Bookshelf

Derek Sivers
Useful Not True

Useful Not True

by Derek Sivers, 110 pages

Finished on 13th of May
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Sivers has done it again and wrote another short and concise book about basically one single idea. That idea is so powerful it has the ability to change many lives for the better. Therefore, this book should be read by everyone.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Most of what we know as facts are just facts from a certain perspective and might even cease to be true at one point, so we shouldn’t fully rely on facts but see them in the context of which type of action they inspire in us.
  2. Often, what we think of as a fact is actually a belief we have internalized or a meaning we have attached to something which has no intrinsic meaning.
  3. If we distance our identities from our own beliefs and the meanings we give things, thinking them through on the basis of what action they inspire in us, we can actively reframe everything in order to be more fulfilled and lead a better life – the life we want.

🎨 Impressions

Derek Sivers writes the most concise books ever. They usually are not a single page longer than they need to be in order to best convey his ideas. I thought his books “Anything You Want” and especially “How to Live” were both so good, I jumped when he sent out this draft of his new book “Useful Not True” to his mailing list subscribers. And he again didn’t disappoint at all. With just over 100 pages, most of them not filled to the brim with text, you can easily read through it in one sitting. And that’s point: The book itself is supposed to be useful, explaining the twist in the title early on.

What are facts? What is true? It sounds so unusual to ask these questions, but it has been said that we’re currently living in the post-truth era, although that was mostly meant as a way to highlight the shameless lies of politicians. Apart from that, Sivers encourages us to take a new perspective when thinking about what we deem the truth. In order to loosen us up, he starts with an example from science – which most of us would say is the one method we have to find certain truth.

It’s about Isaac Newtons laws of gravity. When he wrote them down, they seemed like the truth and were certainly very useful to humankind’s progress. But then Albert Einstein came along with his theory of relativity, showing how Newton’s laws are no longer sufficient. After Einstein, quantum mechanics proved that there are limit’s to Einstein’s theories, too. Newton hadn’t found the one final truth about gravity, but a useful truth. And current physics are of course still far away from finding that final truth, if that’s even possible at all. So anything that’s regarded as truth should be examined always. Because from some perspective it can feel true, while from another it won’t.

The point is, the truth we’re accepting as truth should be useful. And there are often things which aren’t true, but useful to believe. For some people, it’s useful to believe that “everything happens for a reason” even though that’s most likely false. It still helps them make sense of the world and survive trauma, for example.

Sivers then goes on to talk about beliefs and meaning. Both is completely made up, he states. Believes serve a purpose, but often also stand in the way in the form of limiting beliefs. If you are sure that it’s a fact that you can’t ever run a marathon, that’s a limiting belief that’s often not true and also not useful. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean you can’t. A belief shouldn’t be confused with reality, Sivers says.

Similarly with meaning. There is no inherent meaning to anything, he says. We are the ones who freely choose to give meaning to things. And our individual meanings can and will differ, even if they are projected onto the same thing. A meaning is a tool to help you persist in difficult times, for example. Choose your meanings wisely and rethink the meanings you put on things which might not serve you.

That all leads to the largest and central point the books makes: Stressing the power of reframing. If a believe or a meaning you give to something doesn’t serve you anymore, try to see the situation from a different perspective and actively change your belief or the meaning so it will better help you and inspire action. Choose your reactions to challenging situations in a way they help you and don’t make things worse, because it’s within your power to do so. Change your approach if you reach a road block.

Sivers drives all these ideas home by giving lots of colorful examples. The whole book has an empowering and inspiring feel to it. Its shortness helps, but I’m very glad he included an extensive reading list at the end of the book if the reader would like to dive deeper into aspects of this book. Many of the recommendations center around the philosophic idea of pragmatism and will make it onto my reading list.

This book is an easy recommendation to every human. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be able to benefit from these insights. Even people like me, who’ve heard these ideas before in other books, can’t go wrong with reading Sivers’ clever phrasings and fun anecdotes. And the shortness of it really makes it a no-brainer. A great gift to others, too.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

The topic of limiting beliefs is quite dear to my heart and I’ve read about it a lot already. I have applied it to myself for years and made great positive changes using the power of reframing. But the downside of being able to identify limiting beliefs is that you suddenly see them in other people all of the time, and pointing them out in a productive and non-insulting way isn’t the easiest of tasks – it’s often core beliefs we’re talking about, after all. These can be a huge part of the personal identity of a person and you don’t want to threaten that, it wouldn’t be helpful at all. Sivers’ book does this job amazingly well. There’s not a single chapter where you feel like he’s on to you and pointing fingers at your own shortcomings. This style is something I’ve learned via reading Useful Not True, and will try to replicate next time I witness a friend or a relative display a limiting belief that’s doing harm to them without them noticing.

📔 Highlights

And let’s define “useful” as whatever helps you do what you need to do, be who you want to be, or feel at peace.

Remember this when someone gives facts as proof that their viewpoint is true. Facts can be true, while the perspective is not.

Memories feel like facts, but they’re not. People don’t doubt their memory, but you should.

Goals, plans, optimism, pessimism, and predictions themselves are pointless. But they’re useful if they change behavior for the better. All that matters are current actions.

Calling someone a “flirt” means “I think that person has romantic intentions.” Notice that words like these sound like facts about the person being judged, but they tell you more about the person judging.

They say it’s your obligation, your duty, your responsibility. But those terms are social expectations. They’re not real. They’re not even universal.

The people saying it’s your obligation really just want you to do something. But instead of saying “I want,” they blame a higher legitimacy. It’s manipulative. They say their wishes are laws you must obey.

Rules set expectations and the terms of the game. They’re a useful starting point, but they’re not the final answer.

Rules can be ignored. Sometimes, if a rule’s purpose is understood and respected, and the greater good is not harmed, it’s irrational and immoral to follow it.

When someone believes something that seems crazy to you, consider what incentives, from their point of view, make that belief useful.

No model is “true”. Each one is just less and less wrong. The scientific process is never done.

You take some principles or values very seriously. You think of them as undeniable truths. But to other people, you are the one with silly beliefs.

Your identity and choices seem authentic and true. But you’re subconsciously influenced by everything you see and hear. You have no idea why you want what you want or choose what you do.

Beliefs have a purpose. They help people adopt a perspective or identity. Beliefs help people take action, or cooperate with others. The only problem is when people confuse belief with reality, and insist that something is absolutely true because they believe it.

Ask yourself why you want the truth. What do you plan to do with it? What’s the real outcome?

Ideas and beliefs are tools. Choose them for the desired effect.

Beliefs cause emotions. Emotions cause actions. Choose a belief for the action it will cause.

Which belief is right? Wrong question. Which belief will lead to the action you need now? Choose beliefs that are useful, not true.

Nothing has inherent meaning. Whatever meaning you project into it is your own.

Meanings can give you a reason to persist in difficult times. But they’re internal, not external. They’re yours, not others’.

Questions to start

When something goes wrong

  • What’s great about this?
  • How can I use this to my advantage?
  • Does this change the goal, or the path, or nothing?
  • How can I reduce the downsides?

When changing direction

  • When I was at my happiest, what was I doing?
  • What have I strongly wanted for the longest time?
  • What’s the opposite of what I usually do?
  • Which of my old beliefs are not serving me?
  • Forget me. What would be most helpful for others?

When stuck

  • What is my one top priority now?
  • How can I begin without waiting for anything?
  • What advice would I love to hear from an all-knowing sage?
  • What am I doing that’s actually a distraction?
  • Instead of avoiding mistakes, how can I make more to learn faster?
  • Who can help?

To make peace with what’s out of your control

  • What happens if I ignore it and do nothing?
  • Should I learn a lesson from this, or just move on?
  • How can I blame no one, and see this as nobody’s fault?
  • How can I be OK no matter what happens?

Almost nothing people say is true. My thoughts aren’t true. Norms, obligations, the past, the future, and fears: none of it is real.

You are your actions. Your actions are you. Your self-image doesn’t matter as much.

Instead of asking if it’s true, ask yourself if it’s useful to you. What are you going to do about it? Will it really change your actions? If not, what does it matter?

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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