I just finished the book "The Know-It-All : One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World" by A.J. Jacobs.

Kirsten got this for me last Christmas with the inscription, "To you, who always remembers to dream big." I really appreciate this note because I've always thought that whatever I do not have in talent, I will try to make up for in brute force. I like to think big, and if I don't get distracted, actually finish things.

This story is about a guy whose boyish dream of becoming the smartest person in the world is seen within his grasp by doing something his father started but never finished — reading the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) from A to Z. In this book he digests the entire EB from its 32 volumes, 33,000 pages, and 44 million words into a concise story about what he learned. For you, I’ve documented the parts of the book that I underlined and thought were especially interesting. So here they are…

“I’d like to say that everyone’s successful in his or her own way, that you can’t spend your life comparing yourself to others.”

Alas, I have done this my entire life. It started when I was young and both my brother and I would compare ourselves to our dad, then I compared myself to my brother, then I compared myself to all the intelligent people I knew in high school, then to those in college, then to those in job after job. I should have a PhD in the area of comparative self.

Descartes “Cogito ergo sum

The great phrase stating, "I think therefore I am." Just something nice to ponder when passing the time.

“I don’t think you can flip off a passion just because you know where it comes from. If that were the case, there would be a lot fewer bullwhips and fuzzy handcuffs sold in Greenwich Village.”

This is such a true statement. Whatever your passion is you cannot ignore it. All too often we ignore things because we put up mental roadblocks as to why we cannot or should not pursue our goals and dreams. We have but one shot at life, better make the most [fun] of it.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 (Bible, Old Testament) – “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, not the bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, not favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all”

This is such a great passage because it reminds us of the old adage that "it's not what you know, it's who you know." The idea that you can be the most brilliant person on earth, but sometimes you're lucky and sometimes you're not. You should not life your life attributing your (mis)fortune to your personal attributes. Conversely, you should not attribute your personal attributes to your (mis)fortune.

“Yes, life is desperately, insanely, absurdly unfair.”

(see also: Thomas Hobbes on 'nasty, brutish, and short') Again we are reminded of our mortality and that chance happens all the time. There is no rule saying that life should be fair to you for any reason, so you should not be upset when it is. Accept it and move on; otherwise you are complaining about something you cannot change.

“I’m not sure what the original evolutionary value of sadness was, but I can guarantee you this: mine is not helping me survive or reproduce. … Unfortunately, this realization – brilliant as it may be – hasn’t helped me shake off the funk.”

So true. I've been sad and depressed before and it does not help me do anything. And no matter how much you reason to yourself that you are just sad/depressed/uphappy, logic does not make you feel better. But time passes and you recover. Just don't let it take too long to recover.

“Did you hear about the Middle Eastern potentate?’ he asked me. This potentate called a meeting of the wise men in his kingdom, and he said, ‘I want you to gather all the world’s knowledge together in one place so that my sons can read it and learn.’ The wise men went off, and after a year, they came back with twenty-five volumes of knowledge. The potentate looked at it and he said, ‘No. It’s too long. Make it shorter.’ So the wise men went off for another year and they came back with one single volume. The potentate looked at it and said, ‘No. Still too long.’ So the wise men went off for another year. When they came back, they gave the potentate a piece of paper with one sentence on it. A single sentence. You know what the sentence was?

Bob looked at me. I shook my head.

The sentence was: ‘This too shall pass.’”

And that's it, the entire expanse of knowledge summed up into four short words. The simple thing is, it's true. History has shown that there is good and there is bad, but in all cases time passes and the world moves on. Try to remember this when you encountrer tough situations as mentioned above. (see also: depression)

Ian Flemming said, “Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes’ otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”

Yet another great quote. Part of saying 'yes' to adventure is in the big decisions (volunteering for something new, starting a new career, meeting new people) but it's also in the little things (going to the gym each day, smiling when you get up in the morning, calling a friend.) In fact, sometimes we focus on the big things (and bemoan our missing out on them) that we forget about the little things that make us happy day by day.

“I’m curious about everything – even things that don’t interest me.” “I’m drawn to counter intuitive information”

Here! here! I totally agree that you must stay curious about the world around you or else you run the risk of becoming a dull person… someone I would not care to talk to. (Unless of course, you are my Mom, who I enjoy talking to always.)

John Donne (1572 – 1631) “No man is an island.”

Or more accurately, "No man is an island, entire of itself…any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." This quote is used in the opening lines of the movie About A Boy and is a favorite quote of my brother. He always likes to say "the bell tolls for thee."
Marginal utility theory says that “money means more to those who don’t have it.”

Do you have the “conviction of passion”?

Again we are reminded that one should have the conviction of passion in all that s/he does. This is your life, it doesn't get any better than this. Does it excite you or just pass you by?

“this makes me happy … being able to see patterns in the world”

I am constantly saying that there are fewer patterns in the world than we think, because our minds have a propensity towards imposing patterns and procrustean boxes on the world around us. But, it's true that there are patterns and it's enjoyable to be able to see them and appreciate the big picture — as if you are looking at the entire landscape instead of just one flower.

“When Mozart was thirteen, he heard the secret chorus of the Sistine Choir and copied it out from memory.”


“I’m worried about the value of reading in general. In the section on mind, philosophy of, I learned that John Locke’s parable about a blind man. The blind man wants to know what the color scarlet is like, so he interviews dozens of people about the color scarlet, thinks a long time about the topic, then, at long last, he victoriously announces that he knows what scarlet is like: ‘It’s like the sound of a trumpet.’ I sometimes wonder, am I the blind man? If I’m reading about life – about literature, science, nature – without actually experiencing it, maybe I’m hearing false trumpets. Maybe my time would be better spent out in the world, experiencing it.”

This reminds me of Chipmonkey because it is her who wants to go out and experience the world, while I am content (no, almost compelled) to photograph and document it before I see and experience it. Sometimes life is just about living and appreciating, day to day.

“but like most addicts, I feel simultaneously drawn to it and repelled by it.”

(see also: Infinite Jest)

“We are frighteningly loyal fans of movies … eating my Indian takeout chickpea dish.”

Change that to Thai takeout and it’s a perfect match for Chipmonkey and me.

“So how would you define intelligence? … it probably has to do with trial and error, learning from mistakes, moderating out thoughts and actions like a thermostat”

Seeing as A.J. wants to become the smartest person in the world, he is asking over and over what is intelligence? The funny thing is that like many things in life, it's all perspective.

“The Britannica has an explanation for this: elderly people find time shorter because they notice long-accustomed changes less frequently … aka. old people are less perceptive.”
“Can I stop the acceleration of time by remaining observant? By keeping my mind open to changes and filled with wonder at the world, instead of tuning it out? That would truly be an accomplishment.”

Maybe there is something to be said about keeping your mind sharp. I hope in my old age that I play chess or do crossword puzzles or study physiology and medicine like my Mom.

“Luigi Pirandello, the Italian playwright, said in 1920: ‘I think that life is a sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, … the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality … which is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves; but this compassion cannot fail to be followed by the ferocious derision of destiny which condemns man to deception.’”

Ooh, pretty grim. Just so you don't get filled with to much self-improvement garbage here's a bit to remind you that not everyone is as cheery as you and there is a dark side you should not succumb to.

“She suggested that maybe we have a picnic in the Central Park – it was such a nice day. I told her no thanks. I could see the park from the window in the reading room.”

Again, more reminders to get out into the world and away from my computer… but my computer makes me happy.

Sylvia Plath: “Writers are drawn to self-destruction”

I hope to avoid this head-on collision.

“Aldous Huxley died on November 22, 1963 – the exact same day as C. S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy. Good to know.”

Always interesting to know.

Horace Mann was quoted: ‘Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity’

This reminds me of my brother who loved a quote about the bell tolling for you.

“She thinks every health problem is caused by a lack of sleep.”

Again my nemesis. Amber believes something similar to this although her conclusion includes the lack of sleep, water, exercise, and eating right. Sheesh, what a list!

“You only need three rambunctious people to legally qualify as a riot”

This makes me want to find three friends and start a ‘riot’ right now. In fact, I’d enjoy impromptu riots all the time if the number of people hovered somewhere around three.

“’What does arête mean?’
‘Quest for excellence’
‘The Greeks were interested in arête, and the Romans were interested in dominance.’”

What does this mean? That capitalism will trump socialism? That evil will win out over good? No, it means that we should strive to be, find, and offer goodness to those around us. Spread the love.

“Remember this is your life passing you by.”

Whew, these shortness of life reminders keep coming up. Maybe I should take notice.

List of different types of intelligence:

  • analytical intelligence – the ability to solve problems
  • creative intelligence – the ability to come up with new problems
  • practical intelligence – the skill of incorporating solutions into real life
  • crystallized intelligence – the accumulation of knowledge
  • fluid intelligence – the ability of people to mentally adapt to the situation and remain flexible when reasoning and problem solving (flexibility always wins out)
  • emotional intelligence (my own addition) – the ability to empathize with others

“I doubt that any of the great contributors in history – in the arts and letters, sciences, music, business – became great contributors because they read this or that encyclopedia.”

This goes for more than just reading the EB. It also means that great contributors in history are not always rich, famous, or have many friends. In fact many people never became famous until they died! So instead of looking for outward signs of affirmation, look inward to be sure that what you are doing makes you happy and contributes to society.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina comments that “evil, no less than good, derives from the small moral choices human beings make moment by moment.”
“I’ve got to be mindful of my small decisions”

First, this reminds me of Jacob because he is one of the most moral people I know. He is the only one I know who quit his job because the company failed to make the proper moral decision when they made a mistake.

Second, this quote reminds me of my brother, who has read more Tolstoy than anyone else I know and probably even encouraged me to read Anna Karenina, an event I never got around to.

“We’ve got to take the long [term] perspective.”

Yep, it's not about getting rich before you die, but remembering that it's better to become bankrupt before you're 30. DJ told me this and it's stuck with me.

“It’s something that I’ve learned over and over again: luck plays a huge part in history. We like to think that it’s the product of our will and rational decisions and planning. But I’ve noticed it’s just as often – more often – about seemingly tiny whims of fate.”

So don't cry when things do not go your way. Long ago my mom was driving me home from some event and when we pulled into the driveway I told her, "There's no reason to worry about things you have not done or failed to do. There is only now and what we do next. It's a waste of time to worry about the past, which we cannot change." I was in high school and she has repeated those words to me more times than I care to remember. She told them to me all throughout college and I hope she continues to for the rest of my life.

“The facts in my brain will fade – I know that. But this wisdom, this perspective, I hope will stay with me.”

This is what we have and what we take with us. The old adage of, "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again." George Santayana said, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

“I’ve finally beaten my dad at something. … and I suppose that’s helped me exorcise a demon – specifically the demon of envy, also known as Leviathan in the Bible”

Envy is my downfall. Throughout my life, I have compared myself to others around me and strived to be as good or better than them. There are two problems with this kind of thinking.

  1. You will never be smarter than the people you surround yourself with. This is because you keep associating with smarter and smarter people, so the cycle will never end. (Of course, if you keep associating with dumber and dumber people, this is your own fault.)
  2. You never want to be the smartest person in the room or you will never learn anything. Smart leaders are those who surround themselves with others who are frighteningly smarter than they are and specialists in what they do.

Geroge Bernard Shaw said, ‘All great truths start as blasphemies.’

Viva Le Revolution (and the revolutionaries)

What he learned from reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z:

  • I know that everything is connected like a worldwide version of the six-degrees-of-separation game.
  • I know you’d better focus on the good stuff or you’re screwed.
  • I know that the race does not go to the swift, nor the bread to the wise, so you should soak up what enjoyment you can.
  • I know not to take the little things (like cinnamon) for granted.
  • I know that morality lies in even the smallest decisions.
  • I know you should always say yes to adventures or you’ll lead a very dull life.

The book ended and I wrote:

“You cannot prevent pain, either to oneself or to others. It is a fools quest to those who try, and an experiment in boredom to do so.”