6 Ways to Take the Market off Your Mind
As we head into the long weekend, and Summer, it’s probably — no, definitely — a very good idea to reset and read something non-financial. I made this list mindful of weary investors’ wandering minds (redundant) and want to get this posted in time for you to go get ’em @ your favorite bookstore1 before your flight, drive; or maybe you’re just staycationing. In my humble opinion, here are some of the best books on the subject of creativity:
The Act of Creation
by Arthur Koestler
This book is old and out of print.2 My copy is a tattered paperback that looks like someone forgot it on the beach. It has an old-school, academic feel to it. This is my favorite book on creativity. I used to think others were pioneers on the topic: De Bono, Csikszentmihalyi, Thiel. Then I read this book and realized they are all just borrowing from him!
Koestler identifies humor, discovery (science, business), and art as the three primary areas of creative potential and explores each in detail. This book is a history of creativity, a how-to guide, and a philosophical journey. Creativity is all about collecting pieces and making new associations. One must move away from habitual thinking and oversaturated concepts:
These silent codes can be regarded as condensations of learning into habit. Habits are the indispensable core of stability and ordered behavior; they also have a tendency to become mechanized and to reduce man to the status of a conditioned automaton. The creative act, by connecting previously unrelated dimensions of experience, enables him to attain to a higher level of mental evolution. It is an act of liberation–the defeat of habit by originality… It has been said that discovery consists in seeing an analogy which nobody had seen before.
I could write a whole book based on the insights from this book. It is the best book I’ve ever read on creativity.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
One of the most amazing books I’ve read in the past few years. The premise is simple: a hunt for a man-eating tiger in the remote taiga3 of eastern Russia circa 1997. With this as a backdrop, the author (an amazing writer) explores the human condition, our relationship with nature and with animals. You will learn why the brand name ViagraTM comes from the Sanskrit word for tiger.
Within every major ecosystem nature has produced, she has evolved a singularly formidable predator to rule over it. In Primorye, the Amur tiger is the latest, most exquisitely lethal manifestation of this creative impulse…
“The most terrifying and important test for a human being is to be in absolute isolation,” he explained. “A human being is a very social creature, and ninety percent of what he does is done only because other people are watching. Alone, with no witnesses, he starts to learn about himself—who is he really? Sometimes, this brings staggering discoveries. Because nobody’s watching, you can easily become an animal: it is not necessary to shave, or to wash, or to keep your winter quarters clean— you can live in sh*t and no one will see. You can shoot tigers, or choose not to shoot. You can run in fear and nobody will know. You have to have something — some force, which allows and helps you to survive without witnesses…Once you have passed the solitude test,” continued Solkin, “you have absolute confidence in yourself, and there is nothing that can break you afterward.”
Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II
This may be the most “bullet-proof” recommendation I’ve given — every single person with whom I’ve shared it loves it.
Two divers discover a U-Boat sunk off of the New Jersey coast which cannot be identified, and then go to amazing lengths to explore and ultimately identify the boat. I could not put this book down. Kurson is a gifted storyteller. One good lesson for investors is to never trust official documents or data. We tend to believe that data is fact, but it is created and/or reported by fallible people. If a particular datum matters to you, you should always double check for accuracy. Indeed, data gets fudged all the time.
Essays and Lectures (Nature: Addresses and Lectures; Essays: First and Second Series, Representative Men, English Traits, and The Conduct of Life)
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The first part of creative success if gathering pieces (ideas). The second part is putting those pieces together into new patterns, which requires the creative person to make new associations, or to see a pattern among pieces that others have overlooked.
Collecting pieces is simple enough, but it is hard work. The second stage (associative combination) is a little trickier. I believe that the key is to foster an independent, authentic mind and world view. Most people are “repetition machines” — automatons that function by habit and never explore new things. When I am feeling conventional (which happens often), Emerson’s essay Self Reliance is my favorite antidote.
Along with Jiddu Krishnamurti and Thoreau, Emerson challenges us directly to be our own individuals and see the world through our own eyes, rather than through those of others. This is MUCH harder than it sounds, because this “habit” is the brain’s way of saving energy. Overcoming habit and conventional thought/behavior requires great effort. But the resulting “clean” mindset may be the key to making new associations, because you’ll be able to view the pieces you’ve collected with a fresh perspective. Here are a few choice passages from Emerson’s essay Self Reliance:
I READ the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,— that is genius… 4 for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder,5 to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs… Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
(CBC Massey Lectures)
I grew up arrogant about the Western way of thinking and living, believing the Western way to be the pinnacle of cultural achievement. Then I went to college, studied Eastern philosophy (a rare pursuit at Notre Dame), and discovered a new world view that seemed much more…complete, or finished…than the Western one. To be sure, the continual striving that is baked into American culture produces incredible outcomes in many ways, but perhaps happiness/joy is not one of them. The experience of moment-to-moment awareness that lies at the center of several cultures explored in this book is a wonderful complement, if not alternative, to Western striving.
One Amazon reviewer calls this book “another solution to being human.” I like that a lot because it captures the spirit of the book. I especially loved the chapter on the people of the Anaconda, but every chapter was wonderful.
Can’t make it to the bookstore in time? Get it on iTunes6 and let your ear buds give your eyes a vacay.
Essays and Aphorisms (Classics)
There is no more readable or insightful philosopher than Schopenhauer. This book covers just about everything, but I especially enjoyed the sections on reading, writing, and thinking. I read, A LOT, but Schopenhauer makes the case that — ahem — too much reading is a very bad thing because it starves us of time to think. He advocates hands-on thinking over endless reading.
…much reading robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment. The practice of doing this is the reason erudition makes most men duller and sillier than they are by nature and robs their writings of all effectiveness: they are in Pope’s words: For ever reading, never to be read.
A truth that has merely been learnt adheres to us only as an artificial limb, a false tooth, a wax nose does, or at most like transplanted skin; but a truth won by thinking for ourself is like a natural limb: it alone really belongs to us. This is what determines the difference between a thinker and a mere scholar.
…if the imagination is to be fruitful it must have received a great deal of material from the outer world, for this alone can fill its store-room. But the nourishing of the fantasy is like the nourishing of the body: it is precisely at the time it is being given a great deal of nourishment which it has to digest that the body is at its least efficient and most likes to take a holiday — yet it is to this nourishment that it owes all the strength which later, in the right season, it manifests.
All in all, I made more than 100 highlights and notes. Schopenhauer is my favorite Western philosopher, and this book is the best collection of his ideas. Plus, this guy was WAY ahead of his time and kindly made his thoughts available in Kindle format!7
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- Yep, those Olde Tyme brick-and-mortar thingies still exist.
- Find it resale, or print-on-demand at some booksellers such as Barnes & Noble — sorry, the latter is of course far too short notice for this list’s intentions!
- Taiga: coniferous forest of high northern latitudes, sometimes swampy. Commonly those between the tundra and steppes of Siberia and North America. In other words, nowhere near Wall Street.
- Not a typo,— he really did use a comma right next to an em-dash! See http://www.amnation.com/vfr/archives/021137.html
- Glad to note this is the only transcendental reference to the market in this list.
- See http://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/wayfinders-why-ancient-wisdom/id344895168?i=344895181
- See http://www.amazon.com/Essays-Aphorisms-Classics-Arthur-Schopenhauer-ebook/dp/B002RI9K9K