Book Review: The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli

Note: I read the George Bull translation, published by Penguin Classics. It has the same content as other versions, but my quotations may be rendered differently elsewhere.

Taught in political science, history, philosophy, and comparative literature classes, there's a lot of angles to take on Machiavelli's magnum opus. Is it a product of his time and experience useful only for monarchs or a timeless how-to guide for democratic politicians, desk jockeys. pick up artists, and athletes alike? That depends on how literally you take it.

Here are the take-aways for those of us focused on self-improvement, rather than for its intended audience of state leaders:

Consequentialism: No Pain, No Gain


The controversy surrounding Machiavelli largely stems from his advocacy of consequentialism, which is the idea that the ends justify the means (though he never wrote that). He says that "[the prince] should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary" (57-58). In Machiavelli's view, a small act of evil that serves the larger good is in fact not evil at all. This idea has since been extrapolated into the more general 'ends justify the means' paradigm, and I intend to extrapolate it further for our purposes.

I've talked a lot about process orientation, and how you need to enjoy the process if you ever hope to reach the goal. More than that, goals should be ignored entirely once you have begun the path. Well, what does that mean when the path is itself evil or painful or otherwise decidedly awful?

I don't think Machiavelli's apparent goal-worship contradicts valuing the process. It's not that the process doesn't matter. It's that the intrinsic good of the goal is transferred to the process, making the process all that much better. So maybe don't ignore the goal if it helps you appreciate the process. I do still caution that you should ignore the goal if it stresses you out more than it motivates you.

Aligning Your Interests With the Common Good


What motivated Machiavelli to write such a masterpiece for any one prince? The book shows he has respect for so many different leaders that it's surprising he committed himself to the Medici family. He understands that if a single leader can reign for a significant period of time without subjecting his people to war and bloodshed, that's a huge improvement on the state of affairs in southern Europe circa the 16th century. He aligned his personal interests (fame, glory, security, prosperity) with that of the prince and of his nation. If he just wanted those interests, it would have been insufficient motivation to put so much thought into the work.

He seems to understand this concept himself. He begs Lorenzo de Medici to demand the same loyalty of all his court advisors so that together they can accomplish more than any one alone. And it's not that a collaborative effort is better than an individual's contribution. It's that the individual's contribution, when aligned with the interests of those around him or her, is that much greater in and of itself.

Fortune and Free-Will: Does Anything We Do Matter?



I don't really think you would be reading this blog if you had any doubts about free will. Yes, fortune plays a role. I was born heterosexual, upper middle-class, white, male, and American. I hit the demographic jackpot. And yet I suffer heartbreak, lovesickness, and illness like any other. I was lucky, but finding happiness requires more than what my parents provided me with. Yes, some are luckier than others. But all must work hard to find contentment and success in what they do. All must face ups and downs in their life.

Machiavelli writes that "fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves" (79). I think that's about right. Being born about as lucky as possible got me no more than half-way to where I'm going. I still have the capacity to be anxious, lazy, frightened, stupid, weak, angry, bitter, and mean.

A Final Word on Machiavelli's Sexism


In one of the most salacious lines of the book, Machiavelli declares, "it is better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her" (81). I'm not going to bother excusing the line by saying that violence against women was normal in the 16th century or that his accidental celebecy led him to direct his frustration toward women. I'm just going to leave the quotation there and let you make your own conclusions.

Also, if you can get past how disgusting violence against the innocent and defenseless is, he has a point. If you want something, take it. That goes for women (who are already attracted to you) as much as it does for business and anything else. Nobody's going to give it to you.

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Working a full time job for the first time in my life has worn on me. I went to bed before 8pm last night and felt not the slightest bit of shame.

"Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself and You Will Be Happy." - Stephen Fry

I'm a big fan of Stephen Fry back from his Fry & Laurie days, I think ZenPencils.com is amazing, and obviously I'm obsessed with self-improvement theory.

So it was a perfect storm of awesome when I saw this. The comic game me frisson all over, but I think it's worth breaking down a little. Why is self-pity pretty much the worst thing ever and how can you stop pitying yourself?

Self-Pity is a One-Stop Trip to Nowhere


You want to be somebody and you hate yourself because you don't know how or you're too weak or whatever. You know you don't like yourself and you want it to stop. You're angry at the world that you're too stupid or fat or lazy to get what you want.

I'm trying to train myself to do one-handed push-ups but they're hard. I started doing them against a wall while standing up. That's easy, right? And sure enough, I could do it just fine. But it was easy, so I was hardly going to pat myself on the back for it. I tried doing them on a counter at chest height. Easy. I don't get any self-compliments for that either. I tried waist-high on a table. Not too easy, but not really difficult either. Finally today I tried knee height on a bench.

THEY WERE BRUTAL. I could do 2-3 reps before my body gave out and I lay on the ground coughing. And I hated myself for it. I've been training my chest and triceps for eight months now and I can't do more than a couple on a freakin' bench? I felt like I wasted all that time and effort. What was I doing? Why the heck was this so hard? Who could I blame? Hadn't I done everything I could? Maybe it was the wrong program. Maybe I should have used dumbbells instead of bodyweight. I thought I was a loser.

It was really overwhelming. My self-contempt spiraled into self-hate for other things, too. Why am I so awkward around girls? Why am I so full of fear all the time? Why do I procrastinate? Because I'm a loser, that's why. I'm hopeless and I shouldn't even try.

You see what can happen when you allow yourself even a little self-pity? I wanted to stop the program I'd been doing for eight months then and there.

Self-Pity is as Weak as it is Ugly


So, what to do about it? It's extremely simple:

Keep going.

Ignore the self-pitying thoughts in your head for a couple minutes and they'll go away. It's really that simple. I did two more sets of one-handed push-ups, a couple sets of dive bombers...and I felt like that man I know I am.

Exercise feels good in general, with endogenous analgesic and stimulant effects, but on a purely mental level, I proved to myself I wasn't a loser. A loser wouldn't keep going. A loser would have given up. Self-pity wants you to give up. That's it's source of power. You keep going and the negative thoughts shrivel up like so many trees in an Agent Orange shower.

So face your fears. Do what you don't think you can do. Run, push, climb, jump, scream, shout, dance, live your life. Anything you do is better than hating yourself for doing nothing at all. And when the self-pity inevitably returns, keep going.

Breaking Out of the Lapse-Response Cycle

The lapse-response cycle has come up before, but it's a significant enough force in our effort to build good habits that it's worth examining in more detail.

What Is It?


In short, the cycle is the process of sticking to a habit so consistently that you think you can take a break without losing the benefits of all that work. One break turns into two, two into a week or a month, and the next thing you know you're back where you started.

I first discovered this cycle when I was about 14 years old and trying to improve my acne. I had that ProActiv stuff you see on TV all the time, and it seemed to work pretty well when I used it as directed, twice a day. When I first got it, I stuck to it perfectly for a week or two and saw some real improvements in my complexion. So I patted myself on the back, told myself it was easy to remember to do it every morning and evening, and went and skipped a day. As my acne had improved, the relative importance of ProActiv had diminished to the point that I valued five more minutes of sleep more. My building of the habit lapsed.

Then I saw equally dramatic changes, and only in a couple days. Big pimples returned. I responded by returning to the regimen. It got better. I lapsed. It got worse. I responded. It got better. This happened for years. I knew it was happening, but it was still too hard to say, "Using ProActiv is more important than sleep" twice a day every day when my face was looking relatively good.

This was just an example. It happens with everything.

"My weight has dropped below 190. Finally I can have a piece of cake without hating myself for it."

"I've been going to bed by 10PM all week. Finally I can stay up late hanging out with my friends."

"I saved several thousand dollars this year. Finally I can go buy that fancy tablet."

Next thing you know, you're fat, tired, and broke again. So you get back into gear and start over. But you never realize the gains that it takes years to accrue. You get by, but you don't get ripped, you stay tired all the time, and you never become rich.

How to End It


There are a couple mindsets that lead to the lapse-response cycle. One is the mindset that there's some point at which you've made all the progress you need to make. This doesn't make sense when you see it written down, but for some reason it makes sense when you're thinking it. "I've been so good at flossing every day this last week that I don't have to do it tonight." And you keep not flossing your teeth until your dentist tells you your gums are receding and you've got more cavities than teeth.

Stop thinking about the progress you've made. No amount of progress is enough when it comes to flossing, so there's no point in thinking about it. Just floss. The same goes for exercising, sleeping regularly, and saving money for retirement. You have to do it. So just do it.

The other roadblock is arrogance. The response actually comes from a need to prove to ourselves that we don't suck, so once we stop sucking we also stop performing the habit. Your sense of self-worth should not be so tied to these little things, though. You are a great person. You're alive, people love you, you're good at plenty of things. It is for your health, not your self-esteem, that you need to floss.

At the same time, be humble about the habit. If you've been doing it for a few weeks, you haven't mastered it. You have a long way to go. Keep at it. You will only have mastered it when you're no longer subject to lapsing every few weeks or months.

Process orientation and humility. It's amazing how often our successes in life come back to those two things.

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Update on the tendonitis. I think it was just DOMS, but I'm not sure.

Pushing Through For Others

Open a book and turn a couple pages in, past the title page, past the copyright information, to the dedication. It says something along the lines of, “For my dearest son, Alexander, for whom the world is worth saving,” which is kind of remarkable when you think about it. The title page is a publishing industry standard and the copyright page is a legal requirement, but that every published author should individually feel compelled to dedicate every book to someone is not a given.


Where is the causation, though? Is the norm within the writing community so powerful that every author makes an effort to find someone to honor before publishing? Or are authors who have someone they want to honor more likely to finish their books and get them published, or even start them in the first place?

So, Which One is It?


Writing a book is no mean feat. I’ve never done it, and I consider myself a writer. I’m going to take the sentimental position that writing for someone makes one much more likely to persevere in a writing project – and obviously that applies not only to books and dedications but to anything you want to do for a person you care about and in any way.

It is easy to be motivated at first for the basic social desires of prestige, wealth, and sex, but it’s amazing how little determination these things give us in the face of adversity. Nobody writes that last three hundred pages of their science fiction novel because they think it will give them any of those things. And while they may start the novel because they have a wild imagination and enjoy thinking about space ships and nuclear holocausts, that stops being fun around page twenty. Wanting to pay the rent can keep you working for about a week, but if you’re living hand-to-mouth you’re probably not going to take a chance on a novel anyways.

Other things are good motivators in the short term. Fear, hunger, and even the urge to urinate can give you twenty seconds of reckless desire if something is in the way of relieving those arousal states, but they’re not going to keep you hustling at something day in and day out for a year.


How to Start



Think about something you want to do and ask yourself who it would benefit. If it’s just for yourself, you may find yourself struggling to stay motivated on the project when things get rough.

Try thinking of something you can do for another person, and not just something small. If you want to earn money, think of how you would use that money to benefit – in a real way, not just by buying gifts – the people you care about most.

Understanding your motivations and framing your goals in terms of altruism can help make them a reality. It’s the theory behind AA and other addiction programs and it’s unbelievably powerful.

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I'm feeling the burn from overdoing my workout last weekend. Possibly tendonitis. Take it easy, folks. There's no rush to get where you're going.

10 Things to Try if You’re Not Getting Enough or Good Enough Sleep

Most of us don't get enough sleep. It's hard when you've only got two hours of free time between working, commuting, and sleeping. When you want a little more free time, you pull it out of your sleep time. But sleep is unbelievably important, so you should be making an effort to get the full amount of good sleep your body needs.

I've put together a list of the ten best practices for getting good sleep and lots of it. Not all of them will work for everyone, but just instituting one or two is better than nothing. Pick an easy one for you and add more on later. The more you do, the more rested you'll feel.

The List

1. Enforce regularity. Go to sleep at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every morning, or both.

2. Slow down. Turn all screens off at least 30 minutes before bed. No TV, computer, iPad, etc. Nothing with a backlit screen. Reflective e-ink screens are an exception so reading on your Kindle is fine.

3. Find peace. It’s easy to lose sleep over workaday BS. So don’t sweat the small stuff. Take some time out of your day to meditate or wander or do whatever lets your brain stop racing for a moment.

4. Work out. Beyond whatever other massive health benefits exercising at least every other day has, it also helps you sleep deeper, faster, and better. Do at least 30 minutes. I recommend HIIT if you have very little time.

5. Eat early. Don’t eat after dinner. A little fruit for dessert is fine, but stop munching once you’ve finished your meal. It delays your body’s sleep timer and gives you worse sleep. If you’re starving, have a banana. For some reason bananas are fine.

6. Stay clean. Drugs mess with your sleep even if you think you’re sleeping fine. So if you’re struggling with tiredness, stop drinking alcohol, smoking weed or cigarettes, having caffeine, or using other stimulants and psychoactive drugs. Even sleeping pills and NyQuil don’t give you proper sleep though they may knock you out.

7. Drink water. Staying hydrated throughout the day will make you feel better at night and help you sleep longer. Just don’t drink much after dinner so you don’t wake up to urinate in the middle of the night.

8. Nap cautiously. Naps are healthy when they are regular or only used to catch up on sleep occasionally, but they can mess with your nightly sleep schedule if you don’t watch out. If you can avoid it, don’t sleep for more than 30 minutes during the day and try to do it at least 8-10 hours before you plan to go to sleep for the night.

9. Start right. Having a nightly routine that is the same every night helps let your body know that it’s time to start winding down. Take a hot shower, brush your teeth, and read a chapter out of a book before turning the lights out every night, for example.

10. Invest liberally. I picked up one of the fanciest pillows I've ever seen for thirty bucks at Costco. Go shopping and buy the best pillow, sheets, and whatever other sleep related stuff you can afford. Ear plugs and an eye mask are annoying at first, but you get used to them and they really help. If you don't want to deal with them, make sure you have blackout shades.

If you're already doing all of these and still struggling to sleep well, go to a sleep clinic. You might have an undiagnosed sleep disorder. 62% of Americans suffer from a sleep problem at least a few nights a week.

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I'm changing to a new sleep schedule this week, so sleep debt's on my mind. I've started work as a researcher for Russell Reynolds Associates. Post on developing good office habits coming soon.

Making the Most of Your Time

Some of you might be self-employed, unemployed, working part-time, or students, but most adults have full time jobs. If they spend their nights sleeping, their mornings getting ready for work, the day working, they really only have a couple hours in the evening to dispense as they wish. This generally goes to a mix of eating dinner, doing a couple chores, spending a little time with family or friends, and then watching TV until they're tired enough to go to sleep.

So when are you supposed to do all the things self-help gurus advocate? When in the day are you supposed to find the time to write, meditate, make your bed, practice talking to strangers, teach yourself a language, read books, exercise, or anything else?

Here's some bad (or maybe good) news: You can't do them all. You don't have the time. You barely have the time for even the most important of those activities. Here are some tips for how to fit them into your already packed daily schedule:

  • Meditation: do it first thing when you wake up before you get distracted by anything. Only do 2-5 minutes. Add more time if you can find it, but not so much that you can justify skipping a day because you're in a rush. "You should sit and meditate every day for 20 minutes - unless you're busy. Then you should meditate for an hour." That's a nice sentiment, but I like my sleep, so I meditate for only 6 minutes each morning.
  • Exercise: people who do 30-60 minutes of exercise at least every other day have drastically reduced incidence of heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Do 30 minutes of basic body-weight strength training before you shower in the morning. If you have a gym at work, do it at work!
  • Writing and planning your day: both of these can be made to relate to work. Do them when you get to the office in the morning and make them relate to work. Writing works for some job functions better than others, but if you're looking to get better at writing, talk to your boss about your interest in it and see if s/he can give you a project that will allow you to write every day.
  • Reading: 30 minutes before you go to sleep should be established as screens-off time. Floss, brush your teeth, and get in bed to read, then turn your lights off at bed-time.
Don't try to do all these at once. They're just ideas for doing a lot with not a lot of time. If there's something you really want to do, once you start thinking about how to fit it in, you'll be surprised how creative you can get about making it work.

F*** It, Dude. Let's Go Bowling.

I go bowling about three times a year, and I'm not particularly good at it. I just kind of swing my arm as straight as I can and hope for the best. After years of doing so, even if it's only three times a year, I've gotten to the point where I consistently get about 100-120 points depending on how lucky I get. I had never broken 130 before.

Last week I bowled 143 in my first game. I was in shock, but I was perversely comforted by the fact that I usually play worse in my second game. My arm starts to hurt about eight frames deep and I fall apart in game  2.

I bowled 161 in my second game. I didn't get less than 9 pins in a any frame, and less than 10 in any but two. In other words, I played really well for just rolling the ball as straight as I can.

Let's look at what happened, figure out a causal mechanism, and see what we can learn from the experience.

Just Do It


It's not unreasonable to assume that I would get better with practice, but so far I had experienced the tiniest of marginal improvements. Getting two PRs in the same night, each by about 20 points, requires more explanation. If it were just one, I would call it dumb luck, but I played consistently well, frame after frame, all night long. I beat a guy who brought his own bowling ball and shoes from Illinois. I didn't just get lucky. I played well. How?

Once I stepped onto that glossy floor, I stopped thinking about anything. I didn't think about technique or how many points I needed to win or the things I had to do the next day. I just walked forward, stared at the pins, and bowled. I let my (albeit minimal) training take over. I literally thought about nothing. I just did it.

If you're trying to be consistently good at one thing, that's how it has to be. You have to get in the zone and perform without thinking about it. Training gets you to the point where that can happen. Obviously this doesn't work if you don't have the training.

Have Fun


I'm a bit of a competitive person. Competition's a good motivator. But motivation's not enough. Heck, I always want to win, anyways. All competition does is stress me out when I'm already motivated to win. The last time I had played before my high score, I played terribly. I barely broke 100 in my second game.

It was for a friendly annual competition at school. The whole time we were playing, one of my teammates would not stop talking about how his team had never lost a game in previous years, how he had had the trophy sitting in his office for as long as he could remember. He said we better win so he could keep it. Even if he was joking around, which he was, it made some part of me anxious not to lose. That anxiety made it hard to focus, to relax, and to get in the zone when it came time to roll.

So, when it's time to focus, relax. Have fun. Joke around, poke fun at yourself and at what you're doing. Keep it light. Life's too short to stress out about work, let alone a game of bowling. If you can enjoy what you're doing, and not just do it to "win," you'll perform at your best.

Eat Lots of Onion Rings and Garlic Fries


The whole time I was playing, I was munching on onion rings and garlic fries. I think the grease helped me let go of the ball more smoothly. So always eat lots of fried junk food when you're bowling. I'm kidding. Don't do that. That stuff's awful for you.

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I discovered a treasure trove of motivational videos on YouTube. I think I'm becoming addicted. Look at how many videos this guy alone has: http://www.youtube.com/user/RSDTyler. There's like a whole genre of YouTube video where a guy talks for half an hour telling you that you can do anything you set your mind to if you work hard enough. I'm in heaven.

Off Days

Self-help writers have thrown a lot of conflicting advice out there on what to do when you can't do much.  It happens to the most productive of us. When you're sick, tired, heartbroken, burnt out, or so stressed that you don't really want to do anything all day except lie in bed and wallow in self-pity.

Some propose knocking back some coffee, finding some way to motivate yourself, and just getting out the door. Once you're out the door, they suggest, you'll find you can be much more productive than you expected.

Others say you should take it easy in the morning and then get to work later in the day, so the whole day's not lost.

I argue that on days like that, don't even worry about being productive. Do whatever will give you the most peace of mind. Declare a mental health day and go watch every movie Christopher Nolan ever made if that's what you want. If you can't enjoy that because you're beating yourself up all day for not working, then go work.

I don't think there's one answer. All I know is one occasional day of spontaneous relaxation is, if anything, a good idea. If you have commitments that day, go ahead and cancel whatever you can but fulfill the rest. Don't blow people off. Just do the bare minimum and take a break. Off days are your body telling you that you need one.

Every time I take a day off, I am at my most productive the next day. That lapse-response cycle of doing nothing one day and accomplishing a lot the next day has near perfect correlation in my own experience. It's so predictable that if I know I'm going to have a hard day ahead of me, I take the previous day off, or just do a light load, and then I'm feeling refreshed for the brutal day.

The only caution I will offer is don't let an off day turn into an off week. Get to sleep early that night and hit the ground running the next day.

Don't stress the off days. Enjoy them! Treat them as a reward for pushing yourself to your limits.

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As part of my effort to simplify my day, I've placed a moratorium on buying new video games and books, starting new TV series or movie franchises, and accepting new leadership positions or long term commitments.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Fairest One of All?

I had a scary moment the other day. I stood in front of a mirror and saw myself -- not just metaphorically, not just in my head, I really saw -- as built. My muscles were huge and I looked good. Then, without blinking, I saw myself as scrawny, lanky, and hunched over. I watched as my muscles became flabby. Like I said, this wasn't my imagination. I actually saw it happen in the mirror.

Which of those two images were the real me? I don't know. It's obvious I can't accurately perceive myself. It's like when you hear your voice on a recording and it doesn't sound anything like how you hear it. Everyone else is seeing and hearing a different you than you are seeing and hearing. And it probably goes beyond that. Everyone else's understanding of you as a person is probably different than your own understanding.

This is scary, but it's also a relief. First, it's scary because it means all the work you put into presenting yourself a certain way is largely futile. Second, it's empowering to know that your sense of self can be manipulated even if there's no change in your external circumstances.

In other words, beauty actually is in the eye of the beholder.

Manipulating Your Body Image


After my scary moment, I stood there staring at the mirror for a while to see if my body would go back to being muscular. It didn't. Then I tried a bunch of different things. I tried smiling. It didn't change how my body looked. I did my hair. No change. I realized I was probably taking the wrong approach. I needed to change my thinking, not my appearance. That was the whole point, anyways, right?

So I tried speaking out loud, "Damn! You look good!" The image in the mirror kind of flickered, and then went back to flabby-state. (I want to re-iterate that I was actually seeing these changes happen in real time. ) I went more specific: "Your muscles are huge! Look at those bulging biceps!" I didn't really believe what I was saying at first, but the more I repeated it, "When the heck did you widen out so much? Those triceps are actually visible!", the more I started to believe it.

And as I started to believe it, I could watch in the mirror as I turned into the Hulk.

Here's where it gets weird. I did start to feel better about myself, more capable of doing things, stronger. But that makes sense. There's a plausible mechanism for that change. Where it gets weird is when my housemate Joe walked into the bathroom and said, "Dude, when did you get jacked?"

Maybe I was jacked the whole time, but it took me noticing it for others to notice it. Maybe I started standing taller and my muscles showed. I really don't know. I won't claim to understand that part.

The Takeaway


It's all in your head. Everything is in your head. If you think your life is too busy, you'll feel stressed out. If you think you're ugly, you'll hate yourself. If you think you're stupid, you won't bother trying to learn. These are all self-limiting beliefs. To reverse the cycle, just do the action. Relax. Love yourself. Study.

Obviously there's still a continuum within beauty, but I don't think it's relevant to composing an image of self for a couple reasons.
  1. 99.99% of us are attractive in some ways and ugly in others. 90% of us are probably attractive enough that, if we take care of ourselves, there's nothing to limit us from any achievements.
  2. You are what you are and you just have to work with what you've got. It may not be fair, but life is glorious and you're wasting it if you spend any time at all hating yourself for things you can't control.
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My new life project is simplifying my day and slowing things down so I can appreciate what I have and focus on what I'm doing. I'll have an update on my progress once I have a better idea of how to go about actually doing it.