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Going With What You Know, Building Your System for Excellence, & Giving up on Mediocre Books (Reading/Study Notes 5.28.18)

Resource: Trailblazing Astronomer Vera Rubin on Obsessiveness, Minimizing Obstacles, and How the Thrill of Accidental Discovery Redeems the Terror of Uncertainty


“I think I was terribly naive all along and when I came upon obstacles I don’t think I took them very seriously. I just felt that the people who presented obstacles really did not understand that I really wanted to be an astronomer. And I tended to ignore them or dismiss them, so I don’t think the obstacles have been severe. In general, I think they were just a lack of support. I always met teachers who told me — in college, in graduate school — to go and find something else to study… they didn’t need astronomers… I wouldn’t get a job… I shouldn’t be doing this. And I really just dismissed all that. I just never took it seriously. I wanted to be an astronomer and I didn’t care whether they thought I should or should not. So, somehow or other I just had the self-confidence to ignore all those bits of advice.”

“When all goes well, the drudgery is redeemed by success. What is remembered are the high points: the burning curiosity, the wonder at a mystery about to reveal itself, the delight at stumbling on a solution that makes an unsuspected order visible. The many years of tedious calculations are vindicated by the burst of new knowledge. But even without success, creative persons find joy in a job well done. Learning for its own sake is rewarding even if it fails to result in a public discovery.” -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


If you already know what you want to do, what else is there other than to do it? Having people give you advice isn’t the same thing as feeling obligated to follow their advice.

Small moments of success or creative breakthrough can entirely redeem a long arduous process of wrestling with a problem or working on a project. Sometimes those moments don’t come though. It’s best to seek your rewards in the work itself. Do things that are so meaningful that they reward you even if accolades and dramatic movie montage moments never come your way.

Resource: Excellence


“If you knew, and you could see the world through the eyes of the customer, and you really cared…What would you do? That’s a simple test of creating excellence. So, if I’m on hold for 56 minutes with Orbitz, does the CEO know? Is that ever a desired outcome? Does the engineer who shipped a hackable voting machine know that it’s hackable? The plumber who finished the job and left the hot/cold controls in reverse position… did he care enough? Excellence cuts through bureaucracy and status quo and excuses and asks a simple question: What would you do if you knew?”


A question this invokes is “What am I doing to make sure I know what’s going on in relation to the things I care about?” It seems clear to me from Seth Godin’s examples that the service-provider would care about those issues if they were made known to him, but getting that knowledge can be the hard part. What are some things I can do to make sure I’m working with a system that makes that kind of knowledge well-maintained, clearly communicated, and easily accessible? Question for further contemplation.

Resource: It’s Okay to Give Up on Mediocre Books Because We’re All Going to Die


On why she forced herself to finish books she didn’t enjoy:

“even if I hated the book, I forced myself to finish it. I was a compulsive finisher. No matter how much I disliked a book in the beginning, I felt like I owed it to the book, and its author, to give it a chance to redeem itself — and by a chance, I mean until the very last page.”

“I loved telling people that I always finished books. I loved the righteousness of being able to say that I could count on one hand the books I’d given up on. This obviously made me really fun at parties, but it was also part of a larger pattern of perfectionism that made me anxious and self-critical.”

On the weight represented by unread books:

“These unread books weighed on me; every time I saw them I was reminded of all the other tasks I felt behind on: the unreturned calls and texts, the emails I wasn’t able to keep up with in my personal inbox because I spent all my time and energy on my professional inbox, the room in my apartment that needed painting and plant that needed repotting.”

The question that changed everything:

“Realizing the gargantuan task that was in front of me if I was to read all the unread books on my shelves, I began questioning my resistance to quitting books once started. In a note to myself from that time, I wrote: “Why do I keep investing time in it even if I’m not super jazzed on it?” It was about a feeling of accomplishment that I was looking for, but my continual need for that feeling was out of control.”

The two reasons that helped her give up the sense of duty about finishing books:

“I’d learned two things in particular that helped me quit. One, I realized literally NO ONE cares if I give up on a book except me. (And maybe the author, if I told them, which I wouldn’t do because…no.) Two, I realized that I’m going to die.”

“As a writer myself, I was painfully aware that the author had, over the course of many months or years, tried their best to create something that mattered. I hated the idea that their effort would be in vain. But at a certain point, what mattered more than protecting their feelings was realizing that my time was a finite resource, and that no one was safe-guarding it for me.”

“I was worried giving myself permission to quit books early would impact how many I’d ultimately read. But last year, while working full-time and completing a book manuscript (as well as some shorter pieces), I read more than 75 books. I also gave up on maybe nine, but because I didn’t force myself to plod through books that bored me, I was able to move quickly and happily through the ones I did stick with. And that’s part of the point of reading for me: enjoyment, which in a literal sense means receiving joy.”

“Do you think [the books I like to read are] not literary enough? I don’t really care. Life’s too short…time in this body is limited and precious, and…I am well served by reading whatever the hell I want.”


At some point, you are going to die. Your life is finite. Your minutes are precious. why waste your precious remaining minutes by forcing yourself to read things that don’t fire you up? Read what you enjoy. No one really cares anyway. If you give up on a book, no one is going to know (unless you tell on yourself). You’ll read more often and more effectively if you just focus on what’s interesting and important to you. Forget about what others want you to read. Life is too short for that.

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