This blogpost is not an exhaustive summary of the book. Just contains the notes I took

  • Living a good life has a lot to do with interpreting facts in a constructive way. I always mentally add 50 percent to prices in shops and restaurants. That’s the amount this pair of shoes or sole à la meunière will actually cost me—taking income tax into account. If a glass of wine costs 10 dollars, I’ll have to earn 15 in order to afford it. For me, that’s good mental accounting, because it helps me keep my expenditure in check

  • Peak–end rule: you remember the high point and the end point of your holiday, but the rest is forgotten

  • The most common misunderstanding I encounter is that the good life is a stable state or condition. Wrong. The good life is only achieved through constant readjustment

  • When it comes to important issues, flexibility isn’t an advantage—it’s a trap. Cortés, the dessert-averse CEO and Clayton Christensen: what all three of them have in common is that they use radical inflexibility to reach long-term goals that would be unrealizable if their behavior were more flexible. How so? Two reasons. First: constantly having to make new decisions situation by situation saps your willpower. Decision fatigue is the technical term for this. A brain exhausted by decision-making will plump for the most convenient option, which more often than not is also the worst one. This is why pledges make so much sense. Once you’ve pledged something, you don’t then have to weigh up the pros and cons each and every time you’re faced with a decision. It’s already been made for you, saving you mental energy. The second reason inflexibility is so valuable has to do with reputation. By being consistent on certain topics, you signal where you stand and establish the areas where there’s no room for negotiation. You communicate self-mastery, making yourself less vulnerable to attack. Mutual deterrents during the Cold War were based largely on this effect. The USA and the USSR both knew that a nuclear strike would mean instant retaliation. No deliberation, no situational weighing up of pros and cons. The decision for or against the red button had already been taken. Pressing it first simply wasn’t an option

  • What applies to nations applies equally to you. If you lead a life consistent with your pledges—whatever those look like—people will gradually start to leave you in peace. Legendary investor Warren Buffett, for instance, refuses on principle to negotiate. If you want to sell him your company, you’ve got exactly one shot. You can make precisely one offer. Buffett will either buy the company at the price you suggest, or he won’t buy it at all. If it’s too high, there’s no point lowering it. A no is a no, and everybody realizes that. Buffett has acquired such a reputation for inflexibility that he’s now guaranteed to be offered the best deal right from the word go, without wasting any time on haggling

  • No industry takes mistakes more seriously than airlines. After his spectacular emergency landing in the Hudson River, Captain Sullenberger wrote: “Everything we know in aviation, every rule in the rule book, every procedure we have, we know because someone somewhere died.” With each crash, future flights become safer. This principle—let’s call it black box thinking—is an exquisite mental tool that can be applied to any other area of life. The term black box thinking was coined by Matthew Syed, who dedicated a whole book to it. Very few people simply accept reality and analyze their own flight recorders. This requires precisely two things: a) radical acceptance and b) black box thinking. First one, then the other

  • Psychologist Paul Dolan at the London School of Economics has observed how people who are gaining weight will gradually shift their focus to areas of their lives where the number on the scale is less relevant—to their jobs, for instance. Why? Because it’s easier to redirect your focus than to lose weight. Yet the fat couldn’t care less about your focus, your interests or your motivation. The world isn’t remotely interested in what you think of it or how you feel. Banish all such obscurantist tactics from your brain

  • Radical acceptance of defeats, deficiencies, flops—how does that work? If we’re left to our own devices, it’s a bit of a chore. Often we see other people far more clearly than we see ourselves (which is why we’re so frequently disappointed by others but rarely by ourselves), so your best shot is to find a friend or a partner you can rely on to give you the warts-and-all truth. Even then, your brain will do its best to soft-pedal the facts it doesn’t like. With time, however, you’ll learn to take seriously the judgments of others

  • Alongside radical acceptance, you’ll need a black box. Build your own. Whenever you make a big decision, write down what’s going through your mind—assumptions, trains of thought, conclusions. If the decision turns out to be a dud, take a look at your flight data recorder (no need to make it crash-proof; a notebook will do just fine) and analyze precisely what it was that led to your mistake. It’s that simple. With each explicable fuck-up, your life will get better. If you can’t identify your mistake, you either don’t understand the world or you don’t understand yourself. To put it another way, if you can’t spot where you put a foot wrong, you’re going to fall flat on your face again. Persistence in your analysis will pay off. Side note: black box thinking works not only on a personal level but also in the business world. It ought to be standard practice for every corporation

  • Technology—usually heralded as full of promise—often has a counterproductive effect on our quality of life. A basic rule of the good life is as follows: if it doesn’t genuinely contribute something, you can do without it. And that is doubly true for technology. Next time, try switching on your brain instead of reaching for the nearest gadget

  • “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no bold old pilots.” As an amateur pilot myself, I’m often put in mind of this saying. I quite like the idea of being an old pilot someday. It’s certainly better than the alternative. When I clamber into the cockpit of my old single-engine plane (a 1975 vintage), I’m not aiming for anything spectacular. I’m just trying not to crash. The potential causes of a crash are well established: flying in bad weather, flying without a checklist, flying when you’re too tired, flying without proper fuel reserves

  • Do your best to systematically eliminate the downside in your life—then you’ll have a real chance of achieving a good life

  • “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it,” as Daniel Kahneman explains. The more narrowly we focus on a particular aspect of our lives, the greater its apparent influence. At the beginning of the description above, I concentrated almost entirely on the weather—ice in New York, sun in Miami Beach. This aspect was therefore dominant when I asked you to compare the satisfaction of living in New York with that of living in Miami. We then sketched out a whole day, from morning commute to a comfy evening on the sofa, in which the weather was only one element. If we broaden that to even longer timespans—a week, a month, a year, a whole lifetime—we find that the climate suddenly becomes a negligible aspect of overall satisfaction. Overcoming the focusing illusion is key to achieving a good life. It will enable you to avoid many stupid decisions. When you compare things (cars, careers, holiday destinations), you tend to focus on one aspect particularly closely, neglecting the hundred other factors. You assign this one aspect inordinate significance because of the focusing illusion. You believe this aspect is more critical than it really is. So what can you do to combat this? You either compare all hundred factors, a labor-intensive process, or—more practically— you try to see the two things you’re comparing as wholes. Compare them from a distance to avoid overemphasizing any single factor

  • Nobody understands the world completely. It’s far too complex for a single human brain. Even if you’re highly educated, you can only understand a tiny part. Still, that’s something—this minuscule patch is the runway you need for take-off, what you need to fulfill your high-flying dreams. If you don’t have one, you’ll never leave the ground. Warren Buffett uses the wonderful term circle of competence. Inside the circle are the skills you have mastered. Beyond it are the things you understand only partially or not at all. Buffett’s life motto: “Know your circle of competence, and stick within it. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.” Charlie Munger adds: “Each of you will have to figure out where your talent lies. And you’ll have to use your advantages. But if you try to succeed in what you’re worst at, you’re going to have a very lousy career. I can almost guarantee it.” Tom Watson, the founder of IBM, is living proof of this thesis. As he’s said of himself: “I’m no genius. I’m smart in spots—but I stay around those spots.” Be rigorous in organizing your professional life around this idea, because a radical focus on your circle of competence will bear more than monetary fruit. Equally important is the emotional variety. You’ll gain an invaluable feeling of mastery, and you’ll also be more efficient, because you won’t have to decide every time whether to accept or refuse a task. With a sharply delineated circle of competence, unsuitable but irresistible requests suddenly become resistible.Crucially, you should never step outside your circle of competence. Many years ago a wealthy entrepreneur offered me a million euros to write his biography. It was an extremely tempting offer. I turned it down. Biographies lie outside my circle of competence. A top-notch biography requires endless conversations and meticulous research. It demands other skills besides those needed for novels and non-fiction—skills I do not possess. I would have spun my wheels, got frustrated, and, most importantly, written at best a mediocre book

  • Which would you rather? To be the most intelligent person on Earth but considered the stupidest? Or the stupidest person on Earth but considered the most intelligent? When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, he didn’t acknowledge it for weeks. No statement, no interviews. He wouldn’t even take the Swedish Academy’s phone calls. Criticism rained down from all sides. How ungrateful can somebody be? So arrogant! So indifferent! When Dylan finally responded, speaking in an interview with a British newspaper, he dryly observed, “I appreciate the honor so much,” as though the words had been forced into his mouth by a PR consultant. He did not attend the award ceremony—or rather, he was three months late. One can only assume that he couldn’t care less about the world’s most prestigious prize. Grigori Perelman, born in 1966, is considered the greatest living mathematician. In 2002 he solved one of the seven mathematical “Millennium Problems.” The remaining six are still unsolved. He was selected for the Fields Medal, a kind of Nobel Prize for mathematics—and declined. He even turned down the million-dollar prize money, although he could certainly use it: Perelman is unemployed, living with his mother in a high-rise block in St. Petersburg. Mathematics is all that matters to him. He’s utterly indifferent to what the world thinks of him and his achievements. When I first started writing, it was important to me to know what other people thought of my books. I delighted in positive reviews and fretted over every word of criticism. I took applause as a measure of my success. At some point during my midforties, however, I had my Bob Dylan moment: I understood that public perception has little to do with the quality of my work. It makes my books no better or worse. Having this insight felt like being released from a prison of my own making. But back to my initial question. Warren Buffett puts it like this: “Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?” In doing so, Buffett outlines one of the ideas most vital to leading a good life: the difference between an inner scorecard and an outer scorecard. Which matters more to you: how you evaluate yourself, or how the outside world evaluates you? “In teaching your kids, I think the lesson they’re learning at a very, very early age is what their parents put the emphasis on. If all the emphasis is on what the world’s going to think about you, forgetting about how you really behave, you’ll wind up with an Outer Scorecard.” And that, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is a pretty effective way of scuppering the good life from square one

  • That’s why one of my golden rules for leading a good life is as follows: “Avoid situations in which you have to change other people.” This simple strategy has already spared me a good deal of misery, expense and disappointment. In practical terms, I never employ anybody whose character I have to change—because I know I can’t. I don’t do business with people whose disposition doesn’t suit me—no matter how profitable it might potentially be. And I would never take on leadership of an organization if I had to alter the mindset of the people in it. Smart businesspeople have always taken that tack. One of Southwest Airlines’ guiding principles since its inception has been “Hire for attitude, train for skill.” Attitudes cannot be altered, at least not in a reasonable amount of time, and certainly not by external pressures. Skills can. I’m constantly surprised to see how many people disregard this simple rule. A friend of mine—a party animal and social butterfly—married a beautiful, introverted woman and assumed he’d be able to turn this quiet soul into an outgoing party-lover. He failed, of course, and the result was a quick and expensive divorce. A related life rule is “Only work with people you like and trust.” As Charlie Munger says, “Oh, it’s just so useful dealing with people you can trust and getting all the others the hell out of your life… But wise people want to avoid other people who are just total rat poison, and there are a lot of them.” So how do you rid yourself of these poisonous individuals? One recommendation: every year on December 31 my wife and I write down on slips of paper the names of people who aren’t good for us and whom we no longer want in our lives. Then we cast them solemnly into the fire, one by one. It’s a therapeutic and salutary ritual

  • I’d like to introduce you to two people you know very well, although not by name: your experiencing self and your remembering self. Your experiencing self is the part of your conscious mind that experiences the present moment. In your case, it’s reading these words right now. In a while it will experience you shutting the book, putting it down, maybe getting to your feet and brewing a cup of tea. Your experiencing self experiences not only what you’re currently doing but also what you’re thinking and feeling as you do it. It perceives physical conditions like tiredness, toothache or tension, mixing it all together into a single experienced moment. How long does a moment last? Psychologists estimate three seconds, give or take. That’s the span of time we perceive as the present. Basically, it’s all the experienced things we condense into “now.” Longer periods are perceived as a series of individual moments. Discounting time spent asleep, this adds up to approximately twenty thousand moments per day—about half a billion moments over an average lifespan. What happens to all the impressions hurtling through your brain every second? The vast majority are irretrievably lost. Test yourself: what exactly did you experience twenty-four hours, ten minutes and three seconds ago? Maybe you had to sneeze. Or you looked out of the window. Brushed a crumb off your trousers. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. We retain less than a millionth of our experiences. We’re gigantic experience-vanishing machines. That was your experiencing self. The second person I’d like to introduce is your remembering self. This is the part of your conscious mind that gathers, evaluates and organizes the few things your experiencing self hasn’t thrown away. If, twenty-four hours, ten minutes and three seconds ago, you were putting the best praline you’ve ever tasted into your mouth, then perhaps your remembering self does in fact still know that. The difference between your two selves can be amply illustrated with a simple question. Are you happy? Take a little time to answer the question. Okay. How did you get on? If you consulted your experiencing self, it will have replied with your currently experienced condition, your mental state during that exact three-second interval. As the author of the words you’re reading, I naturally hope the response was positive. If, however, you asked your remembering self, it will have given you a broad assessment of your overall mood—roughly how you’ve been feeling recently, and how generally satisfied you are with your life. Unfortunately, the two selves rarely give the same reply. Researchers studied happiness among students during the holidays. With some they randomly surveyed their momentary state, texting them questions several times a day. With others, they questioned the students at the end of the holiday. The result? The experiencing self was less happy than the remembering self. Not surprising, really. I’m sure you’ve heard of rose-tinted glasses: lots of things seem better in retrospect. But this also means we shouldn’t trust our powers of recall, because they’re prone to systematic errors. So which one matters, your experiencing self or your remembering self? Both, of course. Nobody wants to miss out on great memories. Yet we tend to overvalue the remembering self, living with one eye on the aggregation of future memories, instead of focusing on the present. Guard against this impulse. Decide what’s more important to you: a fulfilled moment-to-moment life or a full photo album?

  • Picture your best possible experience—a ten-year cruise through the Caribbean, maybe, or traveling across the galaxy, or dinner with God himself and a 1947 Cheval Blanc Vandermeulen. How much would you be prepared to pay for this ideal experience? Take a moment to jot down a few key words describing the most wonderful experience you can imagine, and what your highest bid would be. A follow-up question: how much would you be willing to pay if you weren’t able to remember it afterward? If you had no idea what your Caribbean yacht even looked like. If you climbed out of your space capsule back on Earth and didn’t know whether the planets in faraway solar systems were green, blue, or red. If you couldn’t recall whether God was a man or a woman, let alone the taste of the wine. If you could rack your brains as long as you liked—and find nothing left, not even a trace. Most people I ask reply that such an experience is not worth having. You probably feel the same. But how much would you be willing to pay for the experience if you could remember it afterward for one day? One year? One decade?

  • Our brains cope automatically with all three layers of time—past, present and future. The issue is which one we concentrate on. My suggestion is not to avoid making long-term plans, but once they’re in place to focus wholly on the now. Make the most of your present experiences instead of worrying about future memories. Savor the sunset instead of photographing it. A life of wondrous yet forgotten moments is still a wondrous life, so stop thinking of experiences as deposits for your memory bank. One day you’ll be on your deathbed, and your account will be permanently closed

  • We’re walking around with a false self-image, believing we’re less multi-layered, conflicted and paradoxical than we truly are. So don’t be surprised when somebody else judges you “incorrectly.” You do the same yourself. A realistic self-image can only be gleaned from someone who’s known you well for years and who’s not afraid to be honest—your partner or an old friend. Even better, keep a diary and dip back into it every now and again. You’ll be amazed at the things you used to write. Part of the good life is seeing yourself as realistically as possible—contradictions, shortcomings, dark sides and all. If you see yourself realistically, you’ve got a much better chance of becoming who you want to be

  • We have terrible trouble evaluating the attractiveness of other people’s lives. We commit systematic errors in reasoning. That’s forgivable in the case of fictional people like Anna and Berta, but not when it comes to your own actual life. Bear in mind that you almost certainly won’t die in your prime, like James Dean—but after a protracted and gradual decline in your physical and mental capacities. Depending on the extent of your afflictions, your level of moment-by-moment happiness will on average be lower than in earlier, complaint-free decades. So what conclusions should you draw? Don’t let those afflictions cloud your judgment of your whole life. Better a life well lived and a few painful days on your deathbed than a shoddy life and a good death. Age and death are the price we pay for a good life—like a hefty bill after a meal. I’m not willing to pay that price for a fast-food burger. Give me a six-course dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant with first-class wine and good company every time

  • Not getting bogged down in self-pity is a golden rule of mental health. Accept the fact that life isn’t perfect—yours or anyone else’s. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair.” What point is there in “being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy”? If you can do something to mitigate the current problems in your life, then do it. If you can’t, then put up with the situation. Complaining is a waste of time, and self-pity is doubly counterproductive: first, you’re doing nothing to overcome your unhappiness; and two, you’re adding to your original unhappiness the further misery of being self-destructive. Or, to quote Charlie Munger’s “iron prescription”: “Whenever you think that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it is actually you who are ruining your life… Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life.”

  • How enjoyable are the following activities for you? Put them on a scale from 0 (totally unenjoyable, you aren’t interested) to 10 (extremely enjoyable, you can’t imagine anything better). Eating your favorite chocolate, fighting for your country in a war, spending time on your hobby, raising children, funding hospitals in Africa, preventing global warming, sex, watching the World Cup, helping an old lady across the street, taking a spa holiday to the Caribbean. Give yourself a few seconds. Most people rate sex, chocolate, TV and spa holidays at 9 or 10, while raising children is a 2 or a 3. Another question: how meaningful are the aforementioned activities? Put them on a scale from 0 (completely meaningless) to 10 (deeply meaningful). Give yourself another moment to think

  • Most people come up with a totally different order. Raising children is rated significantly higher than a spa holiday. Helping an old lady across the street is more meaningful than stuffing your face with chocolate. Hmm. What really matters? What should we be focusing on? Which activities contribute to a good life—the “enjoyable” ones or the “meaningful” ones? As early as the fifth century B.C., Greek thinkers were pondering these issues. A minority of philosophers, known as hedonists, believed that a good life consisted of consuming the maximum possible number of immediate pleasures. The word hedonistic originates from the Ancient Greek “hedoné,” which means delight, pleasure, enjoyment, gratification and sensual desire. Basically, why help an old lady cross the street when you could be watching a funny YouTube video on your mobile phone? Most philosophers, however, believed that instant gratification was base, decadent, even animalistic. A good life was made up of the “higher pleasures.” Striving for these was called eudemonia. As soon as the term had been coined, however, people started wrangling about what it meant. Many philosophers concluded that “higher pleasures” meant virtues: only an honest life could be a good life. Hospitals in Africa, basically, instead of the World Cup

  • I recommend you strike a balance between enjoyment and meaning. Avoid the extremes. Why? Because your marginal utility decreases the further you wander toward the fringe. Chocolate, TV and sex become ineffectual after—at the most—the second kilogram of chocolate, the twenty-fourth hour of binge-watching or the fifth orgasm. Equally, it won’t make you happy to spend all day and night saving the world while denying yourself any pleasure. It’s best to switch between meaningfulness and enjoyment. So if you’ve saved a small piece of the world, then I think you deserve a glass of fine red wine

  • Circle of dignity defines everything not up for negotiation. It contains preferences and principles that need no justification. For example, I never do anything for money that I wouldn’t do for a tenth the offered sum; in other words, I never let money be the decisive factor. I never put photos of our children online. I would never badmouth my family or friends to anybody, even if I had a reason to—which has never happened. Analogously to the circle of competence, I’ve dubbed this the circle of dignity. How do you establish a circle of dignity? Not through deliberation. Rather, it’s something that crystallizes with time—for most people, by middle age. This process of crystallization is an indispensable step toward becoming a mature adult. You need to have experienced certain things—wrong decisions, disappointments, failures, crises. And you need to be self-aware enough to know which principles you’re ready to defend and which you’re prepared to give up. Some people never develop a circle of dignity. Such people lack a foundation, so they’re perpetually vulnerable to cunning arguments. Keep your circle of dignity tight. A small circle is more powerful than a large one, for two reasons. First, the more you pack into your circle, the more these things are in conflict. You can’t satisfy a dozen priorities. Second, the less you pack into your circle, the more seriously you can commit to your beliefs and the better you can defend them. “Commitments are so sacred that by nature they should be rare,” warns Warren Buffett. That’s true not only for promises made to other people, but also to promises made to yourself. So be highly selective in your choice of non-negotiables—the principles you refuse to abandon. So far so clear. But be prepared for one thing: you’ll disappoint some people by defending your principles—especially people you care about. You’ll hurt people. You’ll snub people. You’ll be disappointed, hurt and offended in turn. It’s critical you be prepared to deal with all these emotions, because that’s the price you pay for a circle of dignity. Only puppets live free of conflict. The circle of competence—that’s ten thousand hours. The circle of dignity—that’s ten thousand wounds. Is it worth the price? That’s the wrong question. By definition, things that are invaluable have no price. “If an individual has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live,” said Martin Luther King. Certainly not to live the good life

  • Your circle of dignity, the protective wall that surrounds your pledges, can only be tested under fire. You might lay claim to high ideals, noble principles and distinctive preferences, but it’s not until you come to defend them that you will “cry with happiness,” to paraphrase Stockdale. The worst attacks—you’ll know this from experience—are often not physical but verbal. So let me give you a defensive tactic. Say you’re in a meeting and somebody starts going for you, really getting vitriolic. Ask them to repeat what they’ve said word for word. You’ll soon see that, most of the time, your attacker will fold. The Serbian president Aleksandar Vuˇci´c once asked a journalist who’d insulted him on his website to read his own words aloud during an interview—the journalist, ashamed, cut the meeting short. People with a clear circle of dignity fascinate us, in literature as in film—like Todd Anderson in Dead Poets Society, who stood on a desk to defend his teacher. Or think of Socrates, who refused to recant his teachings. He was sentenced to death, and drank his cup of hemlock in utter serenity. For most people, the circle of dignity is not a matter of life and death but a battle to maintain the upper hand. Make it as hard as possible for your assailants. Keep the reins in your hand as long as possible when it comes to the things you hold sacred. If you have to give up, then do so in a way that makes your opponent pay the highest practicable price for your capitulation. There’s tremendous power in this commitment. It’s one of the keys to a good life. The upshot? Define your circle of dignity sharply. Don’t let yourself be infected when the financial virus tries to penetrate your values’ immune system. The things inside your circle of dignity are non-negotiable, always—no matter how much cash is offered in return

  • The human brain is a volcano of opinions. It spews out viewpoints and ideas nonstop. No matter whether the questions are relevant or irrelevant, answerable or unanswerable, complex or simple—the brain tosses out answers like confetti. In doing so it makes three mistakes. The first: we express opinions on topics in which we have no interest. In a recent discussion with friends, I caught myself professing a heated opinion on a doping scandal, even though I’m not remotely interested in elite sports. You can open any popular newspaper and your opinion volcano will begin to seethe. Keep a lid on it—as I should have done. The second mistake: we spew out opinions on unanswerable questions. When can we expect the next stock market crash? Is there more than one universe? What will the weather be like next summer? Nobody can say for sure, not even experts. So here, too: be wary of blurting out opinions. The third mistake: we tend to give over-hasty answers to complex questions. This mistake is the most serious of the three. The American psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done extensive studies into what happens inside our brains when we do this, revealing that we tend—especially with difficult questions—to instantly pick a side. Only then do we consult our rational mind, looking to justify and shore up our position. This has to do with the affect heuristic. An affect is an instantaneous, one-dimensional emotion. It’s superficial and has only two settings: positive or negative, “I like” or “I don’t like.” We see a face—“I like.” We hear about a murder—“I don’t like.” Affects are entirely legitimate—just not in responding to difficult questions, where we confuse them with the right answer. An affect appears at lightning speed, we hurriedly ransack our brains for reasons, examples and anecdotes to back it up—and there we have our opinion. It’s a pretty inadequate process when it comes to complex topics. Poor decisions based on half-baked opinions can be disastrous, but there’s another good reason to prevent opinion incontinence. Not always feeling like you need to have an opinion calms the mind and makes you more relaxed—an ingredient vital to a good life

  • The world is full of unrest and chance, and every so often your life will be upturned. You won’t find happiness in status, in expensive cars, in your bank account or in social success. All of it could be taken from you in a split second—as it was with Boethius. Happiness can be found only in your mental fortress. So invest in that, not in a Porsche collection

  • Imagine two film plots, A and B. In Film A, a ship runs into an iceberg. The ship sinks. The noble captain selflessly, heart-wrenchingly rescues all the passengers from drowning. He’s the last person to leave the ship and clamber into a lifeboat—just moments before it disappears forever into a spout of foam. In Film B, the captain steers the ship around the iceberg, keeping a sensible distance. Which film would you pay to watch? A, of course. But which situation would you prefer as an actual passenger on the ship? That’s equally obvious: B. Let’s say the examples are real. What would happen next? Captain A would be invited onto talk shows. He’d get a six-figure book contract. He’d hang up his captain’s hat and earn a living as a motivational speaker at client events and team meetings for major corporations. His home town would name a street after him and his children, for the first time ever, would feel something like pride in their father. Captain B, on the other hand, would keep avoiding obstacles until his retirement many years later, sticking to Charlie Munger’s maxim: “I have a rule in life, if there is a big whirlpool you don’t want to miss it with 20 feet—you round it with 500 feet.” Although B is demonstrably the better captain, A is the one we celebrate. Why? Because successes achieved through prevention (i.e., failures successfully dodged) are invisible to the outside world. The financial press loves nothing better than a turnaround manager, and that’s all well and good, but they should applaud managers who prevent companies needing a turnaround in the first place even louder. Yet because preventative successes aren’t externally apparent, they fly under the media’s radar. Only the individual manager and his or her team know how wisely they acted—and even then to a limited degree. As a result, we systematically overemphasize the role of successful generals, politicians, emergency surgeons and therapists while underemphasizing the role of people who help society and individuals from veering into catastrophe. They are the true heroes, the truly wise: competent GPs, good teachers, sensible legislators, skillful diplomats. I recommend spending fifteen minutes a week focusing intently on the potential catastrophic risks in your life. Then forget all about it and spend the rest of the week happy and carefree. What you’re doing in those fifteen minutes is called a pre-mortem. Imagine, for example, that your marriage is on the rocks, you’ve suddenly gone bankrupt or you’ve had a heart attack. Now track back, analyzing what led to this (imagined) catastrophe—right down to the underlying causes. As a final step, try to address these issues so that the worst never actually happens. Of course, even if you do all this regularly and conscientiously, you’ll still overlook dangers and make the wrong decisions. Those unavoidable disasters can be mitigated by facing up to reality and tackling problems straight away. But in terms of foreseeable difficulties, it’s easier to avoid them than to resolve them. Wisdom is prevention. It’s invisible, so you can’t show it off—but preening isn’t conducive to a good life anyway. You know that already

  • Focus, time and money are our three most important resources. The latter two are most familiar. There’s even a science devoted to time and money—referred to in that context as “work” and “capital.” Focus, however, is little understood, although today it’s the most valuable of these three resources, the most crucial to our success and our wellbeing. Unfortunately, when it comes to focus we tend to commit systematic errors. Here are several key ways you can avoid them.
    • One: don’t confuse what’s new with what’s relevant. Every novelty—product, opinion, news item—wants an audience. The louder the world, the louder the novelty must shout in order to be heard. Don’t take this noise too seriously. Most of what’s hailed as revolutionary is irrelevant.
    • Two: avoid content or technology that’s “free.” They’re the definition of focus traps, because they’re financed by advertising. Why would you voluntarily walk into a trap?
    • Three: give everything “multimedia” a wide berth. Images, moving images and—in the future—virtual reality accelerate your emotions above a safe speed, markedly worsening the quality of your decision-making. Information is best absorbed in written form, from documents with the fewest possible hyperlinks—books, ideally.
    • Four: be aware that focus cannot be divided. It’s not like time and money. The attention you’re giving your Facebook stream on your mobile phone is attention you’re taking away from the person sitting opposite.
    • Five: act from a position of strength, not weakness. When people bring things to your attention unasked, you’re automatically in a position of weakness. Why should an advertiser, a journalist or a Facebook friend decide where you direct your focus? That Porsche advert, article about the latest Trump tweet or video clip of hilariously adorable puppies is probably not something that’s going to make you happy or move you forwards. Even without an Instagram account, the philosopher Epictetus came to a similar conclusion two thousand years ago: ‘If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?’
  • Another aspect: focus and happiness. What does focus have to do with happiness? Everything. “Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention,” wrote Paul Dolan. The same life events (positive or negative) can influence your happiness strongly, weakly or not at all—depending on how much attention you give them. Essentially, you always live where your focus is directed, no matter where the atoms of your body are located. Each moment comes only once. If you deliberately focus your attention, you’ll get more out of life. Be critical, strict and careful when it comes to your intake of information—no less critical, strict and careful than you are with your food or medication

  • Avoid ideologies and dogmas at all cost—especially if you’re sympathetic to them. Ideologies are guaranteed to be wrong. They narrow your worldview and prompt you to make appalling decisions. I don’t know of a single dogmatist with anything approaching a good life. Many people don’t notice that they’re falling for an ideology. How do you recognize one? Here are three red flags: a) they explain everything, b) they’re irrefutable, and c) they’re obscure. An excellent example of an irrefutable ideology with an explanation for everything is Marxism. If the concentration of wealth in a society increases, the faithful will immediately attribute it to the fundamental evil of capitalism—as described by Marx. If inequality decreases, however, they will explain it as the development of history toward a classless society—as predicted by Marx. At first glance, such irrefutability appears to be an advantage. Who wouldn’t want a theory on hand that’s so powerful it means you’re always right? In reality, however, irrefutable theories are anything but invulnerable—in fact, they’re very easily exposed. When you meet someone showing signs of a dogmatic infection, ask them this question: “Tell me what specific facts you’d need in order to give up your worldview.” If they don’t have an answer, keep that person at arm’s length. You should ask yourself the same question, for that matter, if you suspect you’ve strayed too far into dogma territory. To be as unassailable as possible, ideologies often hide behind a smokescreen of obscurantism. That’s the third red flag by which to recognize an ideology. Here’s an example: the ordinarily clear and articulate theologian Hans Küng describes God as “the absolute-relative, here-hereafter, transcendent-immanent, all-embracing and all-permeating most real reality in the heart of things, in man, in the history of mankind, in the world.” All-explaining, irrefutable and utterly obscure!

  • Think independently, don’t be too faithful to the party line, and above all give dogmas a wide berth. The quicker you understand that you don’t understand the world, the better you’ll understand the world

  • The next time you’re about to make an important decision, mull it over carefully—but only to the point of maximum deliberation. You’ll be surprised how quickly you reach it. Once you’re there, flick off your torch and switch on your floodlight. It’s as useful in the workplace as it is in the home, whether you’re investing in your career or in your love life

  • Thinking yourself into your opponent’s position seldom works. The requisite mental leap is too great, the motivation lacking. In order to genuinely understand someone, you have to adopt their position—not intellectually but in actual fact. You have to step into their shoes and experience your opponent’s situation first-hand

  • It’s worth slipping into other people’s shoes and actually walking around in them. Do it with the most important relationships in your life—your partner, your clients, your employees, your voters (if you’re a politician). Role reversal is by far the most efficient, quick and cost-effective way of building mutual understanding. Be the proverbial king who dressed as a beggar to mingle among his subjects. And because that’s not always possible, here’s another recommendation: read novels. Being immersed in a good novel, accompanying the protagonist throughout both highs and lows, is an efficient workaround that sits somewhere between thinking and doing

  • Try to escape the arms race dynamic. It’s difficult to recognize, because each individual step seems reasonable when considered on its own. So retreat every so often from the field of battle and observe it from above. Don’t fall victim to the madness. An arms race is a succession of Pyrrhic victories, and your best bet is to steer clear. You’ll only find the good life where people aren’t fighting over it

  • I recommend viewing your own importance from the perspective of the next century—from a point when your good name will have dwindled to a zero, no matter how fabulous you might be today. A fundamental part of the good life is not being too full of yourself. In fact, there’s an inverse correlation: the less you stand upon your ego, the better your life will be. Why? Three reasons.
    • One: self-importance requires energy. If you think overly highly of yourself, you have to operate a transmitter and a radar simultaneously. On the one hand, you’re broadcasting your self-image out into the world; on the other, you’re permanently registering how your environment responds. Save yourself the effort. Switch off your transmitter and your radar, and focus on your work. In concrete terms, this means don’t be vain, don’t name-drop, and don’t brag about your amazing successes. I don’t care if you’ve just had a private audience with the Pope—be pleased about it, sure, but don’t put up the photographs in your apartment. If you’re a millionaire, don’t donate money so you can have buildings, professorships or football stadiums named after you. It’s affected. While you’re at it, why not take out TV ads raving about how marvelous you are? At least Haussmann and Co. got their streets for free
    • Two: the more self-important you are, the more speedily you’ll fall for the self-serving bias. You’ll start doing things not to achieve a specific goal but to make yourself look good. You often see the self-serving bias among investors. They buy stocks in glamorous hotels or sexy tech companies—not because they’re solid investments but because they want to enhance their own image. On top of this, people who think highly of themselves tend to systematically overestimate their knowledge and abilities (this is termed overconfidence), leading to grave errors in decision-making
    • Three: you’ll make enemies. If you stress your own importance, you do so at the expense of other people’s, because otherwise it would devalue your relative position. Once you’re successful, if not before, other people who are equally full of themselves will shit on you. Not a good life

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