You, the Miraculous: What Are the Chances of Being Born?

Some time ago at TEDx San Francisco, I listend to a talk by a very funny self-help author and life coach. In it, she mentioned that scientists calculated the probability of your existing as you, today, at about one in 400 trillion (4×1014).

“That’s a pretty big number,” I thought to myself. If I had 400 trillion pennies to my name, I could probably build a pretty impressive penny fortress with it.

Previously, I had heard the Buddhist version of the probability of ‘this precious incarnation.’ Imagine there was one life preserver thrown somewhere in some ocean and there is exactly one turtle in all of these oceans, swimming underwater somewhere. The probability that you came about and exist today is the same as that turtle sticking its head out of the water — in the middle of that life preserver.

On one try.

So I got curious: are either of these numbers correct? Which one’s bigger? Are they gross exaggerations? Or is it possible that they grossly underestimate the true number?

First, let us figure out the probability of one turtle sticking its head out of the single life preserver we toss out somewhere in the ocean. That’s a pretty straightforward calculation.

According to WolframAlpha, the total area of oceans in the world is 3.409×108 square kilometers, or 340,900,000 km(131.6 million square miles, for those benighted souls who still cling to user-hostile British measurements).  Let’s say a life preserver’s hole is about 80cm in diameter, which would make the area inside

3.14(0.4)2=0.5024 m2

which we will conveniently round to 0.5 square meters. If one square kilometer is a million square meters, then the probability of Mr Turtle sticking his head out of that life preserver is simply the area inside the life preserver divided by the total area of all oceans, or

0.5m2/3.409×108x106m2 = 1.47 x 10-15

or one in 6.82×1014, or about 1 in 700 trillion.

One in 400 trillion vs one in 700 trillion?  I gotta say, the two numbers are pretty darn close, for such a farfetched notion from two completely different sources: old-timey Buddhist scholars and present-day scientists. They agree to within a factor of two!

So to the second question: how accurate is this number? What would we come up with ourselves starting with first principles, making some reasonable assumptions and putting them all together? That is, instead of making one big hand-waving gesture and pronouncing, “The answer is five hundred bazillion squintillion,” we make a series of sequentially-reasoned, smaller hand-waving gestures so as to make it all seem scientific. (This is also known as consulting – especially if you show it all in a PowerPoint deck.)

Oh, this is going to be fun.

First, let’s talk about the probability of your parents meeting. If they met one new person of the opposite sex every day from age 15 to 40, that would be about 10,000 people. Let’s confine the pool of possible people they could meet to 1/10 of the world’s population twenty years go (one tenth of 4 billion = 400 million) so it considers not just the population of the US but that of the places they could have visited. Half of those people, or 200 million, will be of the opposite sex. So let’s say the probability of your parents meeting, ever, is 10,000 divided by 200 million:

104/2×108= 2×10-4, or one in 20,000.

Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.

So far, so unlikely.

Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10.  And the chances of that turning into another meeting is about one in 10 also.  And the chances of that turning into a long-term relationship is also one in 10.  And the chances of that lasting long enough to result in offspring is one in 2.  So the probability of your parents’ chance meeting resulting in kids is about 1 in 2000.

Probability of same boy knocking up same girl: 1 in 2000.

So the combined probability is already around 1 in 40 million — long but not insurmountable odds. Now things start getting interesting. Why? Because we’re about to deal with eggs and sperm, which come in large numbers. (Note: Puns fully intended, always.)

Each sperm and each egg is genetically unique because of the process of meiosis; you are the result of the fusion of one particular egg with one particular sperm. A fertile woman has 100,000 viable eggs on average. A man will produce about 12 trillion sperm over the course of his reproductive lifetime. Let’s say a third of those (4 trillion) are relevant to our calculation, since the sperm created after your mom hits menopause don’t count. So the probability of that one sperm with half your name on it hitting that one egg with the other half of your name on it is

1/(100,000)(4 trillion)= 1/(105)(4×1012)= 1 in 4 x 1017, or one in 400 quadrillion.

Probability of right sperm meeting right egg: 1 in 400 quadrillion.

But we’re just getting started.

Because the existence of you here now on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events. Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age – going all the way back not just to the first Homo sapiens, first Homo erectus and Homo habilis, but all the way back to the first single-celled organism. You are a representative of an unbroken lineage of life going back 4 billion years.

Let’s not get carried away here; we’ll just deal with the human lineage. Say humans or humanoids (technically, hominins) have been around for about 3 million years, and that a generation is about 20 years. That’s 150,000 generations. Say that over the course of all human existence, the likelihood of any one human offspring to survive childhood and live to reproductive age and have at least one kid is 50:50 – 1 in 2. Then what would be the chance of your particular lineage to have remained unbroken for 150,000 generations?

Well then, that would be one in 2150,000 , which is about 1 in 1045,000– a number so staggeringly large that my head hurts just writing it down. That number is not just larger than all of the particles in the universe – it’s larger than all the particles in the universe if each particle were itself a universe.

Probability of every one of your ancestors reproducing successfully: 1 in 1045,000

But let’s think about this some more. Remember the sperm-meeting-egg argument for the creation of you, since each gamete is unique? Well, the right sperm also had to meet the right egg to create your grandparents. Otherwise they’d be different people, and so would their children, who would then have had children who were similar to you but not quite you. This is also true of your grandparents’ parents, and their grandparents, and so on till the beginning of time. If even once the wrong sperm met the wrong egg, you would not be sitting here noodling online reading fascinating articles like this one. It would be your cousin Jethro, who you never really liked anyway.

That means in every step of your lineage, the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg such that the exact right ancestor would be created that would end up creating you is one in 1200 trillion, which we’ll round down to 1000 trillion, or one quadrillion.

So now we must account for that for 150,000 generations by raising 400 quadrillion to the 150,000th power:

[4×1017]150,000 ≈ 102,640,000

That’s a ten followed by 2,640,000 zeroes, which would fill 11 volumes of a book the size of The Tao of Dating with zeroes.

To get the final answer, technically we need to multiply that by the 1045,000 , 2000 and 20,000 up there, but those numbers are so shrimpy in comparison that it almost doesn’t matter.  For the sake of completeness:

(102,640,000)(1045,000)(2000)(20,000) = 4x 102,685,007 ≈ 102,685,000

Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000

As a comparison, the number of atoms in the body of an average male (80kg, 175 lb) is 1027.  The number of atoms making up the earth is about 1050.  The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 1080.

So what’s the probability of your existing?  It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all roll, say, 550,343,279,001. The exact same number out of a trillion possible numbers.

A miracle is an event so unlikely as to be almost impossible.  By that definition, I’ve just shown that you are a miracle.

Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.

Thanks for reading! A question for you: how happy are you these days? If you’re interested in being even happier, I encourage you to apply to join the next cohort of the Happiness Engineering online course. We’ll learn practices for enhancing your long-term well-being that you can easily incorporate into your life. 

Happiness Engineering presents Brain Yoga, June 3-5

Thanks for your responses to my “How can I best serve you” email last week. Here’s some of what you suggested:

  • Brain Yoga
  • “Energetic blocking techniques, e.g. you’re working from home with other family members – how do you block their energy if they are stressed out? How do you not let toxic co-workers get to you, especially if you are super empathetic?”
  • Happiness Engineering 3-month course
  • Individualized coaching
  • More book recommendations

So I’m going to start with Brain Yoga. You know how you go into a yoga class all harried and tensed up with a zillion things on your mind, and leave it feeling calm and energized? Well that’s what we’ll be doing in Brain Yoga class. Only more powerful, and dealing directly with your mind.

Each class will be a 15-20min meditation, followed by a 30min talk, in which I teach you a technique to increase resilience, equanimity and compassion. About 45min total. If you’re wondering what that’s like, check out these recordings. Optional Q&A at the end of each session.

If you thought this was a good idea during the pandemic, it’s probably an even better idea during pandemic + riots. As this is a time for us to bring our most balanced, strong and compassionate selves to the fore, we all could use some reinforcements.

No charge for the three sessions this week. There will be a fee starting next week, because eventually, I too will have to make a living. If you want a Saturday session, let yourself be known and I’ll consider it. Sign up for one, sign up for all:

If you’d like individualized coaching, my office hours are Thursday, 2-5pm PT/5-8pm ET. Write to me directly and we’ll see how we can address your challenges, short-term or long-term.

Stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane

Dr Ali

Staying Sane in Trying Times: Seminars Apr 22-25

By popular request, I’m holding another series of Staying Sane Seminars this week.

Now, attendance at the seminars has been robust, but not exactly internet-breaking. I myself just took an online seminar on marketing, and my instructor would tell me that I need to do a better job of letting you know what these seminars are and who they’re for.

To that end, I will be sharing with you today a little bit more about my background and thinking:

  • Why these seminars are necessary
  • What qualifies me to teach you this stuff
  • Why this stuff is worthwhile
  • Who it’s for
  • What’s in these seminars anyway


Here’s the deal: the universe was kind enough to drop the most complex machine in the entire cosmos into your cranium. It’s called your brain.

Unfortunately, the universe forgot to give you an owner’s manual. So most people — and by “most” I mean 99.964% — are running around feeling feelings and thinking thoughts that don’t necessarily serve them all the time. Stuff like fear, doubt, worry, self-loathing, shame, loneliness, and various flavors of self-inflicted misery.

What makes things worse is that evolution designed our magnificent brains for survival on the African savanna 300,000 years ago. This is before the era of gridlock traffic, report deadlines, “Real Housewives” and competitive kindergarten admissions. So there’s a lot of evolutionary mismatch between what our brains are optimized for and the challenges we encounter in 2020 C.E.

That means all of us have these ancient brains that aren’t adapted to modern environments. So we don’t feel so good all the time. And that’s where I come in.

2. WHAT I HAVE TO TEACH YOU (a.k.a. who the hell is this guy anyway)

Hi there! Dr Ali here. I have been studying how the mind works for over 20 years now. As an undergraduate physics and biology major at Harvard, I did lab research in neuroscience. After that, I studied medicine and workings of the body-mind at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

One day I sat in on a class on clinical hypnotherapy to heckle it. I found that hypnotherapy was effective beyond all reason for many conditions — and massively underused. Subsequently I got certified in it not once but twice, and have been practicing clinical hypnotherapy since.

I also got twice certified in another mind-healing modality called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Like an antibiotic, it was very effective for treating specific things. And when it worked, it was mind-bendingly effective. It could do in 20 minutes what 3 months of therapy couldn’t accomplish. Like magic.

Since 1999, I have been studying and practicing yoga. Yoga is a supremely powerful way to train the mind, and fortunately, it has become more popular in recent years. These days, people think of yoga as mostly aerobics with Sanskrit. Although doing “yoga booty ballet” is still better than not doing it, the truly transformative aspects of yoga are in meditation and breathwork.

I’ve also attended dozens of personal development workshops and lectures, from the mainstream (e.g. Tony Robbins), to the offbeat (e.g. Wim Hof ice baths), to the esoteric (inner fire Tibetan tummo tantra taught by a reincarnated lama). And I read 160 nonfiction books a year, mostly on psychology and personal development.

I’m telling you all this because you need to know that these Staying Sane Seminars aren’t just any old seminar. They’re a collection of THE best, most effective practices I’ve gathered over the past 20-some years. Stuff that works astonishingly well to transform the way you feel and think.

I call it Creative Repatterning: you’re using the creativity of your own mind to change its patterns.

You know how you feel after watching a Cirque du Soleil performance? How you say “wooow” a few times, and feel like a different person? Senses elevated. Mind expanded. Think of this as the Cirque du Soleil of personal development seminars.

Definitely not ordinary.

And for the time being, they’re free. Come on down.


Who is this for? Anyone with a mind. Especially one that experiences occasional disquietude and suffering.

Access greater equanimity. Diminish stress, anxiety & worry. Build a happier you no matter what’s happening. Join me, Dr Ali Binazir, as I share with you Creative Repatterning techniques for altering your body-mind that are quite literally life-changing.

Click on the link to register via Zoom:
Wednesday, 22 April 2020, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London/6am Sydney
Thursday, 23 April 2020, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London/6am Sydney
Friday, 24 April 2020, 5pm PT/8pm ET/1am London/7am Sydney
Saturday, 25 April 2020, 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm London/stay sleeping Sydney


So far some of the topics we have covered:


  • Focus and calm the mind and clear it of thoughts (hum-sau)
  • Becoming more compassionate towards others and self (metta or loving-kindness meditation)
  • Re-processing and transforming uncomfortable emotions (Tibetan tonglen)
  • Practicing integration of the full self (Dr Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness)

Emotional self-regulation:

  • Byron Katie’s “The Work”: a crazy-effective process for dealing with challenging people and situations
  • Whack-the-Ball: diminish painful emotions instantly
  • The Volume Dial: diminish suffering or physical pain on demand
  • Breathing techniques
  • Re-framing with modal operators

Useful concepts and stories to shift your energy:

  • Spanda: the technique from Kashmiri Shaivic tantra to feel the vibration of the universe
  • Embodied cognition and the pen technique: the body leading the mind in feeling
  • Name it to tame it: Naming emotions as a way to make them more manageable
  • Meta-cognition: how to have thoughts about your thoughts  
  • How to generate and move energy through your body to change how you feel
  • Create your own happiness playlist on Spotify, or just use Dr Ali’s Moodlifter


If you’d like to get better at regulating your own feelings and developing an unshakable foundation of happiness, I’ve been working on a course that I’ll be starting soon for 20 people. If you’d like to be part of this first cohort, fill out the application here.

I have time slots for 3-4 one-on-one coaching sessions per week. They are $200/hr, or $100 for 30min. If you’d like to book one of those, click here.

Additionally, I have for you recordings of the first 6 seminars. Each one is different, with at least 80% new material:

Happiness Engineering in Trying Times 1

Staying Sane in Trying Times 2

Staying Sane in Trying Times 3

Staying Sane in Trying Times 4

Staying Sane in Trying Times 5

Staying Sane in Trying Times 6

Staying Sane in Trying Times 7

Staying Sane in Trying Times 8

Staying Sane in Trying Times 9

Staying Sane in Trying Times 10

Staying Sane in Trying Times: Seminars Apr 8-10

You have let me know that there is a need for the Staying Sane series. I hear you, so I’m scheduling three more this week. The format will be 15min of meditation, 30-40min lecture, followed by Q&A. Here’s the Zoom description: 

Access greater equanimity. Diminish stress, anxiety & worry. Build a happier you no matter what’s happening. Join me, Dr Ali Binazir, as I share with you techniques for altering your body-mind that are quite literally life-changing.

Click on the link to register via Zoom:
Thursday, 9 April 2020, 5pm PT/8pm ET/1am London/10am Sydney
Friday, 10 April 2020, 2pm PT/5pm ET/10pm London/7am Sydney
Saturday, 11 April 2020, 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm London/stupidly early Sydney

Additionally, I have for you recordings of the first 3 seminars. Each one is different, with at least 80% new material:

Happiness Engineering in Trying Times 1
Staying Sane in Trying Times 2
Staying Sane in Trying Times 3

What would be very useful to me:

  1. Feedback on how this material is helpful to you,
  2. How you’re putting the material to use.
  3. The specific challenges you’re experiencing, and how I could help solve them.  

Let me know your thoughts via email: ali (at)

Connect then, Dr Ali

Reading list for the end of the world: A balm for trying times

So you’re cooped up at home. Hopefully with people you like, but more likely with family members. You can’t go anywhere, including work, which means you may or may not be making money. Your gym is closed, so there goes that stress-management outlet. On top of that, stores seem to be chronically out of toilet paper.

Oh, and there’s this pandemic raging outside that has already infected people you know. And is out to get you, too.

If you’re feeling distressed, lonely, confused, bewildered, angry, or just plain exasperated, you are not alone. And I’ve got a list of books that can take you to a much better place. That place is actually remarkably similar to the spot where you are right now, just with a slightly different, more resilient perspective.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön (ebook, print, & audiobook). “I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: ‘Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.’ Somehow, even before I heard the Buddhist teachings, I knew that this was the spirit of true awakening. It was all about letting go of everything.” Chödrön points out that all times are difficult times, and things are always falling apart. Groundlessness is the essential feature of existence. So to the extent that we choose to “lean into the sharp points” of life instead of running away or seeking comfort, we become resilient. Blissfully short, I hand this one out to friends like candy, and re-read it at least once a year.

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, by Tara Brach (ebook, print & audiobook).”Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.” What people may not know about Brach, a well-regarded Buddhist teacher and psychologist, is the chronic disease that keeps her in a state of constant bodily pain. This may be why people experiencing hardship resonate so deeply with her writing. Think of this as a well of compassion you can come back to drink from regularly.

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, by Eckhart Tolle (ebook, print & audiobook). This is spiritual balm in book form. You may think you already know what’s in it, either because you’ve seen it everywhere (Oprah!) or you’ve read it. And you would be wrong, because this is one of those books that changes every time you read it. Not interested in being spiritually enlightened? No problem – the book is still super useful. I’ve come back to this one several times during personal crises.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl (ebook, print and audiobook). “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” A classic worth reading and re-reading.

The Choice: Embrace the Possible, by Dr Edith Eva Eger (ebook, print and audiobook). “If you asked me for the most common diagnosis among the people I treat, I wouldn’t say depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, although these conditions are all too common among those I’ve known, loved, and guided to freedom. No, I would say hunger. We are hungry. We are hungry for approval, attention, affection. We are hungry for the freedom to embrace life and to really know and be ourselves.”

Edith Eva Eger was interned at Auschwitz (spoiler alert: she survives). She was forced to dance for Josef Mengele, which is why some foreign editions of the book are called The Ballerina of Auschwitz.

After many other harrowing incidents, Eger makes it to the US, where she ends up rebuilding her life from scratch twice. Then she goes to college at 32, finishes her PhD at 50, and becomes a world-renowned psychologist. Mentored by Dr Viktor Frankl himself, she publishes this remarkable book at 90. This is a story of many things – trauma, survival, luck, resilience, regret, guilt, triumph – that is as uplifting as it is wise. Read it to live a few extra lifetimes through Dr Eger, and check out her YouTube videos too.

Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come, by Richard Preston (ebook, print and audiobook). This is an astonishing book. The reporting, the writing, the pacing, the compassion, the scientific accuracy are world-class. It reads like a thriller, except that all the characters are real and everything actually happened.

The story of the outbreak of Ebola virus is one that not enough people (i.e. less than 100% of the population) are familiar with, presumably because it happened over there, to those people. Now it’s become clearer that in an interconnected world, there is no over there and those people — the whole planet is your backyard. Preston tells the story of how a virus can jump from animals to humans, and then spread like — well, like a really contagious virus. Aided by poor sanitation, local custom and superstition, mistrust, institutional inertia, and lack of data on a new pathogen, Ebola cut a swath of death and terror through Africa. But the coordinated courage of frontline medical workers (many of whom sacrificed their lives), public health officials, and top-notch scientists eventually contained the contagion.

COVID-19 does has neither the contagion profile nor the 80% fatality rate of Ebola. But this book’s an excellent case study of what happens when a new zoonotic disease rips through an immunologically naïve population. You’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on with corona virus, and thank your lucky stars that it ain’t nearly as bad as it could be.

An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System – A Tale in Four Lives, by Matt Richtel (ebook, print and audiobook). Every day, billions of malign agents are trying to kill you, and fail only because your immune system is on guard. How to recognize and ward off the infinite pathogens that could invade and lay you low? How to tell invaders from self? And how to put the brakes on itself when it’s in full defense mode?

The inner workings the immune system should make you gasp at something so insanely intricate and effective. Now is a good time to get acquainted with the system that saves our asses every minute of every day of our lives.

Richtel compellingly interweaves the science and history of immunology into the lives of four patients, each dealing with different aspects of immune function & dysfunction: overreaction, underreaction, recognizing self as enemy, recognizing enemy as self, and much more.

It’s an ambitious premise, and he pulls it off magnificently; I read the whole thing in one sitting. What makes the book supremely compelling is the vivid story of his childhood friend Jason’s cancer treatment. The result is an unusually well-rounded psychological portrait of a patient, along with the tortuous course of his treatment that reads like a detective story. These are poignant tales; I found myself crying (and laughing) multiple times.

Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, by Paul A. Offit, M.D. (ebook & print). Dr Maurice Hilleman arguably had the greatest positive influence on human health in the history of the world. By number of human lives saved, he’s the #1 scientist of the 20th century, hands down. Yet hardly anyone knows his name.

Through ingenuity, drive, and sheer chutzpah, he developed not one, not two, but NINE modern vaccines: to prevent measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, Hep A, Hep B, pneumococcus, meningococcus, and Haemophilus influenzae type B. Most remain in use to this day, and have collectively prevented billions of cases of disease and death. Crazy thing is even I had never heard of him even though I went to med school – a crime!

Dr Paul Offit, himself a prominent vaccinologist, does a fantastic job of telling the story of the poor orphan from seriously hardscrabble Montana beginnings. Read it not just for a gripping story of the triumph of 20th century medicine and one helluva mensch, but also to appreciate the gargantuan boon that vaccines are: where they come from, how they’re made, how they work, and how many lives they save. Get one copy for yourself, and another for your favorite anti-vaxxer friend. Required reading for all humans who dislike dying of preventable disease.

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, by Susan David (ebook, print & audiobook). Full of practical, immediately usable strategies, this gem of a book will keep you in good stead no matter what’s happening in your life, especially in time of crisis. Her TED talk based on Emotional Agility is supremely moving and uplifting, with 6.7 million views as of this writing. She also has a March 2020 45min interview with Chris Anderson, the director of TED, on specific strategies for mentally coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Great Courses by the Teaching Company. What happens when you go to universities, cherry-pick their top-rated professors, and make audio and video courses based on what they teach best? The Great Courses, that’s what: a candy-store of classes on everything from Astronomy and Archeology to Roman history, Physics, Psychology, Photography, Secret Societies and Zoology. At $20/month for access to their entire catalog, there are few deals in this world that make me happier. Free to join for the first month.

The breadth of knowledge and richness of choice makes it hard to find a good place to start. As a consumer of dozens of their courses over the past 20 years, I suggest you start with the music courses of Professor Robert Greenberg, quite possibly the greatest lecturer alive. The breadth of knowledge and wit of the man is breathtaking. Start with his course on opera or Bach and the High Baroque. Right now I’m really enjoying Music and the Brain, with Aniruddh Patel, and Meteorology: An Introduction to the Wonders of the Weather with Robert Fovell.

Jack Kornfield, Ph.D. is the closest thing we have to an American Buddha. In the first hour of this interview with Tim Ferriss, he shares strategies for mental resilience and reducing anxiety, drawn from his 40+ years of experience as a meditation teacher and psychologist. All his books are fabulous, too.

Happiness Engineering for Trying Times, by yours truly Dr Ali Binazir. Robust relationships. Meaningful work. Sound sleep. Mental Fitness. Physical Fitness. The Five Pillars of Human Thriving are always important, but perhaps never more so than when you’re locked down at home for weeks. Here are some principles & practices for staying sane, healthy & productive. Download my 56min seminar here.

9 Simple Strategies for Reading More Books: How I Read 130+ Books a Year

I have a mini-confession for you: I love bookstores. Actually, that’s not entirely true: I am crazy for bookstores. They exert a gravitational pull on me like a black hole pulls in a photon and obliterates all signs of its existence, putting a stop to time. My brain goes ooooh as I see all the shiny new books and browse the little treasuresI vanish into a sea of stimulus, novelty, and discovery. But with the ecstasy there also came the agony of not being able to read all of these insanely cool books. When would I find out about Operation Mincemeat, the successful British disinformation campaign against the Nazis? Or master the physics of cooking? Or delve into the 900-page lives of John Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton (thanks a lot, Ron Chernow)? I would add them to my Amazon “Interesting books” list, which someday my future self would no doubt tackle all 640 titles thereof. And then, there were the 100+ unread books in my own library. They occupied three shelves in my bedroom, covered by a towel so I would feel less guilt when I passed by them (true!). Visitors assumed that it must be something shameful I was concealing. They weren’t wrong. My name is Ali, and I am a non-read-book hoarder. One of these books sitting there diligently gathering dust was Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Prof Daniel Siegel (ebook & print). I remember purchasing it enthusiastically several centuries ago, fully intending to read it right away. And then picking it up again a year later and getting to page 40 before putting it back on the shelf again, where it could capture dust and radiate guilt. One day, I picked it up, looked at the purchase receipt doubling as a bookmark (still on page 40), and realized the book had been on my shelf for six freakin’ years. Out of a mixture of pique and embarrassment, I just decided to drop everything and read the damn book. Holy cow! Here was a book that provided a whole new framework for mental health. It was enlightening, revolutionary, revelatory: chaos and rigidity as the pathological ends of the mental health spectrum, and integration as the desirable mean.* That epiphany made me realize the magnitude of the treasures hiding in the open on my bookshelves and reading lists. I fully appreciate Umberto Eco’s point about the benefits of the antilibrary of unread books, but this was getting ridiculous. Page 40 boy no more; I was going to read more. If I read 100 books a year—just 2 a week—I would not only go through all the unread books on my shelves, but also be able to read all the other books I was hankering for. So in 2016, I read 100 books. In 2017, 132 books. In 2018, I set a goal of 156, and ended up reading 170. According to Pew Research, the average American read 4 books last year. If you’re reading this now, I’m assuming you really like to read books, but somehow just don’t. And whether your annual book count falls closer to 4 or 400, you’d like to increase it. This article will help you do that. Before you make any rash decisions about not being able to do this because 170 books wtf man, some unfair advantages that enable me to read a lot:
  • I have designed my life to make writing and reading books my job. Your probably have a different job.
  • I read 2-4x faster than average, thanks to some mixture of talent and training.
  • I use my fallow time to read (see below).
  • I’m a single, self-employed man without children, wife, or lawn care duties, so I have chunks of uninterrupted time.
In 2015, I read a mere 48 books, and thought that was a lot. If you had told me I’d triple that number in a few years, I would have asked you to share what you were smoking. But I believe that by applying the strategies I’m about to enumerate, you can easily double or triple your yearly book count—even if you have a 9-5 job, spouse, and 2.3 children. These strategies work with the life you have right now. My goal is to help you jettison your excuses into low earth orbit so you get to enjoy reading all those books you’ve always wanted to read. Ready? Let’s do this. 1. MAKE READING BOOKS A CONSCIOUS PRIORITY Right now, the main reason you’re not reading as many books as you want is not that you can’t, or don’t have the time. It’s that you have not made it a priority. In the meantime, you have made other things priorities that you value less than reading, consciously or not. Noodling on social media. Reading random online articles that you encounter on said social media. Posting photos of your cat, dog, kid, or food on social media. Watching TV. Attending bullshit work meetings. Marathon video game sessions. Pulpy magazines. And did I mention social media? Yeah, social media. I hear ya—if you don’t attend the bullshit meetings, you can get fired. But the rest? If you want to get serious about reading more books, it’s time we make book reading a conscious priority. As in, this means a lot to me and I’m going to make it a permanent part of my life. As in, I only get 460,000 waking hours in this life, and every minute I spend doing one thing I kinda like is a minute I can’t get to do the thing I really like. As in, I love reading, dammit, and I’m going to make it a priority. Once you make this shift, from reading only when all the other important stuff is done, to reading being the important stuff, from giving it the dregs of your time to making it your prime-time activity, everything changes. And really, short of your relationships and life-sustaining activities, what’s more important than learning? One more thing before launching into the rest of the strategies: Go easy on yourself. Remember that reading is a joy and a privilege. We live in this totally bananas time in history when we have access to unlimited books for free or nearly so. In the Middle Ages, books were expensive enough to be priceless, and no one but the elite had access to them. Later, people like Voltaire and Charles Dickens had to choose between food and books. So instead of thinking must read more books high-achieving reading Hulk smash and making it one more thing to be competitive and neurotic about, think whooaaa I get to read. A privilege and a joy. Let’s get started. 2. SCHEDULE DEDICATED READING TIME The #1 way to signal to the universe your intention to read is to schedule it in your calendar. You mean like along the grocery runs, picking up the kids, and bullshit meetings, doc? Why yes! That’s what we do with important stuff: we put it on the calendar. That’s how we make it a priority that gets done. If you’re not serious about reading, we can stop right here and spare you the remaining 3000 words of this article. But if you are serious, and reading is a joy and a privilege for you, let’s get some time blocked out for you. Like, right now. Get your calendar, and block out at least three 30-minute reading sessions for this week. I have my dedicated reading time first thing in the morning, after showering and meditating. That way it gets done, and any additional reading time during the day is just gravy. I recommend that you select a time slot that you can stick to on a regular basis: right after lunch; right after putting the kids to bed; before everyone wakes up, whatever. Just make it consistent. If you can do 3 days a week, do that. If you can only 1 day, do that. The point is to improve from where you are right now, and build on it later. For now, I just want you to show an upward trend. If you’re spending zero time reading, any dedicated time is an improvement. Even one single page in the morning. And once you do get started, you’ll find that adding more time gets even easier. I have total faith in you. Let’s go, you bookbeast you. 3. RE-ALLOCATE TIME I used to be a semi-serious poker player. Sessions would gobble up acres of time: 4-8 hours for an evening cash session; entire days for tournaments. Once I stopped playing poker, all that time could now be spent doing something more worthwhile, like reading. What’s the poker in your life—your big time-suck that returns little on the investment, the guilty pleasure that’s maybe more guilt than pleasure? Is it watching TV? Playing video games? Noodling on social media? Surfing Wikipedia? Whatever it is, realize that you’re already spending that time, so the “I don’t have time” excuse is bullshit. Now consciously decide to re-allocate that time to reading instead. If you’re serious about reading, here are some tactics:
  • Get rid of your TV entirely if you have one. It’s easily the most pernicious time-waster in every household. I haven’t had one since high school, and seriously have no idea how people get anything done when 400 channels just sit there and say it’s Shark Week again and pretty much always watch meeeeee, for which I have no defense.
  • Cancel your Netflix subscription. After you watch the Wild, Wild Country documentary. Damn.
  • Get rid of your video game console. Unless you’re 13 and under.
  • Install the News Feed Eradicator extension to your internet browser.
  • Install website-blocking extensions to your browser, like RescueTime and StayFocused.
  • Delete all compulsively addictive apps from your phone: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Just do it. You won’t miss them, and trust me—anything else you do is better than spending time on those apps. Especially reading. This could reclaim you 20-90 minutes a day, depending on how addicted you are to those apps.
  • Get the Goodreads app for smartphone or tablet. It’ll help you read more books. And follow me there if you want to hear about my book recommendations.
Even if you do just one of these, you can easily recover 30-60min of daily time to devote to reading. Which raises the question: How much can you cover in 30min/day? The average educated adult reads at a speed of about 300 words per minute (wpm). That’s 18,000 words per hour. Let’s say the average serious book such as The Tao of Dating is around 280 pages and 70,000 words (ebook, print & audio). If you read half an hour a day, that’s around 180 hours/year, or 3.2 million words. That’s 46 books, yo! On just half an hour a day!! More than 4 standard deviations above the American mean of 12 per year!!! I’m running out of exclamation marks here, but the point is that the little bits of time add up. Book reading is an investment—unlike, say, all that time spent on social media, games and other compulsions. And you don’t have to quit all of your time-suck guilty pleasures to become a champion book reader. Assuming you sleep 8 hours a night, 30 minutes represents just 3% of your waking hours. Can you commit just 3% of your time to doing something you not only love, but that also brings massive positive returns to your life? Seems like a decent deal to me. 4. USE FALLOW TIME If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “I don’t have time to read,” I’d have many dollars. So we need to send this excuse to its swift and everlasting demise by proving that there’s all kinds of fallow time in your day that you can repurpose to reading time. a) Commuting to work. One day when I was visiting my friend Ben in Chicago, he was kind enough to drop me off to my meeting on his way to work. I asked him if he listened to any audiobooks on his 20-minute commute. “Nah, it’s not enough time for me to get into anything.” Are you kidding me? It’s the perfect time! The average American commutes 25 minutes to work each way, for a total of 50 minutes a day, five days a week. That adds up to 12,500 minutes a year (which, by the way, is totally bananas, and probably making you all kinds of miserable without your knowing it, which I will talk about extensively in my Happiness Engineering book. But I digress). If you commute by bus or train, you can read 53 books in that time (1 a week!). If you drive, you can listen to audiobooks and, at 8-10 hours per book, get through 20-26 of those. This is a substantial—nay, gargantuan chunk of time, bigger than your 30min daily reading allocation! b) Waiting in line. Stuck at the DMV or passport office? Waiting for your turn at the hair salon, or for your oil change to finish? These are perfect times to get in a nice chunk of reading. Each one of them may not be much, but put together, they add up to a lot. To make this work, ABAB: Always Bring a Book. Or read on your smartphone’s Kindle app like I do, which means you’ll always have 5 million books on you. c) Running. I’ve gotten through many an audiobook while running. It helps if it’s a lighter read, say a memoir like Amy Poehler’s hilariously heartfelt Yes, Please (ebook, print, and audio), vs a computationally complex read, like Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (ebook & print), or Behave by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print), which is, incidentally, the greatest book I’ve ever read. d) Traveling. Airport bookstores have noticed: people read while traveling. I use earplugs to minimize distraction, improve concentration, and save my eardrums. Reading on Kindle means I don’t have to carry extra weight on board. Those 5 million books can take up space. e) Right before falling asleep. Bedtime is a good for a few more minutes of readage. I keep a non-taxing, not-too-exciting book bedside. A thriller will keep you up, so you may want to choose something less stimulating. This is how I slogged through the overlong but still excellent Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers (ebook & print). Some elephants are best eaten one bite at a time. 5. GET INTO AUDIOBOOKS I listen to an audiobook every time that I go for a run or get on a treadmill. This kills two birds with one stone: it allows me to consume a cool book, and it makes me more motivated to run so I can listen to a cool book! I noticed that the better the book, the more likely I was to run. Feel free to borrow that motivational technique. Less fun than running is driving in California, but a good audiobook can soften the sting. The 60-minute slog from Santa Monica to Downtown LA was an opportunity to listen to more of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, the greatest audiobook and memoir I’ve ever listened to, and Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, also the greatest memoir ever. Depending on how much running and driving I’m doing, I get through 1-2 audiobooks a month. You can listen to them during your commute, run, walk, or other low cognitive-load activity that does not involve heavy limb-shredding machinery. I subscribe to Audible’s monthly audiobook program, which is exactly the right amount of audiobooks for me. At $14.95 a month, it also saves me a bunch on the mind-blowing Great Courses, which usually cost several times that. The key to listening to audiobooks while driving is to turn the book on immediately, regardless of the length of drive. Even those 10-minute jaunts add up. I’ve been doing this for so long that I honestly have no idea whether my car radio works or not. What times could you be enjoying listening to an audiobook? 6. READ BOOKS, NOT ARTICLES I swear I’m not looking over your shoulder right now, but if you’re reading this sentence, it’s safe to say you read articles online. So if you’re already spending time reading something, make them books, not articles (present company excepted). Articles are like bubble gum; books, like main courses, meals, or whole harvests. This means chucking both magazines and online pieces. I do read some articles, especially those in The New Yorker, the world’s greatest magazine. However, I have made a point of reading books instead of articles, and never reading news if I can help it. Wait what, no news? You choose to be ignorant about your world, doc? See, I subscribed to The Economist for over 15 years, and still think it’s great. But one day, I realized my waist-high stack of old issues was the equivalent of, like, 50 books. As much as I appreciated The Economist’s diligence in keeping me abreast of developments in Congo (still warring!), the Middle East (still quarreling!), and world economy (still fluctuating!), I realized that it was mostly a cloud atlas, obsolete as soon as it was printed. Sub sole nihil novum, said some wise man with much better Latin than mine, and he had a point. There’s nothing new under the sun; news should justly be called olds. One thing is up; another thing is down. The names change but the story is the same. Unless you use the news to take action (e.g. enlist for military service, run for office, evade a hurricane or dump bad stocks), then it is literally useless to you. And, while we’re on the Happiness Engineering website, I’ll remind you that most news is negative and designed to make you miserable. Reading good books about stuff you actually care about will make you much happier in the long run. 7. READ A LITTLE FASTER So we calculated that reading for 30 minutes a day at 300wpm translates to around 46 books a year. It follows that if you increase your reading speed, you stand to read even more books. Let me say here that I don’t believe in “speed-reading.” You can scan the words faster and faster, but there’s an upper limit beyond which you’re just skimming text without understanding anything. That said, most of us are reading at far below the upper limit of our speed. You can stand to increase that speed by moving your eyes across the page faster. Train yourself to do that by following a finger or pen across the page, and gradually increasing the speed up to your limit. There are also apps to train you to read faster. I recommend that you use them not to read books, but to train yourself to move your eyes faster. One app is Quickreader, which highlights text at the speed you specify. I suggest you use it to overclock your brain to read at some absurd speed like 2000 wpm, which will go by in an incomprehensible blur. After that, dial back to some fast-but-not-ridiculous speed like 750wpm, which feels leisurely in comparison. But that’s over double normal reading speed! High-five, homie. Another useful app is Kindle’s WordRunner, available on Kindle Fire devices and Kindle for Android apps (but not the iOS Apple Kindle, for some strange reason). This app runs words by in one spot at the speed you specify. Once again, practice overclocking your brain at some stupidly fast speed. Then go back to reading a normal book, only faster than you did before. I dropped $50 on a Kindle Fire 7 just so I could get this feature. To improve your speed without having to download any new software, go to the Spreeder app, paste some practice text, and go to town. And if you want to get really serious, the same company makes software for $80 called 7 Speed Reading that will increase your reading speed. I found it a useful training tool which helped me improve my eye-fixation speed, and to get rid of some bad habits like back-skipping. Also note that you will read different books at different speeds. Computationally complex texts that require thought and processing may take 2-5x longer to read than the average book, while a pulpy novel or memoir may take half the time. Remember that it’s not a race in any case: you still want to enjoy the book and absorb its contents. A joy and a privilege! 8. READ ONLY BOOKS YOU REALLY LIKE When a book is fun and compelling, I read it quickly. When it’s boring, pointless, or poorly written, it takes forever. So you know what I do now? I only read books I really like! Crazy, I know. But you’d be shocked and amazed how many people feel like they need to get through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as if it’s some badge of honor. Life’s too short, yo! Even at 150 books a year, I’m going to get through at most another 6000 books in this lifetime. That’s not even 0.1% of what’s in the Library of Congress, so these books had better be awesome. There are enough stupendously great books out there such that you don’t ever have to read a crappy one. If partway through, you find a book tepid, you have my blessing to abandon it for something that’s great. So check out the Amazon and Goodreads ratings and reviews, and stick with the great stuff. Here are some lists of the best books I read last year: the most useful, most important, and just plain insanely great. This is one of the reasons I’m starting a podcast called The Ideaverse, which showcases truly extraordinary, mind-bending, life-altering books. Sign up on this website to be notified when it launches. 9. TRACK YOUR READING AND SET YOURSELF A CHALLENGE One way of signaling to the universe that you’re getting serious about reading is to set yourself a reading challenge: “In the next year, I will read 24 books.” Then keep track of your reading on your smartphone’s Notes app or some notebook. The management god Peter Drucker is famous for saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” Now that you are measuring your reading, you have a much better chance of improving it. An app like Goodreads allows you to both track your reading and set a public challenge. Having the challenge out in the open adds a smidgen of accountability which may make you more likely to adhere to it. And, let’s face it, how else are you going to brag about all the cool books you read? Especially ebooks, which do not show up on any shelf. CONCLUSION: HOW ARE YOU SPENDING YOUR LIFE? Not so long ago, I made a list of things I really enjoyed doing—the things that make life worthwhile, y’know? On the list: attending classical music concerts, running, dancing, cooking, socializing with friends, reading, traveling, and a bunch of other stuff that I strangely was not doing very often. Huh? I had time, and I could afford the activities. But somehow I was spending my days doing other things far less fulfilling. Forces other than myself had decided how I would spend my life, and I had tacitly consented. So I made a deliberate choice to do more of the stuff that made me happy. And now, I’m happier! And devouring books like some gigantic book-devouring termite from outer space (much cooler than a wimpy little book worm). If there’s a book I want to read, I put it in the queue and know I will get to reading it soon enough. I don’t have to do this. I get to do this. A joy and a privilege. I hope this article also impels you to take stock of how you are spending your time, and to deliberately incorporate into your life the activities that bring you joy and meaning. If reading is one of those activities, test and see which strategies in this article work for you, and report back to me! And if you have effective strategies of your own, please share them in the comments. Read on, my fellow super space-termites, AB PS: Most of the product links in this article are affiliate links. This means that every time you purchase through those links, you support the blog by having several shiny pennies deposited into my Amazon account. That allows me to buy more great books (currently about 20 a month) and tell you about them. I am infinitely grateful for your support! *Dan Siegel should be at least as famous a psychiatrist as Sigmund Freud, with the difference that Siegel’s work actually makes sense, helps heal people, and is backed by science. Freud, on the other hand, is only one letter off from fraud. RESOURCES Read faster: I got this software called 7 Speed Reading in 2014, and found it useful. It has drills for gradually increasing your eye-scanning speed, your wordspan (the number of words you can take in per eye fixation), and other stuff that will make you read faster. It’s sophisticated software, and it worked for me. Great books: If you are interested in reading some truly excellent books, here are the top 13 from what I read last year. You may have noticed by now that I only read nonfiction. For full reviews of each, go here.
  • Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio).
  • Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print).
  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print).
  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio).
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print).
  • The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm (ebook & print).
  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams (ebook & print).
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio).
  • Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses.
And the two greatest books I’ve ever read:
  • Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print). Tied for my Greatest Book Ever.
  • The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, revised 2012) by Richard Rhodes (ebook, print & audio). This is the greatest nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, so others seem to have liked it, too.

Happiness Engineering: The 5 Pillars of Happiness, Helsinki Edition (audio)

I just gave a 45min talk entitled Happiness Engineering: Redefining Success in an Age of Anxiety, Greed, and Self-Inflicted Misery at the Magnesia Festival in Helsinki. It’s an extended version of my TEDx talk on the topic, in which I go into more specific recommendations for improving each of the Five Pillars of Happiness:

  1. Relationships
  2. Meaningful Work/Life Purpose
  3. Sleep
  4. Mental Fitness
  5. Bodily Fitness

If you are a fan of yoga, meditation and dance and can free your schedule for the first week of August, I highly recommend the Magnesia Festival. Many thanks to Mari Rasimus, Kaisa Kärkkäinen, Asaf Peled and Oded Peled for inviting me and taking such good care of the speakers!

You can download the MP3 file for Happiness Engineering here.