The Secret to Yuval Harari’s Success Is Simple
How a mindful life produces extraordinary work
A couple of years ago, one afternoon as I absconded my college class, I came across a book stand outside the metro station. The book salesman had a humble set up — a table and a few cardboard boxes.
On the brink of the table, one book was staring me in the face — [Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind](https://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-Yuval-Noah-Harari-audiobook/dp/B00VXJQ88K) by Yuval Harari. I stared back at it for some time. Ten seconds later, I gave the book a cold-shoulder. After all, who wanted to read a historical book about the origins of homo sapiens?
Weeks, maybe months, went by — but that book did not leave the bookstand. It stood unshaken. “If it’s a boring historical book, why is the guy selling it to college students, who may be the least interested in it?” I thought.
Even though the thought was intriguing, I still didn’t buy it. But a quick Google search amazed me — people like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama had praised Harari’s work.
I’d judged the book by its cover but, apparently, it had something special.
The ideas in it were not coming from yet another cigar-smoking intellectual. In some cases, they were accepted as a new and unique view on the human race — in the 21st century, for God’s sake!
Nevertheless, after studying Harari’s work and listening to his thoughts, I realized not only the radical nature of his ideas but also his mind.
I couldn’t believe someone had the brainpower to think about such things.
My question, I later found, was also shared by Ezra Klein who writes in Vox,
“I’ve wanted to talk to Harari since reading Sapiens. I’ve had one big question about him: What kind of mind creates a book like Sapiens? And now I know. A clear one.”
And how does Yuval clear his mind? One word.
Where It All Started
Yuval was a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who specialized in medieval military history. He applied to Oxford in the pursuit of a Ph.D. and completed his Doctor of Philosophy in 4 years.
Yet, as he says in one of his conversations with Sam Harris, this was a period of unrest for him. He had a lot of questions, but very few answers.
This is when one of his friends urged him to participate in a meditation retreat.
In every person’s life, there comes a point of realizing that the answer they’re seeking doesn’t lie within the logical mind. Solving problems in an outward fashion only works for so long. Every problem that manifests in front of you has an inner solution.
This is one of the reasons Steve Jobs (and many others) went to India to study meditation. He urged Zuckerberg to make a trip there when things were not good at Facebook. there are countless other examples of people who found their answers inside themselves by practicing meditation.
Harari, perhaps with similar motivations, went to Burma to see S.N Goenka, a famous teacher of Vipassana meditation. Goenka taught Harari two things:
To take a silent retreat every year
To meditate (watching the breath for the most part) for 2 hours every day.
Harari has been taking these suggestions seriously for the past 17 years.
Why He Meditates
Harari told The Guardian that without meditation, he’d still be researching medieval military history instead of neanderthals and cyborgs. Meditation transformed the way he thought about the world and his career as a result.
He believes there are major benefits we all can experience if we take on the same (or similar) practices.
Focus is a no-brainer. It’s one of the first things you improve when you get started with meditation.
The term focus can be understood in micro and macro contexts.
On a micro level, meditation gives us the ability to concentrate much better on whatever we’re doing. Concentration, unlike what most people think, is like a muscle that you need to train.
You cannot watch movies all day and then crank out 10 pages of text in one hour when you sit down to write, for example.
Meditation is a way to do that.
At a macro level, the simple practice of focusing on the breath taught Harari about what’s important and what isn’t. When you know how to follow the breath, you also build the discipline to focus on the bigger things without getting lost in inconsequential details.
Piercing through the veil of reality
Our reality is not objective. It’s subjective.
Each one of us has a different experience of the events around us, but we assume that’s how everybody experiences them. This is not true.
Most of what we see as reality is fiction —i.e. the concepts and narratives developed in our minds. One can see why pinpointing the difference between the two is important for Harari.
Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Money itself is a story — it’s worth something because we all believe it. In reality, it’s just a piece of paper or a digital number on a screen.
The job of someone like Harari is to differentiate the stories from the truth. Only then can we understand what’s happening around the world.
The veil of our perception can only be lifted if we practice observing reality every day. That’s what meditation helps us to do.
Building a flexible mind
Harari believes that in a tech-enabled future, our greatest investment should be building a flexible mind.
We all talk about how AI is going to shift the nature of jobs. But we’re pretty flawed in how we think it will play out. Most people think there will be a period (say, five years) of massive job transformation. Once that period passes, the world will find a new equilibrium.
That cannot be further from the truth. There will be no equilibrium because the world will be ever-changing.
To prepare ourselves for this, we don’t need to focus on specific skills, but the ability to withstand the psychological challenges that come along with the change.
In general, the younger generation has more flexibility than the older ones. After a certain age, change can be stressful. But the thing is, that change is inevitable.
To wither the psychological storm, it’s important to build a flexible mind.
Harari’s favorite tool to do that is meditation. He does say that it may not work for everyone, but we know from the example of others, that it does work for many.
The reason meditation may be the supreme tool here is that it helps you know yourself better than anything else. It’s hard to get the same intuitive knowledge by therapy or taking a walk.
How He Meditates
As mentioned above, there are two components to Harari’s Vipassana practice:
2 hours of daily meditation
One 60-day retreat every year
The second part is one that raises the eyebrows of most people. But it’s also the most important piece of the puzzle to understand Harari’s mindset.
I haven’t yet gone to a 60-day silent retreat and thus I can’t imagine what it would be like. But here’s what Harari says about his experience:
You don’t have any distractions, you don’t have television, you don’t have emails, no phones, no books. You don’t write. You just have every moment to focus on what is really happening right now, on what is reality. You come across the things you don’t like about yourself, things that you don’t like about the world, that you spend so much time ignoring or suppressing.
When you start meditating, you connect with the basic bodily sensations. Once you’re in tune with your body, you start observing reality around you as is. Bit by bit, you start to drop your judgments and perceptions.
This gives you uncomparable clarity to understand yourself.
People often think focusing on the breath won’t help them control their anger or embrace negative emotions. That’s completely backward. If you can’t observe your breath, you also can’t observe your anger. And if you’re not aware of your anger, you can’t control it.
The practice of observing the breath for hours on end gives you the power to deal with the emotions and thoughts that you’ve been suppressing.
Over time, when you dig deep into your emotions, you start to see the source. You don’t react to it, or form stories around it. You observe. You can’t observe your anger in daily life, because you’re too caught up being angry.
You begin to realize how anger feels like — in your body, in your heart, mind, face, etc. These observations then help you transcend what you’re trying so hard to fight.
That is the kind of awareness we’re after. And that’s why Harari goes on these retreats.
Another important question to address is this — “Being a popular historian, how does he find time to do all this?”
The answer is simple — he prioritizes it.
People are always looking for a magic pill that will give them 48 hours in a day. But more time isn’t a solution. Changing your priorities is.
For Harari, there’s always a temptation to take on one more speaking engagement or another conference. But he’s disciplined about his practice because that’s what counts. That’s what moves the needle for his growth and his work.
So he blocks his two months off at the beginning of the year. And he’s not kidding,
Actually I heard about Trump’s election only on the 20th of January, because this is when I came out of the retreat. I entered in early November, and I missed the elections. As I said, you have absolutely no distractions. You have no connections with the outside world, no emails, no television, no nothing, so you don’t know what’s happening on the outside, but what’s happening on the inside is so interesting.
Harari’s Meditation Advice to Beginners
Instead of advice, Harari prefers to give warnings to aspiring meditators:
It’s hard work. Meditation will bring everything inside you to the surface. It’s not always goodie-goodie. And it’s not about putting on headphones and listening to a voice while relaxing on a beach. Your fears, guilt, boredom, anger, attachments, and anything else suppressed inside will come out. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
Don’t try to do it alone. Find a teacher or a Sangha. When I started meditating, I tried to do it all alone. But I couldn’t get anywhere. Only after joining a Sangha and learning proper techniques was I able to progress in my practice. Harari also sought proper guidance. If you don’t, you may disappoint yourself soon and quit.
Don’t aim for specific experiences. People often think that only if they have a divine experience, it’s a good meditation. But the truth is, a meditation where you did nothing but fight distractions is also a good one. The time when you felt nothing but pain, boredom, and fear, is also wonderful — because that’s exactly how you learn to observe and accept them.
How does Harari work less than most of us and produce so much more?
He pays attention to the right thing. Not to the superficial aspects of life.
He doesn’t use a smartphone and is very careful about how much technology he lets into his life.
In his recent book, [Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less](https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0465074871/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=stuhac-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=0465074871&linkId=4adc32f0c32b00860cfbe23064e2488f), Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues, based on historical examples and scientific findings, that a 4-hour “creative workday” is optimal for producing important new things.
Anything after that is usually busywork.
To put it simply, what Harari does is meticulously sharpening the saw to produce his best work.
He spends time on the activities that help him do the things that matter while eliminating the things that don’t.
Let’s take that to be a lesson in prioritization, deep work, and, most of all, the power of meditation. Even though we may not be able to adopt all his habits, let’s take what we can to live a better life, starting nosw.
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