John Vespasian is the author of eleven books about rational living. He blogs about rational philosophy, psychology, and personal development. His latest books are The Philosophy of Builders, Undisrupted, and Asymmetry.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
One of my most important memory from my childhood Is the discovery of books in the broadest sense. I remember distinctly that, when I was fairly young, maybe twelve years old, I used to have membership cards for several public libraries. I would make a round of the libraries maybe once a week, and borrow books from all of them. I would borrow books on different subjects, fiction, and non-fiction. often about subjects, I knew nothing about. I loved the feeling of exploring on my own. I learned that you can get acquainted with new subjects if you are curious and start asking questions.
Libraries gave me the experience of broadening my perspective quickly and inexpensively. I remember my interest in books as something unusual because my peers were mainly interested in games, sports, and pop music. Compared to books, I found those fairly repetitive and boring. At that moment, I had not yet realized what it means to compound your knowledge over time. If you learn each day something new, it will not amount to much after two weeks. However, if you keep learning month after month, year after year, you can accumulate a large amount of knowledge.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
One of the things I would have liked to start earlier is to write books. In previous decades, I had written a few articles and reports, but not complete books. This is something that I started to do only now eleven years ago. I remember distinctly how I started. I wrote my first book out of sheer frustration. Let me explain this. I am a devoted, passionate reader, but I had reached a point where I could not find the kind of books I wanted to read: practical, factual, well-researched, based on real people, based on true historical experience. This is why I decided to write them myself.
The way I started is somewhat peculiar. I took four weeks off in order to write my first book. I sat at my desk for thirty days, writing intensely. It was hard work. I remember I was working like a dog, writing the whole day. Indeed, I ended up writing my first book in thirty days, but then it took me seven months to edit the manuscript. Editing took me a long time because the initial draft had so many problems. Nonetheless, it was a start. In retrospect, I regret not doing it earlier. Now that I have written eleven books, I have become much better at writing. I am on my way, you could say, and I intend to keep writing one book after another for the next decades.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
One of the worst recommendations we hear often is that “everybody should be writing a book.” People say so because they believe that computers make it easy to write books. I regard this idea as nonsense. Most people underestimate the effort it takes to write a good book. I mean a book that is not just a meaningless compilation of words. The impression you get from more books that they are just imitating or reproducing pre-existing ideas.
Few books are really worth reading. If they don’t contain any wisdom; they are disorganized or poorly structured. For the reader, those books represent a waste of time. The same goes for fiction. Many stories are repetitive and present uninteresting characters. When you hear writers give advice about how to write books, I think you should be skeptical. Check if what they are telling you is workable. I share the idea that most individuals would be able to write a book but to do it, again and again, requires lots of dedication. How many authors can write an array of volumes with consistent quality and a strong message? I think that it is difficult.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
My darkest experience was a near-death experience. I have gone through near-death experiences several times. I could not say exactly how many times. Possibly, five or six times. On one occasion, I was flying as a passenger on a commercial aircraft and one of the engines stopped in the middle of the flight. The pilot turned around the aircraft as well as he could. We had to go back to the departure airport. There was an emergency landing. It was scary.
On another occasion, I had a road accident. I was driving in the mountains and the road was frozen. My car went off the road and crashed. I could have fallen from a cliff. The accident was dramatic. It was really a narrow escape.
I remember another occasion where I was almost electrocuted.
I could go on and on. In each of those cases, I have escaped death. I think most people have lived through situations where they could have died by accident. Each of those experiences, however dark, has taught me to appreciate life even more. They have taught me to concentrate on my work or my lifetime’s mission. From those dark situations, I have learned to focus on what I want to achieve in my lifetime.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
The biggest contributor to my success is my self-discipline, my capacity for organization. The little talent I possess is useless if I don’t concentrate. Talent itself is worthless if you don’t produce an output every day. I am highly organized, not only in my writing but in everything I do.
I regard self-discipline and good organization as the keys to drawing maximum happiness from life. This means that I fail to understand people who try to achieve happiness by making random, irrational, inconsistent decisions. I believe that it is one’s responsibility to pursue happiness effectively. I do not want to entrust my future to luck.
What is your morning routine?
For many years, my morning routine is really simple. I wake up at 07:00 am or 08:00 am depending on how loaded my agenda for the day is. Then I do a basic, short exercise routine. Nothing fancy. It only takes a few minutes. After the exercise routine, I check my to-do list. My habit is to update my to-do list every couple of days.
Each day, I simply cross out each action that I have completed. My system is super simple. I do not even use a computer for making the list because I find it easier to organize my thoughts by rewriting down the list anew. On my list, actions are grouped by areas, so that I can see which items are pending in each area. Every couple of days, I copy the items that are pending. Those items go into a new, clean list. I also underline the priorities, so that I start working on those first.
This simple system enables me to remain productive. I just do what I have to do. At the same time, I avoid distractions. If new actions or projects arise, I will add them to the list, without letting them overrun my priorities for the day.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
The habit that has most improved my life is having a clear picture of my lifetime goals. I have a visual representation of those goals. It’s a simple drawing that I update from time to time. The drawing is hanging or my fridge. It enables me to check visually how I am doing. Am I getting closer to my goals?
The drawing shows my goals in different areas. When I update any of the goals or when I need to expand them, I can do it in a few seconds. I just make a new drawing on a white sheet of paper by using a thick pen. Then I just place the paper on the fridge door with a magnet. Mine is a super easy system. My goals are simple. My areas of achievement are simple. I just keep track of them in a visual manner. They are always on my mind
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
My best strategy for organizing my time is simply to break down the day into segments. Those segments are very rigid. I have been following this approach for at least two decades. By breaking down my day into segments, I can ensure that I will do whatever I have to do in this segment. I will do nothing else at that time. There is a morning segment. There is a lunchtime segment. The same goes for the afternoon and the evening. If I do not complete a task in the corresponding segment, the task goes to the next day.
My segmentation is extremely rigid because I know my strengths and weaknesses. For instance, in the morning, I have certain levels of energy and concentration that I do not have during the evening. There are things I can do in the morning that I will not do in the evening because I don’t like to work with artificial lighting if I can avoid it. My segmentation enables me to focus my mind. The process helps me ensure that I complete tasks during the allocated segment. My approach is rigid, and my life is organized around time segments. During the weekends, my segments are organized differently, but still, I follow the same philosophy. A segment is a segment. They help me draw the best out of every day. If you don’t have boundaries, then every minute of your time is up for grabs.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
The book that has influenced my life the most is a book written by Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century. Its title is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s a long book, made of six volumes. It is a history book, but at the same time, it is a literary masterpiece. Gibbon wrote about Ancient Rome but did not give a cold, impersonal enumeration of facts. Instead, he is giving us a sharp, philosophical view of History. The book tells us how individuals will react to different situations according to their personalities and views. It teaches us to discern different ideologies and types of people. Every time I reread Gibbon’s work, I learn new aspects of human psychology.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
My favourite quote is the title of one of my own books: “Rationality is the Way to Happiness. I regard it as a good summary of the optimal philosophy for living. The theme of rational living has inspired me to write eleven books so far. My goal in each book is to extract practical wisdom from history by analysing dozens of biographies. I aim in each case at improving the reader’s ability to think logically, make good decisions, and improve his overall effectiveness day by day. Even if the improvement amounts only to one percent, the benefits can be huge.