What use is a pretty picture?

​Waterfalls. Mountains. Lakes. Birds flying in the sky. Canyons. Clouds. Skylines at night. These are all things that have, at one point, been my desktop wallpaper.

In real life, these things inspire us and leave us awestruck. So, by using them as our wallpapers we hope to capture a fraction of the same feeling. The same wonder.

Above my desk, I have four passages printed out and framed.

The first is from Shadow Divers:

​“Excellence is born of preparation, dedication, focus and tenacity; compromise on any of these and you become average.”

The second is from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.

“The modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”

The third is from Montaigne’s essays.

​“No powerful mind stops within itself; it is always stretching out and exceeding it’s capacities. It makes sorties which go beyond what it can achieve; it is only half-alive if it is not advancing, pressing forward, getting driven into a corner and coming to blows; it’s inquiries are shapeless and without limits; it’s nourishment consists in amazement, the hunt and uncertainty.

​The fourth is from The Godfather:

“The Don considered a use of threats the most foolish kind of exposure; the unleashing of anger without forethought as the most dangerous indulgence. No one had ever heard the Don utter a naked threat, no one had ever seen him in an uncontrollable rage. It was unthinkable. And so he tried to teach Sonny his own disciplines. He claimed that there was no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate your faults, unless it was to have a friend underestimate your virtues.”

​I look and consider these passages regularly. They’ve undoubtedly influenced my thought and action. But sitting underneath them is something I look at and interact with far more often. 

My laptop. With pretty pictures as it’s wallpaper.

But the other day, I asked myself a question. “What use are pretty pictures?” They don’t make me a better person. They don’t help me think better. They don’t teach me anything.They don’t help me. 

So I created eight different wallpapers. All based on ideas that are important to me right now. Below, I’ve included them and a brief explanation of their origin.


​“Deep Work” is the name of a Cal Newport book I read recently. It’s changed how I approach my work and the ideas behind rituals, routines and productivity.

“Strong filter” is a phrase I picked up from this post by Nassim Taleb, where he is discussing the success of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. It’s an idea I expanded on in a post called “Success is strong filters.”


​This is based on an idea from Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love. You must choose between attachment or happiness. You cannot have both.


​I first heard about this concept from a Ryan Holiday article. And he learnt it from Robert Greene.


​I extracted this formula from Robert Greene’s Mastery. The idea is that mastery is a combination of those three things. Of time, attention and love given to your craft. Of course, the more time, attention and love you give, the higher the level of mastery you attain.

But perhaps the most interesting part, is ego. The sum of those three things is divided by ego. The bigger the ego, the more it inhibits your level of mastery.

This divisive quality is motivated in part by Ryan Holiday’s new book, Ego is the Enemy.


​Via negativa is an idea I first learnt about in Antifragile. It means favouring acts of omission over acts of commission. Or to put it more succinctly, subtracting before you add. 

I’ve written more about this idea in a post called “The fastest way to wisdom.”


​It’s a simple question. It applies to your personal life and your professional life. The answer, when you’re honest with yourself, is “nothing.” You don’t need any more than what you have now to be a success, or to be happy. 

And when you realise that you don’t need anything else, you start to appreciate everything you already have.


​I created this after listening to Marc Andreesen on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. He talks about the Steve Martin quote: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” But I prefer the phrase, be really fucking good. It sticks in my head better.

The second part is something that Marc advises all new entrepreneurs to do. Start building stuff.

I think of it as the simplest, most effective, no-nonsense career strategy.


​This is a phrase I picked up from the same podcast. Marc says that is what impressed him about Ben Horowitz. His willingness to challenge the leadership rather than meekly submit to them. 

Speaking truth to power is both an ethical obligation and a strategic advantage.

It also reminds of the Karl Popper quote from The Open Society

​“If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason”

​The more we see something, the less we see it. As Anthony de Mello says in The Way to Love: “A fisherman looks at the ocean daily and does not notice its grandeur.”

I created eight wallpapers so that I can change them on a regular basis. So that they don’t just fade in the background and become part of the scenery. So that I read them and think about them and use the ideas in my life.

Quotes and maxims are interesting and inspirational. But they’re useless if we don’t apply them to our time on this planet. If we fail to implement the ideas they speak of, they’re no more useful than the waterfalls and lakes I used to use as my wallpaper.