “Well-intentioned but poorly executed, it was a metaphor for the way Jokowi’s government managed the economy”, as the book put it.

And while as a mayor of Solo it was relatively easy to get every fraction of society to be more or less satisfied, as a president it became increasingly difficult for him to please everybody, which is very apparent in, among many others, his policy on Foreign Direct Investment: Promising foreign investors for better and more relaxed regulations to attract investments, at the same time promising local businesses to protect them from foreign competitions. A man of contradictions.

However, when it comes to political maneuvers, he’s the chess master. Chapter 5 was particularly hard to read, as the scar from the event still feel very fresh and left me with a bitter reminder of the rotten world of Indonesian politics, with Jokowi’s backstab at his loyal partner (for the safety of the nation) simultaneously opened the gate for the flood of hardliners to grab power in Indonesia. But few people can arguably handle it as well as him, with the relative peace (and not civil war) we all get to enjoy since 2016 until now is a testament of his mastery.

So, is Jokowi a good president? The book finally answers the dilemma I had on my president. I voted AGAINST his opponent (not necessarily FOR him) for reasons exactly like the book says in page 108. And as you would see throughout the book, in a diverse country of 273 million people spread across 17,000 islands, 1300 ethnic groups, 300 languages, and 6 official religion, the complex political environment in Indonesia constrain him (and would also constrain anyone after him) from fully implementing his vision of the country, and perhaps had even turn an idealistic man into a pragmatic one.

So in that sense, he’s not an effective Indonesian president, nobody could be. But love him or hate him, or indifferent about him, one thing can’t be denied: he may be an ineffective president, but he’s a damn good politician.

The notebook of the concierge of knowledge

“Tools of Titans” by Tim Ferriss

I’ve never been a proponent of re-reading books, because there are so many great books in the world and so little time to read them all, why waste it by reading something that we’ve already read? But every once in a while there’s a book that’s truly worth to be read and re-read multiple times due to the immense info we can learn from them at different stages in our lives. This book is one of them.

The first time I read this book 3 years ago I was just at the beginning of my transformation journey, from more than a decade of unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle into a habit evolves around 5 pillars: sleep well, eat well, exercise, meditate, and healthy social connections. And this book greatly helped me to set the foundations for those transformational contents, and became like the main hub of information for me to dig deeper into the 5 pillars.

This time around, the 100+ titans listed here became not just another faceless teachers but actually turn out to be the big names that I have since read their books, read their articles, or listen to their podcast interviews (most of whom are in the Tim Ferriss Show, naturally). And the knowledge I have gathered and the lessons I have learned directly in the past 3 years have made me understand some of the things that I missed or didn’t understand in the first reading of the book.

This is not the first time I revisit this book, however, as every once in a while whenever I need to find specific info within the scope of the 5 pillars, chances are I will find it in this book or at least I will find a link or reference that can kick start my research mode (heck, I even bought 5 books as a result of the recommendations from this re-reading). This is how resourceful this book is, a testament to Tim Ferriss as whom I consider as the concierge of knowledge.

And so I digress, if there’s one book that deserves to be read and re-read it’s this book, the compilation of notes from the concierge of knowledge himself.

An intelligent way to look at Star Wars

“The World According to Star Wars” by Cass R. Sunstein

The phrase “don’t judge a book from its cover” rings true for my experience reading this book. Judging from the brilliant cover and title alone I thought the book was a fun book on the world of Star Wars (it is), a book that is light enough to be read on a chilled weekend (it totally can). But to my pleasant surprise, it provides so much more.

To my error (hey it’s lazy weekend after all), it took me several chapters to finally get curious enough to look at who the author was, since the book is filled with so many solid social and scientific findings. And would you believe it, it’s Cass R. Sunstein, the American legal scholar and behavioural economics expert, the author of several interesting books including the co-author of the best-seller “Nudge.”

With that in mind, in a Malcolm Gladwell-esque kind of narrative, this book is the social science about the whole phenomenon of Star Wars, from the obscure beginning where all of the actors and even George Lucas himself believed that the first (and only) movie would flop, to the mega success of the franchise, to the cult-like followers the movies have created in our pop culture around the world.

Moreover, in a Freakonomics-like approach, the book also provides the analysis of the world through the lens of Star Wars, including comparative studies with Martin Luther King Jr, Jesus, Buddha, Thomas Jefferson, Oedipus, Vladimir Putin, even Stoicism, among many other surprisingly random but relevant examples. It has several current affairs arguments as well such as on US supreme court justice system using the analogy of the Empire vs Republic, or Jedi mind control for advertising industry, or one very beautiful illusionist woman who can make tables and chairs fly (relevant to using “The Force”), while the author uses best of the best scientific explanations or concepts to make his arguments (such as using Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the invincible gorilla experiment, and referring to Influence by Robert Cialdini).

Some intriguing revelations also come up every once in a while, such as the fact that Harrison Ford was merely a 35 year old carpenter making a door on the set of the movie when George Lucas decided to cast him as Han Solo! Or the journey inside George Lucas’ train of thoughts when creating Star Wars, where the fact that Lucas highly adapt the hero’s journey from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and put them in an unfamiliar context (the outer space, in a galaxy far far away) and add some twists along the way, can shed a light on how the whole saga were and are being created.

All in all, it’s a fun read, it’s light but intriguing, and we can still learn a lot from the struggles and successes of creating one of the most recognisable brands in the world. I just cannot believe that I can learn a lot about the psychology of the crowd from a fun book about Star Wars.

Bio hacking in a nutshell

“Game Changer” by Dave Asprey

It’s always intriguing to read or listen to anything presented by the father of bio hacking, Dave Asprey. And this book is no different, it is a summary of some of the most important interviews he conducted with experts in different fields on his podcast Bulletproof Radio.

The range of topics are pretty diverse: from the science behind “willpower muscle”, to the “codes” we insert into our supercomputer brain, to neuroplasticity, meta moments, stem cell, minimalism, a super weird chapter on LSD, the 4th state of water after liquid solid and vapour, the importance of recovery, “mindfulness masturbation”, the science behind shamanic medicine, a very useful fear-happiness spectrum, to human zoology (yes that exists).

The book also analyses fluid intelligence and how to raise our memory capability by 40% using scientifically-proven methods, altered state using breathing meditation, the fact that “porn is the high-fructose corn syrup of sex”, why celebrating failures is a great bio hacking tool, why violent criminals have very high level of trace metals in their blood, a simple breathing technique to connect the left and right hemisphere of the brain, all the way to an interview with a dominatrix on BDSM as a flow-state-generating bio hacking tool. Fun!

It’s weird, it’s nuts, but it works, and scientifically proven. I guarantee that your reading experience won’t be a dull one, and you might just learn one or two new tools to hack your life with immediate effect.

Finally, a proper biography for all the Stoics

“Lives of the Stoics” by Ryan Holiday

I began reading this book with a relatively good knowledge on Stoicism, after reading the 3 “main books” of Meditations, Discourses, and Letters, while adding Enchiridion and On the Shortness of Life into the “ancient” mix. For the modern Stoicism I have read books written by several authors including what many consider as the “main 3 modern philosophers” of Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, and of course Ryan Holiday with his Obstacle, Ego, and Stillness, while I have been reading The Daily Stoic in its 4th cycle for this year. This, of course, not to mention all the Daily Stoic e-mails, all the podcasts on Stoicism, and the many wonderful articles on Stoicism on Medium.

Hence, when I start reading this book immediately after its release date on 29 September 2020, my instant reaction was finally a biographical book on the lives of the Stoics that I’ve been reading so much about! A book that shows how the Stoic practices were being implemented by the greats. I cannot help but feeling like Star Wars fans when watching Episode 1 for the first time and saw that many Jedi Warriors in action, or more precisely, when I open the book I feel like a little girl wearing princess dress in Disneyland.

I took my time reading it though. Oh no no no, I’m not going to read it like the last time I read Ryan Holiday’s book (devoured it in 4 days and poof the magic was over before it even began). So I savour it, pace it, and enjoy slow reading it very much. And 26 Stoics biographies become 26 days of different role models to meditate from, with one Stoic philosopher a day inspiring me in more ways than I had imagined.

First and foremost, there’s Zeno’s acceptance on destiny and how to make the best out of his situation. Cleanthes’ hard working ethic, industriousness, quick wit, and integrity. Diogenes’ diplomatic skills. Antipater’s kindness and personal approach to his surroundings, and his philosophy on marriage and kids. The awesome Scipionic circle and the way Panaetius embedded Stoicism into the Roman Republic life. And Helvidius Priscus’ bravery to speak his mind.

Then there’s the unflinching moral standing of Rutilius, “the last honest man in Rome”, despite his corrupted surrounding in the Roman high rankings (one virtue that bite him back real hard, which is even a greater lesson to learn on how to deal with personal injustice). Thrasea’s steely courage as an opposition senator to Mad dictator Nero, and the way he deals with the grave injustices around him. Cato’s daughter Porcia, whom as a Stoic herself can withstand so many losses and uncertainties with only her philosophy as her bedrock of sanity. And ultimately for me, how Chrysippus developed his Stoic mentality from his running days (which, as a runner my self, makes him the perfect role model for me) and ever the great researcher and writer, how he codified all the Stoic lessons as well as diligently learn from rival schools to perfecting his defend of Stoicism. The fact that Cornutus inherited a full 700 of Chrysippus’ books when Persius died speaks volume on Chrysippus’ industriousness.

While Chrysippus remains my favourite Stoic, there are some others that really at par: The brilliance and endless curiosity of polymath Posidonius and the way he makes observations, gather data and use the data, while especially useful for me is his views on the corrupted world of politics (he advised many great men, including the great Roman general Pompey whom even travelled to Rhodes to meet Posidonius for advice). Moreover, there’s everyone’s favourite philosopher Cato, with his integrity, brevity, oratory brilliance, and the way he live his life that embodies the perfect Stoic character whom practices Aristo’s idea of being indifferent to everything but virtue.

There are also Athenodorus and Arius whom become the advisors of Rome’s first emperor Octavian, which thanks to these men’s advises Octavian was able to turn Rome from bricks to marbles. There’s Musonius Rufus, “the Roman Socrates”, a great embodiment of the four virtues of Stoicism whom teaches the importance of hard work and endurance, and always try to find opportunities to do good wherever he was and no matter the circumstance (which serendipitously, the very morning I read the chapter about him was the day I had to make one of the most defining decisions in my life, and it could not go any smoother thanks to the brief but powerful lessons about him). And of course everybody’s favourite teacher Epictetus, whose biographical chapter I highlighted the most, and the embodiment of Plato’s philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius.

But then there’s Cicero. While he never claim to be a Stoic, he trained under one (Posidonius), he took care of the blind Stoic Diodotus, commented in one of his writings that the Stoics are the true philosophers, and it is through his writings that much of what we know about Stoicism in the ancient world survives. And it shows how much influence he had on Stoicism just by the long coverage in this book as the only non-Stoic Stoic biography that could easily mistaken as one of Robert Greene’s coverage. What’s with all the associations but never the actual label of a Stoic? It is simply because he also studied under teachers from every school during his 2 years in Athens, to gain wisdom and knowledge from all of them. And it shows immediately from reading this chapter that his behaviour is nowhere near Stoic-like.

The book also perfectly illustrate the conflicts and infighting within the school of Stoicism, with the argumentative and boldness of Aristo challenging the very cornerstone of Stoic philosophy established by Zeno and solidified by Cleanthes. And I love the fact that the Stoics were not perfect human beings whom also struggle with their own demons just like the rest of us, just like the story of Diotimus, or the one error of judgement that made an otherwise flawless Junius Rusticus forever remembered in history as the Stoic that prosecute a Christian, or the un-Stoic like advice by Stoic philosopher Arius to emperor Octavian to kill his enemy’s child to secure the throne (but then again Arius provide us with the best summary of Stoicism’s 4 virtues). 

I also find hard to digest Plautus’ non-action against Nero’s smear and aggressive attacks, confused whether that’s a very Stoic temperance for something outside his control or a lack of courage and a passive acceptance of Amor Fati. And of course there’s the ever conflicting Seneca. While his thinking reflect a Stoic way of thinking, his actions proof otherwise. For example, being a disciple of the frugal school once led by Cleanthes he can throw lavish parties using money he get from his murderous boss.

Of course, Ryan Holiday never claim that the Stoics were perfect human beings, and in fact one way or another all of them eventually violate the lessons of Stoicism to varying degrees. That’s just the imperfect human nature. Nevertheless, for every flawed Stoic there are several tremendous ones that reflect the four virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.

Two biographies stands out for me as badass examples of this attitude. First, the story of Agrippinus, with his bravery in the era of 2 corrupt and violent emperors Claudius and Nero, which become one of the role models for none other than Epictetus. His clear principles are indeed admirable, and his temperance in facing his own injustice and banishment is one of the most memorable key moments in Stoic history. He indeed did not add to his troubles by bemoaning them, nor did he compromise his composure or his dignity for any matters whether big or small. And second, the story of Julius Canus, whom was playing chess with a friend while awaiting to be executed by Emperor Caligula, when the guard came to execute him. He then joked to his friend saying “you will testify that I was one piece ahead” and calmly went on to his death chamber with no fear as if it’s just a regular daily task.

Ultimately, the Stoics were not some people wearing robes sitting idly talking about theories. But they’re merchant, long distance runner, wrestler, senator, military general, slave, governor, teacher, mayor, even emperor. They were real people with real-life jobs trying to function in a broken and chaotic society. This is where this book stands out from the rest of the pact, as we get to see the Stoic philosophy directly implemented in action, through 26 different personalities in an environment not that different than ours.

I have a bucket list to someday travel from Cyprus to Greece all the way to Rome following the steps of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Stoa. I expect to found almost no statue or historical artifact of Stoicism, however, as that would not be very Stoic of them (no ego-boosting statues, no trail of extravagant riches, etc). But instead I would be walking in the streets where these great philosophers once walked, and inspired the way they were inspired in their own respective times. And when that faithful day comes, what better book to bring and re-read along the journey than this one? A pure masterclass by Ryan Holiday, as always.

The personal story to complete the puzzle piece

“The Wim Hof Method” by Wim Hof

“The cold is merciless, but righteous.” By now anyone who’s reading this must have recognised Wim Hof, have watched his shenanigans and his brilliance, or sometimes both in a space of less than 1 minute.

While “What Doesn’t Kill Us” by Scott Carney did a tremendous job on analyzing the science behind the Wim Hof Method, this autobiography completes the puzzle piece by adding the personal touch that gives the why behind the what and the how.

And Wim Hof’s personal story match the larger-than-life character, from his first encounters with the cold at age 7, to his bicycle trip with his twin brothers from Netherlands to Spain, to living freely in a squatter area, to a whole chapter dedicated to his late wife and the struggles they had living with 4 small kids with no money and odd scrap jobs just to get by, and a depression in his wife’s part. It’s deeply moving and this vulnerability is what makes him relatable as a human being, the Clark Kent to the Superman.

Wim Hof acknowledges 3 pillars for his method: the cold, breathing, and mindset. And on each one of them he took us in a journey of his discovery, through trial and errors, through skepticism even ridicules, through borderline “freak shows”, through so many lab tests that finally confirm the science behind his madness. Indeed, the science part is still very much exist in this book, where the “Iceman” shows a high degree of understanding on the workings behind his method as well as its effects on our brain and body.

When it comes to teaching the method, however, it gets pretty repeating. I understand that there’s a need to reiterate and reconfirm so that the lessons will be remembered, but this made the relatively simple method into somewhat complicated for novices unfamiliar with it. Even Wim Hof himself acknowledge that “[b]y now you probably think I sound like a broken record, and perhaps that is so. I don’t care” but he reasoned that “[r]epetition is the mother of learning, and I’m banging the drum.” Moreover, the flow of the book is not necessarily linear, and every once in a while you’ll find bits and pieces jumping from one chapter to another only to reappear again in the next chapter.

All in all, the book is chaotic and a little messy, but filled with so many touching stories from him and those who have implemented his method, and the narration always accompanied by how to adapt the Wim Hof Method in any given situation. Yes it is repeating at times, but that only guarantee that the lessons of the book will surely stick in our minds and we will left feeling excited to implement them. I expect nothing less from a book written by the free-spirited man himself.