Tag Archives: Fight Club

Book: The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The ONE Thing

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Office-desk fantasy for dullard corporate brainwash victims
240 pages, ★

Admittedly, I usually don’t like self-help books. At worst, they can seem preachy and idiosyncratic. They overuse bolditalics and underlining, which makes the insulting assumption that, like those office workers I mentioned previously, I am incapable of focusing on extended prose. Only a tiny minority of self-help books persist with long-term fame (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, for example), while the vast majority get thrown out along with each passing fad.

That said, I do like some self-help books. It was an excellent self-help book that encouraged me to start reading back in 2011. I bought David Buzan’s Speed Reading from a market stall and used it (along with a blog) as motivation to read hundreds of books in the two years that followed. I lapped it up because I needed it. By applying the same logic, I conclude that the target audience of The One Thing is a sedentary desk-worker overwhelmed with boring, repetitive filing tasks and whose life has no sense of fulfillment. I didn’t gain anything from this book because thankfully, I’m not one of those people. I want you to read this review with an image of the book’s target audience in mind.

The One Thing is set in a fantasy world where small-minded, burned-out office workers busy themselves with mundane tasks like organising emails into folders or rearranging staples. People’s attention spans have been crushed, creativity has been killed, and people only skim-read because they have no time to pause and reflect. People are cogs in corporate machines and have forgotten how to think for themselves. Their universe is no wider than an office cubicle, and their only ‘window’ is a glaring computer screen.

The book tried to improve these people’s lives with the following mantra: “Focus on one thing at a time”. It then spends 240 pages rephrasing this same message repeatedly with bewildering diagrams. Some of these diagrams are so confusing that they look satirical. (I’ll be respectful and not post them here.)

The book’s biggest downfall is that it lacks ethos, or credibility. There are no historical references (in fact, there are no references at all) and the “exemplary people” mentioned in this book are all either modern-day corporations or billionaires. Predictably, the book mentions how Apple and Bill Gates both succeeded because they focused on their “One Thing”, but the logic of this link is tenuous at best. Where the ‘good’ self-help books make ample references to ancient wisdom and modern-day science and give dozens of inspiring anecdotes and statistics, The One Thing fails to deliver on all those fronts. I have no reason to take anything in The One Thing seriously.

There’s no foreword. There’s no preface. I therefore start reading chapter one without knowing the authors, without knowing why I should read this book and without knowing what I’m going to gain from it. This is a failing of The One Thing, not of the self-help genre in general. Tony Buzan, to name just one example, puts huge emphasis on the successes of his program before we even start reading. He peppers his writing with inspiring stories that are interesting to share with friends. The One Thing’s authors, however, have cut out all the useful parts (including references, which would have made the book somewhat credible) to make room for some more “fat” in the middle chapters. As a result, The One Thing is a book of zero importance.

The book is also bland. Take this quote as an example of its banality:

I ask, “How much money do you want to earn?” I get all kinds of answers, but usually the number is quite high. When I ask, “How did you pick this number?” I frequently get the familiar answer: “Don’t know”. I then ask, “Can you tell me your definition of a financially wealthy person?” Invariably, I get numbers that start at a million dollars and go up from there. When I ask how they arrived at this, they often say, “It sounds like a lot.” My response is, “It is, and it isn’t. It all depends on what you’d do with it”.

Most of the book is written in this nonsensical language. It hasn’t even been proofread properly and grammatical errors are surprisingly regular. Lacks humour throughout. I wish it didn’t take itself so seriously!

The One Thing doesn’t stand up to the competition. It tells you how to improve your life, but doesn’t do nearly as well as Buddhist books like Happiness or Tiny Buddha, which are also classed as ‘self-help’. It’s so bland that it’s not quite bad enough to be cleverly satirical (like Fight Club); and it lacks the depth of science and history that Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers brought to the table in 2008.

As far as “how to improve your life” goes, it’s nothing compared with Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, who wrote at length in beautiful language about the placement of objects on your desk, the height of your chair, what to eat and how to sit, and how to clear your mind before working. Lin Yutang even told us at what times of day we are most productive.

The One Thing is a failed attempt at enlightenment for people in very boring lines of work. Take chapter 12 for example, which is titled “The Path to Great Questions”. After walking us through a brainstorming technique designed to formulate such “great questions”, the authors give us these four lame examples:

  1. What can I do to increase sales?
  2. What can I do to double sales?
  3. What can I do to double sales in six months?
  4. What can I do to increase my sales by 5 per cent this year?

WHAT? Is that all that’s on the author’s mind? So dull…

My criticisms aren’t all subjective, either. I also found this book internally-contradictory in places. There’s a whole chapter on “don’t be self-disciplined” (which is controversial purely for its own sake). Just ten pages later, the author says we should all be self-disciplined again, and spends three pages describing an experiment that suggested toddlers with more willpower would grow up to be happier, smarter, richer, healthier adults. So should we be self-disciplined or not? Confusing.

Here’s another contradiction: on page 73, he writes, underlined, “A balanced life is a myth”. We then wade through nine pages of jargon and idiosyncratic diagrams before finding the author’s proposed alternative on page 82: “Counterbalance your personal life bucket” (sic). This is another contradiction at worst, or just jargon-juggling at best. He’s certainly not giving useful advice.

I laughed when I reached page 114. Here, “One Thing” theory collapses when the authors explain that life is full of “One Things” and then asks us to do all of them in balance. (It therefore looks like the “One Thing” theory has been disproven!)

In conclusion, The One Thing is an idiosyncratic, pointlessly antagonistic and self-contradictory book written for people with no time (or for search engines!). It has tiny chapters, is highly visual, and makes heavy use of capitals, italics and underlining. Actually, this book is so repetitive and confusing that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s been written for search engines rather than people. This might just be the world’s first “search-engine optimised” book! Such poor-quality conveyance of such poor-quality ideas only deserves to be condensed into a one-page article and posted onto LinkedIn so we can all skim past it. It should never have been made into a book.

As a metaphor, this book is like a non-dry hand wash. I walk past it, I press it and I use it just because it’s there. It feels cold and flavourless and drips off my skin rather than sinking in. Even though it has a short-lived positive impact, I will never feel any long term benefits from having picked it up.

Reading this book is like eating plain tofu straight from the fridge. It’s not unhealthy, it’s just very, very bland—and around half-way through, you’ll realise it’s so pointless and tasteless that you’ll be mocking yourself for ever having read it. Aimed at Fight Club’s protagonist. Not recommended for anyone. 

Book: The Game

I’m currently reading an ebook, which will take me an epoch to finish. In the meantime, I think a back-dated review is in order. I miss blogging already.

Here’s one I read in 2011…

The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists
Fiction? Non-fiction? Porn? Thriller?

Thrilling, disturbing, true. A tale of self-reinvention.
452 pages, ☆☆☆☆☆

Hidden somewhere, in nearly every major city in the world, is an underground seduction lair. And in these lairs, men trade the most devastatingly effective techniques ever invented to charm women. This is not fiction. These men really exist. They live together in houses known as Projects. And Neil Strauss, the bestselling author, spent two years living among them, using the pseudonym Style to protect his real-life identity. The result is one of the most explosive and controversial books of the year — guaranteed to change the lives of men and transform the way women understand the opposite sex forever.

The Game is a story of management, success, sex, psychology, drugs, sleaze and celebrities laced with porn and self-help. The Game is a ‘true’ story about how a small group of “average frustrated chumps” (AFCs) deconstructed the art of seduction into a series of learnable steps, and transformed themselves into “pick-up artists”, or PUAs.

Enter the club, hunt out a gullible model-type, and start entertaining her less-attractive friends with jokes and magic tricks. Divert attention from the target and throw mild insults at her to erode her confidence (“that large nose looks great on you”; “is your hair supposed to look like that?”). Wait for three indicators of interest (IOIs) from the woman (touches her hair, adjusts her breasts, licks her lips, or touches you). Exit with a phone number (and not too late) and call her later for sex. The men in this book seduce hundreds of women with this routine. Supposedly, it works.

To understand The Game, it helps first to understand Fight Club…

Fight Club’s protagonist felt oppressed by his job. He created an alter ego, a schizophrenic hallucination, called Tyler Durden, who was “free in every way you’re not”: single, carefree, without want or ambition, yet Tyler was happier (in a hedonistic sense) and more successful than the protagonist’s real self. Tyler Durden gave the protagonist the strength he needed to leave the career-obsessed, materialistic life that he hated.

The Game’s protagonist, Neil Strauss, couldn’t get laid. He, too, created an alter ego called Style, who was bald, tanned, smooth-talking and, most importantly, women found him irresistibly seductive. Style was everything that Neil Strauss wished he could be: popular, respected, and promiscuous. He even became rich by running his own “how to be like me” seminars.

Neil Strauss (before, right) and his alter ego, Style (after, left).
Neil Strauss (before, right) and his alter ego, Style (after, left).

Both Fight Club and The Game are coming-of-age, transition-to-manhood stories, with struggles and pitfalls, and surprisingly tragic endings. Fight Club’s protagonist destroys the “capitalist world” with nitroglycerine, then shoots himself in the neck, destroying his alter ego. The Game’s protagonist quits when he finds himself surrounded not by beautiful young women, but by creepy “pick-up artist” men. Both characters give up their chosen image of manhood just moments after they achieve it.

Objectively, there’s little difference between struggles against the upper classes in Fight Club and against gullible women in The Game. But while I could sympathise with Fight Club’s anarchist/Maoist ideology, and find some humour in it, I had no sympathy for the manipulation of women for sex in The Game. My moral compass, I learned, was inconsistent.

I’m happy that this novel ends in tragedy. It’s the only way it could have been published, yet still be socially-responsible. Like Fight Club, the tragic ending is brought forward to Chapter 1, which depicts a down-and-out pick-up artist called Mystery needing drugs to stay awake, sleep or stop him from killing himself:

Mystery was beyond understanding. He was out of control. For a week, he’d been vacillating between periods of extreme anger and violence, and jags of fitful, cathartic sobbing. And now he was threatening to kill himself. — Page 1

The middle of the book builds towards this anti-climax.

The Game is loaded with promiscuous sex scenes. Between sex scenes, the characters talk about sex with lucid description, and discuss women and flirting tactics. Its mixed writing style (prose, dialogue, email, text message, and illustrations) suits a young audience—but read it carefully to avoid getting the wrong message.

I needed to read this in 2011. Whether The Game is true or not, pick-up artists like those in The Game really exist. This book taught me that everyone chases something—be it women, money, drugs, stamps, or gadgets… everyone plays a “game” of sorts.

My game is books. What’s your game? ☆☆☆☆☆

Book: 1Q84 (Volumes I, II & III)

1Q84
The cover consists of three partially-transparent pages, which elude to the bizarre, multi-layered, quasi-real world of 1Q84.

The most gripping book I’ve ever read.
926 pages, ★★★★★

The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo. A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s—1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.

1Q84 is unmistakably Japanese. It’s laced with assassins, quasi-religious cult leaders, underage sex and kidnapping. This bizarre (yet real) world is made even stranger when some of the characters are shifted into an alternate world—subtly different from the real world—called 1Q84.

Aomame (青豆) leaves 1984 and enters 1Q84 when she walks down the emergency stairway of a Metropolitan Expressway. She notices nothing at the time, but throughout the first few hundred pages, the reader (and Aomame) slowly realise that something isn’t right. Police uniforms have changed; a logo on a billboards is the wrong way around; and the stairway by which she entered this alternate world no longer exists. She doesn’t recall major news events, such as an unforgettable murder, or that the US and the USSR are co-operating to build a base on the moon.

In addition, on page 610, Aomame describes 1Q84 is an “…unreasonable world where there are two moons in the sky, one large, one small, where something called the Little People control the destiny of others—what meaning could it have anyway?”

The Little People, introduced slowly, will become increasingly important.

Pages 440 to 610 were the most exciting. Aomame acquires a loaded gun, and intends to use it, and Tengo (in a separate storyline) has sex. This entire 170-page section is constantly tense and revelatory. The plot twists, and we realise the world is entirely different, and more connected, than we were led to believe. Everything clicks into place.

Imagine the thrilling feeling of the 2-minute Changeover scene in Fight Club, maintained for 170 pages. I’ve never been so gripped by a book before. Haruki Murakami is a genius.

Despite the alternate-world, telekinesis, double-moon fantasy world in which most of the story takes place, there are some repeated reminders that everyday life is still happening in 1Q84: a rubber plant (on Aomame’s old balcony), her breasts (being small and of different sizes) and the NHK fee-collectors (knocking furiously at people’s doors) are mentioned briefly, throughout the story dozens of times.

From the furthest perspective, 1Q84 is a book about two childhood lovers (Aomame and Tengo) being pulled closer together via alternate worlds and some highly unforgettable characters. Maybe the Little People pulled them together? ★★★★★

Films I Watched in May 2012

Self-explanatory. Six words each.
  1. Das Leben der Anderen — Renegade spy saves lives in USSR.
  2. Elephant White — Bangkok is a mess. Don’t go.
  3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — Book’s about Asperger’s. Film’s about family.
  4. Fight Club — Change your life via schizophrenic hallucination.
  5. Rogue — Giant crocodile leaves tourists stranded. Aaagh!
  6. Trust — Always understand technology better than children.

Click here for more 6-word reviews.

Films I Watched in April 2012

Here are the films I’ve watched in April, 2012 neatly summarized in six words.
  1. Beyond Reasonable Doubt (2009) – journalist sets up rogue Michael Douglas
  2. Butterfly on a Wheel – jealousy triggers life-shattering revenge stunt
  3. Cool It – Bjørn Lomborg balances polarized climate debate
  4. London Avenue – these Londoners know something I don’t
  5. Miracle at St Anna – delightful trilingual WW2 movie with love
  6. Puss in Boots – distasteful shallow stupid fake Shrek movie
  7. Stranger than Fiction – boring rendition of Fight Club‘s story
  8. Unser Täglich Brot – beautiful footage of mass food production
  9. War Horse — horse survives both sides of WW2

Book: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion

I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The average eBook review is one-and-a-half stars lower than the average hardback review. The paperback version would probably therefore earn four of jameskennedybeijing's stars instead of three.

Lesson: How to recognize cults.
Thesis: Cults are everywhere and they’re mostly beneficial.
304 pages, ★★★ (probably four stars in paperback)

Cults” is an inaccurate title. This book instead refers consistently to “charismatic groups” with flattering prejudice as the nomenclature suggests. The author mostly analyses “Moonies”, the People’s Temple and Alcoholics Anonymous. Admittedly, it seems inappropriate to lump the outrageous (Moonies), the demonic (People’s Temple) and a recovery group (AA) under one category. The thesis of “Cults” is that cults are everywhere and they’re not all bad.

According to page 4, for a group to qualify as a “cult” (or, “charismatic group), it must:

  1. have a shared belief system
  2. have a high level of social cohesiveness
  3. are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioral norms
  4. impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Using the definitions outlined in this book, I could qualify just about any group as a cult. Using these definitions, the Armed Forces, Scientology, Goldman Sachs, Catholicism, Apple, the Hell’s Angels and book clubs all qualify as “charismatic groups” too. And they’re not all bad.

The University of Cambridge, too, satisfies all the four requirements of a “charismatic group”:

  1. they believe they are better than non-Cambridge people, and a high grade will bring satisfaction (a high salary, a PhD, etc.);
  2. they are extremely cliquey;
  3. they have “formal hall”, “bops”, “balls” and other strange rituals found nowhere else;
  4. they boastfully impute charismatic power onto themselves (but not to the leadership).

In my view, universities are definitely “charismatic groups”. When approaching the end of their educational railroad (high-school, graduation, etc.), students panic and apply for a continuation of the same meaningfulness that their old schools used to provide. These people go on to study BA, masters, a second masters, a PhD, and so on. They love the titles, the rituals and the sense of purpose these educational ladder-rungs (and their diplomas) give them. I read Cults book to understand this phenomenon.

The book tells us that charismatic groups (such as universities) provide a “set meal” of meaning to people who lack it. People are likely to turn to such groups when at a “nadir” resulting from sickness or trauma (see my Fight Club review) and embrace the spiritual element that such groups provide them. Surveys show, like the protagonist of Fight Club, that most people try many different groups before settling into one.

Charismatic groups are like spiritual buses: they take you close to your destination, even if it’s not exactly where you wanted to be. The best places are off the spiritual bus-routes, so the last part of the spiritual journey involves leaving the “charismatic group” and going alone.

It teaches you not how to recognize and avoid “charismatic groups”, but how to recognise and use “charismatic groups” safely. Give this book to help anyone who’s been brainwashed and it’ll help them start thinking for themselves. ★★★

Book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Irrelevant compared to Fight Club.
214 pages, ★★★

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, civilisation on Earth has been almost completely destroyed by a combination of nuclear war and excessive consumerism. Some people have emigrated to colonise other planets. Among those who are left on Earth is protagonist Rick Deckard, who is given the task of retiring six Nexus-6 androids.

Most anti-consumerist books and movies are set in a dystopian future, rather than a dystopian present. I believe in the message of these books but disagree that setting them in the future is the best way to deliver that message.

“God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” — Fight Club

Depicting a future consumerist hell doesn’t deliver the message hard enough to anybody. Present-day readers will learn that they should change their behaviour for the benefit of future generations. They will also accept the subtly-implied notion that our present-day level of white-collar slavery is somehow acceptable. Yet, future readers will have already witnessed history diverge from the trajectory predicted in the book (particularly in the tiniest, usually technological, details), and they thus see only an irrelevant, hypothetical message, rather than a perfectly apt warning to change their current lives. Futuristic books and movies like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep soften the anti-consumerist blow.

In Fight Club, the protagonist gave up his sedentary, repetitive, alienating and socially-destructive office job to embark on a journey of self-discovery. He believed there was something more important to life than being a “slave with a white collar”. Read my review here. ★★★

Book: Instant Turnaround

He wanted to write Fight Club but started too late.
151 pages, ★

The same office boredom that spawned such classics as Fight Club (and, even, The Office), has been wasted on Instant Turnaround. Its authors were presented with the time and space to let their imaginations run wild… and all we got was a description of their immediate surroundings.

I already wrote this book in middle school. On a rainy afternoon in Ysgol Gyfun Aberaeron, we had to write a spontaneous story to test our imagination and creative skills in an assessed English assignment. Being me, I wrote exactly that: that I was in middle school on a rainy afternoon trying to think of a topic for my English assignment. The teacher was less than impressed, and said, “This has been done at least once before, and I’m no more impressed this time than I was the last.” And I feel about this book how my teacher felt about that test: bored, disappointed, appalled.

Who would read this? Nobody, because the authors have nothing to share except for the fact that they have nothing to share. Instant Turnaround has reinforced my detest for 12-hour days in a stuffy office, for fear that I’ll turn into author and run out of stories to tell my grandchildren before they’re even born.

One of these authors, in his cornflower-blue tie, felt so weak as to need to write ‘PhD’ after his family name. Technically, I have a PhD credential, too. I just keep it secret.

Book: Fight Club

Biblical scripture. Enlightenment.
209 pages, ★ 

Fight Club has already been the subject of extensive philosophical, cultural, psychological and literary analysis, because it carries enough metaphors to allow readers to see entirely what they want to see. It’s convenient that the protagonist has no name, because for most readers, it’s actually a prophecy about some repressed part of the reader. We step into the protagonist’s shoes. I therefore saw this book as an introverted salaryman’s enlightenment because, secretly, that’s what I needed in my life.

For years before reading this, I craved the boring office-job of the protagonist. Long hours, photocopiers, fax machines, coffee, suits with cornflower-blue ties and a £24,000 pay-check were the natural fate of Cambridge graduates (in Deloitte or Accenture… does anyone know what those companies actually do?)

Fight Club was, in part, the encouragement I needed to throw that away without knowing what would replace it. And it paid off in every respect: I work less, earn more, am happier and healthier than the corporate monkeys that walked out of Cambridge with good grades. I got the worst grades in my class, but, one year later, am without doubt earning more than all of them, dollar-for-dollar. I feel liberated.

Remember that this is half a book. The whole point is that it ends at a nadir, from which point on (presuming you’ve been acting out Project Mayhem in your own life), it’s up to you to steer your newly-worthless life in a direction of your choosing. It would be against the book’s revolutionary nature to impose a “happy ending”, or vision of what success looks like for the protagonist. All Fight Club does is demonstrate how to destroy what you’ve got, leaving you with, “a white canvas upon which the most beautiful words can be written”, as Chairman Mao once said. It’s a scary ride, but I recommend this book (and its associated lifestyle) for anyone who’s considering a career in a suit.

Fight Club is so pumped full of quotable lines (or “Tweets”) that it was almost designed to be made into a film. Of course, perfectly, it was.