“If a book can be summarized, it’s not a book but a magazine article; don’t read it and don’t read its summary.”
Great writers are able to distill their thoughts down to the point where the message is clearly conveyed without losing essential meaning. It is no exaggeration to suggest that many books should really be articles if the message can be delivered effectively in a couple of thousand words rather than tens of thousands. Taking it a step further, many articles should really be distilled down into tweets.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a high bar when it comes to praise, so I took notice when he endorsed Vitaliy Katsenelson’s latest book, Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life, which will be released on Tuesday, June 21. I immediately knew at least two things about the book: First, I would not be spending my time reading a book that could be distilled into an article. Second, I would not be able to write a review that could adequately “summarize” its contents.
My expectations rose even further because I recognized the concept of “Soul in the Game” from my recollection of an early chapter in Nassim Taleb’s book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, which I read immediately after it was released in 2018. Taleb differentiates between individuals who have skin in the game and those who take it a step further by doing things for existential reasons rather than simply to earn a living. Those who have soul in the game are artisans who simply will not compromise their key principles for any amount of compensation.
I do not know Vitaliy personally, but I have read his work for a long time, dating back at least to The Little Book of Sideways Markets which was published over a decade ago. But that was a book on investing and could not be more different from Soul in the Game. As Nassim Taleb says in his endorsement, the book reads like a conversation with Vitaliy, and I immediately felt like I was on a first name basis with him and engaged in a conversation rather than just reading words on a printed page.
Over the years, reading Vitaliy’s articles provided a glimpse into his interests outside investing including stories about his family as well as discussions of art and classical music. From scanning the table of contents of Soul in the Game, I was delighted to see that the core of the book involves Vitaliy’s understanding of how to use the concepts of stoicism to live a better life. As a reader of the stoic philosophers, and as an aspiring practitioner, I am always interested in learning how people in today’s society have leveraged the timeless insights of stoicism to improve their own lives.
Too often, books about philosophy are bland because they are discussed in the abstract or, when examples are provided, they involve historical figures who lived in different eras that seem to have little in common with modernity. This is why learning about Vitaliy’s life through the early chapters makes the subsequent chapters on stoicism much more interesting.
In Born in Russia, Made in America, we learn about Vitaliy’s childhood growing up in Russia and his emigration to the United States in 1991, just at the time that the U.S.S.R. was in the process of breaking up. Vitaliy’s loss of his mother when he was just eleven years old, and the subsequent influence of his father profoundly shaped the course of his life. From a professional perspective, growing up in a socialist command-and-control system also clearly had a major impact in the outlook of a man who later became a capitalist and an investor.
After Vitaliy and his family arrived in the United States, they settled in Denver. In 1991, I was at the same stage of my life, except I was starting college in California in a city where I had grown up. Vitaliy had to learn English, find employment, and get an education in a culture that was foreign to him. The story of how he discovered the field of investing and worked his way up from an entry level position to become CEO of his company is inspirational. We are also given a personal account of Vitaliy’s family life which shaped his identity just as much as investing.
I came to the philosophy of stoicism in my forties, after many trials and tribulations of life that I was poorly equipped to handle. So it was especially interesting to read about Vitaliy’s take on the stoic “operating system” and how it can be applied to life in the modern world. Although his life experiences are very different from mine, we both apparently arrived at stoic philosophy at around the same age and time.
As I mentioned earlier, this is not a book that can be summarized — it deserves to be read in its entirety. However, I will discuss a few aspects of the chapters on stoicism that I found particularly valuable.
One of the major misconceptions about stoicism is that its practitioners are somewhat like robots with a “stiff upper lip”. The implication is that stoics are unemotional and, in many cases, unsympathetic to other people. Based on this misconception, if we ever get artificial intelligence manifested in a humanoid robot, it would have a “stoic” outlook on life as its default setting.
But stoicism is not about behaving like a robot.
As Vitaliy says, “Mother Nature equipped us with a very rudimentary hunter-gatherer operating system”. Human beings are creatures that have evolved for millions of years, almost all of which was spent in an environment radically different from our modern world. The innate “operating system” we have inherited through evolution is not, by itself, adequate for navigating our world, and it was not even adequate thousands of years ago when stoicism emerged.
Perhaps the most valuable insight from stoicism is the concept of the dichotomy of control. It is such a simple idea: some things in life are simply not in our control. To worry about such things is not only pointless but counterproductive because it creates a distraction that impedes our ability to act and make progress on things that we can either fully control or partially control.
“The more we tie our happiness to things that we cannot control, the more we subject ourselves to the negative volatility of the outside world. Therefore, we need to be mindful in setting our goals. They should be internal to us, under our control, and process based.”
Depending on the admiration of other people to maintain your own sense of worth and self-esteem is a certain path to misery. As Vitaliy points out, people are programmed to care about the opinions of others. The problem is that we cannot control what people think of us. We can control our thoughts and our actions, but we cannot control how others perceive our actions.
Vitaliy discusses Warren Buffett’s concept of an “inner scorecard”, a topic that I have written about in the past. In the field of investing, anchoring to the verdict of the market on a day-to-day basis is a recipe for disaster. Allowing the market to question your decisions constantly erodes your ability to invest based on sound principles and you’ll begin to anchor on market quotes rather than your assessment of intrinsic value.
The inner scorecard is not limited to investing. It should apply to all aspects of how we choose to live according to our values. When it comes to investing, if you are right about the intrinsic value of your holdings, eventually the market will agree with you.
Having good values in life will naturally earn long-term rewards when it comes to how others perceive you. Of course, there are also people who have a corrupt inner scorecard. One of the hallmarks of sociopathy is not giving a damn what others think of your actions … the key point here is that the best way to be well regarded by your family, friends and society at large is to deserve to be well regarded.
One of Seneca’s most profound statements was “life is long if you know how to use it.” The problem is that most people do not appreciate the finite nature of life and squander their time on pointless thoughts and pursuits. In Each Day Is a Separate Life, Vitaliy suggests taking to heart Seneca’s recommendation to “begin at once to live and count each separate day as a separate life.”
“Each day as a separate life has many advantages. Every single day you have feedback that allows you to make micro course corrections. It focuses you on process versus outcome. If you want to lose weight, instead of setting a New Year’s resolution to lose 30 pounds, set daily resolutions — eat so many calories per day, exercise so many minutes per day, etc… None of us knows how long we have been given on this Earth. But I am certain we will be given more days than years.”
There are many situations when breaking down a complex task into smaller sub-tasks can eliminate the paralysis that often accompanies facing a major objective. What could make more sense than treating each day as a separate “mini-life”? If you spend each day wisely and in the right frame of mind, this will naturally result in a week spent in that manner, then a month, and then a full year. Actually, I think it is even better than that because good days tend to compound over time and build resiliency to the occasional setback. Living each day as a separate life is a powerful concept.
I’ve only scratched the surface here in terms of the wisdom of the stoics contained in the book. As Vitaliy writes, stoicism is not a religion but a way of thinking about the world that can improve your “human operating system”. Chances are that you will want to read much more about stoicism after reading this book.
The final section of the book involves Vitaliy’s love of classical music and how he has come to better understand composers by studying their lives and times. The concept of “understanding” music is very important. Sometimes it is necessary to listen to a piece of music many times before the nuances can be appreciated.
Although I am only an occasional listener of classical music, I can relate to the concept of “understanding” music based on my experience listening to live jazz during the years I lived in New Orleans. Most of the people who visit the city are there to have a good time, and live music certainly delivers. But if you want to understand jazz, you have to make the effort to learn about the lives of the musicians and the environment in which they composed their music.
One of my favorite New Orleans bands doesn’t restrict itself to a particular period, playing traditional jazz from the early-mid 20th century as well as other types of music from many parts of the world. By crossing genres, the music is much more eclectic and interesting, especially if you take the time to understand the music.
The same can be true for a book. I have no idea how to categorize Soul in the Game. Is it a memoir? A book on stoicism? A book on classical music? It is none of these things in isolation, but all of these things in combination. To understand what I mean by that, you’ll have to read the book because this review is an incomplete “summary”.
Disclosure: The Rational Walk LLC received a review copy of the book from the author.