Progression by Sebastian Marshall

Progression is one of the most life-changing and applicable series of nonfiction I’ve ever read. Sebastian Marshall writes with a strong sense of storytelling, yet manages to weave in philosophical and actionable lessons from analyzing the historical narratives he presents them with. It’s almost like reading a Malcolm Gladwell book where he not only analyzes high-performers from the past ten years, but from history’s most famous figures, and gives you clear action items to go along with.

I don’t have words to describe how Progression gives me a sense of wonder even as it teaches me history and teaches me how to improve my relationships, finances, studying, productivity, self-awareness, fitness, and worldview.

This is one of the things that I didn’t know was missing from modern, popular books (even nonfiction). Even famous books like Blink or Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock HolmesProgression has something special going for it; you learn something (a lot of somethings) new and it’s fun to read, but more than that, it leaves you with a sense of how spectacular it is, how improbably it is that you’re alive, that it’s possible for you to do all these things that you dream of.

From the Ancient Wisdom Project blog:

This is one of the core weaknesses of the modern pop-whatever books. They are fun to read and you can sometimes learn something new, but they don’t teach you to be mindful of how spectacular, how improbable it is that you are alive and that you have the capacity to even read and understand anything at all!

Progression does this.

But enough of me praising it. Here’s the meat of the review:

What It’s About

Progression, at its heart, contains three overarching themes, named Upstream Effects, Toughness, and Uncommon Virtues.

Each theme — each part — of the book is broken down into further areas of study; here, Marshall presents actionable lessons in the form of an analysis of history.

In Upstream Effects, he puts forth and examines the idea that what we do now directly and totally influences what we do, and what happens to us, tomorrow. In it, he moves from topics like a rather unknown but important death of a Russian office by sniper in the 20th century, to breaking down some of Washington’s most brilliant strategic moves in the Revolutionary War.

This is all in an effort to describe why what we do today affects our tomorrow, and what we can do about it.

Toughness analyzes the qualities of mental and physical toughness, and how to achieve and maintain such qualities. He examines people like the famous boxer Mike Tyson and his rise and fall, the actions of climbers stuck on mountains in some of the most dangerous conditions faced by man, and of course the US Navy SEALs.

Uncommon Virtues ends with more abstract and philosophical-type thinking, and is all the more inspiring because of it.

The unifying meta-theme here is that there’s so much out there to do and be, and you can learn a lot of it from history.

Why I picked it

I picked it because I read Marshall’s blog. 80% of what he writes inspires me or teaches me how to be more productive and improve my capacity, relationships, or thinking.

When I got the email Progression was out — I didn’t even know this was coming — I immediately went to get it.

What I got out of it

I got many incredibly valuable things out of it.

In Toughness, I learned more about how to develop focus and perseverance, and I’ve been applying that in the gym ever since.

I also learned the kinds of things that help to maintain mental toughness in the face of loneliness or adversity, and that was indescribably profound to read.

Upstream Effects taught me how to begin learning to maximize my productivity and well-being by taking clear and defined steps, and creating systems to follow for when I’m struggling too hard to improvise on the spot (without incurring damage to productivity or mental and physical health).

In Uncommon Virtues I gained a greater ability to appreciate the people who came before me, their struggles, and the stories of everyone around me; I’ve become more conscious that my ancestors fought and bled and cried and laughed and loved every step of the way, and that I’m a part of a vast, rich fabric of history of the world.

The thing about Progression is that every sentence is written to teach you, inspire you, or set the context to do either or both of those things. This is not a book written so the author can repeatedly shove in your face how smart or philosophical he is.

In the philosophical sections, yes, there’s discussion — but in the sections included in Upstream Effects and Toughness, he tells you a story, teaches you the lessons in it, and leaves you with an action list to follow.

What I learned is worth five times the price of the book, easily.

Who I’d recommend it to

I’d recommend it to everybody in any position; the only requirement is an interest in learning and developing your sense of self, your expertise. Some historical background improves your experience, but isn’t necessary.

The topics are wide-ranging, but the lessons are generalizable to nearly any field I can think of: law, engineering, medicine, IT, software development, law enforcement, disaster response, health and fitness.

One example is writing about operations; codifying standard operating procedures streamlines and improves the results of countless actions, from surgical operations to fighting fires to improving health to troubleshooting computer problems.

The philosophy is widely applicable. It doesn’t matter if you’re a struggling immigrant, a trust fund kid from the coast, a hippie, or any other label you might care to put on yourself, everyone can learn to appreciate the people who got them here, who literally made them, made us.

Virtually everyone I know could benefit in at least one way somewhere, somehow, from this book.

A few of my favorite quotes

Time and time again, we see this pattern erupt in history –… Founders of dynasties and eras begin with rudimentary works – securing defense and governance, and then the basics of wealth and infrastructure, then further developing mechanical and practical arts, and further developing institutions – and then, and only then, can their descendants securely pursue the fine arts and luxuries.

But make no mistake – the Starbucks you congregate with friends and family and colleagues around the world did not grow primarily out of the Starbucks roasting plant of its era – no, Starbucks as you know it is Il Giornale, the attempt to bring the best of Italian romantic community building to first the United States, and then to all of the world.

Meanwhile, people that engage in really fantastic partnerships, collaborations, and friendships — their life gets full of great people, and they do repeat business and engage repeatedly with the same people.

You didn’t read that wrong – the entire value of General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Peugeot, Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes, etc etc – all of these combined, combined, were worth less than Toyota by itself.

Marshall masterfully weaves the actionable lessons and ideas into the historical narratives he presents, a la Malcolm Gladwell — the difference, though, is that Marshall draws upon a much wider range of people and time.

It’s a frankly impressive array of historical people and settings he draws from, and opens your eyes to just how much has happened on this Earth over the centuries.

I highly recommend it.

In a day and age where history and its lessons are only drawn on to provide fuel for the political fire, Marshall helps us re-discover the stories of people past, the lessons we can learn, and provides the inspiration to stoke not the aforementioned fire, but the bright flame inside each of us.

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