Category Archives: Personal Development

don't start with "at least…"

WSJ 4/10/2020By Jessie Stuart

A friend posted on Facebook that her son’s college had closed for the rest of the year: “He and his friends are devastated.” I scrolled down to the comments. “At least he’s not a senior!” someone offered. “My daughter will never get to go back to campus.”

Later I read a tweet from a stranger about how he still had to go to work as a garbageman and was scared he’d get sick on the job. Someone replied: “At least you still have a job, man.”

With the coronavirus shaking the world and forcing us into isolation, I’ve found myself reflecting on how the things we say can bring us closer together or drive us further apart. As a physician, I’ve received training in the art of empathic communication. The job is defined by people coming to us with “complaints,” which we navigate and support them through. I’m still in training and have a lot to learn, but one lesson that’s stuck with me is that it is never helpful to start a sentence with “At least . . .”

We’ve all said it. The intention is almost always good. I can imagine someone reading the garbageman’s tweet thinking it could be helpful— comforting, even—to remind him how lucky he is. It doesn’t work that way.

One of my favorite speakers on this subject is Brené Brown, a professor of social work who has spent the past two decades studying empathy. In her talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” she says: “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic statement start with ‘At least.’ . . . Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Ms. Brown’s words came to mind recently as I was staffing the oncology service at the hospital where I work as a resident. A patient, recently diagnosed with leukemia, was there for chemotherapy, which, as it killed her cancer, was also destroying her immune system. The patient lay in bed watching CNN report new coronavirus statistics.

“How could this be happening now?” she said. “I have no immune system. I’ll be the first to go.” She turned to us, her breathing heavy. “I’m just—I’m paralyzed with fear.” No answer could allay her concerns.

A colleague was the first to speak: “I can only imagine how scared you’re feeling right now. It’s unfair that you’re dealing with leukemia and now this. I don’t know what the future holds, but we’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Her response wasn’t perfect, but that’s the point. It’s impossible to relate to the precise circumstances that is causing someone distress. Yet we’ve all felt despair. It’s OK— and even helpful—to admit that you can’t imagine what someone is going through. But you can tell her you care and you’ll be with her through it all.

It can be hard as a doctor to keep my “empathy tank” full. I’ve had bad days when I diagnose a 25year-old with a terminal illness, and later find I have trouble caring when a friend calls to complain about a snack-stealing roommate. I worry that the coronavirus era will strain our collective ability for empathy, but I also have hope that we will rise to the challenge.

On tough days, I find it helpful to pause, take a deep breath, and let myself be present for the person in distress. Sometimes we have to silence the small voice in our head that says, “At least you weren’t diagnosed with a horrible disease today”—or “At least you still have a job.” Whether suffering is big or small, it’s all-consuming and it isn’t relative.

Dr. Stuart is a resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston


Billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s best advice

This one is for my children. This is good, good advice.

Berkshire Hathaway CEO and self-made billionaire Warren Buffett turned 89 on Friday, August 30. He’s also celebrating his 13th wedding anniversary with his wife, Astrid.

In honor of the Oracle of Omaha’s big day, CNBC Make It rounded up seven of his best pieces of life advice.

Marry the right person

1 Buffett made his fortune through smart investing, but if you ask him about the most important decision he ever made, it would have nothing to do with money. The biggest decision of your life, Buffett says, is who you choose to marry.

“You want to associate with people who are the kind of person you’d like to be. You’ll move in that direction,” he said during a 2017 conversation with Bill Gates. “And the most important person by far in that respect is your spouse. I can’t overemphasize how important that is.”

It’s advice he’s been giving for years. As he said at the 2009 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting: “Marry the right person. I’m serious about that. It will make more difference in your life. It will change your aspirations, all kinds of things.”

Premium: Warren Buffett Astrid Menks 20120312

Warren Buffett and his wife Astrid Buffett arrive to a state dinner hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obam at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 14, 2012.Andrew Harrer | Getty Images

Invest in yourself

“By far the best investment you can make is in yourself,” Buffett told Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer earlier this year.

First, “learn to communicate better both in writing and in person. ” Honing that skill can increase your value by at least 50%, he said in a Facebook video posted in 2018.

Next, take care of your body and mind — especially when you’re young. “If I gave you a car, and it’d be the only car you get the rest of your life, you would take care of it like you can’t believe. Any scratch, you’d fix that moment, you’d read the owner’s manual, you’d keep a garage and do all these things,” he said. “You get exactly one mind and one body in this world, and you can’t start taking care of it when you’re 50. By that time, you’ll rust it out if you haven’t done anything.”By far the best investment you can make is in yourself.Warren BuffettBerkshire Hathaway CEO

Associate yourself with ‘high-grade people’

Who you associate with matters, Buffett told author Gillian Zoe Segal in an interview for her 2015 book, “Getting There: A Book of Mentors.”  “One of the best things you can do in life is to surround yourself with people who are better than you are,” he said.

If you’re around what he calls “high-grade people,” you’ll start acting more like them. Conversely, “If you hang around with people who behave worse than you, pretty soon you’ll start being pulled in that direction. That’s just the way it seems to work.”

Work for people you respect

“Try to work for whomever you admire most,” Buffett told Segal. “It won’t necessarily be the job that you’ll have 10 years later, but you’ll have the opportunity to pick up so much as you go along.”

While salary is an important factor when thinking about your career, “You don’t want to take a job just for the money,” said Buffett.

He once accepted a job with his mentor and hero, Benjamin Graham, without even asking about the salary. “I found that out at the end of the month when I got my paycheck,” he said.

Premium: Benjamin Graham investment advisor 550311

Benjamin Graham in 1955Bettmann | Getty Images

Ignore the noise

Investing can get emotional, and it doesn’t help that you can see how you’re doing throughout the day by checking a stock ticker or turning on the news.

But no one can be certain which way the financial markets are going to move. The best strategy, even when the market seems to be tanking, is to keep a level head and stay the course, Buffett says.

“I don’t pay any attention to what economists say, frankly,” he said in 2016. “If you look at the whole history of [economists], they don’t make a lot of money buying and selling stocks, but people who buy and sell stocks listen to them. I have a little trouble with that.”

Success isn’t measured by money

Buffett is consistently one of the richest people in the world, but he doesn’t use wealth as a measure of success. For him, it all boils down to if the people you’re closest to love you.

“Being given unconditional love is the greatest benefit you can ever get,” Buffett told MBA students in a 2008 talk.

“The incredible thing about love is that you can’t get rid of it. If you try to give it away, you end up with twice as much, but if you try to hold onto it, it disappears. It is an extraordinary situation, where the people who just absolutely push it out, get it back tenfold.”

Don’t miss: 11 of Warren Buffett’s funniest and most frugal quirks

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A Sumptuous Painting Surrounded by Stories – WSJ

Sounds like what my “Art Salon” is all about!


There is plenty of speculation about the unknown sitter’s identity in Titian’s glittering ‘Portrait of a Lady in White,’ a work that flaunts the artist’s technical skills.

Sometimes the stories and speculations that surround works of art can deflect from our interest in the work itself. That’s certainly true of Titian’s glittering “Portrait of a Lady in White” (c. 1561), currently in Southern California on loan to Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum from the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) of Germany’s Dresden State Art Collections—home to some of the world’s best-known old master paintings. The lady’s enigmatic glance and lavish, yet monochrome, attire provide ample excuse for conjecture as to both her identity and the assertively rhyming nature of her costume. It’s unusual to have a catalog for a single-painting exhibition, but this one is exceptionally rich in resources for information about the canvas’s history, travels and recent conservation, as well as details about the sitter’s costume, jewelry and possible identity.

‘Portrait of a Lady in White’ (c. 1561), by Titian
‘Portrait of a Lady in White’ (c. 1561), by Titian Photo: Elke Estel/ Hans-Peter Klut

Born around 1488/90, Tiziano Vecellio, known to us as Titian, was apprenticed as a youth to Venice’s most eminent painters, the brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and by the time of his death during the 1576 plague epidemic he had spent years as the most internationally acclaimed of many great Venetian Renaissance artists. This portrait is among Titian’s late works, and there is documentary evidence suggesting that this is the same painting the artist sent to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, in 1561. When August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, purchased a hundred works from the Este Collection in 1746, the “Lady in White” was included, and it is already listed in the elector’s paintings catalog of 1765. The work remained in Dresden until 1945, when it was among the art taken to Moscow by the Soviets, who returned it to Dresden, then part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), in 1955.

The depiction of such an elegant lady inevitably leads to speculation as to her identity, and there have been suggestions that she was a model, a courtesan, or one of the artist’s daughters. Moreover, there had been two versions of the work—the presumably slightly earlier one, sent to Philip II of Spain in 1559, is long lost and now known only via a 1628/29 copy by Rubens (now in Vienna). As the Gemäldegalerie’s curator of Italian painting, Andreas Henning, writes in the catalog, the fact that Titian not only painted the same subject twice, but “took up the same model…in various other paintings, clearly shows that the woman portrayed is not seen as much as a real person as an ideal.”

That appears evident to this viewer, based on the various lyrical effects that coalesce to give this painting its impact. Despite eyes that peer forcefully to the viewer’s right, the lady’s beauty doesn’t suggest anything much about her personality. The red lips, rosy cheeks and finely plucked eyebrows could serve as an ad for a cosmetics company. Even the gossamer covering of the lady’s shoulders and décolletage seems primarily about Titian’s painting virtuosity; the lack of tension on the decorative lacing across the front of her corset tells us that the artist has only the faintest interest in visually defining her bust. Rubens’s copy of the lost, slightly earlier, version shows no such restraint, as he manages to slightly emphasize the contours of her bosom and dangles a gemstone pendant between her breasts. Was this a characteristic “Rubenesque” interpretation or was Titian’s earlier now-lost version also a tad racier?

Discussions as to whether the lavish white dress might be wedding attire seem beside the point. This is a visual feast replete with generous servings of old-fashioned visual rhymes. The pearl hairband, earrings and necklace rhyme with the fabric puffs at the top of her left sleeve and continue on the ruching of the bodice. The gold bracelets rhyme with the bits of gold thread and the lady’s golden hair, and even the clearly delineated gold that holds the left earring’s pearl, and the gold ring on her left hand. The deep red stone in that ring, in turn, rhymes with the lady’s red lips and paler red cheeks, fading into the barely palpable rose tone of her face and bodice. The flag/fan she holds appears in other paintings of the time, but it’s also suggestive of the lily held by the archangel Gabriel in Annunciation paintings; in those works, Gabriel generally displays minimal affect, in contrast with the Virgin, and that’s how this lady appears as well.

This may not be the earliest painting that suggests an intoxication with the challenge of painting gorgeous satin. But surely Titian was flinging down a gauntlet that was picked up with great panache in the 17th century by a range of artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Ter Borch and others, vying for the most dazzling displays of that fabric. These effects remained a staple of show-off portraiture through the 18th and 19th centuries. Both Whistler and Sargent, for example, were challenged in wholly different ways by painting ladies in white dresses. An art wag’s hybrid of Sigmund Freud and Frank Stella might pronounce that “sometimes a painting is just a painting.” In the case of Titian’s “Portrait of a Lady in White,” we can only respond, “But oh, what a painting!”


Not to Late to Quit Social Media – Cal Newport

Should be required reading for all. [As in ‘everyone’].
WSJ 1/26/2019
by By Kate Bachelder Odell

Americans may not agree on much, but here’s one point of consensus: Social media isn’t entirely wonderful. Facebook has its privacy scandals, and who would join Twitter for the camaraderie? This week an ugly online mob demonstrated the point by setting upon a group of boys on a field trip to Washington from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School.

“Because I don’t have any social-media accounts,” says Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer scientist, “my encounter with the Covington Catholic controversy was much different than most people’s.” He read about it days later, in a newspaper column. “I learned that the social-media reaction had been incendiary and basically everyone was now upset at each other, at themselves, at technology itself. It sounded exhausting.”

Mr. Newport, 36, appreciated the downsides of social media sooner than most. In 2010 he published “An Argument for Quitting Facebook,” a blog post that came with a graphic of the “deactivate account” function on an amusingly out-of-date Facebook version. “Technologies are great,” he wrote, “but if you want to keep control of your time and attention,” you should “insist that they earn their keep before you make them a regular part of your life.” He has been proselytizing against social media ever since. His book on the subject, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” hits stores (and e-readers) next month.

He has never had a social-media account. (“It turns out that this is allowed,” he once joked on his blog.) But he noticed that social media seemed to impair others’ ability to concentrate—an essential skill for professional and personal success. “Right around the transition to mobile” from desktop computers, he tells me, he observed that for many people a passing interest in social media was morphing into “compulsive use.”

“Old social media was a much slower-moving medium,” he says. “You would maybe update your profile occasionally. So if you went on to check what your friends were up to in the morning, there would be no reason to check in the afternoon. Nothing had changed.”

Then came the smartphone—a pocket-size supercomputer that travels everywhere. Social media became a ubiquitous presence. That suited the commercial interests of social-media companies, which “couldn’t triple or quadruple the user-engagement numbers if people log on Monday just to see if someone is back from vacation.” They needed to reel users back in. “And this is where you get the rise of, let’s say, the ‘like’ button or tagging photos,” or retweets and heart buttons—what Mr. Newport calls “small indicators of approval.”

These created “a much richer stream of information coming back to the user,” which proved seductive: “Now you have a reason to click the app again an hour later.” The reinforcement is all the more insidious for being intermittent. Sometimes you’re rewarded for checking in, sometimes you’re frustrated. “It just short-circuits the dopamine system,” Mr. Newport says—which feeds the compulsion. He likens using social media at work to “having a slot machine at your desk.”

Facebook introduced a feature that recognizes faces in photos and encourages users to tag their friends. “That’s a really hard computer-science problem,” Mr. Newport says. “Why would you spend millions of dollars to try to master that problem?” Because, he maintains, it’s another indicator of approval that lures users back to the site.

Mr. Newport says he used to write “earnest” blog posts asking readers what he was missing by not having social media, and he “couldn’t get a straight answer,” aside from the question-begging one that he might miss something. But in recent years skepticism has been growing. Facebook is on the defensive, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg offering reassurances like “I believe everyone should have a voice and be able to connect.”

Yet all those voices can add up to a grating din, as in the Covington Catholic fracas. “Is anyone better off for having wasted hours and hours of time this past week exhaustively engaging half-formed back-and-forth yelling on social media?” Mr. Newport asks. It sounds like a rhetorical question, but then he answers it: “On reflection, the answer is yes for one group in particular: the executives at the giant social-media conglomerates, who sucked up all those extra ‘user engagement’ minutes like an oil tycoon who just hit a gusher.”

Political engagement, however, is a mixed blessing for social-media companies. Mr. Newport says public skepticism reached critical mass “about six months after the presidential election.” Everyone had something to dislike: “If you’re more on the left, it was the election manipulation; if you’re more on the right, it was these stories about ‘Are we being censored?’ ” he says.

Those complaints brought to the surface deeper sources of dissatisfaction. “When I talk to people now who are very distressed about their digital life,” Mr. Newport says, “it’s not those original political things that they care about. It’s not that ‘I don’t like what Russia did in the election’; it’s, ‘I’m on this more than is useful, more than is healthy. It’s keeping me from my kids, It’s keeping me from my friends. It’s keeping me from things I used to enjoy. I think it’s hurting the quality of my life.’ ”

In hindsight, Mr. Newport says, “we should have been more wary about this idea” of taking human sociality—“incredibly powerful and shaped by a million years of evolution”—and allowing 22-year-olds in California to reinvent it.

So what now? Mr. Newport laments that everyone “writes the same article” with tips for turning off notifications or some such. “This is not working.” What people need, he thinks, is “a full-fledged philosophy” of how to use technology. About a year ago Mr. Newport invited his blog’s readers to participate in an experiment he called a “digital declutter.”

The prescription: Take a month off from all digital technologies you don’t absolutely have to use—including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even casual texting with friends. Spend the days figuring out what you’d like to do with your time. At the end of the experiment, resume technologies only to the extent that they’re the best way to accomplish something you value deeply.

A couple hundred readers sent Mr. Newport detailed reports. One theme he noticed is that time online had crowded out activities like joining a church committee or a running club. Mr. Newport calls them “analog social media,” an amusing retronym. But he isn’t being cheeky. He says people had failed to realize the extent to which the internet “had subtly pushed the analog leisure they used to like out of their life.”

Human beings “crave high-quality leisure,” he says, but they can do without it “if you can fill every moment with distraction.” When the digital declutterers regained time to cook or see close friends, “they essentially lost their taste” for staring at the screen and scrolling.

When I meet Mr. Newport, I’m on Day 17 of my own declutter experiment. Facebook was the easiest platform to dump. I’d already stopped posting and visited only occasionally, mostly—this is embarrassing—to keep up with a group run by my dog’s breeder, where other owners post photos of their dogs.

Mr. Newport says I’m not unusual. “Man, I’m glad I don’t own their stock,” he says. “They’re worth a lot of money,” he allows, but they seem to have “a very weak connection to their user base. It’s a much more fickle user base than they probably want to admit. Because people—I get this experience all the time—people are fine walking away from it. They’re really indifferent.” That may be less true of other Facebook-owned services like Instagram, which I’ve found tough to ditch, or WhatsApp.

How about Twitter? For journalists, it’s an office water cooler, except that everyone yells. It can also be a valuable tool for gathering news. “Everyone I know in media is having this exact same crisis with Twitter,” Mr. Newport says. “It’s either ‘Burn it to the ground’ or ‘It’s at the core of what I do,’ and they’re not sure.” Mr. Newport advises outlets to have entry-level employees monitor Twitter rather than let the site sap the entire staff’s productivity.

Though in his day job Mr. Newport writes technical works like the 2018 paper “Fault-Tolerant Consensus With an Abstract MAC Layer,” he’s been at the self-improvement game for a while. He started out writing books about how students could stand out in high school and college. His career followed his interests as he progressed from graduate student to professor and wondered why some people thrive professionally and others don’t. That led to his career-advice books, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “Deep Work.”

The latter takes aim at another technology that corrodes the ability to focus: corporate email. “We sort of gambled on this idea that the key to productivity is going to be faster and more flexible communication,” Mr. Newport says. “At any moment we can have fast and flexible communication with anyone on earth.” Yet productivity has hardly budged. “It’s actually probably going down.”

The statistics, he says, fail to “capture the sort of secret second shifts that people are doing at night and on the weekends just to try to catch up.” It turns out that “focusing on fast and flexible communication—my argument is—didn’t make us more productive.” Instead, “it made our brains much, much less effective at the actual work.”

To illustrate the point, he sometimes cites an interview with Jerry Seinfeld. “Let me tell you why my TV series in the ’90s was so good,” the comedian said. “In most TV series, 50% of the time is spent working on the show; 50% of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We”—he and Larry David—“spent 99% of our time writing. Me and Larry. The door was closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”

To have an excellent career, Mr. Newport argues, you need periods of uninterrupted concentration to produce work of unambiguous value. Many jobs lack a clear measure of value, so that employees treat “busyness as a proxy for productivity” and let email distract them from real work.

Yet as with social media, the thought of giving up email stirs a fear of missing out. Some may protest—as I did—that if they quit Instagram they’ll lose track of old friends. Mr. Newport replies that “this idea that it’s important to maintain hundreds or thousands of weak-tie connections” is recent and untested. “I can’t see any great evidence that this is important to have.” And it can keep you from “investing more time into the types of relationships that have defined human sociology for centuries, which are close friends, family members and community.”

Fewer people “will send you a digital happy-birthday note,” he concedes. “But that’s about it.”

Mrs. Odell is an editorial writer for the Journal.

Appeared in the January 26, 2019, print edition.