FF Insights #633: What reading does

April 19, 2022: What not to optimise; The second order impact of economic crisis; The lives of others

Founding Fuel

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Good morning,

Why invest time on books? This is a question the historian Will Durant deals with in The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time before beginning to list what he believes are the 100 greatest books of all time. 

“Will you sit down with me? Perhaps you are a college graduate, and are ready, then, to begin your education. Perhaps you have never had a chance to go to college, and have never considered what else our children learn there except the latest morals. They might learn many fine things if they came to it old enough, but our youngsters take so long to grow up in these complex days that they are too immature, when they enter college, to absorb or understand the treasures offered them there so lavishly. If you have studied with life rather than with courses, it may be as well; the rough tutelage of reality has ripened you into some readiness to know great men. Here at this spacious table you will prepare yourself for membership in the International of the Mind; you will be friends with Plato and Leonardo, with Bacon and Montaigne; and when you have passed through that goodly company you will be fit for the fellowship of the finest leaders of your time and place.

“Can you spare an hour a day? Or, if some days are too crowded with life and duty to give you leisure for these subtler things, can you atone for such bookless evenings by an extra hour or two on those Sunday mornings when the endless newspaper consumes you to no end? Let me have seven hours a week, and I will make a scholar and a philosopher out of you; in four years you shall be as well educated as any new-fledged Doctor of Philosophy in the land.

“But let us understand each other: you must not expect any material gain from this intimacy with great men. Some lucre may flow incidentally in later years from the maturity and background that you will win, but these dividends, like those of the insurance companies, are not in any way guaranteed. Indeed, you will be ‘losing time’ from your profession or your business; if you long for millions you had better lay aside this map of the City of God, and keep your nose to the earth.”

He makes a compelling case. Whether you agree or disagree with his list is another matter altogether.

Have a good day!

What not to optimise

As the pandemic ebbs and people begin to step out of their homes, many lessons have been learnt. Much of it has to do with how wasteful we used to be with precious resources including the most important one—time. The debate on optimising for time is top-of-mind for most people we speak to. But this conversation has many nuances and the point was hammered home in a lovely essay by Brad Stulberg in The New York Times. It got our attention because the pursuit of optimisation can have unintended consequences. There are things we ought not to optimise, he argues.

“If your goal is optimisation today, tomorrow or this week, it almost always makes sense to push friendship-building and maintenance down the list of priorities. But I’d suggest that the more important cost-benefit analysis to do is the longer-term one: If your goal is to be grounded and fulfilled over the course of a lifetime, then there is nothing more important than nurturing our essential bonds.

“The good news is that even if our relationship-building muscles have atrophied, with a bit of work they’ll regain their strength… As you meet and connect with a greater number of people, you expand your social skills and confidence.

“Like so much else about emerging from this pandemic, the key is pushing through the resistance and making a first step—in whatever way you deem it safe to do so, given your health situation and Covid surges.

“Is there pleasure—and a certain nobility—in solitude? Of course, especially for introverts like myself. But even the Buddha himself directed his followers to seek companionship.” 

Dig deeper

The second order impact of economic crisis

The economic crisis in Sri Lanka (Newsletters  #619 and #553) is turning into a health crisis as hospitals run out of medicines and equipment. A BBC report yesterday quoted a health worker that captures the despondency being felt by doctors across the country. “We are being told to use what we have sparingly, but there's no real solution. I feel helpless.”

The health crisis has been brewing for a few weeks now. A Straits Times report by Rohini Mohan, journalist and author of The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka's Civil War, describes how things changed for a country which had a decent healthcare system. (Check out this story by Indrajit Gupta on how it eradicated malaria). 

Mohan writes: “In 2018, Sri Lanka's public health system provided half of all medical treatments, 95% of hospitalisations, and 99% of the preventive care needs of the 22 million population, the World Bank found.

“Today, however, the island's famously Scandinavian-standard public healthcare system is struggling to perform even simple treatments such as giving an injection, as many medical facilities have run out of local anaesthesia, needles and gloves.

“‘The serious economic problems that led to a dollar shortage in Sri Lanka are to blame for the health system's problems now. Almost 90% of essential medicine in Sri Lanka are imported, much of it from India, followed by Bangladesh and Malaysia, but imports stopped months ago,’ said Dr Palitha Abeykoon, a former top World Health Organization (WHO) official in the region.

“Mr Ajith Thilakarathna, president of the society of government pharmacists who supply state-run hospitals, said they had run out of cancer, renal and cardiac drugs, as well as the best quality blood thinners, thyroid drugs and stents.

“Paracetamol was hard to find in large quantities, while surgical consumables such as syringes, tubular needles, urinary catheters, cotton swabs and gauze were almost out of stock.

“‘We are already in bad shape. But, in two weeks, we will have a big problem,’ Mr Thilakarathna said.”

The country has been getting help from other countries, development institutions and civil society. But it needs more. The BBC story quotes Dr Gnanaksekaran, secretary of Sri Lanka's Association of Medical Specialists.  

“We need supplies to come in whatever form, whether it's another country's government, or an individual donation.

“As professionals we are apolitical, but we are concerned about our patients.

“We just want to be able to treat them—we don't want them to die.”

Dig deeper

The lives of others

(Via Sjoerd Marijne, Former Chief Coach, Indian Women Hockey) 

Found anything interesting and noteworthy? Send it to us and we will share it through this newsletter.

And if you missed previous editions of this newsletter, they’re all archived here.

Warm regards,

Team Founding Fuel

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