The Penguin Latte Podcast #19 – The Mad Scientist of Reading: Poor Bjorn on Self-Experimenting with Non-Fiction

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Warning: what follows is a conversation for book nerds

Books transform us. When we really dig into a book, nestle beneath the words, peek under the author’s skin, we transcend our current self. We become someone greater. The best books maintain that transformation long after we’ve finished reading the last word.

A book isn’t something to collect. A book is to be experienced. Which is why I wanted to have this conversation with Poor Bjorn (@poorbjorn on Twitter and Instagram). Poor Bjorn loves books. He loves books so much that he doesn’t just read books. He lives books. He’s the creator of an Instagram page where he not only reviews books, he conducts self-experiments based on the lessons from the book.

Bjorn will cover any subject. Stoicism. Wealth. Esoteric Philosophy. Psychology. History. Self-help. Persuasion. Negotiation. It doesn’t matter what the book is about. If it’s physically possible, he’ll run the experiment. He once ordered a square pizza because he read a book about seeking rejection. In an utterly hilarious stroke of fate, he failed the experiment. The pizza place delivered him a square pizza.

So, get comfortable, grab a cup of your favorite hot cocoa, and cozy in for our wide-ranging conversation about all things books! If you’re a fan of my episodes with Andrew Barry, Pranav Mutatkar, Deepu Asok, or Cullin McGrath, I’m sure you’ll have much to appreciate in our conversation. Enjoy!

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September in California

Good God it’s hot outside…

I’m no stranger to heat. I’ve lived in California for the last 25 years, so pretty much all my life. But this time, something’s different. This heat is downright oppressive. More than 60 miles away from me, there’s a wildfire so strong that I can see the smoke from outside my window. It’s six in the evening. The sun should be setting.

Instead, it’s trying to set me on fire.

I have a headache. It’s hard to focus. And the heat isn’t helping, either. I have a podcast episode that’s going live tomorrow. My podcast is usually just me reading my daily blog posts. But with 12 hours to go, the page is still blank. Fuck. Not only that, but tomorrow I’m also meeting my first potential client for my consulting business. I’m excited, but I can’t help running scenarios in my head about this meeting blowing up in my face.

Can I deliver what I’ve promised?

Do I actually know what I’m talking about on my landing page?

Shouldn’t I be focusing on that instead of writing this post?

It’s probably not the smartest idea to talk about self-doubt in public. But in recent years, I’ve learned one lesson the hard way – Superman doesn’t exist. Our idols are no more perfect than you and I. You have your doubts. I have my doubts. And guess what? So does Beyoncé. Maybe.

There’s a book laying next to my Tatami mat (yes, I sleep on the floor). It was written by a man who lived thousands of years ago. After finishing this book for the first time, I went right back to the beginning again. The book I’m talking about is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

The self-help world has found itself enamored by Marcus’s private aphorisms for living a full life. “Concentrate on the task at hand like a Roman,” writes Marcus. But the love for stoicism isn’t universally understood. Some corners of the self-help world see stoicism as a mere aesthetic. An aesthetic that preaches the virtues of painting ourselves in bronze, forgoing the cookie for the steak, and doing a thousand push-ups by sunrise.

Here’s a secret – Stoicism has nothing to do with push-ups or the color bronze.

But it has everything to do with September in California.

Stoicism isn’t a philosophy of life. It’s a philosophy for life. Aurelius gave us a set of guiding principles for those fun moments when life sucker-punches us in the gut. I didn’t ask to have this headache. I wish the sun would go away. But the sun and this headache don’t give a damn about me.

Author Ryan Holiday is the embodiment of the modern stoic ideal. Through his three part series on stoicism in daily life, he teaches us that our obstacles are opportunities in disguise, ego is the most toxic force in our lives, and an inner stillness is the greatest productivity trick of all. Holiday understands these principles better than the self-help world. No surprises there. It’s often the individual who understands the nuances of a concept better than the crowd.

But if we look at stoicism through the eyes of someone who never took anything at face value, we find something a little too obvious in hindsight.

Cut from a different cloth, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that stoicism was a form of discipline through self-tyranny. “O you noble stoics,” writes Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, “You want to live ‘according to nature’? Think of a being such as nature is, prodigal beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without aims or intentions, without mercy or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain; think of indifference itself as a power – how could you live according to such indifference?”

To Nietzsche, living according to nature, living stoically, meant seeing indifference itself as a value. He disliked this philosophy for the same reasons he disliked Christianity. He didn’t like rules that would suppress what should be expressed.

Nietzsche believed that one of the great pinnacles of our lives would come when we “transform our evil qualities into our good qualities.” This is one of the most difficult of his aphorisms I’ve come across. I still don’t fully grasp what this means (I don’t have a grasp over 95% of what Nietzsche wrote). But here’s what I think he meant.

Our evil qualities are the creative qualities. We’re told to pay attention in meetings instead of doodling on our notepads. But what if instead of stoically bearing the boredom of a meeting, we used our doodling habit to illustrate a point?

To be yourself is to see yourself for who you really are. It means sitting with all your mistakes, fears, anxieties, doubts, and grievances over the loss of the person you once were — the person someone else wanted you to be. And it means letting yourself do evil, dastardly things. Dastardly things like doodling.

Now I’m looking at another one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. He writes, “under conditions of peace the warlike man attacks himself.”

Yeah, sounds about right.

It’s hot and I’m sweating and I wish I lived in an igloo. This headache is making me want to rip out my amygdala. But these sensations, heat and headache, they’re just that — sensations.

Today is actually kind of peaceful.

A conspiracy theory

You’re not in control. They are.

Not a big pyramid with an eyeball. Not a group of men in suits sitting around a glossy table in a dark room plotting to keep you poor. It’s whoever wrote that outrage tweet. Or that political manifesto on Facebook. Or that comment on your profile picture about how you look like a lizard.

Everyone has dreams. Everyone has values. But not everyone has values that align with their dreams.

Dreaming is easy. So easy that we do it in our sleep.

All you do is fill in this sentence: I dream of _____.  I want to be a writer. I want to sing. I want to see the world. I want to do this and be that.

But coming up with values? deciding what we’re going to ignore? deciding what to say no to, no matter what? That’s difficult. That requires us to set boundaries. And who wants to do that? Who wants to say no to their friends? But it’s a necessary practice, no matter how much we risk looking like a jerk in the short-term.

There isn’t much to fear missing out on when what you’re missing is banal and expedient.

Here’s a better, more useful fear: the fear of missing out on the work that only you can do.

Checking the newest thing isn’t living. If you’re always worried about the newest most outrageous thing, then you’re a puppet. You’re not free to do as you please. You’re letting other people pull your strings.

When your values align with your dreams, they’re no longer in control. You are.