Review: From Strength to Strength

Devote the back half of your life to serving others with your wisdom. Get old sharing the things you believe are most important. Excellence is always its own reward, and this is how you can be most excellent as you age.

Arthur C. Brooks

How do you ensure you don’t get the most out of aging well: cultivate gratitude, practice compassion, build relationships, and create beauty. I love the simplicity and truth of that.

In “From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life,” Arthur Brooks addresses a common problem faced by many successful individuals (who he calls “strivers”) as they enter the second half of their lives.

Yes, but I’m 46, should I care about this? Well, yes, according to most research I’m past my professional prime. In the world of tech/science the most common age for producing a magnum opus is the late 30s. The likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s 20s and 30s and then declines through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s. Research shows that the likelihood of producing a major innovation at age 70 is approximately what it was at age 20—almost nonexistent.

My brand is innovation and innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating.

Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

Careers that rely primarily on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60.

No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.

This book underscores the tragedy of “peaking early” and failing to grow and adjust to life’s stages. But this is the lot of the striver. There will be a point where worldly accomplishment diminishes or even stops. What happens then when the most difficult task is the daily struggle with a sense of failure and despondency.

To address this issue, Brooks suggests that it is necessary for individuals to find a deep purpose in their second half of life. This can be achieved through the cultivation of gratitude, the practice of compassion, the building of relationships, and the creation of beauty. By focusing on these actions, individuals can find a sense of fulfillment and purpose that will carry them through the second half of life and enable them to finish well.

One of the most compelling aspects of Brooks’ book is his emphasis on the importance of gratitude. He argues that cultivating gratitude allows individuals to find joy and purpose in their lives, even in the midst of challenges and setbacks. By focusing on the things we are thankful for, we can find meaning and fulfillment that is not dependent on external circumstances or accomplishments.

But gratitude is empty without the practice of compassion. By seeking to understand and care for others, we can find a sense of purpose and meaning that goes beyond our own individual accomplishments. Brooks makes it clear that this can be especially meaningful in the second half of life, as it allows us to contribute to the greater good and make a positive impact on the world around us.

In addition to cultivating gratitude and practicing compassion, Brooks also emphasizes the importance of building relationships. He argues that strong relationships with others can provide us with a sense of belonging and purpose that is essential for a fulfilling life. By investing in these relationships and seeking to connect with others, we can find meaning and joy in the second half of our lives.

Finally, Brooks suggests that creating beauty is another key way in which individuals can find purpose and meaning in the second half of life. Whether through art, music, or other creative endeavors, the act of creating beauty or building beautiful things allows us to connect with something greater than ourselves and find a sense of fulfillment and joy.

Winston Churchill Painting as a Pastime

On a personal note, I have to contrast Brooks message with the story of the apostle Paul. Writing from prison, he emphasized the importance of pressing on towards the goal and finishing his course. However, this is not a problem unique to Paul, as many people struggle with a sense of failure and despondency in the second half of life. What would Paul think of the danger of peaking in one’s career between the ages of 30 and 50, and the potential for a sense of failure and despondency in the latter half of life.

Brooks suggests that in order to avoid this sense of failure, it is necessary for individuals to find a deep purpose in their second half of life. Paul would say it is also important for individuals to recognize that their identity should not be solely based on their accomplishments or successes. Instead, our identity should be rooted in our relationship with God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. This allows us to find a sense of purpose and meaning that is not dependent on our external circumstances or accomplishments.

I also found wisdom from a completely different angle: the varnasrama system of Hinduism which splits up our lives into four distinct stages, each happening every 20-25 years—with vanaprastha (वनप्रस्थ) being the all-important third stage.

After our youthful first stage (“figure out who I am”), in our early-20s we move to a second stage (“prove yourself”) that lasts until we are about 50 years of age. In the second stage, we are driven by the pursuit of pleasure, sex, money, and accomplishments. But by the third stage (“give back”), at around age 50, we begin to pull back from a focus on professional and social advancement. Instead, we become more interested in spirituality and faith.

The important transition is from stage 2 to 3, which typically occurs around age 50, can be difficult for many people, especially in Western societies, where there is often a strong emphasis on professional and social advancement. According to Arthur C. Brooks, this transition is important because it can lead to increased happiness and contentment, as well as better physical health. Additionally, as people age, they tend to become wiser, with greater ability to combine and express complex ideas, interpret the ideas of others, and use the knowledge they have gained throughout their lives. This “crystallized intelligence” can be put to good use by sharing wisdom with others and becoming more devoted to spiritual growth. It is important to let go of the things that once defined us in the eyes of the world and embrace this new stage of life in order to truly thrive in the latter half of adulthood. In summary, the older we get, the better we get at:

  • Combining and using complex ideas and expressing them to others
  • Interpreting the ideas others have (even if we didn’t create them ourselves)
  • Using the knowledge we have gained during our lives

As we approach the finish line of our journey, it is essential that we strive to finish well. This involves finding a deep purpose in the second half of life, cultivating gratitude, practicing compassion, building relationships, and creating beauty. By doing so, we can navigate the challenges and winds of life with a focus on the ultimate goal of glorifying God and finishing our course with joy and purpose.

“From Strength to Strength” is a thought-provoking and insightful book that offers valuable insights and strategies for finding success, happiness, and deep purpose in the second half of life. Whether you are just entering this phase of your journey or are well into the second half, this book offers valuable guidance and encouragement for navigating the challenges and winds of life with a focus on the ultimate goal of finishing well.

Christian perspective on Work

I pulled this content out of a longer post meant for a more general audience.

The Bible is clear that God created us to labor. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Genesis 1:28). God designed us for action–to exert energy and employ skill to produce goods for human flourishing. This was all before sin when God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Work is not a result of the curse! Even the description for woman’s creation was to be “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18), a helper for what? We don’t need much help relaxing. The exhortation here is to use, not squander, the energy we are given daily through food and rest, to accomplish his mission — the work — he gave us to do in the world. For us, such work is a central aspect of what it means to be human.

Now would this pre-sin work have been free of pain? That is a hard one, but the work we have now is clearly intertwined with pain. Immediately post Adam’s fall, God curses the creation, and he also curses our work:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you. . . . By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread. (Genesis 3:17–19)

So our work is simultaneously good and cursed. While we hunger for creation to be set free from its bondage to corruption, I’m convicted that a future in heaven will not be characterized by sitting around doing nothing, but more by freedom to work and move and expend ourselves in joy, finally unencumbered by the curse.

Paul loves to talk about work and effort. He tells us that some in the church were idle, refusing to work — waiting, they claimed, for Christ’s imminent return. Paul saw it as a spiritual-sounding covering for laziness. He put himself and Timothy forward as examples of hard work.

You remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)

We were not idle when we were with you, . . . but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thessalonians 3:7–8)

Paul not only commended hard work (Acts 20:35Romans 16:612Colossians 4:132 Timothy 2:6), but criticized the idle and lazy (1 Thessalonians 5:152 Thessalonians 3:6711Titus 1:12–13). And he was not the first. Proverbs warns against the folly of sloth (Proverbs 12:242719:15) and against the sluggard (fourteen times). Twice we read:

A little sleep, a little slumber,
     a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
     and want like an armed man. (Both Proverbs 6:10–11 and 24:33–34)

The opposite of the sluggard is the diligent (Proverbs 13:4) and upright (Proverbs 15:19). Laziness will catch up with us; it’s just a matter of time (Proverbs 6:6–1120:421:2524:30–34). Laziness makes ridiculous excuses to protect its own comforts (Proverbs 22:1326:13). Sluggards may even think (and say) they are smart and develop elaborate rationales against just doing hard work (Proverbs 26:16).

Paul tells us to work with our hands and to “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12).

Mooches and thieves alike were to find a new work ethic once they came to Christ. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). But! The Bible also talks about rest and underscores the futility of making work and end in itself.

This starts with our understanding of merit and grace. No message about work is more important (and more unique to Christianity) that the idea that work does nothing for God’s favor. Human effort and exertion have nothing to do with “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), not through our working, even our doing of God-commanded works (Romans 3:28). The Bible is so wonderfully specific here, our standing before God “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). More good stuff on this in Romans 4:4–52 Timothy 1:9Titus 3:5.

Enter rest. Christian faith itself (justification by faith alone) is the world’s greatest rest from human labor. Jesus invites “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him for his gift of rest (Matthew 11:28). It is in this rest that we then exert ourselves with remarkable, even supernatural, ambition for pouring out what energies we have for the good of others.

The desires for this work are driven by the gift of “the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit not only produces in us the faith by which we’re justified, but he gives us new hope in Christ, new desires, new inclinations, new instincts. We can then work for love, not fear. Paul says, the Spirit begins to make us “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), eager and ready to do good (2 Timothy 2:213:16–17Titus 3:1–2), devoting ourselves to acts that serve the good of others (Titus 3:814).

Ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others. The kind of people who have the Spirit of God in them. Max Weber called this “the Protestant work ethic.”

Work vs Relaxation or Why Captain Call is the Villain

Embracing hard things is important. We lift up those among us who work harder, endure more and suffer to get stronger or make the world better. But how much suck should we embrace? When is ok to relax or is choosing to relax opening the door to cowardice and weakness?

Pretty much not Relaxing

Yesterday when I was playing with my 11 year old daughter having a carefree time horsing around and I had a pang of guilt: should I be doing something harder? Of course not. It’s common wisdom that it’s good to horse around with kids and to have fun, with no specific agenda or goal. It’s necessary to be present in the moment and to enjoy oneself apart from achieving any goal. But! While it’s ok, would it be better to be push for something better? That time with my daughter, wouldn’t it be better to aim for some lesson? What if I were trying to make it more fun for her instead of just enjoying myself? The fact is that we can always do something better and can always elevate our impact — delivering more purpose, meaning and, ultimately, the potential for more joy.

The call to a life of unlimited effort is alive and well today. At MIT, all-nighters, an insane course load and failing health due to work were a badge of honor. I remember my first week, when an upper classman on crew bragged to me that she just finished a two-hour team workout that started at 5am after pulling her second consecutive all-nighter. My first thought was not sympathy, but if I had what it takes in this new environment.

It doesn’t get any easier. The professional life is a road race that puts you in constant competition. Also, you start to get a feel for the cost of your time as the demands for your money go up. A single hour of fun could alternatively provide enough money to do something significant for people you love. When I started consulting, this became much more stressful. I could turn an hour of rest into money. When you know the value of your time and can directly convert hours to dollars, it presents a real challenge. Naval Ravikant (investor, entrepreneur) writes:

“Say you value your time at $100 an hour. If you decide to spend an hour driving across town to get something, you’re effectively throwing away $100. Are you going to do that? . . . I would make a theatrical show out of throwing something in the trash or giving it to Salvation Army, rather than returning it or trying to fix it.”

Naval Ravikant

Now he famously valued his time at the start of his career at $5,000 an hour. That is a good trick to focus your priorities, but watching a sunset fall at the cost of 5K is a non-trivial decision if you think about all the good you can do with that kind of money.

The good news is that at some level, we have to sleep, relax and kick back or we die. Since we must relax, there has to be a point when is it ok, watch a movie in flight, or just sit and watch the trees blow — without it being a chance to “reflect on strategy”? Under what conditions is it ok to take a nap or waste time? Do we relax, just so we can run faster later, or do we run fast so we can relax? Put more broadly, what principles govern the balance of work and play? To what degree can we actually enjoy things without feeling guilty that we aren’t doing something harder. It’s clear to me that all meaningful things are hard, but are all hard things more meaningful than their alternative?

I’ve thought about this a lot and one of my first conclusions is to focus on what the right thing is, evaluate your current actions, and do the right thing. Always be honest, kind, just and humble. If it’s hard, do it. If it’s easy, enjoy it. This provides a lot of clarity. When riding a bike, you work hard on the up-hills and enjoy the glide on the downhills. In both cases you are completely focused and acting to reach your destination. There should be zero guilt on a pain free and enjoyable glide down hill. In that case, your optimal strategy is to enjoy the moment.

So that may be pretty easy, but what about when you pause the race, when you step away from fastest way to get somewhere? Stopping the race to enjoy the scenery will definitely cost you, but also give you something. It’s selfish to stop, breathe fresh air and be solely present in the moment, but it’s also necessary.

Yet another Optimizer hard at work

I’ve always loved how CS Lewis gets at this in the Screwtape letters. Joy is a fundamental human need and it maps closely to meaning and joy requires being present in the physical moment. He writes that the demon must prevent the “patient” from enjoying the present:

“It is far better to make them live in the Future…it is unknown to them, so that making them think about it we make them think of unrealities… it is the most completely temporal part of time- for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays” 

CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Operations Research provides an opportunity to understand how to separate the goal from the enablers. Every set of equations has an objective function: the ultimate goal, and a set of constraints that bound the ability to get the optimal answer. To understand how to balance work and relaxation, you have to answer the question of what gives life meaning. There can be many constraints on that objective function: the need to sleep, make money, stay in shape, eat food. But it’s key to keep the constraints separate from the objective. There is no benefit in dying with a six-pack or even of dying with a lot of trophies. Effort, the suck, doing hard things are all about the doing the constraints well– in order to optimize something else. What is that?

The staid reformers of the Heidelberg Catechism asked: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever. The cause and effect are so clearly bound together: act and receive. Glorifying God is work, but it’s also a joy to the believer. Enjoying God is pure rest, and is also joy. Work and rest. Suffer and enjoy. It would be so easy to stop at the first clause, but that would deny the purpose of our creation–we were created, not just to worship, but to enjoy that act. With an objective like this, the “hard things” are embraced as a means to an end. The “soft things” are there to be fully accepted, enjoyed and shared.

Worship as a chief end is not just for the Christians. “Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children,” wrote Derek Thompson in the Atlantic. “But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.” Could work itself be a valid great objective and life-purpose?

But we can dig into this more under the lens of Christianity. While the goal of life is open-ended for the non-believer, the believer is instructed to worship and obey as revealed through an honest and consistent reading of scripture. The apostle Paul emphasized his work and suffering in his descriptions of beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger (2 Corinthians 6:5). He makes it clear that life in a fallen world is not easy, and the Christian life is described as more difficult, even challenged by demonic forces. In Genesis, physical labor is cursed with friction and obstacles at every turn. And yet Christians are called to rise and face these challenges. Paul’s hardships are shown as a means for the faithful to encounter resistance and endure, not give up.

Paul, Living His Best Life Now

Christians should be the freest people on the planet to work hard because their doctrine liberates them to pour their energy, time and skill and creativity into blessing others. This is principle leading to behavior. It is a good rule to work hard, but to avoid self worth, or even identity based on that work. Conversely, rest is just another activity, and does not confer identity. Work and rest have purpose, when they seek to optimize worship and make room for joy. (I originally had about 8 more paragraphs on the Christian view of work, but pulled that out into a separate post.)

A counterpoint to Christian view is much older, the first philosophers widely considered that enjoyment itself was a valuable pursuit. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Democritus, Aristippus, and Epicurus embraced the hedonistic theory that a good life involved pleasure and you had a moral duty to make good use of your pleasures. You have a short life so you had better do what you can to enjoy living it. Aristotle thought that work made you worse because people who are too busy working don’t have the time to perform their civic duty or develop sophisticated morals. Other philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Michel Foucault believe that pleasure is essential in developing selfhood. Foucault thought that embracing pleasure was a form of expressing and developing personal freedom. Kierkegaard adopted Hegel’s view that in enjoyment the individual develops an awareness of themself as the particular individual they are.

Making pleasure a goal doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve always been skeptical of the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of something with broader meaning seems so much more important. Jordan Peterson resonates with me when he writes:

It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.

Jordan Peterson

However, this post is the result from a recent perspective from a much less holy book I read recently: Lonesome Dove a 1985 Western novel by Larry McMurtry. It’s a story of two different protagonists: one who lives life to enjoy it, Gus McCrae, in another one who lives life to work, Captain Call. Both of them are superheroes of the James Bourne type: put them in front of a pack of bandits or wild Indians and each of them are going to emerge victorious. Gus, however, is loud, talkative and willing to take in the pleasures of life. Capt Call works from sun up until dark and steadily leads a motley bunch of cowboys and former bandits. In the end, however, he is ultimately a coward, using work to hide his pain. His son doesn’t know who his father is, and Capt Call is too afraid or ashamed to tell him. Even worse, his absence of vulnerability prevents him from experiencing joy and developing friendships.

Two Heros?

Several scenes show his power. When his son is threatened by a solider who wants to take a horse, Capt Call easily beats the solider senseless. He endures all manner of hardship to honor a promise and take his friend’s body back to Texas. The natural opinion is to see Gus and Capt Call as a powerful pair who match each other’s weaknesses. The two of them together form the power of their team and their friendship appears to be the bond that keeps the group together.

After more thought, I’m convicted that Capt Call is the villain of the whole story. He has all the appearances of strength, but when it matters he is a coward, unwilling to be happy and willing to embrace the full potential of life. Gus, by contrast, exhibits a deplorable set of values. He treats woman as objects, is an open racist, lacks empathy and is prone towards physical violence. He leaves broken lives in his wake and, worst of all, is oblivious to the pain he causes from his selfish pursuit of pleasure. Some of this is excused by his era and the hard nature of his life. And there is no doubting that he is a clear hero–willing to risk his life to help and save others. He also has an endearing sense of humor. What truly makes him great is his embrace of life. He is willing to work, but he doesn’t serve work. Work is a constraint, not an objective in itself and none of this diminishes his strength.

So what life do you want to live: One more like Gus or one like Capt Call? I want to have hard, fulfilling work, that is seasoned with much joy. I want to have the courage to do the hard things that need doing, but to also have the wisdom to put effort in it’s proper place. I’m very deliberate and intentional about the roles I have: worshiper, husband, father, worker, citizen. I want to do all those things with honor. Really doing those right, especially the first three, requires a copious amount of joy and grace. My children are best served by remembering a dad who was quick to laugh, serve and wait for them, than a dad who was always after optimizing his personal output, growth and accomplishment. Relationships are formed in trust and shared joys and the roles I list are successful only in the context of deeply effective relationships.

All this said, what do I do? First, keep the goal separate from the constraints. The most critical thing for me is to be clear on the goal. I divide the goals into roles. As a living being (health goals), worshiper (spiritual goals), husband, father, worker, and citizen. I picture the life I want to have and the contributions I want to make. I write these down and review them during my daily journaling. Well set goals, shared with your community, provide peace. You can either rest or adjust your goals. They force you to prioritize and decide. The goals you agree not to do are just as important as the goals you decide to pursue. And this is a very iterative process for me. I’m constantly adjusting and learning what I can and can’t do as well as what I should and shouldn’t be doing. Time audits/journaling and sharing your goals with others provide the ideal feedback mechanism.

The constraints are just as meaningful as the goals as they become your personal set of rules. I love this WSJ article from 2015. In that article, Jennifer Wallace writes that “personal policies”

Personal policies are an established set of simple rules that guide your decisions and actions. On the surface, they offer a gentler way of saying no, as in: “I don’t take work calls on Saturdays because that’s my time with family.” On a deeper level, they encourage reflection, help to define priorities and aid decision-making, especially with in-the-moment requests. They can stop you from defaulting to that regretful “yes.”

A Policy of Saying ‘No’ Can Save You Time and Guilt by Jennifer Breheny Wallace

These are also connected to what James Clear writes about identity based habits and Ray Dalio in principles. Rules like: “I don’t swear”, “I go to bed at 10pm” or “I exercise every day” become the type of constraints that form what you get done in life. They should all be tied to specific goals. They make the decisions that lead toward successful completion of goals easy. Just like goals, they require a system that evaluates them. I also have found that community is key. Your spouse or close friends will be a great sounding board for rules that just don’t make sense for you. I’ve found that even the process of sharing them culls a lot of stupid rules. In any case, being intentional here is key. You have to write down your rules. I also tie them to the role they support and the associated goal for that role. I end up with rules like this:

  • In order to be a good husband, I will be sure to call my wife every day, no matter where I’m traveling.
  • Since my chief end is worship, I start every day with a prayer, followed by reflection and journaling.
  • As a Christian, I go to church every Sunday and participate actively in the congregation.
  • As an athlete, I exercise every day.
  • etc.

So, please, enjoy the downhill rides, and the hard slogs uphill. Also, enjoy the stops on the side of the road, especially if you are sharing the ride, because you know where you are going and when you need to get there. Hug your companion. Joke, laugh and watch the sunset. In the morning, run hard, work hard and don’t be afraid to sweat. All these are the constraints. Define your objective, and keep that in mind. Never waver from doing the hard things that need doing. But! Most important, never place effort, work and grit as the objective itself. That’s a bad drug that gives the appearance of meaning, but the meaning get’s trapped and self-consumed without joy to make it fully flower.

If you make work itself the goal, you need look no farther to the austere and empty end that met Capt Call.

Hard Work that is Going Somewhere

DIY Calibration tools

I had purchased Fowler 52-520-109-0 Dial Indicator with 1″ Travel with +/-0.5% measurement accuracy.

Fowler Dial Indicator

I wanted to measure the alignment of my table saw blade and fence. You can buy tools that do this using the miter slot track with a dial gauge included for about $70. For example, this one:

Example tooling

This had fairly limited travel and I already had a dial gauge. So I designed one. I did the design while I had my morning coffee before work. I cut it while finishing my email so I built this with about 30 minutes of total time. Lockheed provided access to the laser-cutter and also provides the material for hobby use:


I made the part from 1/4 inch think acrylic and manufactured it on a laser cutter (Glowforge). I tapped two M6 holes (5mm hole diameter) in the back so I could get a secure bolt.

Tool in Action

In order to cut this, I used the arrange and post processing with a 0.1778mm kerf:

Part planform

Fusion 360 renders this in a full joint analysis.

Math of the Kreg 720

The Pocket-Hole Jig 720 uses Kreg Automaxx™ to enable one-motion clamping by simultaneously clamping your workpiece and automatically adjusting to the exact thickness of your material (from 1/2″ to 1 1/2″). GripMaxx™ anti-slip holds the project piece secure. The manual doesn’t address how to pick the right screw length or how to set the stop outside of several settings. This isn’t good enough for me and I need to do some measurements and geometry to figure out the exact length.

Basic Block Geometry

I like to be exact. The standard angle of Kreg pocket holes is 15 degrees, the whole assembly approaches the workpiece at a fixed angle to place the start of the hole in the right distance from the bottom of the board.

If I measure this in Photoshop (after skewing to correct for image distortion), I get an angle of 58.1 degrees.

Measure Tool in Photoshop

If I measure it direct (after accounting for the angle of the desktop by zeroing out the surface), then I get 57 degrees.

Direct Measurement

The most accurate method is to measure.

Measuring \(\theta\) via x,y distances

So I took these measurements and came out with.

high point (mm)43.954

So I have two measurements, 57.95648317 degrees or 58 degrees or 57 degrees. I’m going to go with what I measured and refine as I measure real cuts.

The geometry of this is cool: as the timber gets wider, the drill bit translates up at double the degree of the pilot hole to ensure the tip of the drill hits the center of the board. The angle of the jig and wedge is twice the angle of the screw since the drill bit angle has to be half the wedge angle if it is to intersect the base at half the width of the board. It’s designed to bring the tip of the bit out in the center of the edge of the piece being drilled and automatically compensates for the timber thickness. Because of this, if the black slope is 58° from horizontal then it is 32° off vertical and the actual angle of the pocket hole is 16°.

Armed with this angle, I have to do some geometry. Given \(t_{\text{min}}\), \(t_b\) the thickness of the board for pocket holes, \(t_T\) the thickness of the board you are screwing into, \(\theta\), the angle of the jig, and \(s\), the length of the shaft of the screw. We want to find \(D\) the length of the shaft of the pilot screw.


From this I can calculate:

$$D = \frac{H}{\cos(15 \deg)} – \frac{s}{2} \text{ or } D = \frac{H}{\cos(\theta/2)} – \frac{s}{2} $$

$$d = \tan(\theta) \, \left( t_b -t_{ \text{min} } \right) \text{ where } \theta = 58 \deg $$

Putting these together from \(H=d_{\text{min}} + d\) we have:

$$ D = \frac{ d_{ \text{min}} + \tan(\theta) \, \left( t_b -t_{ \text{min} } \right) }{\cos(\theta/2)} – \frac{s}{2} $$

I hope to use this some day to make an online calculator.

Containers Are My Proxy Pass Tutor

I have to build and interact with things to understand them. At MIT, we focused on combination of thought and practical action to solve current and future problems and our motto (mens et manus) combines application (hand) and theory (mind).
By day, I’m leading adoption of containers and automation technologies to drive big changes in enabling software reusability. By night, I’m using containers to teach me new programming languages, interfaces and networking concepts. Last week, I wanted to learn how reverse proxies work and wanted to use containers and some familiar technology express, flask, nginx and docker to help me.
First, I’m sharing this because I wish this existed out there to learn from, so please head to gitlab and clone this and let me know if you do anything awesome with it.
Because I like Plutarch in general and studying the Battle of Thermopylae in particular, you will notice a theme. (Please, the movie is all cool, but nothing close to reading the Gates of Fire.)


Containers are a solution to the problem of how to get software to run reliably when moved from one computing environment to another. The basic idea is to have the complexity and overhead that you want. Instead of using a full operating system in a virtual machine, you can use the bits you want and need. A container consists of an entire runtime environment: an application, plus all its dependencies, libraries and other binaries, and configuration files needed to run it, bundled into one package. By containerizing the application platform and its dependencies, differences in OS distributions and underlying infrastructure are abstracted away.


I created two express applications, one Flask and one static site. I run the active apps in containers and use nginx reverse proxy to present them. The static HTML page connects through a docker volume. Free Code Camp wrote a nice tutorial that explains this type of setup.
One of the key concepts I had to learn was how networking works in Docker. This seemed like a right of passage I needed to know to work with containers in general. This article helped me a lot.


Complexity continues to increase with continuous new introduction of new programming languages, hardware, architectures, frameworks, and discontinuous interfaces between tools for each lifecycle stage. Containers allow you to focus on what you are building and quickly adapt new technology. Most important, I can quickly change and reuse things to learn a lot quickly. It can be hard to remain a full stack developer, a dad and a business leader. Docker simplifies a lot of things I don’t have time to learn and accelerates my workflow to allow me to experiment and innovate with different tools, application stacks, and deployment environments.
For this experiment, I use docker-compose to pull in images of nginx, flask, express and the redis database.


Nginx is a popular web server (23.21% of sites) that can also be used as a reverse proxy, load balancer, mail proxy and HTTP cache. The software was created by Igor Sysoev and publicly released in 2004. A company of the same name was founded in 2011 to provide support and Nginx Plus paid software. In March 2019, the company was acquired by F5 Networks for $670 million. What a crazy startup idea: take an open source project, improve and support it and start a company (github, Nginx, etc).
Nginx is built to handle many concurrent connections at the same time. It can handle more than 10,000 simultaneous connections with a low memory footprint (~2.5 MB per 10k inactive HTTP keep-alive connections). This makes it ideal for being the point-of-contact for clients. The server can pass requests to any number of backend servers to handle the bulk of the work, which spreads the load across your infrastructure. This design also provides you with flexibility in easily adding backend servers or taking them down as needed for maintenance.
Another instance where an http proxy might be useful is when using an application servers that might not be built to handle requests directly from clients in production environments. Many frameworks include web servers, but most of them are not as robust as servers designed for high performance like Nginx. Putting Nginx in front of these servers can lead to a better experience for users and increased security. This post from Digital Ocean is awesome at explaining all of this.

Reverse Proxy

A proxy means that information is going through a third party, before getting to the location. Why use it? For example, if you don’t want a service to know your IP, you can use a proxy. A proxy is a server that has been set up specifically for this purpose. If the proxy server you are using is located in, for example, Amsterdam, the IP that will be shown to the outside world is the IP from the server in Amsterdam. The only ones who will know your IP are the ones in control of the proxy server.
Proxying in Nginx is accomplished by manipulating a request aimed at the Nginx server and passing it to other servers for the actual processing. The result of the request is passed back to Nginx, which then relays the information to the client. The other servers in this instance can be remote machines, local servers, or even other virtual servers defined within Nginx. The servers that Nginx proxies requests to are known as upstream servers.
A reverse proxy, by contrast, will not mask outgoing connections (you accessing a webserver), it will mask the incoming connections (people accessing your webserver). You simply provide a URL like, and whenever people access that URL, your reverse proxy will take care of where that request goes.
Here I’m using a reverse proxy so I can have services running on a several ports, but I only expose ports 80 and 443, HTTP and HTTPS respectively. All requests will be coming into my network on those two ports, and the reverse proxy will take care of the rest.
Nginx can proxy requests to servers that communicate using the http(s), FastCGI, SCGI, and uwsgi, or memcached protocols through separate sets of directives for each type of proxy. The Nginx instance is responsible for passing on the request and massaging any message components into a format that the upstream server can understand.
My Nginx config below allowed me to proxy_pass to the upstream servers that Docker created.

First, I need some apps to serve content and in order to make sure I’m understanding how to proxy to different services, I use both JavaScript (Express) and Python (Flask).


Express.js, or simply Express, is a back end web application framework for Node.js, released as free and open-source software under the MIT License. It is designed for building web applications and APIs. It has been called the de facto standard server framework for Node.js. I like it because I can create a web application in several lines.

Flask App

Flask is the most minimal python web application framework. My app is bare-bones simple and just returns some basic text.

Static Page

In order to test the most basic feature of nginx, I build a static page.


First I want to see all of my containers running:

➜  proxy_test git:(master) ✗ docker ps
CONTAINER ID   IMAGE                 COMMAND                  CREATED         STATUS         PORTS                                         NAMES
ac83546944da   nginx                 "/docker-entrypoint.…"   5 minutes ago   Up 5 minutes>80/tcp, :::80->80/tcp             proxy_test_webserver_1
36d93cfe4a41   proxy_test_flask      "/bin/sh -c 'python …"   7 hours ago     Up 7 hours>5000/tcp, :::5000->5000/tcp     proxy_test_flask_1
30f29133b42a   proxy_test_lochagus   "docker-entrypoint.s…"   7 hours ago     Up 7 hours>8080/tcp, :::49160->8080/tcp   proxy_test_lochagus_1
0d1a98a27730   proxy_test_leonidas   "docker-entrypoint.s…"   7 hours ago     Up 7 hours>8080/tcp, :::49161->8080/tcp   proxy_test_leonidas_1
4770b2726dfd   redis                 "docker-entrypoint.s…"   7 hours ago     Up 7 hours     6379/tcp                                      proxy_test_redis_1

and, does it work?
curl -i localhost produces my static page. but most important, curl -i localhost/flask produces dynamic content.

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: nginx/1.21.0
Date: Sun, 06 Jun 2021 10:09:03 GMT
Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8
Content-Length: 51
Connection: keep-alive

This Compose/Flask demo has been viewed 23 time(s).%

Next Steps

This is just the beginning. Next, I’m going to use gitlab to deploy all of this let’s encrypt to secure all of the traffic and more.

The Codebreaker

Walter Issacson’s words formed my understanding of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci. Given his habit of writing engaging biographies from the most well known people on the planet, I was surprised to hear that his latest book was about someone I’ve never heard of: Jennifer Doudna. This is probably both because she isn’t yet a household name, but also because biology and chemistry are fields that I’m just not familiar with.

All the more reason to love this book. First, as much as he tried to make this a Jen Doudna biography, it really was a story about the community leading biosciences today, a discussion of the core questions of bioethics, scientist’s battle against the novel coronavirus and a dual biography of Doudna and Charpentier — one American, the other French. The subtitle belies the scope of the book: “Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.”

Issacson doesn’t abandon his previous themes: science, genius, experiment, code, thinking different, but this is his first full length book to a female subject for the first time. While some may suspect Isaacson is guided by social pressure to focus on a female subject, Jennifer Doudna is a genuine heroine for our time.

Unlike his other books, where Issacson is a fairly distant chronicler and researcher, here Issacson is on the stage, in the mix. The whole book is filled with first-person appearances. While these may demonstrate his diligence as a reporter, they definitely bring the reader into both his world, but also into the scientific conferences, labs, and discussions with experts on both sides of disputes. At one point he even facilitates an important phone call that re-establishes a friendship between Doudna and Charpentier. However, a certain clubbiness attends some of these references, as when he names the restaurants where key conversations occur and he made me aware of the stratospheric level he operates in in society. By opening the curtain on his life, Issacson highlights how he is the grand doyen of American journalism who has headed TIME magazine, CNN and the Aspen Institute, and who treads easily in the corridors of power.

Doudna and Charpentier

They are the sixth and seventh women to win the chemistry Nobel in its century-plus history. (Marie Curie was first, in 1911, followed by her daughter Irène in 1935.) The names Doudna and Charpentier had already been notably paired in 2015, when they jointly won the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, and again in 2018, when they collected the coveted Kavli Prize in Norway.

This was both a tale of friendship, but also highlighted the frictionless collaboration that has been accelerated in the last year. Although Doudna and Charpentier never belonged to the same research institution, they formed a successful collaboration with each other and numerous colleagues in several countries by building on shared interests, camaraderie and competition.

We are able to get to know Doudna from her childhood, through her career, meet her competitors and collaborators, and fret with her over the future fallout of the CRISPR revolution and marvel at its positive potential.

She was inspired early on from reading “The Double Helix,” by James Watson. Though in this book Watson is the villain who becomes a projection of racism and patriarchy. Issacson highlights his snarky comments about the structural biologist Rosalind Franklin’s looks. His discussion makes me want to read Doudna’s own book, A Crack in Creation written with her former student Samuel Sternberg and published in 2017. Its subtitle, “Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution,” doesn’t understate how critical this field will be for my generation.

Doudna was raised by academic parents who encouraged her fascination with science, she flourished in college and went on to earn a doctorate in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology from Harvard. After fellowships and postdoc programs at the University of Colorado and Yale, she joined the faculty at the University of California in 2002. In 2006, she learned about CRISPR, a system of identical repeated DNA sequences in bacteria copied from certain viruses.

Others had discovered that this was a defense mechanism—CRISPR DNA generates enzymes that chop up the DNA of the infecting virus. With collaborators, she discovered how CRISPR operates and invented a much simpler technique for cutting DNA and editing genes. Although known since the 1970s, “genetic engineering” was a complex, tedious process. CRISPR made it much simpler.

Traditional gene therapy is an insertion of a functional gene in the location of a dysfunctional gene or neighboring to it. CRISPR Cas-9 makes it possible to carry out genetic engineering on an unprecedented scale at a very low cost. How it differs from previous genetic engineering techniques is that it allows for the introduction or removal of more than one gene at a time. This makes it possible to manipulate many different genes in a cell line, plant or animal very quickly, reducing the process from taking a number of years to a matter of weeks. It is also different in that it is not species-specific, so can be used on organisms previously resistant to genetic engineering.

Doudna and Charpentier the two scientists co-authored a seminal paper in 2012 that galvanized the scientific establishment and led to a torrent of awards, culminating in the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry. This starts the race to apply gene editing to altering life and curing diseases, the intense debate over its morality, and the often childish quarrels over credit and patents.

Sometimes the rivalries prove fierce. Doudna and Zhang, after initially attempting to commercialize their discoveries jointly, found themselves in a fierce legal battle over intellectual property. At the heart of this dispute is the question of whether orchestrating CRISPR-Cas9 to work in human cells (Zhang’s contribution) was an essential feature of the discovery, or whether this advance was a relatively obvious and inevitable step after its efficacy had been demonstrated in a test tube (Doudna’s and Charpentier’s contribution). At stake is not only money, but also prestige and legacy.


Isaacson devotes much anguished discussion to the ethics of gene editing, especially when it comes to “germline” changes that can be passed on through generations and “enhancements” such as green eyes or high I.Q. that prospective parents could insert into their offspring’s genomes.

Isaacson also examines the case of Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui, who in 2018 defied the norms of the international scientific establishment by using CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the human germline—producing three genetically engineered babies. He Jiankui anticipated a heroic reception of Watsonian proportions, and the Chinese media was initially supportive. Yet the backlash from the scientific community proved ferocious, and He Jiankui ultimately found himself fired from his university and imprisoned for his research. One man’s iconoclasm, it seems, is another’s grave misconduct.

Issacson uses biography to provide an introduction to the complex moral and sociological questions that stem from these advances. He explores the potential for curing scourges like Huntington’s disease and sickle cell anemia, but also the slippery slope that might lead to creating offspring that are more intelligent or athletic. In doing so, he makes eloquent and succinct work of laying out the parameters of the debate between advocates of individual liberties and of collective welfare, introducing readers to the ideas of philosophers John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Michael Sandel. As in his past volumes, Isaacson displays his gift for making complex material enjoyable to read.

Of particular concern to Isaacson and his community are the implications of gene editing for human equality, the fear that those with plentiful resources will use these technologies to expand the gap between wealthy and indigent. (Of course, the opposite might prove true: Carefully managed, such advances could be harnessed to level the playing field between rich and poor, adding a genetic boost to those who cannot afford SAT tutors and tennis lessons.)

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

This seemed like the book to read since I got a break and wanted to get smart on virology and try to make sense of what’s happening in our world. Professionally, I’ve been deep in the world of cyber security and defence technologies but I’ve always looked over the fence what’s happening in the Pharmaceutical industry and this book was intended to be a bridge that I’ve needed to cross for sometime. In total, this book is a sweeping scientific and social history as a cautionary and instructive tale. How governments fail in the face of inexplicable nature is one of his most potent themes. Readers interested in science, social science, the social fabric and especially those compelled by dealing with the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, may be up for the challenge.

For me, this book was a long slog to get through at 555 pages that combined history, science, and some biographies of the folks that made modern medicine possible. This book gave me far more than I ever wanted to know about the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19. It begins in September of 1876 with the founding of the Johns Hopkins University, with its emphasis on medical research against the backdrop of a terribly poor state of medical science in the US. It continues with the difficulty in getting doctors and educators to believe that there was a place for research in medicine at all. I kept waiting for the plague to begin and, sure enough, chapter 14 begins with the news that in February of 1918 someone from Haskell County Kansas most likely carried the disease to Camp Funston, a U.S. Army training camp located on Fort Riley, southwest of Manhattan, Kansas. It goes on to tell in great detail the difficulty of convincing the army, or most anyone in power, that it was killing people, even as it was doing exactly that.

The Great Influenza was written by John Barry, a distinguished scholar, historian and adjunct faculty member at Tulane University. Among his other well-known works are Rising Ride, about a devastating 1927 Mississippi flood. His book, Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul, concerns one’s American lasting influence, especially in the United States’ unprecedented insistence on the separation of church and state. This may of explained why he so eagerly (and annoyingly) constrasted science against faith in the first several chapters of the book.

He clearly is fascinated with how events shape the US national fabric, as seen also in his Power Plays: Politics, Football, and Other Blood Sports and The Ambition and the Power: The Fall of Jim Wright: A True Story of Washington. For Barry – who wrote this book well before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic – the 1918 influenza outbreak has a recurring theme: the consistent lying, obfuscation and incompetence of American officials, notably how they refused to alert the citizenry they were pledged to protect about the dangers they faced. Overall, he presses three major themes: (1) be honest with the public, (2) honor the heros on the front lines of research and (3) people in power should be held to account.

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic swept the world. From its early start in the midwest US, through its subsequent spread through troop movements during World War I, the influenza virus killed approximately 50 to 100 million people (compared with the 2M deaths I forecast for the novel coronavirus). The sheer destruction of 1918-1919 influenza pandemic is difficult to grasp: it killed an estimated 5% of the world’s population – 50 million to 100 million people, about 675,000 people in the United States. Government officials, in stark parallel to 2020’s coronavirus pandemic, dismissed the outbreak or lied about it.

One of the most shocking parts of this world is how unprepared we were to understand disease then. No treatment then available could stop the rapidly mutating virus. While we have mRNA vaccines at crazy speeds (thanks DARPA), there are still uncanny parallels to today and harkens to deadly lessons apparently still unlearned.

Barry traces the flu to its source. The pandemic started in 1918 when men from Haskell County, Kansas trained at a US Army base, Camp Funston, where a cook reported ill with influenza on March 4, 1918. More than 1,100 soldiers entered hospitals and 38 died. Then the Army transferred soldiers from Funston to US bases and to Europe. Barry lays out the virus’s path. It traveled with the soldiers, moving through North America, Europe, South America, Africa, Asia and scattered Pacific islands. I was ashamed by the feeling that this was the "American Influenza" in the same sense the Trump admistration wanted to blame the Novel Coronovirus on China.

Viruses Only Replicate

One area of Barry’s science reporting is particularly compelling: his primer on influenza viruses. He explains that they originated in “wild aquatic birds.” Exposure to an avian virus can infect people, but, he underscores, people can’t infect people unless the virus mutates to adapt to person-to-person transmission. Which it has; the US Centers for Disease Control says influenza now kills 3,000 to 56,000 Americans a year.

Influenza is a viral disease. When it kills, it usually does so in one of two ways: either quickly and directly with a violent viral pneumonia so damaging it has been compared to burning the lungs; or more slowly and indirectly by stripping the body of defenses…

Barry offers a lot of food for thought in one simple idea: replication is a virus’s only function. The influenza virus hides from the immune system by “entering” a cell, but not “fusing” with it, as other viruses do. About 10 hours after an influenza virus attaches to a cell, the cell releases a “swarm” of 100,000 to one million influenza viruses. Barry successfully conveys the horror of this invasion.

Many viruses, fungi and bacteria infect the lungs. The most ubiquitous is the pneumococcus, which can initiate or aggravate lung infections. Barry explores medical history prior to 1918 flu outbreak as a context for medicine’s utter helplessness. Scientists failed to develop a serum against pneumococcus in 1892, despite medical advances against tetanus, meningitis, diphtheria and typhoid. Barry tells how desperate doctors tried fighting the flu with the vaccine for typhoid and with quinine, a malaria treatment.

Barry’s depiction of experts’ inability to understand the influenza virus provides a stark reminder of the mystery of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. He makes the danger of the 1918 plague plain when he writes that face masks were no protection against it. People’s only hope was to avoid exposure, but no one, he explains, understood quite how to do that.

However, Barry reserves his harshest criticism for leaders in the media or government whose ill fated decisions were a disaster for the public. Barry reports that the 1918 virus struck in waves. The spring wave killed relatively few; the second wave was more destructive. And the deliberate dishonesty of officials was deadly indeed.

The pandemic ravaged Philadelphia. Barry regards its municipal public health director, Wilmer Krusen, with well-deserved contempt. When locals planned a Liberty Loan parade to promote war bonds, he advised the public to “avoid crowds,” but allowed the parade to go on. Barry states his belief, here as in his other works, that officials must take responsibility for the people under their charge. He regards failure to do as a high moral crime.

On October 1, 1918 the virus killed 117 people in Philadelphia; the 31 local hospitals were full. Daily influenza deaths soared from 254 on October 5 to 428 on October 8. Death overwhelmed funeral homes and the morgue. Barry paints a vivid picture of dead bodies in homes, on porches and in yards.

Barry cites Royal Copeland – municipal health commissioner of New York City when influenza killed its first victim there on September 15 – as another failed official. As patients poured into hospitals, Copeland dismissed the illnesses as just one among “other bronchial diseases.” The virus killed 33,000 New Yorkers. The plague ravaged New York, and then New Orleans, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. It hit Portugal and Greece and, by summer, death tolls rose in England, Scotland and Wales.

The Red Cross recruited nurses to work in American cities but prioritized providing the military with nurses. Soldiers died on transport ships in such numbers that the vessels became "floating caskets".

President Wilson’s Flu

Most flu victims were in their 20s. Barry reveals that their immune response to the virus filled their lungs with “fluid and debris.” The elderly demonstrated immunity worldwide, probably because they’d been exposed to an earlier, milder pandemic. Linking, as ever, the past to the present, Barry notes that the 1918 pandemic caused a disintegration of the lungs that health experts now call acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Barry is stark (and maybe wrong) about how the influenza outbreak changed history. The disease damaged the nervous system and brain and mentally destabilized victims. Barry depicts President Woodrow Wilson’s trip to Paris in 1919, when he developed a cough, diarrhea, a 103-degree fever – influenza symptoms. Wilson negotiated during his illness, but Barry finds that the president made multiple shocking concessions he had resisted days earlier. Barry presents Wilson as much weakened and disoriented from the flu. Wilson suffered a stroke four months after signing the Paris peace treaty, which treated Germany harshly and set the stage for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Barry links this stroke to Wilson’s earlier viral illness.

People who survived exposure to the 1918 influenza developed greater immunity as the virus mutated to a less-lethal form. Barry found that the further along in the epidemic the outbreak hit a US city, the lower its mortality rate. The 1918 virus faded away in the early 1920s.


The author cites scientists with links to Johns Hopkins, the Rockefeller Institute, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania as foremost in battling the virus. He treats their efforts as a tale of suspense, but that isn’t always as convincing as his depiction of the disease and its effects.

The accepted cause of influenza in 1918 was a bacillus known as B. influenzae. While thought to be the source of infection at the time, it is now known to be a cause of secondary infections, not the influenza itself (which is viral). The combination of an elusive pathogen and a bunch of secondary invaders masquerading as the culprit stymied researchers at the time and kept them busy for decades afterwards.

Barry’s focus is almost entirely on the United States and largely on American researchers. Here, in his efforts to carve individual human dramas from the great mass of the pandemic, he often loses the thread. In order to explain the nature of medical research in America, he centers on the post-Civil-War experiences of William Welch, the driving force behind the creation of the Johns Hopkins medical research labs. We expect Welch to become a leading figure in the battle against the influenza, but all Welch did in 1918 was get sick and then get better, sidelining him for the duration of the epidemic, whereupon he disappears from Barry’s story.

Ultimately, Barry has two heroes: Oswald Avery and Paul Lewis. Both became nearly obsessed with research on the influenza pathogen. Neither solved many of its mysteries. Avery digressed into a completely different line of work that led to his discovery that DNA plays the key role in genetics. Lewis became disheartened, and his research career dwindled after a brilliant start; he ended up sacrificing his own life in an attempt many years later to fight a yellow-fever outbreak in Brazil.

Highest praise is reserved for the luminaries of the medical research field — William Welch, Oswald Avery, Simon Flexner and others — who toiled tirelessly to combat the disease. Amid Barry’s thorough biographical snapshots of these men — a veritable Who’s Who of the history of modern medicine — one man stands apart as the story’s fallen hero: Paul Lewis.

In the early 1900s, Lewis, then a scientist at the Rockefeller Institute, not only proved that a virus caused polio but also developed a vaccine that protected monkeys from the disease. Turning his focus to the flu epidemic, Lewis successfully identified the disease as influenza and committed himself to developing a vaccine. But as Barry acknowledges, the greatest challenge for Lewis and his colleagues was not the research they undertook during the epidemic, but rather the accounting that came afterward, when they were left to "sift through the detritus of their failures for clues to success." Describing that process, Barry speculates that medicine’s psychic burdens may ultimately have been more than Lewis could bear, and that his death from yellow fever, contracted in a laboratory accident, was actually a suicide.

The Making of a Manager

I’m a manager and have been one for 20 years. The Air Force never gave me the chance to be an individual contributor except for 5 months where I wrote FORTRAN code to develop chemical dispersion models. A manager leaves behind their individual contributor role and assumes responsibility for the output of a team.

The first management book I recommend is Grove’s High Output Management. It’s a classic, but while Grove was a seasoned manager, Julie Zhuo provides a perspective from a hyper-growth streak at Facebook where she rose from intern to VP in less than a decade. All levels of management are recent memory for her.

Julie’s complete honesty about all her fears, insecurities, and mistakes at the time (and how she continued to experience them throughout her career) makes her the reader’s relatable management confidant.

Like Extreme Ownership, each chapter opens with an illustration cementing a key idea from the management topic to be discussed. While most of the book focuses on topics that will help first-time managers, later chapters touch upon topics that will help even seasoned managers, such as hiring and managing managers yourself and setting the culture of your organization.

Drawing on her own experience as a first-time manager, Zhuo explains how you can get those early days right and avoid the most common managerial pitfalls. She covers topics as diverse as holding effective meetings, recruiting the right people or transitioning from managing a small team to a large one.

Here are the key ideas that stuck with me:

A good manager’s job is all about outcomes, not activities.

At the age of just 25, Julie Zhuo was offered the job of a lifetime – managing Facebook’s design team. More amazingly still, this role was Zhuo’s first managerial role. Thrown in at the deep end, Zhuo soon asked herself, “What does a manager actually do?”

In her early days as a manager, Zhuo believed that her job consisted of holding meetings with team members, giving them feedback on how they’re doing and working out which subordinates to promote or to fire. However, she soon realized that her approach was short-sighted as it focused on basic daily tasks, rather than long-term goals.

After a few years of experience under her belt, Zhuo became more strategic. She realized that a manager’s role was actually to focus on wider issues. These include ensuring her team was working effectively together, helping team members achieve their career aims and developing processes to improve efficiency without any hiccups along the way.

But now, with nearly a decade of management experience behind her, Zhuo believes that the answer to what a manager does is far more concise than either of her previous lists capture. The job of a manager, as it turns out, is to achieve improved outcomes from your team. As you work toward this goal, you’ll begin to recognize the difference between a good manager and a mediocre one.

How? Well, many people assume a box-ticking attitude when considering whether a manager is a good one. For instance, you might assess whether they are hard-working, likable or good at giving presentations. If they check all three boxes, then they must be a good manager. Right?

Wrong. Actually, only the outcome of the team they manage can answer this question. In other words, the team of a good manager will achieve good results – consistently. So, ask yourself what outcome your team or business seeks. If, like Zhuo, the outcome you’re looking for is great design, then remember that an excellent manager’s team will consistently pitch you great designs, whereas a mediocre manager’s team will pitch you mediocre designs.

A great manager is one whose team gets great results. It really is that simple – no box-ticking or long lists necessary.

All routes to management have advantages and pitfalls.

When the author bumps into new managers at Facebook, she asks which aspects of the job they’ve found easier or more challenging than expected. She’s noticed a pattern in their responses. How they come into the management role in the first place determines what the new managers find easy or difficult in their first three months. There are several possible paths to becoming a manager, and each route comes with its own potential opportunities and pitfalls during those early months.

First, there is the Apprentice path to management. The Apprentice path begins when your boss’s team grows and she asks you to manage part of it. This was the author’s route to management. As a young designer at Facebook, she was asked to manage part of her boss’s growing design team. One advantage of this route is that you’ll have plenty of guidance during your early months because your own manager will still be around to coach you and answer any questions you may have. However, establishing a good rapport with those working under you can be tricky for apprentice managers. Why? Because they’re used to seeing you as a peer, not as their boss.

Second is the Pioneer route to management. Pioneers start entirely new teams and are responsible for all aspects of that team’s growth. One key advantage of this route is that you get to build your team, rather than inherit it. Thus, you can select who you want to work with and engineer the team dynamics. On the downside, pioneer managers may not receive much support, as no one will understand your team better than you. Therefore, others may find it difficult to help with your particular challenges.

Finally, there is the New Boss path to management. In this scenario, you are brought in, either from a different team or even a different organization, to manage an established workgroup. One advantage of being a new boss is that people will typically cut you some slack during your first few months. Why? Because they’ll appreciate that you’re a newbie, and thus you’re allowed to make mistakes while you learn how everything works. Moreover, it’s important that you make use of this time to sit back and learn. One of the pitfalls of being a new boss is to rush in and change things without fully understanding the nuances of your new position.

Understanding your route to management and its unique challenges and advantages will help you hit the ground running.

Great managers give activity-specific feedback that goes beyond their own perspective.

Zhuo still remembers the worst feedback she ever received. When critiquing one of her designs for Facebook, a former colleague asked, “Is this supposed to be this awful?” Although this example is extreme, the truth is that many of us struggle to hit the right tone when giving others feedback. Either we worry about hurting someone’s feelings and refrain from all criticism, or, as in the above case, we aren’t sensitive enough.

Nonetheless, providing effective, insightful feedback to team members is an essential component of a manager’s job. So, how do you get better at holding these important, yet challenging, conversations?

Crucially, you should provide feedback that is specific to one particular task, optimally a task that someone has just completed. For instance, if a team member has just given a presentation, set aside time afterward to tell them what you think went well and how they might improve next time. Activity-specific feedback like this is the most straightforward. Why? Because it revolves around what someone has done, rather than who they are.

For this type of feedback to be most effective, it’s important to deliver it as soon as you can so that the task remains fresh in your minds. For instance, you could provide feedback in an email on the same day that a task is completed. Unless the task is particularly important, this written feedback will be just as effective as a face-to-face conversation. Lastly, by making activity-specific feedback a regular habit, your team members will receive little coaching sessions after every task they undertake.

Another way to give great feedback is to bring in a multitude of perspectives. You can accomplish this by conducting 360-degree feedback sessions. This type of feedback takes the opinions of many different people into account. For instance, if a member of your team just gave a presentation, rather than sending them just your thoughts on the performance, you might share what other people thought too. This type of feedback is valuable because it provides a well-rounded and objective view of how the team member is performing.

Good meetings have a clear purpose and achieve clear outcomes.

In the modern workplace, meetings have suffered a fall from grace. All too often, the weekly team meeting is derided as dull, bureaucratic and a waste of time. As a manager, the author has seen her fair share of disastrous get-togethers – meetings in which each attendee takes their turn to moan about mundane issues, while their colleagues quietly get on with other work or simply stare into space. So, how can you make meetings productive instead of pointless?

When the author first became a manager, she thought the key to good meetings was to ensure they had an explicit purpose. With this in mind, she held a weekly team meeting to discuss how her team members were progressing with their various projects. Nonetheless, even with this explicit aim in mind, her team still found the meetings vague and redundant. In fact, after someone pointed out that the team could just as well send email updates on their progress, she canceled the meetings altogether.

After this debacle, she realized that simply having an agenda for a meeting is not enough. In addition, you must have a clear idea of the successful outcome of the meeting. For instance, a successful outcome of your meeting might be that the team makes a decision.

If this is the case, then your meeting must include certain things. Quite clearly, it must involve a decision, but it also needs to include everyone who is directly impacted by this decision. During the meeting, all conceivable options, including relevant information, must be presented objectively. Further, any recommendations the team might have should be articulated. Lastly, your meeting needs to apportion equal time to different opinions and ensure everyone feels their voices are heard. Managers can help with this by calling on attendees who haven’t spoken yet to give their opinion to the group. Thus, it should be clear that all views, no matter how divergent, will be respected.

Alternatively, the intended outcome of your meeting might simply be to share information, rather than decide on something. In this scenario, your meeting needs to accomplish different things. For example, a successful information-sharing meeting should capture attendees’ attention and keep it. This can be achieved through good pacing, facilitating interaction and even presenting information through storytelling.

Make smarter recruitment decisions by making a one-year plan.

As a manager, hiring the right people for your team is one of the most important duties you’ll have. Indeed, after over a decade at Facebook, the author has been involved in the decision to recruit thousands of her colleagues. As a manager, how can you ensure you’re hiring the right people for your team?

First, when it comes to recruitment, make sure you know what you’re looking for. All too often, managers approach recruitment like they are fighting a fire. They see a problem, a gap that needs to be filled, and they try to solve it as quickly as they can.

When managers become overly focused with simply filling a vacancy, they usually don’t stop to think about what skills, attributes or experience they’re looking for in a candidate. This can easily lead to hiring the wrong person for your team. Luckily, you can stop thinking like a firefighter and start acting like a manager by planning ahead. At the beginning of each calendar year, the author maps out her team’s goals for the next twelve months. As part of this process, she analyzes all the gaps in her team’s skills, experiences and strengths. She then creates a list of vacancies that she needs to recruit for, according to these gaps.

Similarly, you can create your own tailor-made recruitment plan by answering some basic questions.

First, take a look at your team’s priorities, expected rate of attrition and budget for the coming year. Based on this information, decide how many new recruits you can realistically hire. Next, ask yourself how much experience each new recruit should have. Then, think about what strengths and skills your team needs more of, such as creativity, operational know-how or expertise in a particular area. You should also consider what strengths your team already has in abundance. These are the areas in which your new recruits can afford to be weaker. Lastly, ask yourself what personalities, previous experiences or traits would strengthen your team’s diversity.

Having a well-considered one-year plan gives you a useful framework for assessing candidates’ suitability. It also ensures you won’t simply hand out a job to the next available person.

Leading a growing team requires shifting to indirect management.

When Julie Zhuo first became a manager, her team consisted of a handful of designers, and each new recruit was a cause for excitement. Fast forward ten years and the size of her team has quadrupled. Crucially, the growth of her team has also led to Zhuo’s growth as a manager. As it turns out, leading a small team is very different from leading a large one.

For instance, if you’re managing only a handful of individuals, your working relationship will probably be more personal. With such a small team, you can grasp the particulars of each person’s work and understand what each individual cares about, where their strengths lie and even what they like to do in their free time.

But when your team swells to 30 individuals, you won’t be able to manage them directly. After all, if you met with every person for a one-on-one conversation each week for half an hour, you’d spend around half your week in meetings! Inevitably, when your team grows beyond a certain point, you must hire another manager to work beneath you so that you can offload all those one-on-one conversations. In other words, you will now manage most of your team indirectly.

However, indirect management brings its own challenges. As the overall manager, you’ll still be responsible for the work of your team, but you’ll also be removed from a lot of the day-to-day decisions that get made. This loss of control can be disturbing at first, so don’t worry if it takes time to find the middle ground between deep-diving into a problem and stepping back and trusting your middle managers to handle it.

Another problem of managing a large team is that your team members might start to behave differently around you.

For instance, as her team got bigger, the author found that the people she indirectly managed were less willing to challenge her opinion or tell her when they were unhappy with something. When she asked one of her direct reports why this was happening, he explained that they found her seniority intimidating.

It’s important for managers of large teams to remember that no matter how friendly they might be, their position of authority, coupled with their distance from their indirect reports, might lead their team to see them as unapproachable. To combat this, managers should emphasize that they welcome different opinions and make a point of rewarding people who express dissent.


Your first managerial position will hold opportunities and pitfalls, depending on your particular path to management. You can excel by focusing on getting great outcomes from your team meetings, your hiring decisions and your team itself.

There is a lot of truth when Bismark said, "Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others." Read books like this and remember that management is an exciting, rewarding and challenging profession.

Meaningful Work

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to folks like me trying to connect their vocation to meaning, but I had to get past a rough start. "It’s not the chocolate, it’s the chocolate." is the banner quote of this book — a book I was seeking to help me understand the intersection of corporate life and meaning. The quote means his company, Askinosie Chocolate, isn’t just about making chocolate, or making money. Instead, Askinosie said, the company is about the people — the employees, the cocoa bean farmers and the customers. And since those people help and are helped by the business, it is about the chocolate. I find this all a bit circular, but the author is pretty pleased about it.

I also struggle to appreciate high margin niche businesses. Ever since reading, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, I’ve been concerned about the separation of supply chains between social classes. Here in New York, my protestant frugal background contrasts with the desire to support local businesses — business that caters to the 1% who pay 4x for a product. Wealth can afford to subsidize the inefficiency of the business because of some greater purpose. I struggle with the dichotomy between my love of quality and skepticism of the dissatisfaction with the mass production and subsequent walmartification of our modern economy that provides huge benefits to consumers. That said, I’ve been known to buy $10 chocolate bars — I’m in love with SVENSKA KAKAOBOLAGET.

I also was a bit put off by the author’s attempt to discuss specific faith in a pluralistic context in order to appeal to a mass audience, which seemed more like Spinozism than his professed Christianity. He had this annoying habit of following up each mention of his faith, with a litany of options available to other faiths that could result in the same value.

These struggles aside, I learned a lot from this book and gained a deep appreciation for the wisdom, person and vision of Shawn Askinosie. In the end, I can say I enjoyed and will get a lot of mileage out of this book.

First, this is because he has clearly connected with the pain in his life. Case in point: the one question he asks entrepreneurs: "Where is your heart broken?" Because of this openness, he writes with a passion for empowering others and expertise in the areas of business, introspection and soul care from more than 10 years of experience running his own chocolate business.

The book begins with a story, immediately transporting the reader into what 12 year old Askinosie thought and felt during the most traumatic event of his life. "My father’s death was, and remains, my greatest sorrow," he writes. He shares how his father’s death — and the loss he felt following — shaped who he is today, even down to the way he does business. Askinosie lays the foundation of his book on this moment in his life, and how this continues to inspire him to serve others and take times of darkness and confusion and turn them to joy.

In 1999, I hit a roadblock. The stress and intensity of my work came to feel overwhelming. I became desperate to find a new path, though I had no idea what that might be

He knew he was being called to something else, but for years he ached to discover what it was. In the meantime, he began serving at a local palliative care department. It was here that he discovered his deep and passionate love for serving others and, moreover, caring for others more than he cared or thought about himself. He continued to serve as a lawyer, never waning in his renowned thoroughness, but entered a season of anxiety and depression, because he knew he was no longer working where he felt called. But he didn’t know where he felt called.

But he had an insight. In serving others he realized that, although he might have helped the patients, the patients helped him more. He highlights this as was one of the first times Askinosie thought of someone else besides himself and this was the nudge he needed.

During this season, he spent time praying and seeking, ultimately, pushing himself to identify what this calling was. This only made matters worse. Through this, he learned that sometimes, all that can be done is to wait and learn more about yourself — a difficult discipline to acquire.

"My exploration of my deepest sorrow allowed me to uncover passions I didn’t know I had," he writes. "Ultimately, it led me to the discovery of my vocation, and to the creation of Askinosie Chocolate."

His subsequent journey brought clarity to his life and opened his heart to leaving criminal law and choose chocolate as his vocation–with service to others as the center of his business.

The purpose of his book is to tell his story of how he found and now lives his vocation. His openness and vulnerability disarmed my inner cry of the unfair privilege that allows someone to quit their bill-paying job, and pursue a passion in a way that disarmed my defensiveness–leaving me open and available to his message. Yes, I still feel trapped in a corporate track, and I justify my work as meaningful and important.

His message is that to find your vocation, you must determine "what’s the intersection of your talent, what the world needs and what your skill set is." His chosen vocation is all about the connection to humanity, he said.

And he does great good. He has started programs for elementary, high school and college students. One of the programs, Chocolate University, takes students to cocoa bean farms in Tanzania. But his major impact is in the developing world. His company has a profit-sharing arrangement with cocoa farmers, providing them a far better living than they would make dealing with other companies.


For example, one of his recent projects is feeding children in Tanzania. Askinosie Chocolate sells rice from a region affected by malnutrition, and all the proceeds go back to the area to feed students.

He brings all the discussions back to his benefit, showing a good understanding of his motivations and some deep wisdom: "This business is a motor to help people, but that’s not what it really is," Askinosie said. "The secret is, I’m the one that’s helped. The business is a connection to humanity."

So the heart of the book is really centered in feeding one’s soul. Shawn Askinosie shares personal stories that provide readers a glimpse into what it’s like to not only own a chocolate business, but what it means to run a business with a soul. The whole thing reads like a letter from a beloved, wise mentor.

The book is arranged in six chapters, each chronicling Askinosie’s journey into finding his own calling into meaningful work, and three appendices: the first, a breakdown of the supply chain cycle of what cocoa farmers make, the second, the Askinosie bean purchase history, that includes a comprehensive chart of the company’s purchase history from 2006-2017, and the third, Askinosie’s personal "Rule of Life" that he submitted to the Trappist Brothers in his own effort to become a Family Brother at the monastery.

An advocate for doing what you love well, Askinosie argues that there is inherent and immeasurable meaning in creating what you were called to create and doing it to the utmost of your ability.

Though the book abounds in steps toward spiritual healing and good soul-care, Askinosie does not merely wax philosophic. Each chapter concludes with several exercises, some focused on vocation vision, some focused on inner reflection, and others with ideas to improve your business. They believe Askinosie Chocolates is, at its core, a small business; and they intend to keep it that way.

Net, net this book is a good read for anyone who longs to serve the world with their ideas. In particular, if you find yourself constantly filled with entrepreneurial thoughts and eagerness, this book is for you. In Askinosie’s own words

This book is for entrepreneurs at heart or in practice – or both. It is for those who are searching for their own personal meaning in their work, and seeking to transform that meaning into a vocation. Whether you’re beginning a new venture or want to infuse your current one with dedicated purpose, my hope is that my experiences, and the deep and enduring lessons I’ve learned from them, will help you find your own business vocation.