Reading notes: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

Barry Greenstein once wrote that you should pay special attention to poker players who make obvious mistakes but still win: that means they're doing something very right. That comment changed my life. Absorbing it has, for example, made me vastly more likely to read books by Scott Adams.

What I can't stop thinking about is how this book, despite vast differences in tone, shares so much content with, e.g., Katy Milkman's How to Change ("modifying your environment and engineering the cues in it will have a much greater effect than one suspects") and any number of coastal-elite exercise fora ("do everything you can to generate positive energy in your life; the rest will follow").

Other miscellaneous notes:

  1. Adams writes: "One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task." This is essential, and I'd add that matching the available time to the task is important too. (Have defaults.)
  2. He advocates making all your other choices to maximize your "personal energy." Strategies like this are underrated, and remind me of successful companies that prioritize speed. (Dan Luu is also excellent on this subject.) Investing is a useful analogy: your retirement account looks a lot better with bigger contributions and a mediocre strategy than with smaller contributions, brilliantly managed. (And if you think that compounding intellectual capital and output are underrated--they are!--shouldn't you also care a lot about your total capacity for doing stuff?)
  3. One distillation of the book is as an extended encouragement to think of yourself as a "moist robot" that is extremely sensitive to your environment, immediate stimuli, and social connections. You can think of this as rephrasing James Merrill's remark that if you want to know how you feel, look at the furniture. (If James Merrill were not the poet of The Changing Light at Sandover but someone who describes "the fortified-burrito business" as "a way to do some good for the world that had rewarded me so handsomely.")
  4. Another distillation: it's not really too hard to elevate yourself to the top 1st to 10th percentile in a skill, so why not pick 5-10 essential skills (e.g., conversation) and elevate them? (This is an echo of Patrick McKenzie asking: "If I told you I would pay you a hundred thousand dollars if you did five minutes of poetry recital while standing on one foot, would you do it?" His answer is "Of course, so why not learn a bit about salary negotiation, even if you hate it?")

P.S.: I can't track down the James Merrill quote; all leads appreciated.

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