Personal Canon

What are the most important ideas that you believe to be true?

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Die-hard fans of any fiction series will recognize the term canon. In movies and books, canon is a set of ideas that are believed to be true. It’s why religions with so much in common find ways to disagree about small differences. These differences seem so important because people disagree about which parts of the writing are canon.

Over the years I’ve built a personal canon. My personal canon includes specific writings and ideas that most influence how I think about the world.

Personal canon comes from books, movies, poems, experiences, and self-reflection. Whenever I come across an interesting idea, I try to understand how it might fit within my personal canon. The process looks something like this:

  • Discovery: The first time I come across the idea. Although I may have been aware of the idea before, this is the first time I take notice. If I read the idea in a book I earmark the page. Ideas found online get bookmarked. Interesting conversations with friends get written down, as do ideas that come up spontaneously. During this phase I try to capture what it is specifically about the idea that caused me to take notice.

  • Research: I dive into the idea. I learn about where it came from, who may have tried it before, and how it applies to my life. During this phase I want to explore as many related topics as possible. This may lead back to the Discovery phase.

  • Reflection: I “try-on” the idea. If the idea advocates for a certain position I will try to adopt both sides of the argument in conversation. The process of debating ideas helps me find areas that I may not have considered during the research phase. I spend time comparing the idea to other mental models and figuring out which one best represents reality.

  • Adoption: The idea is added to my personal canon. Over time, I refer to the idea more and more in my thoughts and writing. I may begin to use it as the basis for other beliefs. In this way, fundamental ideas act as a foundation for others, building my belief system brick by brick.

Everyone has their own personal canon. It comes from the lessons that you learn as a child, the books you read, and the media you consume. The information you expose yourself to daily has the power to shape your personal canon - for better or for worse.

Whenever I find myself spending personal time on something, I ask myself: does this have the chance to influence my personal canon in a positive and meaningful way? If the answer is no, I move on.


I’ve compiled a list of the media that has most influenced my work and thinking; the things that I return to and share with others again and again. I believe that at the heart of every great work is a single idea. For each item below, I’ve bolded the idea that brings me back time and time again.

Books

Foundation Series - Isaac Asimov: Foundation was the first series that sparked my interest in technology. The historical references and timespan of the books has created a sense of long-term thinking that is conspicuously absent from today’s world.

Dune - Frank Herbert: Dune is a book that I will continue to reread every year. If I lose a copy, I buy a new one. Frank Herbert builds a world with complex characters that are caught up in a religious struggle greater than any individual. Every page is a new lesson about the incentives that drive people.

Shoe Dog - Phil Knight: I’ve probably reread the first chapter of this book dozens of times. The concept of a world trip fascinates me and this book was the first time I realized it was within my power to make it a reality. It’s okay to do something because you’re passionate about it, even if it seems crazy.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Fenyman! - Richard P. Feynman: Feynman’s memoir displays the wonderful blend of raw intellectual talent and human curiosity that made him such a fascinating person. A career in science doesn’t have to be a traditional path.

Words, Language, and Writing

On Writing - Stephen King: Nearly every page of my copy is earmarked. I often find myself flipping through pages as I’m writing, trying to soak up the no-nonsense advice. King’s advice about building a writing habit is the most influential writing that I’ve received. And cutting adverbs. Always cutting adverbs.

The Book of Disquiet - Fernando Pessoa: This book was the first poetry that I ever enjoyed. The chapters are disjointed, but each page is full of ideas that I’ve never heard expressed anywhere else. I could read this book a hundred times and find something new each time.

Philosophy

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand: Objectivism has taught me that there is no shame in working hard. This book describes the feeling of what it’s like to find a life purpose.

On The Shortness Of Life - Seneca: I’m grateful to the stoics for writing advice that is still relevant thousands of years later. Your emotions should not control your actions.

Essays

The Last Question - Isaac Asimov: Questions about life and where it will all end up. This short story is why I write fiction. If you prefer to listen, there is a wonderful YouTube audio version that is ~30 minutes.

What You’ll Wish You’d Known - Paul Graham: Although this essay is directed at high-school students, it remains one of the best pieces of advice on how to decide what to work on.

Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule - Paul Graham: Why interruptions ruin deep work and how to create a schedule that works for you.

Documentaries

Chasing Bubbles: The story of Alex Rust, a 25-year-old farm boy turned day trader who abandons his yuppie life to travel around the world. Adventure is alive and well for those willing to seek it. Available for free on YouTube.

Planet Earth: Like most of you, I love the Planet Earth series. I’ve watched them more times than I can count. The ability for life to thrive in even the harshest conditions continues to surprise me. Whenever I feel like I’m too far from nature, I fire up Planet Earth.


Putting together a list of your own personal canon is a worthwhile exercise. When I created my own, I was as surprised by what did not make the list as what did. It’s amazing how many things we take for granted as important that do not align with our personal beliefs.

Creating and publishing your personal canon will help attract others who have similar interests. It will also help you discover new ideas and connections that build your foundation of ideas. Over time, you’ll find yourself developing an intuition for recognizing new ideas that fit your personal canon.

I wanted to share this list with you as a framework for developing your own. If you put together your own personal canon or have recommendations for me I’d love to hear them.


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