Solo Thoughts 14: Reading, Writing, And Never Surrendering

SOLO | Never Surrender


Peter McGraw is concerned about his students and has been writing open letters to them. In this Solo Thoughts episode, he reads those letters to you with the hope of getting you to read more books, write more often, and never give up on your dreams.

Listen to Episode #213 here


Solo Thoughts 14: Reading, Writing, And Never Surrendering

Solo Thoughts 14: Letters To My Students Reading, Writing, and Never Surrendering. Welcome back. I’ve been experimenting with a new idea in my life, unironically called Playing With Ideas where I explore a topic or engage in a creative endeavor for its own sake, not because it is required of my professor job or some other obligation related to the Solo Project. This experiment is half unnatural to me. While I enjoy creative tasks, not being “productive” sets off a feeling that I am falling behind. This feeling may resonate or not, depending on your temperament and your profession.

In any case, as part of this experiment, I have been crafting letters to my students and posting them on my blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, and in the Solo Community. The letters have been well received by my students who are juniors and seniors at the University of Colorado and by the broader community, Solo or otherwise. I thought I would share them here, perhaps this is cheating on my experiment since I’m using them to get something done.

In any case, the theme I address in the letters is the malaise caused by phones generally and social media specifically. The letters are targeted to Gen Z, but the message can be useful to anyone who needs to put their phone down and live life more fully, as I would say, “To be alive.” Note, if you’re one of those people who needs to put down their damn phone, you may want to check out the solo episode titled Breaking Up With Your Phone. The letters address my thoughts on three topics, reading, writing, and not giving up your dreams. I’m curious to know what you think. There’s typically a discussion for each episode happening within the Solo Community, which you can sign up for at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo. Let’s get started.

The first letter: Read Books, Please. Dear students and Solo audience, I am concerned about you. We live in a time of unprecedented access to information and entertainment through our smartphones. Many of you have been raised in a digital playground where endless high-quality entertainment is a click away 24 hours a day. Despite the convenience, it is making you worse off. I don’t need to go into the full indictment of your phones because you already know that I’m right and why, yet you are having trouble doing anything about it. That is part of my concern.”

“Growing up my world was different. Our entertainment options were limited to a few television channels with nothing good on past midnight. Video games like Pong and Pac-Man were digital novelties, but they pale compared to the compelling RPGs, open world and first-person shooter games of today and don’t get me started on the pornography. With many fewer entertainment options, I spent hours with my head in a book journeying through the eerie landscapes of Stephen King’s imagination or exploring the boundless universes crafted by Robert Hyland or learning of Ernest Hemingway’s real-world adventures.”

“I learned that there was an infinite world filled with marvelous possibilities, exciting challenges, and interesting people. I recently saw a tweet, which made me sad and more concerned. In that tweet, Jean Twenge asks, ‘What fraction of 1990 fourteens read 10 plus books for fun per year? Answer twice as many as 2022. Reading started dropping in the ‘70s, resurgence in ‘00s, then backed down. End Result: All-time lows.’”

These data are in line with the Pew Center study that revealed that 23% of adults haven’t read a book in 2023. The aim of this first letter is to make the case that reading is important to success and reading books is an essential aspect of reading. The history of books spans millennia, a reflection of human ingenuity. The Sumerians began using clay tablets around 3000 BCE for writing, and the Egyptians used papyrus scrolls by 2,400 BCE, the Romans’ development of the parchment and the codex in the first century CE made books portable.

Throughout the Middle Ages from the 5th to 15th century, manuscripts were laboriously hand-copied by monks making knowledge accessible nowadays. A pivotal moment occurred around 1440 with Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type press revolutionizing book production, making them more accessible and significantly altering the spread of knowledge during the Renaissance. The 19th century saw the advent of paperbacks drastically reducing costs and making books more accessible to everyday people. Mark Twain humorously noted, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

My argument is similarly straightforward, the world’s smartest, successful and most influential people read books. When it comes to reading. you should be like these influential people. Books are more than just entertainment. They’re tools for personal growth windows to other worlds and a means to understand the complexity and depth of the human experience. Oprah Winfrey’s journey from poverty to becoming Oprah underscores the transformative potential of reading. She speaks of how books were her solace and inspiration throughout her life.

“I am where I am today because I believed I could,” she says, attributing her success to the lessons and experiences gleaned from books, “For every person who has ever felt not good enough, not pretty enough, or unfairly judged by others, there’s a book for you that will be your medicine,” she notes emphasizing the therapeutic nature of reading. Becoming immersed in a story especially is a path to empathy and understanding. Consistent with Harper Lee’s insight from To Kill A Mockingbird, you never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Reading a book also requires the reader pay close attention in order to synthesize and create their own mental models as they link ideas across chapters and volumes. This is higher-level thinking that’s unlikely to happen across snippets of ideas on TikTok. As Joseph Addison once said, “Reading is to the mind what exercises to the body.” I prefer to say that reading is nutrition and writing is exercise. In either case, books not only enrich our minds but also fortify our concentration and nurturing a mindfulness that is increasingly rare in this digital age.

Though eBooks and audiobooks have their place, I make the case for a paper book as your weapon of choice. Reading a paper book avoids digital distractions, no need to have your phone on nor even close by. I’m not asking you to abandon your phones, but I’m asking you to turn the damn things off and discover the joy of getting lost in a story to feel the weight of a book in your hands and to give yourself the space to reflect without the glare of a screen.

Books have a wonderful smell, whether new or old. I suggest adding a pen to the mix and marking passages. Jot comments in the margins or straight up and take notes. Now you are bringing together two of my favorite things, reading and writing. Intrigued? The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. A good place to start is to start reading anything, long or short, anything that you enjoy reading. Naval says, “Read what you love until you love to read.” In other words, don’t start with Moby Dick. Try both fiction and nonfiction across genres to get the full experience. Maybe you’ll like one more than the other. I prefer creative nonfiction, but cracking open the occasional book of poetry is delightful.

Make reading books a regular habit, even if it’s 30 minutes a day. I like it, especially at the end of the day when your phone is least useful and interferes with sleep reading before bed unplugs from anxious digital stimulation. My rule is no screens one hour before bed. If you’re excited by this possibility or want to learn more, I had a conversation on this show about reading more. Check out that episode. The well-being of your generation rests on your ability to break free of the games, status games and sugary entertainment of the digital world. You know what happens if you don’t, so why not try something different? I want you to reach your full potential and I hope you join me on a journey rediscovering the superpower of books onwards.

Letter 2: Write It or Regret It. Note this topic came up in an early episode with Mary Dahm called Write Your Way Out, “Dear students and members of the Solo Community, in my previous letter, I expressed my concern about your phone habits and urged you to put your phone down, pick up a book and read a lot. This letter asks you to do something even more difficult. Put down your phone and pick up a pen, real or metaphorical and write. George Orwell wrote, ‘Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions binding together people who never knew each other. Citizens of distant epochs. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.’”

“I contend that reading is like nutrition. It nourishes the mind and fuels creative thought as food provides essential nutrients for bodily health, reading exposes us to new ideas, perspectives and knowledge. Books are an abundant nutritious meal. Writing, on the other hand, is like exercise. It takes effort, discipline, and repetition to build writing strength and skill. Why write? Writing clarifies your thinking, helps you remember ideas and allows you to effectively communicate with others.”

“I wrote about the power of writing in my book Shtick to Business. I show how writing is essential to stand-up and sketch comedians, but also to everyday people in business and beyond. Here’s more about how writing is helpful for getting ahead in life. 1) To remember. Writing things down is key for capturing creativity, inspiration, and for building blocks of future work. Research supports the idea that note-taking by hand offers superior benefits for learning and retention due to a combination of factors. Handwriting, facilitates deeper information processing as it typically requires the note taker to paraphrase and engage more thoroughly with the material.”

“The manual act of writing minimizes potential distractions, a common issue with digital note-taking, writing by hand, future enhances recall since the act of handwriting itself helps to solidify the information and memory. Moreover, the inherently slower pace of handwriting compared to typing encourages the development of summarization, skills and forces note-takers to be more selective in their note-taking promoting a deeper understanding of the material. In contrast, students taking notes on a computer typing them that is are more likely to transcribe lectures verbatim, which is less amenable to learning.”

“2) To clarify. Writing exposes fuzzy thinking and forces you to get clear on exactly what you’re trying to say. Putting fuzzy thoughts into words exposes areas in need of refinement. As Philosopher E. M. Forster, ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’ Jeff Bezos instituted the practice of requiring six-page narrative memos to accompany any new initiative at Amazon. This forces teams to clearly explain their thinking and how their proposal fits the company’s strategy. As Bezos writes in his annual shareholder letter, ‘We believe that ideas emerge through the process of writing that you can’t completely think through an idea until you try writing it out.’”

“3 and Finally) To communicate. Writing can move from a private document to a public-facing one. Here are the challenges ensuring you bridge any knowledge gap on the topic and make your thoughts understandable to others. Mark Twain noted that a message must be tailored to the audience. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

“To become a writer, consider the following practices. Pick your tools. I favor a pen for early drafts and note-taking, but heavy-duty writing is done on my laptop. The first draft of this letter was written on a yellow legal pad and yet completed on my old and trusty laptop. I keep a paper journal. Start by journaling. This act isn’t just about recording events, but about engaging with your thoughts, feelings, and observations. Your journal becomes a private domain for experimentation, reflection and discovery. Become an avid note taker, whether in lectures while reading or in moments of inspiration, capturing thoughts and writing solidifies knowledge and sparks creativity. It’s best done with pen and paper.”

“Stretch your writing muscles by experimenting in various forms, poetry, short stories and blogging. Offer diverse terrains to explore your voice, refine your style, and engage with different audiences. Recognize that writing is both an art and a discipline. Understand the process by learning the stages from ideation to revision. Embrace the concept of right fat and edit thin, allowing yourself the freedom to explore extensively in your shitty first drafts, then by culling with precision.”|

“Immerse yourself in the wisdom of those who’ve walked this path before. Books such as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft and Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools offer invaluable insights into the craft From the masters of the trade, read great writing, especially the greats you want to emulate. Hunter S. Thompson had a unique connection to The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American Novel. Thompson saw The Great Gatsby as a masterpiece of American Literature. His admiration was intense as a young writer, Thompson would type out the entirety of The Great Gatsby on his typewriter.”

“He did this not just once, but multiple times to get a feel for what it was like to write a great novel, to understand the rhythm, pace, and emotion of Fitzgerald’s prose, writing like many creative tasks thrives in the presence of routine, carve out time for writing, be it the serene early hours over coffee as I do, or the quiet of night as I occasionally do. Ideally, make the time sacred not to be canceled for frivolous matters.”

“Create activities like writing, making music, or even doing spreadsheet calculations have the potential to create engagement via flow, a mental state characterized by complete immersion in a task to the point where all sense of time and place falls away. As with mastering the piano or shooting free throws, expect writing fluency to demand dedication to daily practice over time, be patient. It took me three years before my writing became flow-worthy.” Onwards.

The third and final letter, Never Surrender, “Dear students and members of the Solo Community, I’m concerned about some of you. This letter was prompted by a potentially worrisome trend Doom Spending. According to recent reporting, Gen Z is splurging on luxury goods to soothe their economic despair. The headline goes on and says, ‘For younger generations, financial goals like buying a house and saving for retirement can feel out of reach.’ I get why youthful optimism has waned among Gen Z. You watch your government botch the pandemic response robbing many of you of important adolescent experiences and the resulting inflation, which the country has not seen since the early 1980s is cutting you off at the knees. The cost of a bag of groceries or even a burrito is ridiculous.”

“Rents are skyrocketing. The United States is nearly 6 million doors short because of poor urban planning and rampant nimbyism that keeps low-cost high-rise housing from being built and to borrow money to own one of those doors is also ridiculous due to said inflation. To top it off, AI is threatening to take away your entry-level jobs, the ones you were counting on to kickstart your career. Your social media habits aren’t helping. Half of Gen Z spends four hours a day on social media. TikTok is feeding you your peer’s constant complaints all while covering two catastrophic wars the United States is involved in.”

“Simultaneously, Instagram is feeding you life out of reach, a never-ending batch of more successful, better-looking people, taking vacations to exotic destinations, real or fake. When I was your age, the world too had its challenges. The US was in a recession. The LA riots had occurred in response to the Rodney King beating and the Gulf War had started. My friends and I knew about these events, but they were not ever present in our pockets. Moreover, the people we compared ourselves to were on campus, not across the globe.”

“In response to this pessimism, so the media story goes about 27% of Americans are engaged in doom spending with higher rates among millennials and Gen Z. For example, Nia Holland, a 24-year-old graduate student exemplified this trend by spending $2,500 on a vintage Chanel bag, a purchased the drained her savings, but provided her a sense of fulfillment amid economic and global uncertainties. Whereas the media characterized this behavior as a coping mechanism, I believe a better psychological explanation is related to the psychology of goals.”

“People balance a variety of short and long-term goals, many of which require sustained effort and delayed gratification. Want to be fit? Skip the soda and late-night binging and hit the gym or the pavement. Some reasons people give up their goals are positive. Goals get released when you achieve a goal or are close enough, it’s time to turn your attention to other important things. Seniors in college may take their foot off the gas and their courses, for example, when they get a job so that they can have a little more fun before graduation.”

“Sometimes another goal comes along that’s more important. The technical term for this is goal conflict. A senior in college may take his or her foot off the gas in a class in order to focus on finding a job. The reason for this mini-lesson on goals is the final reason. People give up on their goals. They surrender their hopes, dreams, and desires because they feel their goals are too far out of reach. I suspect this is what’s happening with these so-called Doom Spenders. Saving for a better life feels out of reach so they stopped saving and spend.”

“This concerns me to give up. Planning for a bright future guarantees a dim future. In other words, while being young and poor is okay, being old and poor is terrible. You can’t control inflation, but you can control your response to it. Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search For Meaning, famously said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space in that. Space is our power to choose our response, and our response lies, our growth and our freedom.” Start by recognizing that the good old days were not that good.”

“Today’s percentage of home ownership, car ownership, and college degrees are higher than they were in the 1950s. Considered, too, your great grandparents’ generation who fought ultimate evil in World War II and their parents’ generation who survived The Great Depression. Though things often seem bleak, they continue to improve for humanity, there’s been a significant reduction in extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has dramatically decreased from 36% in 1990 to 10% in 2015.”

“Longevity is increasing globally. Cancer death rates in the United States are expected to drop by 31% between 2015 and 2040 due to advancements in prevention, early detection, and treatment. Indeed, half of 5-year-olds today are expected to live to 100. Renewable energy is the fastest-growing global energy source. Renewable energy capacity is projected to increase by over 60% from 2020 to 2030. This growth is expected to create millions of new jobs and contribute to mitigating climate change.” Please remain optimistic.”

“Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.’ Research demonstrates that optimism confers a variety of benefits that can contribute to success in life, better physical health, stress management, psychological resilience, achievement, and performance, and interpersonal relationships. Recognize that life is a series of marshmallow tests. The now famous experiment conducted by Walter Mischel revealed that children who resisted the temptation of eating 1 marshmallow in order to be later rewarded with 2 marshmallows tended to have significantly higher SAT scores, educational achievement and other positive life outcomes later on.”

“The marshmallow experiment exemplifies the benefit of delayed gratification. Research further reveals that the ability to delay gratification includes financial stability, career success, and healthier lifestyles. For example, the discipline to prioritize long-term health benefits. For example, late-night binging and soda contribute to regular exercise, balanced diets and lower obesity rates, the ability to delay gratification, avoid short-term pleasure to achieve long-term success is a characteristic that the world’s most successful people have in spades, and it something that you, my students have demonstrated in spades. Otherwise, you would not be in my class.”

“Adapt. Charles Darwin said, ‘It’s not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.’ To put it more directly, if the American Dream is out of reach, make a new dream. What will that look like for you? I don’t know. You must figure it out. Throughout history, technology from the plow to the internet has taken jobs, but nearly as often it has created new jobs. For example, software developers and data scientists. AI will be no different. Learn to be more creative and use AI to accelerate your career. Cultivate versatile human skills.”

“AI cannot replicate creativity, complex communication, collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship, and emotional intelligence. I know that I sound like an old man in these letters, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wrong. There’s wisdom in knowing when to lean on tradition, read books and put pen to paper, both of which require you to put your phone down. There is also wisdom in knowing when to abandon tradition. There are many paths to a remarkable life, and most are independent of home ownership.”

“Instead of mindlessly consuming with your face in your phone, focus on experiences that enrich you. Look for opportunities to learn, create and make a difference. Explore nature. Make things with your hands. Express yourself through writing or art. Spend time in person with friends and family. Mix it up. In closing, I implore you. Do not surrender the dreams simmering inside you just because the path to achieving them appears difficult. Anything worth doing is going to be difficult. In the words of another old man, Winston Churchill, one who helped defeat the Nazis, never give in, nothing great or small, large or petty. Never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Onwards. Cheers.


Important Links