Kafka once told a teenage friend. “It’s only there that it can be won or lost.” The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky believed that what draws us to film is the gift of time — “time lost or spent or not yet had.
“Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” Elizabeth Gilbert asked in framing her catalyst for creative magic.
Although Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) is best known for his legendary legacy in martial arts and film, he was also one of the most underappreciated philosophers of the twentieth century, instrumental in introducing Eastern traditions to Western audiences.
The commencement address is a special kind of modern communication art, and its greatest masterpieces tend to either become a book — take, for instance, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, an
Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker asserted in his indispensable guide to the art-science of beautiful writing, adding that writers who are “too lazy to crack open a dictionary” are “incurious about the logic and history of the English language” and doom themselves to having “a tin ear f
In December of 2011, Neil deGrasse Tyson — champion of science, celebrator of the cosmic perspective, master of the soundbite — participated in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series of public questions and answers.
Categories are how we navigate the world, for better or for worse — this impulse toward organization helps us (to borrow Umberto Eco’s wonderful phrase) make infinity comprehensible, but its perilous flipside is the seedbed of stereotypes.
At the outset of each new year, humanity sets out to better itself as we resolve to eradicate our unhealthy habits and cultivate healthy ones.
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” wrote the thirty-year-old Nietzsche.
“If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve,” Debbie Millman counseled in one of the best commencement speeches ever given, urging: “Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love.
Thoreau wrote as he contemplated how silence ennobles speech. In the century and a half since, we have created a culture that equates loudness with leadership, abrasiveness with authority. We mistake shouting for powerful speech much as we mistake force for power itself.
After the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books and best science books, here are my favorite books on psychology and philosophy published this year, along with the occasional letter and personal essay — genres that, at their most excellent, offer hearty helpings of both disc
Boredom is one of the most essential yet endangered human capacities, a seedbed of sanity the creative benefits of which have been championed by some of humanity’s most fertile minds.
I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament. This is also necessary for all people.
Henry Miller wrote as he contemplated the measure of a life well lived on the precipice of turning eighty, “if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical… you’ve got it half licked.
Joan Didion observed in her classic meditation on loss. Abraham Lincoln, in his moving letter of consolation to a grief-stricken young woman, wrote of how time transmutes grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.
wrote the great French philosopher Simone Weil shortly before her untimely and patriotic death as she contemplated the crucial difference between our rights and our obligations. “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.
psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon observed in their indispensable A General Theory of Love. “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn wrote.
“Unless we are very, very careful,” wrote psychologist-turned-artist Anne Truitt in contemplating compassion and the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, “we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is othe
What does love mean, exactly? We have applied to it our finest definitions; we have examined its psychology and outlined it in philosophical frameworks; we have even devised a mathematical formula for attaining it.
“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.
Despite the immense canon of research on creativity — including its four stages, the cognitive science of the ideal creative routine, the role of memory, and the relationship between creativity and mental illness — very little has focused on one of life’s few givens that equally few of us can
artist Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in contemplating life and the art of setting priorities, “ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least.
Susan Sontag wrote in her diary.
Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his influential lecture on the shapes of stories.
If the odds of finding one’s soul mate are so dreadfully dismal and the secret of lasting love is largely a matter of concession, is it any wonder that a growing number of people choose to go solo? The choice of solitude, of active aloneness, has relevance not only to romance but to all human bond
Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.
Adrienne Rich, in contemplating how love refines our truths, wrote: “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless reflection on presence over productivity — a timely antidote to the central anxiety of our productivity-obsessed age.
I had lived thirty good years before enduring my first food poisoning — odds quite fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but miserably unfortunate in the immediate experience of it.
UPDATE: The fine folks of Holstee have turned these seven learnings into a gorgeous letterpress poster inspired by mid-century children’s book illustration.
On an excellent recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show — one of these nine podcasts for a fuller life — neuroscientist Sam Harris answered a listener’s question inquiring what books everyone should read.
“If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work,” psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote in his inquiry into what motivates us to work. But human nature itself is a moody beast.
As a hopeless lover of both letters and notable advice, I was delighted to discover a letter 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937–February 20, 2005) — gonzo journalism godfather, pundit of media politics, dark philosopher — penned to his friend Hume Logan in 1958.
One November night in the 1870s, legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) discovered the meaning of life in a dream — or, at least, the protagonist in his final short story did.
artist Agnes Martin reflected in her final years. “Oh comforting solitude, how favorable thou art to original thought!” wrote the founding father of neuroscience in his advice to young scientists.
In 1564, Galileo Galilei was born into a world with no clocks, telescopes, or microscopes — a world that was believed to be the center of the universe, orbited by the sun and the moon and the stars.
One July morning during a research trip to the small New England island of Nantucket, home to pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, I had a most unusual experience. Midway through my daily swim in the ocean, my peripheral vision was drawn to what at first appeared to be a snorkel.
Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with.” Samuel Johnson similarly contended that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.
In his meditation on the three ways of writing for children and the key to authenticity in all writing, C.S. Lewis admonished against treating children, in literature or life, as “a strange species whose habits you have ‘made up’ like an anthropologist or a commercial traveller.” J.R.R.
Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) is one of the most revered and quotable writers in literary history, credited with pioneering “social networking” with his Republic of Letters — the remarkable epistolary mesh of correspondence between him and some of his era’s greatest intellectua
the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in his touching fan letter to biologist Rachel Carson after she awakened the modern environmental conscience with her courageous 1962 book Silent Spring — a sobering look at the consequences, both for humanity and for our fragile planet, of material greed, unb
“If librarians were honest,” Joseph Mills wrote in his delightful poem celebrating libraries, “they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…” For Thoreau, books themselves were also changed and fertilized by their cohabitation, “as if they were making a humus for new lit
German philosopher, poet, composer, and writer Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) is among humanity’s most enduring, influential, and oft-cited minds — and he seemed remarkably confident that he would end up that way.
“The state of enchantment is one of certainty,” W.H. Auden wrote in his commonplace book. “When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we , even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.
Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the elemental human need for communication. Indeed, a life deprived of that essential sustenance of the soul, whatever form it may take, is a life of unthinkable tragedy.
Shortly after turning fifty, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910) succumbed to a profound spiritual crisis.
I have thought and continued to think a great deal about the relationship between critical thinking and cynicism — what is the tipping point past which critical thinking, that centerpiece of reason so vital to human progress and intellectual life, stops mobilizing our constructive impulses and top
Given my soft spot for famous diaries, it should come as no surprise that I keep one myself.
Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) was many things — a cosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic, and brilliant philosopher.
“Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work,” Jennifer Egan once said. This intersection of reading and writing is both a necessary bi-directional life skill for us mere mortals and a secret of iconic writers’ success, as bespoken by their personal libraries.
UPDATE: These daily routines have now been adapted into a labor-of-love visualization of writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity. Kurt Vonnegut’s recently published daily routine made we wonder how other beloved writers organized their days.
One September day in 2008, Leonard Shlain found himself having trouble buttoning his shirt with his right hand. He was admitted into the emergency room, diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, and given nine months to live.
Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives.
Philosophers and New Age sages have long insisted that the self is a spiritual crutch — from Alan Watts’s teachings on how our ego keeps us separate from the universe to Jack Kerouac’s passionate renunciation of the Self Illusion to Sam Harris’s contemporary case for self-transcendence.
“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” So wrote young Leo Tolstoy in his diary of moral development.
Few people have enchanted the popular imagination with science more powerfully and lastingly than physicist Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) — the “Great Explainer” with the uncommon gift for bridging the essence of science with the most human and humane dimensions of life.
How is your New Year’s resolution to read more and write better holding up? After tracing the fascinating story of the most influential writing style guide of all time and absorbing advice on writing from some of modern history’s most celebrated writers, here comes some priceless and pricelessly
“Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you,” Anna Deavere Smith wrote in her invaluable advice to young artists. But how does one master the intricacies of that integration?
“We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come,” Alan Watts observed in 1970, aptly declaring us “a civilization which suffers from chronic disappointment.
“What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?” Mary McCarthy asked her friend Hannah Arendt in their correspondence about love.
wrote the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in his treatise on mastering the art of loving. But not knowing how to be loved equally wounds us, and wounds those who try to love us.
Most people know Tim Ferriss as the amicable, quick-witted, high-energy writer, adventurer, and interviewer, who has devoted his life to optimizing human performance across the full spectrum of physical and mental health.
“Compassion,” wrote historian Karen Armstrong in considering the proper meaning of the Golden Rule, “asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.
“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning,” Lincoln Steffens wrote in his beautiful 1925 essay.
The Greek polymath Pythagoras (c. 570–c.
“We are what we pretend to be,” Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
In our recent On Being conversation, NASA astrophysicist and exoplanet researcher Natalie Batalha said something that stopped me up short: as sentient beings endowed with awareness, we are “the universe itself becoming aware.
The question of what it takes to excel — to reach genius-level acumen at a chosen endeavor — has occupied psychologists for decades and philosophers for centuries.
Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to
Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.
Oliver Sacks wrote in outlining the three essential elements of creativity, adding: “This incubation period is essential to allow the subconscious assimilation and incorporation of one’s influences and sources, to reorganize and synthesize them into something of one’s own.
The most reliable portal into another’s psyche is the mental library of that person’s favorite books — those foundational idea-bricks of which we build the home for our interior lives, the integral support beams of our personhood and values.
I consider my annual best-of reading lists a kind of Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which lay out an aspirational list of priorities for the new year, these represent a look back at the books that proved themselves most worth prioritizing over the setting
“That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.
artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary at the end of a long and illustrious life as she contemplated how solitude enriches creative work.
Celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher, Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) may have only lived a short life, but it was a deep one and its impact radiated widely outward, far across the centuries and disciplines and schools of thought.
In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote to Leo Tolstoy, by then one of the most famous public figures in the world, asking for the author’s support in India’s independence from British colonial rule.
Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of the good life and how we limit our happiness. For the whole of human history up to that point, such questions had been left entirely to his ilk — the philosophers — and perhaps to the occasional poet.
Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity’s most lucid and luminous minds — an oracle of timeless wisdom on everything from what “the good life” really means to why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness to love, sex, and our moral superstition
In his sublime definition of love, playwright Tom Stoppard painted the grand achievement of our emotional lives as “knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.
William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings.
Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) spent a lifetime contemplating the role of writing in both the inner world of the writer and outer universe of readers, which we call culture — from her prolific essays and talks on the task of literature to her devastatingly beautiful letter to
“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself,” the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer counseled the young in his superb Naropa Unviersity commencement address.
And now for something a bit out of the ordinary: When editor Andrew Blauner invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by some of his favorite writers about their favorite Beatles songs, I did something I rarely do — I accepted, because a particular Beatles song happens to be a significant
Much has been said about how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, and what we can do to optimize ourselves for it. In this excerpt from his fantastic 1991 lecture, John Cleese (b.