This post is about the book’s really good core ideas, and then a brief section on where they were weaker. I originally wrote this a year ago when I first read the post, but I’ve sat on publishing it. It makes some good points, so I’m doing so!
I recently read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I was looking forward to this: Cal’s previous book Deep Work has had a huge influence on my professional life (as I’ve written about before) and I’m a keen subscriber to his blog posts.
The book was set up to be a home run, but it was simultaneously really good and a little disappointing. The core idea started very strongly and was packed with insight, but by the end it strayed too far from this core insight and was relyig on weaker secondary sources, ideas, and arguments.
I hope this is both a useful recap of the points which resonated most with me, and a useful intellectual critique of where the book went a little awry.
My to-read list is long, and books can wait years to get read. I select a mix of interests, and try to make sure my reading is well rounded. It’s thus fairly unusual that I read Lessons in Stoicism quickly after finding it. I find the subject matter (modern takes on Stoicism) interesting but it’s also pretty short and I find the cover design extremely pleasing. Even the fanciest systems are undermined by the simplest things.
My reaction when I finished reading the book was that it was okay, but nowhere near as good as A Guide To The Good Life (aff link), which was one of the first of the modern Stoicism trends and remains one of the best. A Guide To The Good Life explores how to live according to Stoic rules at a deeply practical level. It’s a popular book: it’s supported by the original Stoic text but it’s very much a fresh interpretation.
Lessons in Stoicism is similar, but it’s much more rooted in the original texts. Indeed, looking back at my notes, I didn’t note much but what I’ve got down here is very good.
The most interesting section for me is covering Seneca’s essay On The Shortness of Life. The author extensively interprets the essay for the 21st century and it’s very good. My notes are below.
The other particularly interesting thing here is the analysis that’s missing. Stoicism is a philosophy popular with wealthy white men. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is true. Two of the most well known Stoic authors: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were exceptionally wealthy. Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor and literally the most powerful man in the world at the time.
I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Let My People Go Surfing, by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, on a trip to Japan two years ago. This was the same trip where I read Deep Work for the first time, so clearly I chose my reading list well.
Indeed, I chose these two books because I was about to start working for myself full-time: I’d just graduated University, and after the Japan trip would be starting my entrepreneurial journey.
Both Deep Work and Let My People Go Surfing have been influential on my work since. Deep Work has largely informed how I work, and Let My People Go Surfing has informed why I work.
This was the first time I read something which so clearly laid out the possibilities for using business as a real force for good, both in the way one conducts one’s business, and the potential impact one can have by sharing ideas and talking about how businesses are run. This latter point – the potential impact – wasn’t something I’d really thought was possible before, and has since inspired how we do work at Ellipsis.
I read Traction, a classic startup marketing book, at the start of this year. I’d previously seen and loosely embraced some of its ideas, but have happily fully embraced its thinking and marketing philosophy with Ellipsis since. It’s pretty simple, but really good.
There are already a ton of book summaries and notes on the internet, so this isn’t my attempt to do that; instead I want to pick out the parts I found especially interesting, and add my own analysis.