Book Notes – A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

A friend of mine lent A Million Miles in a Thousand Years to me a few weeks ago, and to be honest I didn't think much of it at the time. Donald Miller is the author. He came to fame with Blue Like Jazz, a semi-religious memoir. He only writes memoirs.

Regardless, I take book recommendations from good friends seriously, so I cracked into the book. And for some reason, I was hooked. It's not a book that I would picture myself enjoying, but I sailed through easily over a weekend.

It's an enjoyable read if only for the prose, but I took a few awesome lessons out that serve as a new lens (or mental model) for how I look at the world.​

What Is The Main Point Of This Book?

Donald Miller is a writer, a storyteller. His biggest point in the entire book is that too many of us aren't living good stories. If we were characters in our own book, most of us wouldn't even care to read to the end of it (to say nothing of others wanting to read our stories). He believes that we all need to figure out how to live better stories, and relates his journey of how he came to do exactly that.

What Does This Book Share That Similar Books Do Not?

All of the lessons are framed through Miller's own life, a midlife crisis-esque tale. He's writing a movie about his life when his co-writers and him realize that Donald in the movie needs to be much more interesting than the real life Donald, because the real life Donald is...boring. He doesn't go for what he wants, he lives a small life. This realization puts Miller on a new path.

Who Should Read This Book?

If you've ever dealt with depression, felt stagnant, or wondered why some people seem to live better stories than others, this book is for you. Miller is that exact person and overcomes every challenge in his own way, which is very illustrative for others (myself included).

Who Should NOT Read This Book?

If you're already living an epic and interesting life, where you go after what you want and throw yourself into stories and memories with reckless abandon, this book isn't for you. If you don't want to read about someone who struggled with depression and  is quite religious, this book also isn't for you.

Note: I'm not religious, but I didn't find his religious language too bothersome​

What Skills Will This Book Help You Develop?

The book doesn't help you develop skills per se, but through the framework of story, you'll learn what propels the characters in a book or movie forward. You can use that framework as a way to put yourself into more interesting stories in your own life, or just as an interesting way to look at your life trajectory.

What Part Of The Book Was Most Illustrative Or Memorable?

Miller's realization that characters do not cho0se to advance or change, that the must be forced into change was insightful. He did this in his own life by committing to an active hiking journey to Peru while out of shape simply because he thought a woman was hot. It was the stakes he needed to commit to living a different story in his life.

If You Only Have 10 Minutes, Which Part Should You Read?

There are a few great stories about biking across America and committing to Machu Picchu (because a girl wanted to go) that were fun reads.

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Wall Art For Men

Sometime between graduating college and getting my first place I looked at my walls and realized that I had a lot of old, outdated, and cheesy posters making up the bulk of the decor in my room. While I still like Hendrix and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I didn’t need them plastered on my wall anymore. I wanted something more unique that spoke to my personality more than a couple posters of famous rockers (however badass their music might be).

Have a Friend Who’s An Artist? Commission a Piece From Them

It sounds fancy to have a piece of art ‘commissioned,’ but all you’re doing is just asking a buddy to create something badass for you. If you don’t have any artist friends, chances are good you know someone who’s into photography. Grab a photo of theirs and get it printed, then build a cheap frame to house the print and you’re all set.

A Few Awesome Wall Art Shops

  • Dna 11 - For the science geeks – get your DNA sequenced and put on canvas.
  • Etsy - Just search for “wall art.”
  • Great Big Canvas – Endless styles here, you can browse forever.
  • I Must Be Dead – If you prefer a darker twist to your wall art, these are the guys for you.
  • Lithographs - This company takes classic books and reprints the entire book on t shirts, wall art, and other stuff. Pretty neat.
  • Moviebarcode - These guys take a movie and turn it into a barcode. Confused? Check it out, it’s cooler than it seems.
  • My White Walls – Goes way beyond prints. They do 3D wood art, blown glass art, etc.
  • OMG Posters! – Actually a blog about posters links out to places you can buy them.
  • Red Bubble – Prints from independent artists. Unique style.
  • Society 6 – Some really awesome designs from independent artists in a variety of price ranges.
  • Super Trooper Studio – Colorful, cartoonish designs.
  • Thumbtack Press – Comic book-esque and cartoonish designs mixed with an indie flair.
  • PrintsOnWood – Exactly what the name implies. Any photo you want – even your Instagram photos – printed on wood

Want to Go the DIY Route?

If you’re not down with the premade art and want to make something yourself, there are tons of sites online you can scour for cool images to turn into wall art. Here’s just a short list:


  • Short Run Posters – These guys will print whatever photo you want at whatever size you want it.
  • Blockposters - Same as above.
  • Rasterbator - If you’ve never heard of the Rasterbator, click on through. You can make gigantic wall art. I’m talking the entire wall. Definitely worth considering.

You’ve Got Your Art. Now What?


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Mental Model: The Do / Say Something Syndrome


“I have nothing to add.”

The Do / Say Something Syndrome is an important mental model that stems from a talk that Charlie Munger gave called The Psychology of Human Misjudgment. If you haven’t read that meticulously, I would highly recommend doing so before you read any other material on mental models. It’s a goldmine.

In the talk, the last mental model that he references is what he calls the “Say Something Syndrome.” He uses this story to illustrate our innate vulnerability to this psychological bias:

“…And a honeybee goes out and finds the nectar and he comes back, he does a dance that communicates to the other bees where the nectar is, and they go out and get it.

Well some scientist…decided to do an experiment. He put the nectar straight up. Way up. Well, in a natural setting, there is no nectar where they’re all straight up, and the poor honeybee doesn’t have a genetic program that is adequate to handle what he now has to communicate.

And you’d think the honeybee would come back to the hive and slink into a corner, but he doesn’t. He comes into the hive and does this incoherent dance, and all my life I’ve been dealing with the human equivalent of that honeybee.”

And it’s a very important part of human organization so the noise and the reciprocation and so forth of all these people who have what I call say-something syndrome don’t really affect the decisions. – Charlie Munger, The Psychology of Human Misjudgment

It’s important to note that Munger considers the Say-Something Syndrome a major source of development and organizational confusion.  This is where I’ve seen it be most offensive as well, especially when it comes to company communication.

With the rise of popular and useful chat applications like Slack, it’s very easy for every member of a small team to chime in on every issue, just because they’re able to. Slack is best used as a passive communication tool, but it’s very hard to resist not chiming in on matters, even if they’re outside of your circle of competence.

Warren Buffet has a funny example of the Say Something Syndrome expressed in a ridiculous way:

Here’s one story I can’t resist relating: In 1985, a major investment banking house undertook to sell Scott Fetzer, offering it widely — but with no success. Upon reading of this strikeout, I wrote Ralph Schey, then and now Scott Fetzer’s CEO, expressing an interest in buying the business. I had never met Ralph, but within a week we had a deal.

Unfortunately, Scott Fetzer’s letter of engagement with the banking firm provided it a $2.5 million fee upon sale, even if it had nothing to do with finding the buyer. I guess the lead banker felt he should do something for his payment, so he graciously offered us a copy of the book on Scott Fetzer that his firm had prepared.

With his customary tact, Charlie responded: “I’ll pay $2.5 million not to read it.”

How To Think About The Say Something Syndrome

The Say Something Syndrome is essential describing our innate bias towards action or expression – our confusion of activity with results. Most of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, believe that more action will equal better results.

To make sure we’re not falling prey to this bias, we should be asking ourselves questions like:

  1. Will expressing myself here help further a desired result?
  2. Am I qualified to take action or voice my opinion?
  3. Is the best course of action doing nothing at all?

Bringing it back to Munger, one of the phrases he is most known for is his trademark “I have nothing to add” quip when Warren asks him for his opinion at Berkshire Hathaway shareholder’s meetings. At first blush, you might think he’s simply unable to offer a cogent point of view, but in fact it’s the opposite.

When Warren asks him for feedback, Munger first decides if he has anything of value to say. If he does, he then figures out what that is and how to express it best. But many times, Warren has said all that needs to be said on the subject and Charlie recognizes it and says…

“I have nothing to add.”


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Mental Model: The Pareto Principle

The Pareto principle, or the 80:20 rule, has become incredibly popular over the last 10 years or so, thanks to people like Tim Ferriss popularizing the concept outside of strictly business and economics.

It’s an incredibly helpful model to add to your toolbox, especially when you dive a little deeper than most on some of the ways you can apply it to your life, business, or the world at large.

Vilfredo Pareto is the original discoverer of the principle, though it wasn’t named after him until later after he was long gone. The origin story is as follows:

Essentially, Pareto showed that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population; Pareto developed the principle by observing that 20% of the peapods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.  – Wikipedia

The simplest and most broad way to define the Pareto principle is this: most things – in all areas of life – have an uneven distribution.

Here are some examples:


  • 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers
  • 20% of your customers cause 80% of your customer support tickets
  • 80% of your sales are made by 20% of your salesmen

Personal Life

  • 20% of your wardrobe makes up 80% of your daily wear


  • 20% of bugs cause 80% of crashes
  • 80% of your monthly website traffic happens in 20% of the month

It’s Not Always 80:20

However, many people seem to stick steadfast to the 80/20 percentage breakdown. That’s not the point of this principle. The point is that many phenomena in life tend to follow a power law distribution, or what is known as a Pareto distribution.

From Better Explained:

Also recognize that the numbers don’t have to be “80%” and “20%” exactly. The key point is that most things in life (effort, reward, output) are not distributed evenly – some contribute more than others.

A helpful thought experiment is to crank the ratio up as high as possible and apply it to a situation.

Let’s take the example of a popular article on Reddit. Participation in internet communities typically follows a Pareto distribution, but split into three different sections instead of two.  It’s known as the 90/9/1 rule and states that of the people that use a website (or see an article), 90% consume it passively, 9% interact in a small way, and 1% actively create and interact (comment, write a follow up post, etc).

The Pareto principle helps shine a light on why certain internet communities are the way that they are, especially when you layer a few psychological mental models on top.

Using the Pareto Principle In Our Lives

Because of the versatility of this principle, there are many ways to apply it in our lives. The simplest question to ask yourself is this:

“What is the smallest input that will bring the largest relative output?”

Imagine you want to lose 50lbs, but you’ve struggled with diet and exercise for as long as you can remember. A common strategy is to figure out the perfect exercise and nutrition plan, and doggedly commit to sticking to it until you get to your goal. Unsurprisingly, and for many different reasons, this usually fails.

Approaching the problem with the Pareto principle in mind, you might ask yourself:

  • “What food or drink am I consuming on a regular basis that contributes the most negative health effects?”
  • “What is the lowest effort exercise or movement I can perform that will provide the most health benefits?”

In the first case, simply remove the offending food or drink. In the second, simply do that low effort exercise (for example, extremely obese people are encourages to just walk a mile or so per day and change nothing else).

Neither of these changes will result in losing those 50lbs, but they’re incredibly low-effort relative to their payoffs. That makes them easy to stick to when contrasted with the massive lifestyle changes that most people end up trying when they embark on a fitness journey.

When Not to Use the Pareto Principle

With any mental model, it’s important to not over-apply it. When we’re acquainting ourselves with a new concept, it’s natural to start seeing it everywhere due to our reticular activating system.  This can go haywire, making us attempt to apply a concept where it has no place being used.

The biggest takeaway the Pareto principle provides is the idea that most things in life are not distributed evenly.  

While we should be seeking to invest our time in the highest output activities, the fact remains that for many things, we can’t just do 20% of the work for 80% of the result. Sometimes you need to grind out the last 20% – even if you’re suffering diminishing returns – to get the job done.

Building 80% of a car isn’t the best strategy, nor is completing 80% of your thesis.

For example, when building Book in a Box, we found that most of the process we use to take an author from idea to published book was done in a few weeks. But we’re still working on refining that process to 100% – and our client satisfaction and company growth are living proof of the need to iron out every last detail.

To close it out:

When you are seeking top quality, you need all 100%. When you are trying to optimize your bang for the buck, focusing on the critical 20% is a time-saver. See what activities generate the most results and give them your appropriate attention. –

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Book Notes – Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less


  • Move away from business needing you in order to function
  • Is your self-talk focused on making it through the day?
  • Is your day a jumble of events, or is it orderly (personal management problem)
  • Systems must be in place before freedom and money come
  • To begin, you first need to see them everywhere you look
  • Things we do automatically (breakfast, driving, etc) are this way because at some point in time we paid attention
  • Elementary and fundamental shift in perspective
  • No turning back – once seen, cannot be unseen
  • Nothing new – just tweaking your perception
  • There will be some heavy lifting
  • Documentation is key – written goals and procedures
  • Separation, repair, dissection of systems
  • Ongoing maintenance of systems

Chapter 1 – The Mindset

  • Present moment appreciate is vital – but spend some time ensuring future will be in control as well
  • Happiness is found in our control over our personal systems
  • Make changes to things you CAN affect vs. things you cannot
  • Pay attention to the mechanical details of life

Chapter 2 – A System of Systems

  • Author uses Centratel telephone answering service, a company he owns, as illustration
  • Preventative systems keep normal systems running

Chapter 3 – The Attack of the Moles

  • Quality improvement – increased price by 300% in his business. Lost 1/3 of his customers, revenues doubled
  • Despite growth, profitability remained the same
  • Are you sabotaging your ability to create systems?
  • Are you doing well in systems in some areas of your life and not in others?

Chapter 4 – Gun to the Head Enlightenment

  • Centratel about to fail – finally found peace in the inevitable chaos
  • Abandoned past assumptions because there was nothing to lose
  • Sees everything in a system framework at this point
  • Centratel = Primary system composed of subsystems
  • Inefficient subsystems create failed primary system
  • The world is very efficient already (cars, phones, macro social networks, economy)
  • Human body is filled with different systems that work in parallel
  • Things that go wrong stem from something wrong in a subsystem
  • Our lives are made of countless linear systems
  • You need an objective in business in order to develop systems
  • Turn business into self-perpetuating organism that doesn’t have files
  • Create methodologies for each system that you can break down
  • Refine these systems. Create new ones, delete old ones
  • Document organic processes to order them into something repeatable
  • Systems apply to human routines as well. Room layout, morning routines, etc

Chapter 5 – Execution and Transformation

  • Action is a builder of confidence – inaction is the cause of fear
  • Strategic Objective – short document outlining philosophy of company/life
  • General Operating Principles – keep these in mind, guiding decision makers
  • Working Principles – documentation of each subsystem
  • Most flawed system first, then next most flawed
  • Critical systems made redundant
  • Health – use 3 items documents similar to business
  • Paying bills – online bill pay instead of hard copy checks

Chapter 6 – Systems Revealed and Managed

  • Discover, examine, optimize your systems
  • Your are a system of systems – social, health, business, etc
  • Peace and prosperity enter as you work through this process
  • Everything is a linear system that constantly executes
  • An errant procedure in a system causes it to unravel and get out of control
  • Repair inefficient mechanisms one by one
  • Minor system change versus redoing entire system
  • Address problem then take action to improve system
  • You must document your system improvements as they happen
  • Fix one system after another, do not kill fires
  • This must become the priority over day to day business actions
  • As you get better at tweaking, you will see them everywhere
  • Relationship management system – reason why people don’t call back, remember birthdays, break promises

Chapter 7 – Getting Fit

  • One by one, isolate and perfect systems
  • Make your systems visible
  • Bring 1 by 1 to foreground
  • Adjust them
  • Document them
  • Maintain them
    • Pull individual processes out of the mess and fix them
    • You are the watcher of your life, looking over systems
    • Most fail by not taking action, not by misapplying a system

Chapter 8 – Critical Documentation

  • Strategic Objective
  • General Operating Principles
  • Working Principles and Procedures
  • Refining these systems creates compounding returns
  • Strategic Objective – one page, life & business separate
  • GOP – 2-3 pages, general decision-making guidelines
    • Extract these from everyday experience, may take a month+ to create
  • Working Procedures
    • Nitty gritty outline of exactly how a system operates
    • Start with the most critical systems
  • Documents are tangible, in reality vs. in your brain
  • They remind you of systems focus and keep you from straying
  • Get outside the temporary mental setbacks
  • Self-rescues always increase self control
  • You can depend on mechanical realty to guide you
  • Work the System elevates you past the events of the day
  • Manufacturing systems are perfect examples of this

Chapter 9 – Project Engineers

  • You must internalize the systems mentality
  • Build a vivid systems improvement analogy and connect to it
  • Author uses position as a project engineer at electric company
  • Avoid getting caught up in the work – instead, monitor from outside
  • Author has systems for CRM, family, fitness, etc

Chapter 10 – Strategic Objective and GOP

  • One types page, first draft should take a few hours
  • GOP, over a month or so
  • Then, working procedures – majority of time spent here

Chapter 11 – Working Procedures

  • Make organic, human processes as reliable as mechanical processes
  • Apply system improvements to working procedures
  • Repeat over and over and over again
  • If they aren’t tangible, they don’t exist
  • Anyone can make a system improvement at any time
  • Cast procedure in concrete = WRITE IT DOWN
  • Create so someone off the street can do the job, more or less
  • If you see an area of improvement, fix it immediately
  • Working proc. Should evolve, but stabilize over time
  • Creating procedures is HIGHEST priority list over day to day work
  • Have people delegated and ask them how to improve procedures
  • Computer based organizer
  • Procedure to create procedures – scale it out
  • Must be created with employees
  • Automatically modify procedures – no bureaucracy!
  • components flawless = org. flawless
  • Way in front of 98% of competition by doing this
  • Every process needs a working procedure
  • Nonrecurring = DO NOT CREATE PROCEDURE
  • Presentation, style, tone, display of procedures are consistent

Chapter 12 – Good Enough

  • If you’re going to work, WORK. No multitasking
  • Better than “good enough” = waste of time/money
  • Shoot for 98% perfection – extra 2% worthless
  • Are you seeing useless detail about processes?
  • Reconciling checkbook to nearest cent. Who cares?

Chapter 13 – Errors of Omission

  • What are your top five mistakes in life? Do they stem from inaction?
  • Not taking action as an error of omission – recognize this
  • Figure out what you are NOT doing that is creating failures in life
  • Are you @ mercy of outside system that costs time/$?
    • Fix, replace, eliminate

Chapter 14 – Quiet Confidence

  • Lack of quit courage precedes a downfall, incites errors of omission
  • g. do things when absolutely don’t want to – build courage
  • g. live up to word when convenient not to = build courage
  • View laziness as an object, detach mechanically
  • Ask why you are lacking quiet courage in the moment to spur action

Chapter 15 – Point of Sale Thinking

  • Do not delay actions that could be done immediately
  • Handle as things come up – build confidence and avoid overwhelm
  • Do/Delegate/Discard
  • Automate/systemize
  • Multitasking is a fail strategy
  • How much of what you do really matters?
  • Stop consuming non-valuable information
  • Measure your body in order to cultivate POS thinking

Chapter 16 – Extraordinary Systems

  • Attract and keep people due to great working system
  • Give them opportunity and turn them loose
  • Smart, honest, clean living people that will attach to your vision
  • Leaders of successful businesses are system engineers
  • Hiring:
    • Did they show up on time?
    • Aptitude test
    • Did applicant look @ company, have questions
    • Did they listen to you or wait to speak
    • Use gut feelings to disqualify, not to qualify people
    • Be more efficient than your competitors

Chapter 17 – Consistency

  • Think in systems wherever you go
  • As an employee, your boss is your customer
  • Relies on personal habit of consistency
  • Clean and organize in your own life – consistently

Chapter 18 – Communication

  • Quality of communication = quality of life
  • Self-talk-excessive and can become a problem
  • Act more, self-ruminate less
  • Keep promises – you can become 100% reliable and watch your life change
  • Make communication tools available to your staff
  • Never bash others behind backs – people know what you’re up to
  • Are you acting as if showing up is a favor? Change this mindset

Chapter 19 – BPT and MPT

  • Biological prime time = where you are most active and alert in the day. Hard to change this, accept and work with it
  • Mechanical prime time = what you do during BPT
  • Typically a sine wave throughout the day for BPT, one period in morning and one at night – midday lower energy
  • MPT = work on 3 documents during this time
  • Ask yourself moment to moment – is this action creating a business or is it perpetuating a job?
  • Use MPT to remove yourself from business day to day activities
  • Maintain MPT: What should I be doing NOW to grow business?
  • How can I delegate/automate rote aspects of my job?
  • Most alert periods of the day are spent on MPT tasks
  • When not in BPT, other tasks + exercise, social, etc
  • Be careful: You still have bad habits. Don’t ‘get feel good about this message yet
  • Immerse yourself in what must be done right now – enlightenment.

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