Strahinja

@strahinja

Personal notes on startups, science and life.

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Stop drifting

The dilemma is this: should I pursue theory and scientific enquiry, or down-to-earth productivity and the path of business ventures? The difficulty is subtle; one might even ask why to bother. A similar dilemma troubled one of the greatest Roman emperors too: read the philosophy books or ride to the border of the empire and fight the enemies?

In the last decade, the philosophy of stoicism has got a real revival in the mainstream texts. One could argue that it became the basis for a whole new wave in the self-help industry. However, I'll leave that discussion for another time. I just wanted to point out that I am well aware of the issue, and will leave here a quote from the ultimate source, Epictetus' Handbook, where he says:

When someone acts grand because he understands and can expound the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, "If Chrysippus had not written unclearly, this man would have nothing to be proud of."

... Instead, when someone says to me, "Read me some Chrysippus," I turn red when I cannot exhibit actions that are similar to his words and in harmony with them.

I was re-reading Meditations of Marcus Aurelius the other day, and I was again impressed by how some of the issues are still accurate today. For instance, my new obsession is reading philosophy of science: Popper, Kuhn and the like. It's a vast and significant topic. But on the other hand, I have WORK TO DO. It was then when Marcus slapped me in the face with the following quotes, and when I realised, I'm just procrastinating. Procrastinating uniquely, but still procrastinating.

Here's a section 2.2 from his notes:

Whatever this is that I am, it is flesh and a little spirit and intelligence. Throw away your books; stop letting yourself be distracted. That is not allowed. Instead, as if you were dying right now, despise your flesh. A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries. ...

Section 2.3:

... The world is maintained by change—in the elements and in the things they compose. That should be enough for you; treat it as an axiom. Discard your thirst for books, so that you won't die in bitterness, but in cheerfulness and truth, grateful to the gods from the bottom of your heart.

Section 3.14:

Stop drifting. You're not going to re-read your Brief Comments, your Deeds of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the commonplace books you saved for your old age. Sprint for the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own saviour while you can.

Section 8.8:

No time for reading. For controlling your arrogance, yes. For overcoming pain and pleasure, yes. For outgrowing ambition, yes. For not feeling anger at stupid and unpleasant people—even for caring about them—for that, yes.

To make that business worth at least hundreds of thousands, you need to commit yourself to it. It takes years of hard work to achieve that, and while you can't be 100% certain that you will succeed, one must agree that the first condition to even entertain the thought of success is to put in some work in the enterprise which is about to succeed.

Now, one might ask what the dilemma is in the first place? Just sit, solve problems, exercise, eat healthily, solve some more problems, and there you are, on the brink of business success.

The thing is, that, for whatever reason, I am now more inclined to think more fundamentally about life, business, humans, cosmos, science, or whatever topic you might think about. I even think about football that way - I ask questions such as why is there this game we call football, will the football last for as long as the humans are alive or will we abandon it for some other kind of entertainment? Is there something intrinsic to human nature in football/soccer and related sports?

Then the question goes to what is human nature, et cetera, et cetera.

It's not the questions that are particularly bad; it's that asking that kind of questions is not productive when you work on a startup. 

One needs to stop at some level, and stop going deep, but instead start working horizontally, asking more practical questions and start exploring more practical problems.

One should assume that the ground below its feet is firm, and start to walk. Because if you delve and delve deeper, you will never be able to walk, you will never be ready to go anywhere.

Keep your eyes on the ground, dig only when you hear the bleep of the inconsistency detector, and come up to the surface to share what you have found in this thing we call the reality.

Immediate Access to Contemporary Knowledge

The story goes something like this:

The year is 1805, and the place is the city of London. It rains while a young man, just 14 years old, stands on one side of the Blandford Street road.

Having only the most basic school education, he is doubtful and excited at the same time to cross the street. The building across him holds the sign that says: George Riebau, bookbinder. Knocking on that door will change his life forever, but coming from a low-income family left a burden on his small shoulders in a big city and conservative society.

However, curiosity wins, and young Michael enters his 7-year bookbinding apprenticeship - and he doesn't just bind the books; he reads them.

What kind of books does young Michael read? Books like Isaac Watts's The Improvement of the Mind, or Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet. He eagerly implements the principles from what he learns and develops an interest in science.

Long story short, at the age of 20 and the end of his apprenticeship, Michael attends lectures by the eminent English chemist Humphry Davy.

It is said that Michael sent Davy a 300-page book based on notes that he had taken during these lectures and that Davy's reply was immediate, kind, and favourable.

Jumping 30 years ahead, Michael Faraday went on to become one of the most influential physicists in the history of science. Without a strong background in mathematics and high education, he was able to create the basis for the electromagnetic field.

Even though he was a fascinating character himself, and I encourage everyone to read more about the man - this article is not about the person, but the craft - bookbinding.

Michael Faraday, Bookbinding and the Importance of  Immediate Access to Contemporary Knowledge

I believe that Michael Faraday overcame his social background and became a success by choosing the best career path available for a working-class teenager at the beginning of the 19th century.

We are now close to the year 2020, and it looks like career advice stays the same. However, you probably noticed that there are not many bookbinders around anymore. The fact is that the bookbinding itself doesn't matter. What matters is having immediate access to knowledge, preferably immediate access to contemporary knowledge.

On a grand scale of history, the most significant change that happened in the last two centuries since Michael was a teenager is directly related to the access to knowledge. It's simple, and it's called the internet.

The funny thing is that it seems that many people are not aware of the advancement and the leap we made as a civilization. In two centuries, we (almost) fully democratized access to contemporary knowledge of any topic you can come up with.

It doesn't matter who your parents are and where you come from, as long as you have an internet connection.

Here's what I think young Faraday would advise every child in the 21st century:

  1. Go to school to learn basic English (in case you're not from an English speaking country)

  2. I don't know how, but find a way to get a Kindle or a similar e-reader device - a used one, and a cheap model will work just as fine for the start

  3. Go to http://gen.lib.rus.ec

  4. Conquer the world

I was having second thoughts about the second step because nowadays you can read on a laptop or a cheap tablet/smartphone, but I think that to gain maximum value from it you need to constrain the act of reading to just one device.

Regarding the third step, I will skip the debate about the ethics of privacy and go with the flow and the fact that the books are available. The knowledge is there; you only need to pick it up. Once you get a start on a topic, you can go to sci-hub and similar sites to take a sneak peek on the scientific articles. Old ones and the new ones. All of them.

To conclude, I just wanted to remind myself and the others of a straightforward concept, that we forgot amid easy-to-consume social feeds, Netflix and chill, and spooky Google algorithms. It is the immediate access to contemporary knowledge. If you're reading this, you have it so go get it.

Michael Faraday would want you to get it all.


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