Tag: Buster Benson

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony

If we’re looking for silver linings around the pandemic, then one startlingly big one is the time people have had to reflect on their lives. When we’re busy, we’re forced to be pragmatic, and unfortunately that pragmatism can conflict with our core values.

This pragmatism has, certainly in my life, led to there being (small) disconnects between what I feel to be my values on the one hand, and my actions on the other. One thing I’ve been meaning to do for a while is to take the time to write down what I believe, in the style of Buster Benson’s Codex Vitae.

He divides his beliefs into the following areas:

  • Aliens
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cognitive biases
  • Consciousness
  • Critical thinking
  • Dialogue
  • Ecosystems
  • Game theory
  • Government
  • Health
  • Internal mental space
  • Mindfulness
  • Nature of reality
  • Policy
  • Purpose
  • Rules to live by
  • Spirituality
  • Technology
  • Vulnerability

…which may seem a little bit random, and reminds me somewhat of Jorge Luis Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge (“those that from afar look like flies”). Having said that, starting with one’s inner ontology is probably the best place to start.

Why do all this? Well, if you know what you believe then it’s easier to draw lines, ‘red’ or otherwise, and know what you will and will not stand for. It’s a guide to life, which of course can change over time, but at least serves as a guide.


The reason I’ve never managed to get around to writing down my beliefs in a way similar to Buster is, I would say, twofold. First, I’m unwilling to write down my religious beliefs, such as they are. Second, all of this looks like a rather large undertaking.

Instead, I’m going to use the rather helpful time horizon that the pandemic provides to think about what I’d like the ‘new normal’ to look like, about what I’m going to accept and what I am not. These take the form of aphorisms or reminders to myself.


  1. Life is too short to deal with adults who display little in the way of emotional intelligence.
  2. Organisations are groups of people that can have a positive or negative effect on the world. Do not work with or for the latter.
  3. Technology can free people or it can enslave them, so work to give as many people as much freedom as possible.
  4. Removing ego from the equation gets things done.
  5. Education is not the same as learning, nor are qualifications the same as real-world knowledge, skills and experience.
  6. Happiness is not something that you can find, but rather it is something that you discover once you stop looking for it.
  7. How you say or do something is as important as what you say or what you do.
  8. We all will die and don’t know when, so act today in a way whereby people will remember you well.
  9. You cannot control what other people say, do, or think.
  10. Money can only buy choices, not happiness, time, or anything else that constitutes human flourishing.

Yours may be different, and these are just want came tumbling out this time around, but these are the ten that I’ve printed out and stuck to the back of my home office door.


Quotation-as-title by Mahatma Gandhi. Photo by Ishant Mishra.

Memento mori

As I’ve mentioned before on Thought Shrapnel, next to my bed I have a memento mori, an object that reminds me that one day I will die.

My friend Ian O’Byrne had some sad news last week: his grandmother died. However, in an absolutely fantastic and very well-written post he wrote in the aftermath, he mentioned how meditating regularly on death, and having a memento mori has really helped him to live his life to the fullest.

I believe that it is reminders like this one that we desperately need in our own lives. It seems like a normal practice that may of us would rather ignore death, or do everything to avoid and pretend is not true. It may be the root of ego that causes us to run away from anything that reminds us of this reality. As a safety mechanism, we build this comfortable narrative that avoids this tough subject.

We also at times simply refuse to look at life as it is. We’re scared to meditate and reflect on the fact that we are all going to die. Just the fact that I wrote this post, and you’re reading it may strike you as a bit dark and macabre.

With all of our technological, surgical, and pharmaceutical inventions and devices, we expect, almost demand, to live a long life, live it in good health and look good doing it. We live in denial that we will die. But, previous civilizations were acutely aware of their own mortality. Memento mori was the philosophy of reflecting on your own death as a form of spiritual improvement, and rejecting earthly vanities.

So having a memento mori isn’t morbid, it’s actually a symbol that you’re looking to maximise your time here on earth. When I used a Mac, I had a skull icon at the top of the dock on the left-hand side of my screen.

Ian suggests some alternatives:

There are multiple ways to include this process of memento mori in your life. For some, it is as simple as including artwork and symbols in your home and daily interactions. These may be symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life. In my home we have skulls in various pieces of art and sculptures that help serve as a reminder.

I had opportunity last week to revisit Buster Benson’s 2013 influential post Live Like a Hydra. In it, he references an experiment he called If I Lived 100 Times whereby he modelled life expectancy data for someone his age. It’s interesting reading and certainly makes you think. How many books will you read before you die? How many new countries will you travel to? It makes you think.

Back to Ian’s article and he turns to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus for some advice:

Memento mori is an opportunity, should you take it, to reflect on the invigorating and humbling aspects of life. By no means am I an expert on this. I still struggle daily with understanding my role and mission in life. In these struggles, I also need to remember that I may not wake up tomorrow. As stated by Epictetus, “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” These opportunities to reflect and meditate provide an opportunity to create and enjoy the life you want.

Wise words indeed.

Source: W. Ian O’Byrne

Living an antifragile life

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book is out, which made me think about his previous work, Antifragile (which I enjoyed greatly).

As Shane Parrish quotes in a 2014 article on the subject, Taleb defines antifragility in the following way:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet.

This definition, and the examples Taleb pointed to in his book helped me understand the world a bit better. It’s easy to point to entitled people and see how they manage to get richer no matter what happens. But I think we all know people (and in fact companies, organisations, and communities) that are just set up for success. The notion of them being ‘antifragile’ helps describe that.

Parrish quotes Buster Benson who boils Taleb’s book down to one general, underlying principle:

Play the long game, keep your options open and avoid total failure while trying lots of different things and maintaining an open mind.

More specifically, Benson notes Taleb’s 10 principles of antifragility:

  1. Stick to simple rules
  2. Build in redundancy and layers (no single point of failure)
  3. Resist the urge to suppress randomness
  4. Make sure that you have your soul in the game
  5. Experiment and tinker — take lots of small risks
  6. Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
  7. Don’t get consumed by data
  8. Keep your options open
  9. Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
  10. Respect the old — look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time

Some great suggestions here, and I’m very much looking forward to reading Taleb’s new book. As a bonus, in putting together this post I discovered that, after jobs at Twitter, Slack, and Amazon, Buster Benson is writing a book. He’s looking for 100 supporters at $1 a month so I didn’t even think twice and pledged!

Source: Farnam Street

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