How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams

How to Fail

“Don’t let reality control your imagination. Let your imagination be the user interface to steer your reality.” – Scott Adams.

How to Fail at Almost Everything is a quirky, funny, irreverent, and often inspiring “sort of autobiography” from the creator of Dilbert, that quirky, funny, irreverent, and often inspiring comic strip that lays out the truth of working in the trenches cubicles of corporate America.

This is not another collection of Dilbert cartoons or Dilbert philosophy.  It’s more of a Dilbert origin story.  We know we’re in for a different kind of kind of how-to-book when Adams begins by advising us to make sure our bullshit detectors are working before we take advice from a cartoonist.

He dismantles many self-help cliches in order to clear the way for fresh perspectives.  “Goals are for losers,” he says, and recommends strategy instead.  “I will finish my first novel,” is a goal. “I will write for an hour a day,” is a strategy.  Every day we don’t attain a goal is slightly depressing, he says, and soon after we reach it, the “what next?” question arises.  A strategy, on the other hand, brings a daily sense of satisfaction as we move in the right direction.

“I tried a lot of different ventures, stayed optimistic, put in the energy, prepared myself by learning as much as I could, and stayed in the game long enough for luck to find me…with Dilbert it did.” – Scott Adams

Adams gives a chronology of his many failed careers and entrepreneurial ventures. Shining through the story is a positive attitude that allowed him to find key lessons and life experience in every failure.  His optimism is gold, and he spends a lot of time writing of health, especially, diet and exercise, although he cautions that there is a “non-zero chance” that health advice from a cartoonist could be fatal.

“I’m here to tell you that the primary culprit in your bad moods is a deficit in one of the big five: flexible schedule, imagination, sleep, diet and exercise.”  The “big five” benefit mood, which builds personal energy, which is the driver of aspiration and effort.

Scott Adams shares his ideas at IBM Connect 2014.  Photo by Greyhawk68, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Scott Adams shares his ideas at IBM Connect 2014. Photo by Greyhawk68, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Adams packs an abundance of topics into his book. Not every one resonated, and several dragged for me, but much of my copy is highlighted and underlined, and I’ve reread several chapters already.  If you like Dilbert, you will value this story of the life twists and turns of his creator, and you will benefit from the lessons he learned along the way.

by all means by Edward Espe Brown

by all means A ZEN CAUTIONARY TALE

by all means A ZEN CAUTIONARY TALE

“Growing up meant you were competent and stayed out of trouble…When you hit the wall, who or what would see you through?”

Traditional Zen practice is both very simple and very formal.  Think of classic Japanese brush painting.  In Zen, there are prescribed ways of bowing, walking, holding the hands in meditation, and so on.

At the end of by all means A ZEN CAUTIONARY TALE, Zen abbot, Edward Espe Brown, includes a photograph of himself, in full Zen regalia, with a stern expression on his face, and a pig puppet on a cushion beside him.  Traditional Zen masters don’t give dharma talks with pig puppets any more than traditional authors use upper and lower case in their titles like Brown does here.  by all means lies outside traditional book categories, which ironically, makes it very Zen.

When Edward, as an adult, rescues Ponce (two syllables) the Pig puppet from a cat named Turtle (not a puppet), his affection for Ponce allows him to explore many issues, especially those of abandonment:  how others abandon us, how we abandon them and ourselves, and all the things we do to try to compensate:

“A lot of things that Edward did were very important because it was important to him to be doing important things and not just wasting his time.  Otherwise how could he have any respect for himself? And wasn’t it important to be self-respecting? Because if you left it to the others, there didn’t seem to be a lot of respect going around, and you weren’t likely to get much.”

We learn how Edward lived in an orphanage after his mother died when he was three.  We learn how he turned his anger on the stuffed animals he had as a kid after he got out.  We see how childhood issues live on inside the adult and how Ponce the Pig reacts at a critical moment, when Edward abandons him.  At first Ponce weeps, but then he closes his eyes to meditate (the pig is a dedicated Dharma practitioner):

“He found his heart swelling even though nothing changed outwardly. The space within was like that: vast and expansive, warm and tender without dimensions.  All of his friends were gathering just as fast as he could think of them. A burst of astonishment flashed through Ponce.  Left without any capacity for thinking about what was happening, he was one with everything, and everything was a part of him.  No separation could be found.  Dazzling!  What was there to think about?  Nothing needed figuring out…”  Edward learns his lesson and reconciles with Ponce in the end because it’s that kind of a book.

I enjoyed by all means, but it’s not for every reader. It is not an instruction manual in Zen or a book of eastern philosophy.  If you have no interest in Zen or have not spent time talking to puppets as I have, the book might not appeal.

If you are in doubt, I suggest you check out some of the Dharma talks Edward has made available on his website.  If you like them, you’ll probably like the book.  The talks, like this book, are simply another way that Edward, with abundant humor and compassion, tells his truths, using all means. 

Jung’s Tower: simplicity and the inner life

Jung's Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland, by Andrew Taylor, 2009.  CC BY-SA-2.0

Jung’s Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland by Andrew Taylor, 2009. CC BY-SA-2.0

Recent news of technological incursions into consciousness itself (virtual reality and altered memories); almost daily revelations about NSA spying; suggestions that social media “isolates people from reality;” it’s enough to make you want to unplug all the gadgets – at least for a while!

Renowned psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961) did just that, for months at a time, in a tower-house complex he started building in 1923 and continued to work on for the rest of his life.  He often spent months each year living as simply as possible, without electricity or running water.  It’s easy to think he lived in a simpler time and couldn’t have imagined modern complexity, but consider these words he wrote in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, published in 1961, the year he died:

“We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness.  We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise.  We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us.
………………………
…new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for.  They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole.  Mostly they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before.”

The tower, phase 1, 1923.  Creative Commons

The tower, phase 1, 1923. Creative Commons

Ten years before starting the tower, Jung had a painful break with Freud that precipitated a period of disorientation and a huge uprush of the kind of unconscious contents he had witnessed in schizophrenic patients.  Feeling that his experience was purposeful, he chose to submit to the unconscious with writing, art, and the effort to understand.  Out of this phase of turmoil and uncertainty, his unique psychological insights were born.  Paper and ink, he said, did not seem “real” enough to represent his discoveries, so in 1922 he purchased land on Lake Zurich for a “representation in stone” of his “innermost thoughts.”

Phase II, 1927.  Creative Commons

Phase II, 1927. Creative Commons

Jung wrote at length of the parallel developments of his inner life and the tower, over more than three decades, saying things like:

“At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself”

“At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.”

“I pump the water from the well.  I chop the wood and cook the food.  These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960.  Library of Congress

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960. Library of Congress

While drawing inspiration from Jung, an obvious question becomes, how do I connect with this kind of depth in the midst of my own too-hectic life?  The good news is, we don’t need a tower to live in for months at a time.  The bad news is we need to unplug every day and tune into activities that nourish the soul; this is often hard arrange.  It takes focus, intention, and experimentation to find those things that center us and we are drawn to.  Any number possibilities come to mind:

  • “Spend an hour a day in a quiet room by yourself reading old stories that you find nourishing.”  That’s what Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked this question during the “Power of Myth” interviews.
  • Meditation, of almost any kind.  This my own core practice.  Zen teacher, Cheri Huber said, “If you start by watching your breath for as little as five minutes a day, it can change your life.”
  • Sports that allow one to get in “the zone,” especially walking, running, or bicycling.
  • Keeping a dream notebook.
  • Writing, though I suspect most bloggers will have the same difficulty I have in putting words at the service of psyche – how do I turn off the writing sophistication I’ve worked so hard to gain?  Can I ever truly use words in a “purposeless” manner, allowing them to go where the wish, without thinking, “Gee, this would make a good blog post?” For any chance of success, I need a definite strategy, like writing fast with a rollerball pen in cheap notebooks.
  • Visual arts or crafts.  Training or skill is not required for this kind of work, and in fact, can get in the way.  Those with artistic training may find it useful to paint or draw with the non-dominant hand.  Jung had no formal art training, but his private journal, The Red Book, only recently published, gives an idea of what may emerge if one is determined to honor the psyche.
Red Book, p. 131.  Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

Red Book, p. 131. Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

When I truly examine my own habits, it’s clear that I fritter away enough time with gadgets each day to find the space for this kind of exploration.  It doesn’t need to be with the kinds of activities I outlined above.  I find it’s ok to schedule “time for inner work” the way I schedule time at the gym, but the most powerful new discoveries seem to emerge from those quiet voices at the edge of consciousness, the tiny impulse it is so easy to overlook in our busy lives.

Such an impulse woke me one night at 1:00am one morning.  Instead of going back to sleep, I got up and wrote down a sentence.  That led to a paragraph, and then a page, and then another.  That was the start of the first (and so far only) novel I’ve finished.

Something similar happened to Jung at his tower.  He gave the stonemason at a quarry precise measurements for blocks he needed to build a new wall, but one of the stones arrived in error; it was square, about 20″ on each side.  When Jung saw it, he said, “That is my stone, I must have it!”  Over time, he carved a testament to his life and work on stone which “stands outside the Tower, and is like an explanation of it.  It is a manifestation of the occupant.”

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

In a seminar in 1939, Jung said:

“We have no symbolic life, and we are all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul – the daily need of the soul, mind you! And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill – this awful, banal, grinding life in which they are “nothing but.”

The Bollingen Tower became a vital way for Jung to live the symbolic life, but he would have been the first to insist that we don’t need to carve stone or build houses to find it for ourselves.  All we need is the hunger.  And the will to begin.

The Eye of God by James Rollins: a book review

The eye of God

In a post in August, It’s mostly insubstantial, I discussed an interview with James Rollins that I read on Sciencethrillers.com.  The title for my post came from some mind-blowing conversations Rollins described with quantum physicists while researching his latest thriller, The Eye of God.  The gist of what Rollins learned involved the insubstantial nature of our apparently solid physical world.  “If you remove all the space within the atoms making up the human body, every person that’s ever lived would fit inside a baseball,” said physicist, Brian Greene.

I heard Rollins speak in September at a writer’s lunch where he gave a lively talk on the nuts and bolts of his process.  Afterwards, I hurried home with a copy of The Eye of God.  Sadly, I didn’t finish the book until this week.  It doesn’t speak well for a thriller when it takes me weeks to “get through” it.

The book opens with a compelling synchronicity between the discovery of an ancient prophecy and the last transmission of a NASA satellite nicknamed “The Eye of God,” launched to study a comet as it passes close to earth.  Before it crashes, the satellite transmits an image of the eastern United States as a ruin of smoking craters.

Astrophysicist, Dr. Jada Shaw, theorizes that dark matter associated with the comet is bending time as well as space in the atmosphere, and the image shows our world in four days time.  Simultaneously, a priest in the Vatican receives a package containing a copy of The Gospel of Thomas, bound in human skin, and a skull inscribed with prophecy of the end of the world in four days.

Soon Dr. Shaw, the priest and his niece, and members of the Sigma Force, a covert group of ex-special forces soldiers, converge on Mongolia, where the Eye of God went down.  An asteroid storm in Antarctica is a prelude to what is coming if the satellite can’t be recovered and if it offers no clue to reversing the space-time distortion that is opening earth’s atmosphere to deadly “near-earth objects.”  Integral to the effort is a legendary black cross, made from an earlier NEO that struck earth.  The cross belonged to St. Thomas the Apostle, who evangelized in Asia, according to the apocryphal “Acts of Thomas” and ancient Christian communities in southern India.

So what’s not to like about the story?

I enjoyed elements of The Eye of God, not the least, an appendix in which Rollins’ discussed what was fact and what was fiction in the book, including a real comet that will pass near the earth this winter.

If it doesn’t break up as it swings by the sun, Comet ISON, one of the brightest comets in history, will pass so close to the earth in November and December that it may be visible during the day.

Comet ISON, via NASA Hubble telescope, will make it's closest pass to the earth on Dec. 28.

Comet ISON, via NASA Hubble telescope, will make it’s closest pass to the earth on Dec. 28.

My biggest problem with The Eye of God is that I never truly felt the danger.  The threat was arcane and not clearly articulated until midway through the book.  The solution (which I won’t give away) remained rather abstract.  The constant reminders of danger and the way out that we find in other page-turners would have helped, as would the disaster film convention of showing a few ordinary people who don’t yet know they are doomed.

Rather than keeping us focused on the real threat, restating it until it was vivid, Rollins threw in distracting subplots which included six major gunfights with Chinese triads, North Korean soldiers, and Mongolian nationalists.  Obstacles while the clock is ticking is a proven way to ramp up tension, but the repetitive nature of these firefights – bad guys who can’t shoot versus outnumbered, crack-shot good guys – was the equivalent of digital special effects at the expense of story in the movies.

The Eye of God received good reviews, especially from established fans of James Rollins. That may be the difference.  This is the ninth Sigma Force novel, and those who read the others are probably bonded with the characters and care more than I if they get shot at.  Next time I read this author, I’ll start at the beginning, though I don’t think that will be any time soon.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Thanks to the ever-beguiling Vickie, who blogs at Beguiling Hollywood, for the best online laugh in quite a while! She turned her readers on to Dr. Sparky, who offers 21st century literary summaries and analysis at Thug Notes. Watch his take on Jane Eyre and see why it leaves Cliff Notes in the dust!

BEGUILING HOLLYWOOD

still-of-mia-wasikowska-in-jane-eyreMy favorite screen adaptation was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga in 2011, starring Mia Waikowska and Michael Fassbender, screenplay by Moira Buffini.

Now, Thug Notes is a new fascination – I especially liked their recap and analysis of Moby Dick, but we covered that a couple of weeks ago.

Thug Notes – Classical Literature. Original Gangster..

Napkin Note Productions | Thug Notes.

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Mad Mouse by Chris Grabenstein

mad_mouse

Officer Danny Boyle is excited.  After his efforts in solving the tilt a whirl murder, it’s an open secret that he will be offered a full time position on the Sea Haven, NJ police force.  During the week before Labor Day, Danny is celebrating with a few close friends on the beach late at night when a phosphorescent paintball slams into his ribs.  His friends are spattered, and one of them, Becca, is hit in the eye.

A frantic call to 911 brings an ambulance, which rushes her to a hospital, and summons Danny’s partner, John Ceepak, the quintessential detective, who had been home listening to his scanner, one of his hobbies when he’s not watching forensic shows on the Discovery Channel.

The next day, Doyle and Ceepak discover paintball vandalism on a mural outside a popular restaurant.  And as Danny and a waitress friend leave a dinner with the Chief of Police in honor of his promotion, both are hit again with paintballs, but this time there’s something more – a near miss from a rifle bullet that Ceepak identifies as the type favored by military snipers.  In the next attack, the sniper doesn’t miss; a shot to the chest sends Danny’s love interest to the hospital, unconscious and barely alive.  Clearly, it’s personal.

The shooter has been leaving trading cards at his sniper positions, all referencing the year 1996:  a card advertising The Phantom, a movie released in 1996; rookie cards for Derek Jeter whose debut year with the Yankees was 1996.  At scene of the first fatal shooting, one of the cards bears a note for Danny:  “You will never remember.  I will never forget.”

Danny was 15 in 1996.  He has only a few days to remember what he did then to trigger a killing spree ten years later.  Labor Day is approaching, and the Sea Haven Chamber of Commerce is hosting a “Sunny, Funderful Beach Party Boogaloo” concert, expected to draw 50,000 tourists.  Just like in Jaws, the mayor refuses to cancel the event; Danny and Ceepak must catch the sniper before he has 50,000 targets to choose from.

Mad Mouse, 2006 is the second book in Chris Grabenstein’s Boyle/Ceepak detective series set on the Jersey shore.  John Ceepak, ex-military, is highly disciplined and always plays by the rules.  Under the tutelage of his older partner, Danny is beginning to learn the virtues of discipline and rules.

Grabenstein’s mysteries are well plotted and avoid the middle-chapter slog that often plagues detective novels.  The author’s humor and irony, channeled through Danny’s narration, finds ample scope everywhere in the resort town setting and in his descriptions even of passing characters:  “He has this receding hairline coupled with wavy swept-back hair that makes him look like he might sing country music, only he’s wearing clunky glasses with a paper clip pinned through one hinge, and country stars seldom do that.”

The combination of compelling detectives, a setting where there is always more to see, and a well imagined and written crime made Mad Mouse a pleasure to read.  I’ve already started the third book in Grabenstein’s Sea Haven series.

Tilt A Whirl by Chris Grabenstein: a book review

tilt a whirl

A recent detective novel recommendation from Amazon sent me to Chris Grabenstein’s website.  What caught my attention was Grabenstein’s series of mysteries set on the Jersey Shore, in a town called Sea Haven, a thinly veiled reference to Beach Haven, where my family vacationed during three summers when I was a kid and we lived in upstate New York.  To this day, I have fond memories of those trips.

The second thing that attracted me was Grabenstein’s writing credits.  He won two Anthony and three Agatha awards in seven years, and wrote for The Muppet Show, a truly impressive credential in my estimation.

I decided to start with the first book in the series, Tilt A Whirl, 2006, both because I loved the seedy amusement park in Beach Haven as a kid, and because the kindle edition cost $0.99.

John Ceepak and Danny Boyle, two Sea Haven cops, are breakfasting at the Pancake Palace, discussing a tricycle theft – the usual sort of summer crime in town – when a 12 year old girl runs up the street in a bloody dress screaming that someone killed her father, Reginald Hart.  Someone emptied a 9mm clip into Hart as he sat beside his daughter on a tilt a whirl car in the Sunnyside Playland before it was open.  Hart was a billionaire real estate tycoon though many called him a slumlord.

Ashley Hart describes the shooter as a local vagrant and drug user known as Squeegee because he sometimes works for tips at Cap’n Scrubby’s Car Wash.  But that night, when Ashley is kidnapped from her mother’s gated mansion, Ceepak and Boyle realize there is a military precision to the crimes far beyond the capacity of an aging hippie who is missing too many brain cells.  The puzzle twists and turns and had me guessing right up to the epilogue.

Puzzling mysteries alone are not that rare.  The best detective stories also have settings that fascinate and sleuths we love to hang out with:  221B Baker Street with Holmes and Watson; the Navajo reservation with Chee and Leaphorn;  St. Mary Mead with Miss Marple or the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot.

I enjoy Grabenstein’s Sea Haven, for I share his love of Americana – of ice cream shops called “Do Me A Flavor,” or the “Scoop Sloop,” in a town “best pictured on one of those perky placemat maps dotted with squiggly cartoons of buildings like The Shore Store, Santa’s Sea Shanty, and King Putt Golf.”

Chris Grabenstein and Fred

Chris Grabenstein and Fred

His detectives are a study in contrasts and yet a complimentary pair.  Danny Boyle, the narrator, grew up in Sea Haven.  He’s a part time summer cop, in large measure because it gives him an edge with vacationing college girls in the pubs on Saturday night.  John Ceepak is new in town, fresh from a 12 year stint as an MP in the army that ended after a tour of Iraq.  The son of an abusive alcoholic father, Ceepak lives by “a Code” that his partner, Boyle admires but doesn’t fully understand:  serve and protect; never lie, cheat, or steal – ever.

The two men are bound together by a growing mutual admiration and a love of Bruce Springsteen.  By the end of the Hart affair, Danny Boyle decides to apply for full time duty.

Tilt A Whirl reminded me of a couple of chick-lit detective novels I’ve read.  I think that’s due to the humor and irony of Boyle’s first person narration.  His upbeat, “lemme tell you what happened” tone makes you want to buy him a beer at The Sand Bar and hear all about his latest case.  A lot of Danny’s humor is couched in food references, as when he describes a witness as “a few fries short of a Happy Meal,” or when, after a break in the case, he says, “I’m feeling kind of jazzed, like you do after chugging two cans of Red Bull and snarfing down some Hostess Ding-Dongs.”  I think that’s what the male equivalent of chick-lit would sound like.

The author researching beach food at Beach Haven, NJ

The author researching beach food at Beach Haven, NJ

Danny Boyle has a thoughtful edge as pronounced as his irreverence.  In a key thematic passage, he quotes a math teacher who once explained Chaos Theory in terms of a tilt a whirl:  “if the operator keeps the whole thing going at the proper speed of 6.5 revolutions per minute, it’s practically impossible to predict what will happen next…The teacher called it ‘mind-jangling unpredictability.’ Chaos Theory in action,’  for two tickets a ride.” 

Tilt A Whirl was a page-turning mystery that was also a lot of fun.  I downloaded the next book in the series, Mad Mouse, also published in 2006.  Stay tuned for an update on that.

The English Girl by Daniel Silva: an audiobook review

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of audio books. When recently faced with several commutes to the bay area, I wanted a story to listen to.  I picked a contemporary spy novel, The English Girl, by Daniel Silva, rated as one of Amazon’s “Best Books for July,” last month when it was published.

This was my first encounter with Silva’s work but the 13th in his spy thriller series featuring Gabriel Allon, an art restorer and master spy for the Israeli Secret Service.  Few audio books are exciting enough to make me regret arriving at my destination, but this was one.

A beautiful woman, with a promising career in the British government, is kidnapped during a holiday on the island of Corsica.  A month later, a message arrives at 10 Downing Street with a ransom demand and a recording of the girl confessing to an affair with the Prime Minister.  “You have seven days,” the message says, “or the girl dies and the video goes public.”

British Intelligence contacts Gabriel Allon, the best man they know for the job.  Hours later, Allon and a British ex-patriot assassin are plowing through the Corsican and French underworlds, trying to find the girl while there’s still time.

The affair goes horribly wrong, but not everything is as it seems.  Allon discovers that North Sea oil drilling rights lie behind the kidnapping, along with trechery at the highest levels of British Government.

“If you go to the City of Heretics (Moscow), you will die,” an elderly Corsican sooth-sayer tells Allon, but that is his next destination, with a strike team out for revenge and the truth.  The truth they discover is more than even Allon expected, one that will shake the highest levels of British government – if his team can make it out of Russia alive.

Some reviewers call Daniel Silva the greatest spy novelist of his generation.  I don’t know the genre well enough to be sure, but based on The English Girl, it’s a claim that could be true.

Daniel Silva

Daniel Silva