Illusions – The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

By Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull

This is a book about the time spent together between Richard, the author, and Donald Shimoda, a Messiah who can see through all the illusions of the world and know the reality behind. They flew old planes from town to town, selling short rides to people. The gists of the book are buried inside the conversations, the activities illustrating and embodying the views that Donald tries to make Richard see, and Richard’s reading of the “Saviour’s Manual”, the so-called “bible for masters”.

While I was reading this book for the first time, my impression was that this is such a weird and yet mysteriously interesting book. Many passages did not go through to me. Despite that, I was intrigued to carry on reading and find out more. After reaching the end of it, I was not sure what to think of this book. Why is that? Could it be that I am not “spiritual” enough? Perhaps I do not have a “soul” as once I received this comment in a joking way because I was not willing to join the massive tourist crowd to visit the tallest building in Shanghai. There were stories, conversations and quotes from the “Messiah’s Handbook, Reminders for the Advanced Soul” that I partially comprehended, but was also puzzled by. I found myself thinking: what is the author trying to convey beyond the set of messages? what does the author want the reader to think while turning each page? there may not be an fixed agenda in the author’s mind as he simply wants the reader to have his/her own interpretation; maybe somewhere in between?

It did not take long before I decided to re-read Illusions. The unyielding quest of comprehension, discovery and curiosity tortured me for a couple days before I gave in and re-read the book. Giving it the second chance rewarded me with much more profound and thought-provoking reading experience. It reminded me of my relationship with Richard’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull over the years. That little book migrated with me across the oceans. Every time I picked up Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I unfailingly discovered something new.

Reading Illusions for the second time cleared up my confusions and shedded more light. Retrospectively, many allegories in this book coupled with Richard Bach’s sometimes liberal usage of the English language probably make the book challenging to read for non-spiritual scientific and analytical minds that are much more comfortable with logic reasoning. I also think one would enjoy the book more if one could be patient, chew the sentences and think, linking the abstract concepts with one’s own experience. It is tremendously hard to select the thought-provoking passages for me to share with you from this book. Half of the book deserves to be quoted. Subsequently to comprehend those quotes, you would need to read the other half of the book. Here is my attempt to select very few.

  • Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself. Being true to anyone else or anything else is not only impossible, but the mark of a fake messiah.
  • Live never to be ashamed if anything you do or say is published around the world – even if what is published is not true.
  • You are led through your lifetime by the inner learning creature, the playful spiritual being that is your real self. Don’t turn away from possible futures before you’re certain you do not have anything to learn from them. You’re always free to change your mind and choose a different future or a different past.
  • The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.
  • Negative attachments, Richard. If you really want to remove a cloud from your life, you do not make a production out of it, you just relax and remove it from your thinking. I found myself not in full agreement with this point of view. In some cases, there are actions that we ought to take to improve the circumstances, beyond just removing the negative attachment from the thinking.
  • Donald argued fiercely: ….how many people do you think live in your world? You say four billion people live in your world? Are you standing way down there on the ground and telling me that four billion people do not live in four billion separate worlds, are you going to put that across on me?… Sometimes we ask ourselves which planet someone else is living on such that he/she could have so very different perspectives compared with ours. How about stepping back and asking a different question next time: why should we expect him/her to have the same views as ours? Naturally, the followup thoughts are: How can I see reasons in his/her perspective? What lead to it? Perhaps we can try to understand first before seeking being understood.
  • Donald used the allegory of a vampire sucking blood to illustrate his point of free choice. “He was going to suck my blood!” “Which is what we do to anyone when we say we’ll be hurt if they don’t live our way.”…. “We choose, ourselves, to be hurt or not to be hurt, no matter what. Us who decides. Nobody else. My vampire told you he’d be hurt if you didn’t let him? That’s his decision to be hurt, that’s his choice. What you do about it is your decision, your choice: give him blood; ignore him; tie him up; drive a stake of holly through his heart. If he doesn’t want the holly stake, he’s free to resist, in whatever way he wants. It goes on and on, choices, choices.” We often see people letting others make the decisions for themselves and blaming others for the consequences. Remember: We are all, Free. To do. Whatever. We want. To do. Obviously, to use your own judgement on exercising this and never cease improving that inner guidance.


In the foreword, Richard Bach described the urge of writing as “once in a while there’s a great dynamite-burst of flying glass and brick and splinters through the front wall and somebody stalks over the rubble, seizes me by the throat and gently says, “I will not let you go until you set me, in words, on paper.” That’s how I met Illusions.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, described how the genius of writing poem comes to poet Ruth Stone in her TED talk “Your Elusive Creative Genius”. I watched this fascinating clip of her TED talk countless times. Here is Elizabeth’s description with a tiny twist at the beginning:

While working in the fields, Ruth would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.” And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.

Now you see some similarity of the Richard’s foreword and Elizabeth’s descriptions of the arrival of Ruth Stone’s genius. Great writings all have profound impact on their readers. The process of creating each of those writings is uniquely fascinating.  


Customer Service

Most of us have had some experiences with customer service before, positive or negative or neutral. We can probably find ourselves united in the unpleasant memory of one or two international service providers, if we start sharing our bad experiences. At those circumstances, we ask: why does this company not put their customer first, as they keep on branding themselves that way? Why do they not act according to what they say? Do they care about their customers? Are they not worried that we might tell all our friends about this bad experience such that many people will stop paying for their service?

I attended a customer service discussion today. Without repeating the exact customer issues presented to us, I would like to share the thoughts and questions popped up in my head. We were played this audio recording of the conversation between a customer who has been a victim of a fraudulent activity and the customer service gentleman (let’s call him Ray). Ray did everything according to the policies set forth by the company and did a great job of listening to the customer patiently, but at the end still had to deliver the message that “sorry, we cannot help you.” After hearing this conversation, we were asked how we felt. I jumped in right away “well, I would never bother with this company again”. The other audience gave much more emotionally charged responses: “betray”, “disappointed”, “no trust”, “screw the policy, the customer service could do better than that”, “what about the reputation of the business” and so on. The dilemma: (1) Ray’s handling of the case had no flaw at all, in fact he was very polite and full of patience and empathy. You can easily rate Ray as a star employee of the customer service department; (2) But he did not solve the problem for the customer.

What about the company policies? Could we not change those? Yes, certainly. But at what cost? Would it open the flood gates? Would weak policies become loop holes for malicious people to exploit? Should the majority customers (who never encounter this issue) foot the bill of the few customers who have this problem? But business providers still have the first and foremost responsibilities to their customers by delivering their service or goods to the customers’ satisfaction. How long can the company survive in business? Are there any components that prior to the customer service could be improved to prevent the issue occurring in the first place? If so, how? And what quantitative measurements can we design to evaluate the added values vs cost of such “improvement”?

I came out with those questions in my mind and cannot help thinking: it was much easier for me as a customer to expect that customer is the highest priority to any business, which I still think so. Business should always ensure that. It is simply much more challenging and complex to achieve that though.

Here is a quote I learned today that provokes further thoughts by Richard Branson: Setting customer expectations at a level that is aligned with consistently deliverable levels of customer service requires that your whole staff, from product development to marketing, works in harmony with your brand image.

Interviewing Users – How to Uncover Compelling Insights

At first, Interview Users – How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal was not a comfortable choice to me. I flipped through some pages and was partially tempted to dismiss it:

Oh, it is just a recipe book for field interview. Nah, I know how to have conversations with people. After all, for probably as long as I can remember, people around me have always said that I ask very good questions and I am good at having meaningful dialogues with people. I have just completed approximately a dozen of in-depth technical interviews with engineers and scientists in the last few weeks. Having troubleshooting type of conversations with engineers/scientists and managing the progress of multiple projects simultaneously on a daily basis through dialogues were an essential part of my role in leading a team. Oi, STOP being arrogant and narrow-minded. After all, I had not much experience of conducting business market research. There must be a lot to learn in this field. Hmm, should I read this or not? The opportunity cost of reading this book is that I will not have time to read one of many others on my list this week. Most of those were highly praised and recommended to me specifically. But this is the first textbook that one of my lecturers at Stanford said we should read at least some key chapters. Maybe I will give Chapter 6 How to Ask Questions a go. Well, I think it would be beneficial to do that before my first scheduled interview. I can always just shelve it afterwards and pick it up later when I need to consult such a recipe book.

That was me talking to myself in my mind before I started reading it. Soon enough, all pages of Chapter 6 were turned. Then I found myself back to the first page of the book Dedication till the end of the book. I am certainly very glad that I made the decision of reading this book.

After I was able to settle into reading this book, I found it is not only insightful and practical for people who plan to conduct field interviews, but also to improve your conversations in general. It shows the dynamics of dialogues, explains with examples on how to establish one’s role through the usage of verbal language and physical presence to maximize the insights one could extract from the field interviews, what to say or do and what not to, provide many advices on how to interview well. Furthermore, it demystifies the process of a field interview by presenting a framework for interviewing, guiding through the preparation phase, introducing many methods for conducting productive interviews, how to manage the roles and navigate through the interview stages, how to document the interviews, and finally how to use the captured data to present to your organisation and make an impact.

While reading the book, I pictured myself as either the interviewer or the interviewee in the examples given in the book; to see, feel and think from their perspectives, which in turn helped me to understand where these guidelines recommended by Steve actually were distilled from. I also spotted mistakes that I made in both professional and personal conversations. Here I share with you a few guidelines that either resonate most with me or could do with improvements on my part:

  1. It is not necessary to give voice to every thought that comes into your head. Try not to descend into the lecture mode and be a teller instead of a listener.
  2. Restrain the urge to help the interviewees have the best experience using your products by describing certain features that they missed or demonstrating how to operate some functionalities. General advice is to not jump in to correct or educate the interviewee as it defeats the purpose of the interview to learn from the interviewee and gain insights on how he/she uses/perceives of the product. Instructing the interviewees or sharing your expertise too early might turn the field interview into an expensive technical support house call. That type of helpful information should be reserved until the end and anything that might help the interviewee can be shared after the interview.
  3. Ask short questions and pause to wait for answers instead of elaborating too much. Embrace the silence (for an appropriate amount of time). Try not to feed your interviewees with answers by giving multiple choices, which might restrict the scope of what they would share with you.
  4. When it comes to dialogues, we humans only work in serial fashion and simply do not have a magical multi-threaded or many-threaded capability. It helps to swiftly jot down the topics popped up in your mind during the conversation but that are not high enough priority to ask immediately. If time permits, you can always follow up on those topics. Alternatively, they may be valuable enough to be incorporated to future interviews.
  5. There are bound to be some awkward or uncomfortable moments during which you are not sure what to do or concerned about what the interviewees might be thinking etc. Take a deep breath and accept the awkwardness. It is important to pay attention to the ebb and flow of the interview and adapt. Meanwhile, it also helps to try not be too self-conscious. A lot of times in the interviewing settings, there is no right or wrong. There is no precise recipe of conducting an interview. It is a willingness to share and to keep that conversation going that count most.
  6. While documenting the interviews, be sure to separate the observations from the interpretations. Information that surfaces later might change your interpretation of what you have heard earlier. Including a gross misinterpretation in the notes would completely defeat the purpose of the interview.
  7. With good quality documentation and some diligence, interviewers can easily produce many pages of detailed notes after the interview that emphasize a great deal about the narratives alone rather than insights learned, business implications and conclusions. I recently went to an artificial intelligence conference and came back with dozens of pages of notes highlighting the key points (in my view) from each presentations and also the conversations I had with the other participants. The process of keeping those notes helped me to structure my understandings and the thoughts provoked significantly better than it would have otherwise be. Being reasonably good at blindtype also allows me to stay engaged with the speakers. But I missed one vital step: writing a short off-the-top-of-my-head summary and drawing the ideas that popped into my mind during and right after the stimulation. It is common that many of us do not recognise our own notes a few days later after making them. So it is important to document the thoughts and write a short summary as well as noting down the descriptions and details of the interviews.  

By no means, these are the only pearls that I found in this book. There is a lot of other very practical guidance. Generally speaking, if you do not know how to do a field interview or market research, this would be a good book to start with. If nothing else, it helped me to visualise myself in many of interview examples, and to become mentally prepared for challenging situations. It is also very reassuring to know that even though interviewing might be partially a practice of art, there are a lot of practical methods that you could deploy to improve the quality of your field research and its business impact.

The truest sentence

Last summer while travelling between home and Denver for the USENIX Annual Technical conference, I had a wonderful companion, Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. Since then, I have read probably another dozen of books and there is one message from that book coming back to me frequently: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”  A different message at a completely different setting today prompted me to think about it again.

It is wonderful to be back at school, especially while the subjects are invoking the neural activities of usually under-utilised brain regions. What is the smallest thing that I could do to…? Every one has his or her own ways of filling in the dots when being asked this question. What is the smallest thing that I can do to (do something good for people who are disadvantaged or less privileged)? That came to my mind. However, for this particular setting, I need to work out a more concrete business idea rather than a philosophical one. I learned from one of my lecturer: do small things, talk to people, find out what you are passionate about in the process; From another lecturer: It is not about knowing, it is about doing. You never find a thing that you are passionate about by thinking about the question alone.

There are many unknowns and it might be a small consolation that I am aware that I do not know.  “Keep on asking those questions” was a great piece of advice from a wonderful colleague and mentor of mine.

To me, all these three messages are the truest sentences, although they did not come from me originally.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is the first book of the trilogy Out of the Hitler Time, written by Judith Kerr, based on her childhood experience of fleeing from Germany with her family in 1933, travelling via Switzerland and Paris, and arriving finally in London in 1936.

It is a children’s book, labelled as suitable for ages 9-11. I came across it after listening to a discussion on BBC Radio4 last year. The radio program intrigued me such that I decided to read it nevertheless as an adult. It is written from Anna’s perspective, the youngest of the two children of a Jewish family, from age 9 onwards. Anna had limited understandings of the world, she observed and interpreted the activities around her in a children-like way, such that Many passages full of simplicity and genuineness of a child’s voice are not only hilarious to read, but also subtly trigger one to see the sufferings of the many Jewish families at that time. Despite the hardships they encountered after leaving a very affluent life in Berlin behind, the book radiates an abundance of positive energy. When I was reading the book, I often stopped and re-read some passages again to feel that strong resilience and hope, written in extraordinarily plain phrases, that Anna chose to have during their refugee journey.

I particularly like Anna’s very courageous way of embracing new challenges. After migrating from Germany to Switzerland, the family stayed in a small inn near Lake Zurich. Anna started going to school there and made new friends, even challenged the ritual of the local school that girls and boys play separately during breaks at school. She found that very strange compared with her school in Berlin and bravely showed a school boy how to play a certain game better. After a short time the family found themselves in financial difficulty and needed to move to Paris where Anna’s father could write and have more articles published to make the ends meet. Anna and her brother Max yet started schooling in French this time. Both of them found it very challenging and isolating at the beginning but with every little encouragements they received from people and eagerness from themselves, in only more than a year time later, both Max and Anna excelled at school and spoke like a proper French person.

You may still be wondering what is the value for an adult to read this book. That depends on your priorities. It was the best way for me to spend two late evenings and I am very positively surprised by this little volume. It is delightful, sad and thought-provoking.

Here are some quotes from the book to share with you.

“Next morning before school Anna ran into Papa’s room to see him. The desk was tidy. The bed was neatly made. Papa had gone. Anna’s first thought was so terrible that she could not breathe. Papa had gone worse in the night. He had been taken to hospital. Perhaps he… She ran blindly out of the room and found herself caught by Heimpi….” This bit resonated with me such that I decided to pause and gave my parents a quick “hello and bye” phone call before proceeding.

While still living in Berlin, Anna found herself like to write poems about disasters.

“Papa, do you really like the poem?” Papa said he did.

“You do not think it should be more cheerful?”

“Well,” said Papa, “a shipwreck is not really a thing you can be very cheerful about.”

“My teacher Fraulein Schmidt thinks I should write about more cheerful subjects like the spring and the flowers.”

“And do you want to write about the spring and the flowers?”

“No,” said Anna sadly. “Right now all I seem to be able to do is disasters.”

Papa gave a little sideways smile and said perhaps she was in tune with the times.

“Do you think then,” asked Anna anxiously, “that disasters are all right to write about?”

Papa became serious at once. “Of course!” he said. “If you want to write about disasters, that’s what you must do. It’s no use trying to write what other people want. The only way to write anything good is to try to please yourself.”

After hearing from a friend that the Nazis were putting a price of a thousand German Marks on her Papa’s head. Anna did not comprehend its meaning. In the middle of the night, she suddenly woke up and felt she knew with full clarify what putting a thousand Marks on a person’s head means.

In her mind she saw a room. It was a funny looking room because it was in France and the ceiling, instead of being solid, was a mass of criss-crossing beams. In the gaps between them something was moving. It was dark, but now the door opened and the light came on. Papa was coming to bed. He took a few steps towards the middle of the room – “Don’t!” Anna wanted to cry – and then the terrible shower of heavy coins began. It came pouring down from the ceiling on to Papa’s head. He called out but the coins kept coming. He sank to his knees under their weight and the coins kept falling and falling until he was completely buried under them.

There is one sentence still lingering in my mind, probably for a long time to come. Anna’s Papa said to their family friend Monsieur Fernand: “But you live in a free country. Nothing else matters!”.

When the newspaper at Paris struggled to pay Anna’s Papa for his articles, Anna’s parents were considering to make the journey to London to see the feasibility of migrating there, while leaving Anna and Max temporarily with their grandma. Anna protested strongly against her parents’ idea of leaving them in south France for a short while.  

“It’s just that I think we should stay together, ” she said. “I do not really mind where or how. I don’t mind things being difficult, like not having any money, and I didn’t mind about that silly concierge this morning – just as long as we’re all four together”.

“I know,” said Anna, “but it’s different if you haven’t got a home. If you haven’t got a home you’ve got to be with your people.” She looked at her parents’ stricken faces and burst out, “I know! I know we have no choice and I’m only making it more difficult. But I’ve never minded being a refugee before. In face I’ve loved it. I think the last two years, when we’ve been refugees, have been much better than if we’d stayed in Germany. But if you send us away now I’m so terribly frightened…I’m so terribly frightened…”

“Of what?” asked Papa.

“That I might really feel like one!” said Anna and burst into tears.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor E. Frankl wrote this book based on his very own experience of being an “ordinary prisoner” in the concentration camps (Auschwitz and others) during the second world war. Reading this book, it is evident that his pre-war profession as a psychiatrist allowed acute observation and contemplation. This book tries to answer the question how was everyday life in a WWII concentration camp reflected in the mind of the prisoners. It is “not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty”, such as great heroes and martyrs, prominent Capos or well-known prisoners who had special privileges, “but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims”. It is about the unrelenting struggle for daily bread and watery soup, the hard fight to keep one alive for one’s own sake or for that of loved ones.

The following paragraph shows a glimpse of probably one of the many challenges for Viktor E. Frankl in writing this book. “To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgements may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias, and that is the real difficulty of a book of this kind. At times it will be necessary to have the courage to tell of very intimate experiences.

The book focuses on examines the three phases of the camp inmate’s mental reactions to camp life. Firstly, the period following the admission; secondly, the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; thirdly, the period following his release and liberation.

The first phase is characterized by shock, “delusion of reprieve”, surprise, curiosity and so on.

“Like a drowning man clutching a straw, my inborn optimism (which has often controlled my feelings even in the most desperate situations) clung to this thought: These prisoners look quite well, they seem to be in good spirits and even laugh. Who knows? I might manage to share their favorable position…… We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad….Nearly everyone in our transport lived under the illusion that he would be reprieved, that everything would yet be well.”

“Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives.”

“A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”

“There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.”

The second phase is the phase of relative apathy, “in which he achieved a kind of emotional death”.

“If my lack of emotion had not surprised me from the standpoint of professional interest, I would not remember this incident now, because there was so little feeling involved in this. Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.”

“A blow which does not even find its mark can, under certain circumstances, hurt more than one that finds its mark…That guard did not think it worthwhile to say anything, not even a swear word, to the ragged, emaciated figure standing before him, which probably reminded him only vaguely of a human form. Instead, he playfully picked up a stone and threw it at me. That, to me, seemed the way to attract the attention of a beast, to call a domestic animal back to its job, a creature with which you have so little in common that you do not even punish it.”

“…I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us…”

“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain, but the damage to their innerselves was less. THey were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.”

“Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire…The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. ”

“Is that theory true which would have use believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these?……The experience of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. May can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“Not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”.

“What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind. ”

Lastly, the third stage of a prisoner’s mental reactions: the psychology of the prisoner after liberation, characterized with moral deformity, bitterness and disillusionment. At the beginning of this part, Viktor E. Frankl first talked about the psychological makeup of the camp guards and shared his analysis grouped to four thoughts on this (page 84 and 85, if you are interested in learning more). Here I only include some quotes to elaborate on the fourth one. “It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils…There are two races in this world, but only these two – the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent man.”

The realisation of the freedom that the prisoners long dreamed for was a slow process. For some time, the regained freedom seemed to be dreamy and there were no profound feelings about the world outside the camp, a world which they did not feel they belong to yet. The lost ability of having feelings had to be relearned after the sudden release of the mental pressure.  

“When we spoke about attempts to give a man in camp mental courage, we said that he had to be shown something to look forward to in the future. He had to be reminded that life still waited for him, that a human being waited for his return. But after liberation? There were some men who found that no one awaited them. Woe to him who found that the person whose memory alone had given him courage in camp did not exist any more! Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for! Perhaps he boarded a trolley, traveled out to the home which had seen for years in his mind, and only in his mind, and pressed the bell, just as he has longed to do in thousands of dreams, only to find that the person who should open the door was not there, and would never be there again.”

“But for every one of the liberated prisoners, the day comes when, looking back on his camp experiences, he can no longer understand how he endured it all. As the day of his liberation eventually came, when everything seemed to him like a beautiful dream, so also the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare. The Crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more – except his God. ”

Here ends the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. It is a small volume with mighty power on my inner being.

Give and Take

The name Adam Grant came to my attention multiple times within a short timeframe just before Christmas. I was astonished and partially ashamed that I was not aware of his work before that. Just to think how many good readings I have missed and the thoughts those articles would have provoked! On the plus side, it is not too late. After reading some articles he coauthored and published in Harvard Business Review, I ordered his book Give and Take. To confess, I have a very soft spot for academic writers, particularly when they also have lots of real-world experience of refining and furthering their views. Adam Grant easily fits into that category for me.

This is a book about: understanding the behaviours of givers, matchers and takers; how do people in each category achieve their success and how do they compare with each other; why do some givers end up achieving the least, whereas other givers are top achievers; are people fixed to each category and do they adapt their behaviour; what influences people’s giving/taking attitude; how can we identify people in these categories; how can one give without reducing his/her own chance of success? If these questions sound interesting to you, I highly recommend reading the book.

Due to the lack of knowledge of the big names in American sports, the names quoted in some chapters in this book did not mean much to me. But the essence of the stories was clearly presented and supports the arguments well. I particularly like the writing style of the book. The great story-telling that draws your attention and tempts you to read further and further and, at the same time, the stories lead you to contemplate many questions: what would you have done if you were one of the characters in that specific circumstance; how would one’s approach impact others; would you be concerned about being taken advantage or would you continue giving despite suspecting the person you are dealing with is a taker; would it be wiser to handle givers, takers and matchers you meet in life differently and how?

Adam shared his insights about identifying clues to who is a taker, matcher or giver. While reading the book, I found myself subconsciously map people I encounter into those categories. I started paying more attention to how many I/my versus we/our are used, how big the portrait of a leader included in an article, how people attribute credits and share responsibilities, and so on. Not to say these are the exclusive and exact metric you should use to calculate one’s giving/matching/taking score though. Just this evening while reading an article in this month’s Harvard Business Review, I see clear signs of egoism and possibly some indication of a taker.

Reading the book made me more aware of the differences between being agreeable and being outwardly disagreeable but inwardly prone to giving. One key takeaway of the book is to learn ways to give without burnout or adapting from a purely selfless to a more intelligent giver. It makes sense if you think mathematically: the integral of the amount of giving over a long time period could easily be larger than that of a short one (a couple of years in the teaching examples discussed in the book). In analogy to studies on how to maintain high productivity: our brains like to exercise different regions or think about different topics at reasonable intervals rather than focusing on one topic for a lengthy period. Giving wisely is to re-energize oneself by giving in multiple formats with appropriate dose and identifying the source that drives us to give.

The book also leads me to think: would people tend to work and socialise more with the ones falling into the same category as themselves? It does not make sense for takers to match with takers though, which seems to spiral downwards and destroy the harmony and productivity among relations. To what extent, would takers adjust their mentality and behaviour while surrounded by givers/matchers? It seems to me that we adapt ourselves constantly with small adjustments frequently within a set of beliefs that we hold, and less frequently denounce what we used to believe and form new opinions based on new experience or learnings. Some examples in the book lead me to think that takers can behave like givers in certain circumstances, for instance within a group of people sharing the same optimal distinctiveness. The explanation of optimal distinctiveness reads beautifully and sensibly to me.

One aspect that was alluded to with respect to groups but worthy of further studies is how people may be givers in some situations and takers in others when their underlying culture may push them that way. For example, a culture that is very family focused might lead to widespread giverness within the family, while many people will be takers or matchers outside of the family. Presumably in either situation there would be the three types of people, or a continuum of the three, yet a person might fit differently on the continuum in the distinct culturally defined areas of interaction.

Another major reason I enjoy reading this book: it contains many brilliantly succinct summaries of other scientists and writers’ work, seamlessly integrated within the text. To quote Adam Grant’s passage on “optimal distinctiveness” from an influential theory developed by Marilynn Brewer:

On the one hand, we want to fit in: we strive for connection, cohesiveness, community, belonging, inclusion, and affiliation with others. On the other hand, we want to stand out: we search for uniqueness, differentiation, and individuality. As we navigate the social world, these two motives are often in conflict. The more strongly we affiliate with a group, the greater our risk of losing our sense of uniqueness. The more we work to distinguish ourselves from others, the greater our risk of losing our sense of belonging. How do we resolve this conflict? The solution is to be the same and different at the same time. Brewer calls it the principle of optimal distinctiveness: we look for ways to fit in and stand out. A popular way to achieve optimal distinctiveness is to join a unique group. Being part of a group with shared interests, identities, goals, values, skills, characteristics, or experiences gives us a sense of connection and belonging. At the same time, being part of a group that is clearly distinct from other groups gives us a sense of uniqueness. Studies show that people identify more strongly with individuals and groups that share unique similarities. The more rare a group, value, interest, skill, or experience is, the more likely is to facilitate a bond. And research indicates that people are happier in groups that provide optimal distinctiveness, giving a sense of both inclusion and uniqueness. These are the groups in which we take the most pride, and feel the most cohesive and valued.

There are many passages that I’d love to quote and share with you my thoughts at another time.