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#90: Learning from the Non-Obvious

#90: Learning from the Non-Obvious

Welcome to Mindf*ck Monthly, a newsletter that doesn’t suck. If you’re not already getting these in your inbox each month, well what the fuck?! Sign up below now.

1. What’s in a Country, Anyway? 

Yesterday was the Fourth of July here in the United States, the holiday in which we celebrate our country’s founding. We tend to spend it eating lots of red meat, drinking cheap beer, and blowing shit up. It’s great. 

Each country has their own holiday where they celebrate being who they are. It’s a time to (ideally) think about all of the great things your country has given you and how fortunate you are to be from there. 

But on these holidays, being the weirdo I am, I can’t help but be amazed that we have countries at all. 

That’s because the idea of a nation/state is not a natural construction. And it certainly doesn’t mesh with what we know about human nature (tribal, petty, locally-minded, etc.) 

Back in 1648, over a hundred leaders from all of the major European powers convened in Westphalia (what today is western Germany) in hopes of ending nearly 100 years of non-stop bloodshed on the European continent. In the process of reaching their resolution, they decided to devise a handful of legal distinctions to help everyone not beat the snot out of each other all the time. 

  • They created the concept of a national border, a line that delineates where your territory ends and mine begins. 
  • They invented the concept of unique sovereignty, the idea that I can’t try to govern people who live in your territory and you can’t try to govern mine. 
  • They invented the foundations of diplomacy: embassies and ambassadors and clemency and asylum. 

These practical agreements resulted in what we consider a “country” today. And this notion of a “country” was soon exported worldwide via colonialism.

This practical treaty in the 17th century accidentally became one of the most important moments of human history. Because, amazingly, people took to identifying themselves with these made up “countries.” For the first time ever, people began to look beyond language, religion, and tribe and began to identify themselves as Swiss, Italian, Dutch, Brazilian, and Canadian. This was a monumental shift in collective identity. And one that could not have been predicted at all.

Today, you can turn on the TV and watch the Euro Cup or Copa America soccer tournaments and see tens of thousands of people losing their damn minds over this abstract construction known as “country.” Today, we each have holidays where we spend the entire day around friends and family celebrating the completely arbitrary belief that we are all something called “American.” 

It’s a miracle of human civilization. It’s proof that humans are capable of organizing themselves around higher principles and beliefs, rather than superficial traits like skin color or language. And while we still falter in that regard, it should still give us hope. 

2. Reading the Non-Obvious

I am often asked by people what I’m reading, or how I choose what to read. It usually surprises them when I say that I basically never read personal development books.

One reason is simply because I’ve already read so many personal development and psychology books that the effort/reward ratio of most I come across is going to be small. 

But the other more interesting reason is that I actually find the best ideas in books that are orthogonal to my subject of interest. If you’re looking for a profound new psychological realization that few other people have found, you’re less likely to find it in a psychology book than you are applying psychology to a history book or an economics book or a biology book. 

Put another way, the best new ideas in a subject are rarely in that subject. They are usually just outside the border of the subject, embedded in some other work.

So, it’s important to have that foundational knowledge of psychology, but once you do, then try to apply it while reading other subjects like history, economics, politics, etc. 

Or if you really wanted to come across profound new ideas—in finance, for instance—then the optimal method would probably be to the read foundational finance texts. But then spend as much time, if not more, reading subjects orthogonal to finance, such as economics, geopolitics, military history, and so on. 

3. Some Time Away

Today is the 90th consecutive week that I’ve written this newsletter. In that time I’ve also: written a new book, shot a film, launched a YouTube channel, written dozens of articles, moved to a new country for six months, survived a pandemic, all while keeping this email going like clockwork. 

I’m tired. 

And I realized that I haven’t had more than a few days off in nearly two years. I have a tendency to fall into workaholism and this past week has been a bit of a wake-up call. It’s time for me to take my own productivity advice and step away for a while. 

I’m going to take some time off. Read some non-obvious books. Play a lot of video games. Enjoy life a bit. I will return to this newsletter in August. 

Until next month,

Mark Manson