Book Club: Sapiens, A Brief History of Time (July 2017)

James Clear and I discuss July’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. We cover the major themes in the book as well as the author’s thought provoking interpretation of human history, contemporary society, and beyond.

If you would rather read the transcript, you can download it here.

Below are some of the highlights:

…on myths and our ability to share collaborative fictions:

James: I found the book fascinating. Harari is very interesting in the way that he frames issues and the way that he talks about things. He does a really great job of looking at things from a new angle… I love thinking about laws as one example. For example, why do we all stop at a stop sign or a red light? Well we stop there because we’ve all agreed we’ve decided that there are certain laws of the road and we’ll adhere to those.

Our ability to collectively agree upon this shared myth or story allows us to have roads and cities that function in an orderly fashion. There’s nothing fundamental about that in the sense that it’s not a fundamental law of the universe (like dropping a ball, it will fall regardless if someone agrees with it or not) and that’s just one example of some of the interesting ideas that he shares.

Scott: I will give a good example: the fact that George Washington is the first American president is pretty uncontroversial. There’s writing that supports this. But this would be exactly the kind of “myth” that Harari is talking about.

It can sound a little bit inflammatory but it’s not to point out the idea that there’s some conspiracy but rather to point out the idea that the whole concept of a “president” or a “United States” is a shared, collective idea that there’s nothing physical in terms of matter that specifies a “President” or specifies a “United States”, rather, they are just shared ideas we have about this.

By calling these myths or these shared collective ideas, he [Harrari] is not trying to share that these are superstitious but rather, this is our great strength and that we have the ability to coordinate on all these shared fictions or created realities that are not necessarily tied down to some kind of materialistic account of the world.

…on the reality of money:

Scott: One thing I thought was great was his section about money. Harari says, “Money is accordingly a system of mutual trust and not just any system of mutual trust. Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”

What I thought was very interesting is that Harari said the power of money is that money works because you believe other people value it. You don’t need to value it yourself; you just need to believe other people value it so you can get the things you really want from people.

This is a real turn your head around idea and I remember when I wrote a piece about this and I got some economist who said you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that the US dollar is just a fiat-currency and you’re one of those gold thugs who need to go back to the old days. Really money is based on US debt and securities… but I think that missed my point because those US debt securities are also a sort of an inter-subjective reality. If I didn’t believe in the US and the debt that the US holds then of course the money doesn’t have any value.

James: I’ve actually taken to thinking that, capitalism of which money is of course a central concept, capitalism is perhaps the most successful religion that the world has ever seen. It’s the only religion that everyone agrees upon regardless of what your actual spiritual religion is or is not.

Pretty much everybody agrees that you should work and earn money and have a career and have a job. We’ve all bought into this shared myth together and it makes up the fabric of our culture. The vast majority of our lives are spent working. If we talk about what percentage of our lives are these imaginary concepts versus these physical realities, it is interesting to see just how much of our time on this planet is spent living out the imagined realities that we’ve agreed upon like capitalism and money.

For those of you who want to read the book, it is available here. If you want to participate in the group discussions and join our book club, click here.

Special thanks to James Clear of Be sure to visit his website for great articles.

The book for August will be Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman.

Lesson #1: Capital Trumps Courage

This is the first lesson in a four-part series on identifying rare and valuable career skills and then putting in the work to get really good at them. We’ll only be posting the first lesson to the blog, so if you want to see the rest, you’ll have to join my newsletter. This first lesson is written by Cal Newport, my co-instructor for Top Performer, and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. Enjoy!

The first lecture in this week’s mini-course on career mastery underscores the foundational idea on which the other lectures build. It’s also an idea that’s foundational to Top Performer, my book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and my career thinking in general.

If you’ve followed my writing, in other words, you’ve heard me say the following before — but it’s really worth emphasizing: to achieve a successful and fulfilling career almost always requires that you first invest the time and effort required to develop a set of rare and valuable skills. 

Great careers are in demand: if you want one, you have to offer something great in return. This usually comes in the form of hard-won abilities that the market values, which, in the following, we can refer to as career capital. It’s this career capital that you leverage to obtain the types of traits that make great jobs great.

The importance of career capital sounds obvious in hindsight, but it contrasts with most popular advice on this topic. If you hear someone opine on strategies for “finding work you love,” they’ll usually focus on two things: reflecting carefully on what you really want to do, and then having the courage to go after it.

Contemplation and courage can be important, but focusing on them too much in the context of career thinking has the negative effect of distracting you from the hard and non-obvious work required to build enough career capital to acquire what you want.

(It should be noted, that the skill building inherent in this process can, by itself, provide a stabilizing sense of satisfaction — as I’ve argued on multiple occasions, human beings are wired for craftsmanship.)

Assignment: Create a Career Capital Inventory

To help you begin the process of switching your job thinking away from contemplation and courage, and more toward career capital, consider the following simple exercise adapted from the Top Performer curriculum:

  • List every professional skill/ability for which your current competency is above the absolute beginner level.
  • For each such skill, come up with a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 corresponds to absolute beginner, and 10 corresponds to the super star level. Make this scale concrete by stating specifically what it would mean to be at 10, and perhaps, what it would mean to be square in the middle with a score of 5.
  • Then, for each skill, rank yourself on this scale.

This exercise provides a useful quantitative inventory of your existing career capital. You can use this inventory in several ways.

For example, the inventory provides a reality check on just how valuable you actually are to the market at the moment. If your list is sparse, and/or contains only low scores, then this evidence should motivate you to turn your attention away from dreams of short-term courageous career transformations, and focus instead on building up the capital that makes real transformations possible.

In addition, it provides numbers that you can strive to improve. The vague intention to “work hard” doesn’t always return many rewards. But a much more focused attempt to improve your skill score from 3 to 5 for a given target will likely be a much more productive use of the same effort.

It can also help you confirm that you’re taking the most advantage of the things you’re already good at. If you score high on a skill that’s not being used much in your current position, make a change to correct this problem. Take on new projects or responsibilities that more directly leverage the skill.

Want to get the rest of the series? I’ll be sending these out this week to my newsletter subscribers only. Click here to sign up!