Book Review: Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

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I think this book can often be summarized best by Leonardo Da Vinci himself: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” Learn widely and deeply, from the source itself, from exploration and experimentation- not from pre-digested secondary sources, in other words. In some ways, Leonardo Da Vinci is so relevant to our current age that I found myself pondering the how his life and beliefs could be applied to today’s world of broad, shallow knowledge.

I think that many of us feel disconnected and fragmented- too different from others, ill at ease with  others, compounded by our tendency to connect virtually. We take our information in via  the sound bite, the Twitter feed (and if you want to know what the Chief Executive has said, you virtually must have a Twitter feed), the TV broadcast, the mobile phone notification.  I see increasingly more patients who question-“have I always had ADHD? My kids have ADHD” but yet have not optimized sleep, mood, and have not developed (or lost) the skills of deep focus. One of the best selling books in business today is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. We require teaching to help us focus given the number of distractions competing for our attention- the fabric of our minds is being frayed at the edges by the constant requests for our attention. Or is it? I think the answer is yes and no. I think we expect absolute focus, and value conformity in our young students. Heck, I value conformity in my young children. I understand- I feel a little upset when my kids aren’t listening in class, or appear to fall behind. I feel a little upset (and amused, I admit) when I get a crayon drawing with “I will not talk when the bell rings” from my son’s school, and a drawing for “better choices” that he might make later. But by forcing people into a mold for achievement, are we sacrificing creativity, zest for life, the joy of learning?

Leonardo did not live in a time like this, but struggled maintaining focus all the same. However, his restless intellect, periodic hyper focus, so common in ADHD (not the more often destructive bipolar disorder, as the author posited, though perhaps there is better evidence somewhere else), was admired at the time. The author himself points out that had Leonardo been able to follow through with his projects, we might have more surviving projects. He also admires Da Vinci’s joy for exploration and learning- and on trying to live a little more like DaVinci, observes that his life was richer for having made the attempt. Can we really say that Leonardo, the inventor of countless devices, painter of accurate optics and beauty, explorer of the mind, probably would have done a lot better on Ritalin? To be clear, the author is not saying this. But I wondered this- have I seen a Leonardo in my practice? Would I have checked the boxes of the DSM-5, and started medication? I like to think (and hope) not.  On the other hand, I can’t say I know better than my patients- some of these people are really suffering, and prevented from achieving what they feel they should. But are they trying to fit themselves into society’s expectation- I “should” behave some way or another, etc? I think observing Leonardo’s life with a critical eye- much like he might have himself- can give us some clarity to the place we have found ourselves.

Also interesting and much appreciated, was the author’s ability to review the evidence, and provide what he felt was the likeliest conclusion – too often, biographies, at the risk and worry of being paternalistic, or making judgements, leave us wondering why something happened. I really appreciated the author’s willingness to make himself vulnerable, to say, “this is what I think is most likely.” The book was surprisingly funny in places- the hilariousness of Da Vinci’s to-do lists- was worth the time reading the book alone.

I heard about this book on a podcast- I think it was Tim Ferris’s podcast- and was inspired to check it out from our local library. I am so glad I did. I encourage anyone interested to spend the time with this book. I’ll probably head back to the library soon for the biography this author wrote on Benjamin Franklin next.


Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: useful, educational, but needs an editor

Essentialism by Greg McKeown
I picked up the book, Essentialism, based on a few good reviews that I read. The idea of pursuing less and accomplishing more appeals to me- I have so many hobbies and interests, that I often have lost interest in something by the time I gather all the items needed to pursue the hobby! College, something I really enjoyed, took me twice as long, because I took classes I was interested in rather than focus on a goal. Even now, I have more magazines and books than I can read in a lifetime. So, the byline of the book, “the disciplined pursuit of less” was quite meaningful to me!

I’ve recently started using index cards for taking reading notes, from Ryan Holliday’s article about keeping a commonplace book. One indicator of the relative value of a book is how many cards you make for each book (20 cards or so, is a book with a lot of personal meaning!). For Essentialism, I took 32 cards’ worth of ideas and quotations!

The book is divided into four parts- explaining the fundamentals of the philosophy, applying the fundamentals to your own life, weaning down the excess of your own life to the essential, and then following a minimalist lifestyle. There were a few chapters in each section that I found particularly helpful. I’m already pretty good at saying no to things that I don’t think add value to my life, but the ideas of weeding out things that aren’t 100% of what you want, and editing as a way of creating something better were new to me.

I think this would be a great book for someone who feels they aren’t effective in their life, or someone who is wanting to embrace minimalism. The book helps with the inner process of minimalism- to me, the external condition of a clean, simple environment is the result of the inner work. This book should help with the inner work. The book is a quick read- just 246 pages. The one fault I found with this book- I think it could have been shorter. There were a lot of concepts that were repeated over and over! I think the author may have been trying to reinforce the important concepts but at some point, I wondered if the book had been written as independent essays rather than a cohesive whole.

How the new Things 3 app is literally changing my life (along with DayOne)

I admit how much I love planning, technology, apps and the like. I consider the difference between planning methods (digital or paper? Mac app or web app? A combination of both?) as carefully as I timed having a family.  I might only be kidding a little. Or not kidding at all. Anyway, I have found a combination of apps that are changing my life right now.

I am a Mac user in general, but in my work, PC is the law of the land. I am also aware of all the research regarding how writing things down helps you cement them in your mind. However, I also travel light being a public transportation commuter, and it’s not as if I want or need to recall my calendar perfectly. That’s what reminders and the prompting from my apple watch are for! Right now for me, a combination of apps has really helped me get focused.

I was recently encouraged to try Things 3, the newly released app on Mac, iPad and iPhone by Cultured Code, from a  thread on the Asian Efficiency Dojo website. I am really glad I did! My method is adapted from one of the users, Tor Rogn. I have a Daily project that recurs and keeps me accountable with my daily rituals. It also reminds me of what my current next steps are for goals, and what I’m working on that week. Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 3.04.07 PM

Each morning, I get up early, and start my morning ritual, which I’ve made a screen shot of the checklist from the daily project above:

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I meditate using the Insight Timer that I blogged about a few weeks ago, and I write a five minute journal entry to help me remember what my priorities are and what I am grateful for. I do this via the DayOne app and a text expander- in this case, Typeit4me.

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Throughout the day, I use the daily checklist to help me guide my day. At night, I complete the 5 minute journal. On Sunday, I have a weekly review project that automatically comes up in Things (in two screen shots, since it’s longer than my screen). This helps me ensure that I have collected all the data for the week, and get ready for the week ahead with a minimum of trauma.

The task prompts me to review my goals, and work out what makes the most difference in DayOne- again, using a prompt from a text expander. I was using the Focus journal from Michael Hyatt, and I’ve used his weekly review in my electronic version (I have the journal, but don’t want to lug it around).

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What are you doing for your organization and weekly reviews? Let me know below how you’re staying on top of things!

Less, many times: A book review of “The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan,” by Andy Couturier

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I picked this book up at Kramerbooks in D.C. (if you haven’t been there, it’s a fun bookstore- not as much fun as my beloved Politics and Prose, but still great), partly because, like many people with too many first world problems, I’m trying to scale down. How lucky we are, those of us following the minimalist ideas of less stuff, simpler lives, to even have this choice!

I loved this book. Well, if I’m honest with myself, the first half of this book. The idea of the book is to explore the lifestyle and thought process of rural Japanese people, mostly elderly people, and how we might learn from them. The book reflects their lives- poetic, quiet, honest and humble. Many of the people are nuclear power protesters, and the book I picked up is a revised edition, with an update on the lives of these people post-Fukushima disaster. All of these people have opted to step out of the frenetic lifestyle of working, attending school, etc., from sun up to sun down in relentless pursuit of some external goal, for different, probably more authentic goals: time, family, connection with community, art, and slow living. While this is stepping outside the box in America, it’s REALLY stepping outside the box in Japan, and many of these individuals reported strong disapproval from their families. I admired them.

The problem for me was, halfway through the book, starting a new chapter, I started to dread the story: the individual as a young person, protested nuclear power/landfill/environmental problems, and decides to go against their families’ advice to:

  • travel to Tibet/India/Nepal to
  • study traditional weaving/traditional calligraphy/traditional religious texts/traditional music,
  • then decided to come back when Tibet/India/Nepal became too modernized, and
  • lived in the mountains in Japan where they
  • raise their own food/work the land/play music/do aforementioned traditional craft in Japan.

In the end, I felt that I could probably read half the book, and get the same story, only half as many times- is there an editor in the house??

I think there’s a way to read this without getting burned out with the similarity of the stories: don’t read it the way I did. Read the book a chapter at a time, savor their story, and then give the book a rest. By the time you come back to it in a few weeks or months, you won’t recall that the last person had almost exactly the same story, and you’ll feel the same way about the book when I started it: inspired by the peace, quiet, and rough edges of the simplicity of these lives.

If you’re interested in reading this book, I’ve attached the affiliate link to Amazon below.


Insight Timer: a meditation app worth a second look

A long time ago, I downloaded Insight Timer, an app that to the best of my recollection, did the one thing it was for in an attractive way. In other words, it timed my meditation and had a nice mindfulness bell at the beginning and end. At the time, that is all it did. You could change the timer, the way that it counted down meditation, and the sound it made to signal completion, but that was basically it. At the time, that didn’t seem like enough to earn it’s keep on my iPhone and I deleted it.

However, I recently joined an online group where the moderator had started an Insight Timer group to meditate together. An Insight Timer group? I decided to review the app again. To my surprise, the app has become so much more than I recalled- in fact, it has become my primary meditation app. I even cancelled my headspace subscription!

The original Insight Timer app is still there, under the Timer tab at the bottom of the app. You can still choose what starting and ending bell you prefer (there are more choices for a small fee of $2.99). You can choose a background noise, like a sound bath, which may amplify the effects of meditation ( see this article). Again, there are different options for a small fee- this time, $1.99.

The part of the app which has really stood out for me, and is free, are the new guided meditations and music. The guided meditations are from different teachers of different spiritualities and points of view- some are specifically aimed at a type of spirituality or religion, and some are more aimed at general mindfulness and health. I was impressed to see Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, all for free! I’ve been using the guided meditation, “Morning Meditation with Music” by Jonathan Lehmann most mornings, and really like it. There is also a music section that has binaural beats, which in studies, have been shown to help with anxiety (you need headphones for these). I’ve been listening to “Whispering Notes” by Pablo Arellano at night. I can’t tell you specifically what it sounds like past the first fifteen minutes because I  have been completely asleep by then…every. Single. Night.

There are also groups of different meditators, who opt to meditate at the same time, or just offer support on a basic wall dedicated to that group. I haven’t explored these much yet. You can add friends as well and communicate via the app. I haven’t decided exactly what I think of that-you can opt to turn off this feature, and had I started off again today, I might have chosen to turn this feature off. I have had a few people sending me odd, intrusive questions that I chose to ignore in general.

Overall, if you’re planning to start a meditation practice, I can’t recommend this app enough. Recent updates show that the company is working towards organizing the guided meditation and music in a way that enhances the experience for the user.

What meditation app are you using? I would love to hear via your comments below!0E70ADC7-E63F-4BBF-A47E-3399C6C85484

What’s so great about fountain pens?


Quick, what magazine just wrote a feature about the old-fashioned fountain pen? Victoria magazine? The Paris Review? Writer’s Digest? You might be surprised to hear it was Wired Magazine!

Fountain pens are making a comeback. Why? I believe it is because it is satisfying to see the strong, smooth line of a fountain pen on paper, easier to write with after some practice, and elegant. There is something lasting and romantic about fountain pens. We have so many “virtual” experiences today, that I believe that we are craving the real, honest experiences of life- hence the current obsession with hygge (see my previous post HERE). Also, fountain pens make less waste- you may only ever throw away empty cartridges, and possibly not even that if you use a converter). However, many people are intimidated by them. The most common things I hear from people when they see me writing with a fountain pen, after, “you have such nice handwriting for someone who is left handed” is:

  • Aren’t fountain pens messy?
  • Aren’t fountain pens hard to use?
  • Where do you even find fountain pens any more?
  • Aren’t fountain pens expensive?

I’ll answer these questions, and try to point beginners towards a few good pens and companies to choose from. Fountain pens are available a lot of places, including Amazon, but my favorite place is This is an independent, family owned website, staffed by people who really know pens. Each order is custom wrapped with a little note and a piece of candy. The owners are extremely knowledgeable and their videos are really helpful.

  • Fountain pens CAN be a little messier than a regular ball point pen. Filling them takes a little practice (though not a lot), but you can minimize this using cartridges, or getting good at filling converters (like an empty, refillable cartridge) from a bottle. You also have to rinse a pen if you’re refilling it with a different color, since different inks can have chemical reactions and gum up your pen. I find that a bulb, like you use for babies’ ears, is good for this. However, the trade off is an amazing variety of colors not available in your regular gel-pen or roller ball. You can find any color under the sun of ink, as well as scented inks (I sometimes use violet scented ink, which is supremely soothing as the scent subtly rises off the paper as I write), inks with gorgeous gold and silver flecks, etc.
  • Fountain pens are not particularly hard to use. You need to keep the pen at an angle to the paper, but this takes a minimum of practice. Your handwriting will look nicer with a fountain pen because you take your time. You do need to not press too hard or you can get the dreaded “railroading” (two thin parallel lines, since the nib spreads when you press too hard). However, I think this is a benefit, because you can write for a longer time without getting fatigued since fountain pens require a minimum of pressure.
  • Fountain pens can be as little as a few dollars, and as much as thousands of dollars.

Here are some starter pens that I really like.

  • Pilot Metropolitan ($15, find it HERE): This pen comes in a ton of colors and patterns; in fine, medium point (called “nibs”) and is a reliable, smooth writing pen. I often carry this one with me. It does require pilot brand cartridges, or you can buy converter and use whatever fountain pen ink (never india ink) that you want.
  • Lamy Safari ($29, find it here): This one is a classic of design, comes in a ton of colors, and has limited edition colors every year. It also requires their own brand of cartridges (some companies make pens that use a standard size, which is nice, but not Lamy), but again, you can skip this by getting a converter. It has a uniquely shaped grip that some people love and some people don’t. These are very reliable as well. I have left one in my bag for a month, and it didn’t dry out.
  • Jinhao 159 ($12, find it here): This pen is truly a starter pen. It’s extremely inexpensive, comes in a few colors, and has a satisfying heft to the pen. The nib (the part you write with that touches the paper) is not my favorite. However, you can make a GREAT pen, by replacing the nib, which is really easy. I didn’t need a video- I just unscrewed the nib, and slipped the new nib in, and screwed it back together, but here’s a video if you’re interested. I bought a new nib for $15 from Goulet pens here, and it’s one of my favorite pens to write with now. I have pens that are ten times the cost that don’t write as nicely. I think it’s reasonable to try out a Jinhao, and if you like it, but would like it EVEN more if it wrote more smoothly, consider changing the nib.

Does anyone else use a fountain pen? What is your favorite?

  • I didn’t receive any compensation for this post- Goulet pens just happens to be my favorite online pen resource.