We Made It Through 2020, But What For?

Old Age, Richard Feynman, James Stockdale, Charlie Munger, Jordan Peterson & Fountain Pens + Favorite Books of 2020

Well, 2020 was quite the year - but 2021 is finally here - so Happy New Year! I hope it is off to a great start for everyone.

I want to thank all of you for subscribing, reading, and sharing these emails and my writing. The response here has far exceeded any expectations I had when I started writing with some consistency in September last year. Your support means a lot and provides me the motivation to keep writing.

If you have any suggestions or thoughts on what you like/do not like or new things you would like to see in the Sunday or Tuesday emails, please feel free to comment here or email me. I am always interested in ways that we can create a better end product that is valuable and meaningful over the long term.

Thank you!

— EJ


Welcome to all our new subscribers! I write a weekly newsletter, sent out every Sunday, with curated quotes and one-line takeaways from material that I think is worth reading. Occasionally, I share my own thoughts, inspired by others’ writings, on Tuesdays. If you enjoy the newsletter, please share it with a few friends/colleagues or follow me on Twitter.

As always, any suggested materials for our Sunday newsletter can be sent to social@butwhatfor.com. Thank you!


2020 Highlights From But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

Most Viewed of 2020: On Old Age with Cicero

~10,000 views with an average time on page of ~6 minutes

But bear well in mind that in this entire discussion I am praising that old age which has its foundation well laid in youth. Hence it follows— as I once said with the approval of all who heard it— that that old age is wretched which needs to defend itself with words! Nor can wrinkles and grey hair suddenly seize upon influence; but when the preceding part of life has been nobly spent, old age gathers the fruits of influence at the last.


Longest Average Time on Page of 2020: Richard Feynman & The Feynman Technique: How to Learn Anything Well

~6,000 views with an average time on page of ~7 minutes

You asked me if an ordinary person, by studying hard, would get to be able to imagine these things like I imagine.

Of course! I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There are no miracle people. It just happens that they got interested in this thing, and they learned all this stuff. They’re just people. There’s no [science] talent – a special miracle ability to understand quantum mechanics or a miracle ability to imagine electromagnetic fields that comes without practice and reading and learning and study.


My Favorite of 2020: A Stoic Philosopher in a Hanoi Prison

~8,000 views with an average time on page of ~5 minutes

Stockdale had no reason to think that the day’s mission was to be anything unique.

The flight in September 1965 was part of his third combat tour of North Vietnam, serving as Wing Commander of the aircraft carrier Oriskany. Despite his misgivings about the purpose of him being in Vietnam, he was a competent and skilled career fighter pilot. Nothing suggested he shouldn’t expect to make it back home that day – let alone that decade.

But sometimes life deals you a lousy hand, and it dealt Stockdale quite an unfair one.

While trying to aid trapped American soldiers on the ground, he was suddenly falling out of the sky and hurtling towards a small Vietnamese village. His plane was on fire, the control system shot out by North Vietnamese who had used the grounded soldiers as bait, and he didn’t have much choice beyond punching out of the plane.


Least Viewed of 2020: Invert, Always Invert – Avoid Failure to Succeed

~700 views with an average time on page of ~5 minutes

“Suppose I wanted to kill a lot of pilots – what would be the easy way to do it?” 

That might not be what you want to hear from the guy clearing your plane for takeoff, but if your fellow passengers are an elderly billionaire and some Cold War-era Soviet engineers, they might rest easy knowing the right questions are being asked. That is because thinking about how to do the exact opposite of your goal is sometimes the best way to ensure you achieve it.


Most Controversial of 2020: Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back

Most unsubscribes following a post


Most Popular 2020 Tweet

Maybe I should write about fountain pens?


Top Twitter Follower (the most important award) - @BaldingsWorld

Brought about the largest 24-hour increase in Twitter followers - - ->


Favorite Memoirs Read in 2020

(Underlined titles are links to the books)

Survival in the Killing Fields (Summary of Book)

Haing Ngor, with Robert Warner

“Nothing has shaped my life as much as surviving the Pol Pot regime. I am a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust. That's who I am.”

“I believe what the old monk taught me. And everything he said came true, only in reverse. My family was unhappy, my village was unhappy, and so was the country. And now I look back on it all and think about the connections, and wonder whether I myself was partly to blame.”

“And when I saw their false pride, I felt I finally understood what war is about. Men fight for glory or ideals, but the result is not glorious or idealistic. The main result, besides the suffering, is that civilization is set back many years.”

“If I didn’t worry about the Khmer Rouge, it was because I didn’t believe they could be any worse than the Lon Nol regime… It surprises me now, but most of us pretended that life was almost normal. We made ourselves believe that Phnom Penh was a little island of peace and it was going to stay that way.”

“We had not been in favor of the revolution. We had not been against it. We didn’t even care about politics much. But now that the revolution had come, we had been bulldozed by it, reduced to the same level as the other exiles around us. And there was no new society building. Just the rubble of the old one.”

“To avoid our own deaths people like me were doing things we knew were wrong. And as we scrambled to protect ourselves, or sought to gain favor with the new powers, the old relationships were torn apart.”

“What made it worse, what made it more appalling was that somehow it was ordinary. You put one foot in front of the other and you kept on walking. You heard the cries of the weak but you didn’t pay much attention, because you were concentrating on yourself and your own survival. We had all seen death before.”

“How fast man changes! How fast he sheds his outer humanity and becomes the animal inside! … Children left their parents to die, wives abandoned their husbands and the stronger kept on moving. The Khmer Rouge had taken away everything that held our culture together, and the result was this: a parade of the selfish and the dying, Society was falling apart.”

“They knew that a small lie can be caught and that a big lie is easier to get away with.”

“There were no laws under the Khmer Rouge except the law of silence. There were no courts except Angka Leu. Maybe the prisoners hadn’t worked hard enough. Or they stole food. Or a chhlop, a spy, overheard them making remarks about Angka. People disappeared. That is all we knew. And I knew that someday I would be one of them.”

Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China

Kang Zhengguo, translated by Susan Wilf

“‘Behavior’ meant putting on a deliberate show of allegiance to the authorities. When the teachers and school leadership evaluated your ‘behavior,’ they were referring to your politics, and you had to play the game right if you wanted a rating of ‘well behaved.’ Behavior ratings were as important as tests and grades since they affected one’s class rank, admission to select groups, and future prospects in general.”

“As I was browsing the big-character posters on the street on a winter day in 1966, it dawned on me that people everywhere were jumping onto the Cultural Revolution bandwagon to try to better their own lots, and I sensed their pent-up rage spilling out like water roiling over a dam… After paying lip service to Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line, which conveniently proclaimed the right to rebel, the aggrieved parties blamed all their problems indiscriminately on the bourgeois reactionary line. Now that leaders had been pronounced fair game, nobody was afraid to lash out at them anymore.”

“Instead of telling me why I was being detained or charging me with a specific crime and asking me to confess, he told me to make my deposition first. As if the reason for my arrest were a riddle to which only he knew the answer, he had turned the interrogation into a guessing game.”

“It was my first experience with such poverty, and I was learning some new lessons about human nature. Apparently, people could coexist only if everyone was equally destitute, and a stroke of good luck could be a nuisance in disguise.”

“Broaching the forbidden was tantamount to “advocating” or “appreciating” it; that was the prevailing logic.”

“Even if I had been duped, I had no reason to regret having performed a good deed.”

Blood Red Sunset: A Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Ma Bo, translated by Howard Goldblatt

“It was my background. My mother sealed my fate the day she became a writer. People from literary families were among society’s foulest outcasts… Revolutionary soldiers hate cultured people, writers especially, so they had no use for me.”

“‘Ma Bo, the masses have complained about your behavior during these denunciation meetings… Just because you weren’t permanently labeled doesn’t mean there isn’t a label with your name on it. Labels are in the hands of the masses, who can stick them on you anytime they want!’”

“But getting angry wouldn’t do any good… I was a counterrevolutionary mirror that reflected people’s true souls. When they looked into it they discovered they weren’t as attractive as they’d thought. That made them unhappy, so they blamed the mirror.”

“Experience told me that Jin Gang’s sympathy for me was tied to his own interests. If I were drowning, he would be the last person to come to my rescue. But I also knew that if I made my way back to the shore, his outstretched hand would be there for me.”

“Skeins of tangled emotion spilled into the pages… I wrote until I was lightheaded and breathless; then I wrote some more. I didn’t have to worry about the creative process. I just wrote what happened, letting the story tell itself.”

The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Ji Xianlin, translated by Chenxin Jiang

“But whenever I am tempted to get even with my persecutors, I think back to the atmosphere on campus during the Cultural Revolution, when anyone who joined a faction seemed to have drunk a personality-altering potion that alienated them from their own humanity and made them non-human… I say non-human because calling humans brutes is an insult to animals. Animals eat people because they are hungry. Unlike human beings, animals don’t tell lies, they have no wiles, and they don’t make rambling speeches full of classical allusions to why someone deserves to be eaten before opening their mouths to gobble him up.”

“It’s true that we shouldn’t dwell on the past, but in this case we haven’t reflected sufficiently on it. As I have mentioned, most people were deceived at the time, but even those who were deceived should seize this unparalleled opportunity to reflect on how they were taken in, to avoid making the same mistake again.”

“As our ancestors said, ‘You could grow old waiting for the Yellow River to become clear.’ I couldn’t do anything about one of the books I was hoping for, but as for the other: after all, I was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, and as opposed to waiting for someone else to write the book I wanted to read, I thought I might as well roll up my sleeves and write it myself.”

Favorite General Books Read in 2020

(Underlined titles are links to the books)

Good Omens

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

“But he liked seeing nuns around, in the same way that he liked seeing the Salvation Army. It made you feel that it was all right, that people somewhere were keeping the world on its axis.”

“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

“It wasn't just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They'd come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout "The Devil Made Me Do It" and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn't have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley's opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.”

“‘I thought your side disapproved of guns,’ said Crowley. He took the gun from the angel’s plump hand and sighted along the stubby barrel.

‘Current thinking favors them,’ said Aziraphale. ‘They lend weight to moral argument. In the right hands, of course.’

Atomic Habits (Post Here)(Summary Here)

James Clear

“Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. We all deal with setbacks but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible.”

“It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.”

“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.”

“We’re so used to doing what we’ve always done that we don’t stop to question whether it’s the right thing to do at all. Many of our failures in performance are largely attributable to a lack of self-awareness.”

“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. Despite our unique personalities, certain behaviors tend to arise again and again under certain environmental conditions.”

“Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard.”

“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”

“Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits. The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can’t do something perfectly, then you shouldn’t do it at all.”

Good Profit

Charles Koch

[You can’t turn around every mistake] “Rather than squandering our scarest resource (talent) trying to save a marginal business, we’ve learned to focus that resource on opportunities with real potential.”

[The importance of the right incentives] “When Soviet nail factories had their output measured by weight, they tended to make big, heavy nails, even if those big heavy nails sat unsold on the shelves while the country was crying out for small nails.”

[Knowing the name of something tells you nothing] “I confused articulate conceptual knowledge with knowledge of how to apply the concepts to get results. In other words, the team we assembled was much better at articulating the concepts than practicing them.”

[A victim mentality won’t help you] “When we find they[the competition] are better, we should never rationalize that it’s because of factors we can’t control. This self-protective thinking happens quite often and can be disastrous because it justifies inaction. Overcoming this tendency requires the humility to admit you haven’t kept up, as well as having senior leaders who refuse to accept any excuse.”

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World

Tim Marshall

“There are fifty American states, but they add up to one nation in a way the twenty-eight sovereign states of the European Union never can. Most of the EU states have a national identity far stronger, more defined, than any American state. It is easy to find a French person who is French first, European second, or one who pays little allegiance to the idea of Europe, but an American identifies with their Union in a way few Europeans do theirs.”

“Equally important, anyone stupid enough to contemplate invading America would soon reflect on the fact that it contains hundreds of millions of guns, which are available to a population that takes its life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness very seriously.”


Take care and I hope the first week of the year is a great one for you,

— EJ


But What For? For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.


Share