YUVAL NOAH HARARI is the author of the international bestsellers Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He received his PhD from the University of Oxford in 2002 and is now a lecturer in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Yuval has twice won the Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality, in 2009 and 2012. He has published numerous articles, including “Armchairs, Coffee, and Authority: Eye-witnesses and Flesh-witnesses Speak About War, 1100–2000,” for which he won the Society for Military History’s Moncado Award. His current research focuses on macro-historical questions: What is the relation between history and biology? What is the essential difference between Homo sapiens and other animals? Is there justice in history? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded?
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I think it is the most prophetic book of the 20th century, and the most profound discussion of happiness in modern Western philosophy. It had a deep impact on my thinking about politics and happiness. And since, for me, the relationship between power and happiness is the most important question in history, Brave New World has also reshaped my understanding of history.
Huxley wrote the book in 1931, with Communism and Fascism entrenched in Russia and Italy, Nazism on the rise in Germany, militaristic Japan embarking on its war of conquest in China, and the entire world gripped by the Great Depression. Yet Huxley managed to see through all these dark clouds and envision a future society without wars, famines, and plagues, enjoying uninterrupted peace, abundance, and health. It is a consumerist world, which gives completely free rein to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, and whose supreme value is happiness. It uses advanced biotechnology and social engineering to make sure that everyone is always content and no one has any reason to rebel. There is no need of a secret police, concentration camps, or a Ministry of Love à la Orwell’s 1984. Indeed, Huxley’s genius consists in showing that you could control people far more securely through love and pleasure than through violence and fear.
When people read George Orwell’s 1984, it is clear that he is describing a frightening nightmare world, and the only question left open is “How do we avoid reaching such a terrible state?” Reading Brave New World is a far more disconcerting experience, because it is obvious that there must be something dreadfully wrong, but you are hard pressed to put your finger on it. The world is peaceful and prosperous, and everyone is supremely satisfied all the time. What could possibly be wrong with that?
The truly amazing thing is that when Huxley wrote Brave New World back in 1931, both he and his readers knew perfectly well that he was describing a dangerous dystopia. Yet many readers today might easily mistake it for a utopia. Our consumerist society is actually geared to realizing Huxley’s vision. Today, happiness has become the supreme value, and we increasingly use biotechnology and social engineering to ensure maximum satisfaction to all citizen-customers. You want to know what could be wrong with that? Read the dialogue between Mustapha Mond, the World Controller for Western Europe, and John the Savage, who lived all his life on a native reservation in New Mexico, and who is the only man in London who still knows anything about Shakespeare or God.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
When going on an elevator or escalator, trying to stand on the tips of my toes.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
After I published Sapiens in Hebrew and it became a bestseller in Israel, I thought it would be easy to publish an English translation of it. I translated it and sent it to various publishers, but all rejected it out of hand. I still preserve a particularly humiliating rejection letter I got from one very prominent publishing house. So, I then tried to self-publish it on Amazon. The quality was quite dreadful, and it sold just a couple of hundred copies. I was very frustrated for some time.
Then I realized that the DIY method just doesn’t work, and that instead of looking for shortcuts, I needed to do it the hard and long way and rely on professional help. My husband, Itzik, who is a far better businessman than me, took over. He found us a wonderful literary agent, Deborah Harris, whose advice led us to hire an outstanding editor, Haim Watzman, who helped me rewrite and polish the text. With their assistance, we got a contract from Harvill Secker (a division of Random House). My editor there, Michal Shavit, turned the text into a real gem, and hired the best independent PR agency in the UK book market—‐ Riot Communications—to do the PR campaign. I make a point of mentioning their names because it was only thanks to the professional work of all these experts that Sapiens became an international bestseller. Without them, it would have remained an unknown rough diamond, like so many other excellent books that nobody has heard about. From the initial failure, I learned the limits of my own abilities, and the importance of going to the experts instead of looking for shortcuts.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? Nobody really knows what the world and the job market will look like in 2040, hence nobody knows what to teach young people today. Consequently, it is likely that most of what you currently learn at school will be irrelevant by the time you are 40.
So what should you focus on? My best advice is to focus on personal resilience and emotional intelligence. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. In the first part of life you built a stable identity and acquired personal and professional skills; in the second part of life you relied on your identity and skills to navigate the world, earn a living, and contribute to society. By 2040, this traditional model will become obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves again and again. The world of 2040 will be a very different world from today, and an extremely hectic world. The pace of change is likely to accelerate even further. So people will need the ability to learn all the time and to reinvent themselves repeatedly—even at age 60.
Yet change is usually stressful, and after a certain age, most people don’t like to change. When you are 16, your entire life is change, whether you like it or not. Your body is changing, your mind is changing, your relationships are changing—everything is in flux. You are busy inventing yourself. By the time you are 40, you don’t want change. You want stability. But in the twenty-first century, you won’t be able to enjoy that luxury. If you try to hold on to some stable identity, some stable job, some stable worldview, you will be left behind, and the world will fly by you. So people will need to be extremely resilient and emotionally balanced to sail through this never-ending storm, and to deal with very high levels of stress.
The problem is that it is very hard to teach emotional intelligence and resilience. It is not something you can learn by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The current educational model, devised during the 19th century Industrial Revolution, is bankrupt. But so far we haven’t created a viable alternative.
So don’t trust the adults too much. In the past, it was a safe bet to trust adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the 21st century is going to be different. Whatever the adults have learned about economics, politics, or relationships may be outdated. Similarly, don’t trust technology too much. You must make technology serve you, instead of you serving it. If you aren’t careful, technology will start dictating your aims and enslaving you to its agenda.
So you have no choice but to really get to know yourself better. Know who you are and what you really want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. But this advice has never been more urgent than in the 21st century. Because now you have competition. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the government are all relying on big data and machine learning to get to know you better and better. We are not living in the era of hacking computers— we are living in the era of hacking humans. Once the corporations and governments know you better than you know yourself, they could control and manipulate you and you won’t even realize it. So if you want to stay in the game, you have to run faster than Google. Good luck!
In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to? What new realizations and/or approaches helped?
I have become much better at saying no to invitations. Which is a matter of survival, because I get dozens of invitations a week. To tell the truth, though, I’m still quite lousy at refusing. I feel so bad saying no. So I outsourced it. My husband, who is much better not only at business but also at refusing, does most of the hard work for me. And now we hired an assistant, who spends hours every day just refusing people.
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
By far, the best investment of time I ever made was to do a ten-day Vipassana meditation (www.dhamma.org) retreat. As a teenager and later as a student, I was a very troubled and restless person. The world made no sense to me, and I got no answers to the big questions I had about life. In particular, I didn’t understand why there was so much suffering in the world and in my own life, and what could be done about it. All I got from the people around me and from the books I read were elaborate fictions: religious myths about gods and heavens, nationalist myths about the motherland and its historical mission, romantic myths about love and adventure, or capitalist myths about economic growth and how buying and consuming stuff will make me happy. I had enough sense to realize that these were probably all fictions, but I had no idea how to find the truth.
While I was doing my doctorate at Oxford, a good friend nagged me for a year to try a Vipassana meditation course. I thought it was some New Age mumbo jumbo, and since I had no interest in hearing yet another mythology, I declined to go. But after a year of patient nudging, he got me to give it a chance.
Previously I knew very little about meditation, and presumed it must involve all kinds of complicated mystical theories. I was therefore amazed by how practical the teaching turned out to be. The teacher at the course, S. N. Goenka, instructed the students to sit with crossed legs and closed eyes, and to focus all their attention on the breath coming in and out of their nostrils. “Don’t do anything,” he kept saying. “Don’t try to control the breath or to breathe in any particular way. Just observe the reality of the present moment, whatever it may be. When the breath comes in, you just know: Now the breath is coming in. When the breath goes out, you just know: Now the breath is going out. And when you lose your focus and your mind starts wandering in memories and fantasies, you just know: Now my mind has wandered away from the breath.” It was the most important thing anybody has ever told me.
The first thing I learned by observing my breath was that notwithstanding all the books I had read and all the classes I had attended at university, I knew almost nothing about my mind, and I had very little control over it. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t observe the reality of my breath coming in and out of my nostrils for more than ten seconds before the mind wandered away! For years I lived under the impression that I was the master of my life and the CEO of my own personal brand. But a few hours of meditation were enough to show me that I hardly had any control of myself. I was not the CEO—I was barely the gatekeeper. I was asked to stand at the gateway of my body—the nostrils—and just observe whatever comes in or goes out. Yet after a few moments I lost my focus and abandoned my post. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience.
As the course progressed, students were taught to observe not just their breath, but sensations throughout their body: heat, pressure, pain, and so forth. The technique of Vipassana is based on the insight that the flow of mind is closely interlinked with bodily sensations. Between me and the world, there are always bodily sensations. I never react to events in the outside world. I always react to the sensations in my own body. When the sensation is unpleasant, I react with aversion. When the sensation is pleasant, I react with craving for more. Even when we think we react to what another person had done, or to a distant childhood memory, or to the global financial crisis, the truth is we always react to a tension in the shoulder or a spasm in the pit of the stomach.
You want to know what anger is? Well, just observe the sensations that arise and pass in your body while you are angry. I was 24 years old at the time I went to this retreat, and had probably experienced anger 10,000 times previously, yet I never bothered to observe how anger actually felt. Whenever I was angry, I focused on the object of my anger—something somebody else did or said— rather than on the physical reality of the anger.
I think I learned more about myself and about humans in general by observing my sensations for those ten days than I learned in my whole life before. And to do so, I didn’t have to accept any story, theory, or mythology. I just had to observe reality as it is. The most important thing I realized was that the deep source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind.
Since that first course in 2000, I began practicing Vipassana for two hours
every day, and each year I take a long meditation retreat for a month or two. It is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality. At least for two hours a day, I actually observe reality as it is, while for the other 22 hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and funny cat videos. Without the focus and clarity provided by this practice, I could not have written Sapiens and Homo Deus.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
I observe my breath for a few seconds or minutes.