5 of the best books I read in 2019

 

1. Range – David Epstein.

Range is my 2019 winner. It was the best book I read last year, and one of my favorite books related to personal development ever. By range, Epstein refers to a set of broad experiences, inputs, interests, experiments, etc. In a world that values specialization and highlights the ‘10,000-hour rule’ (which says you must dedicate 10,000 hours to something to achieve mastery), Epstein argues that hyper-focus is actually not the path to success, far more often those who have range win. Epstein encourages us to pursue hobbies and interests, to be unafraid of making a change, to never feel behind, and not because life is more fun that way, it’s actually a more effective way to live. I can’t recommend it highly enough, read Range.

2. Atomic Habits – James Clear.

There are few personal development/self-improvement books that I consider must-read, but Atomic Habits is one of them. James Clear notes that winners and losers have the same goals, what sets them apart is their systems (habits). Humans operate by default and we relentlessly fail at improving ourselves because we fail to address our default behaviors. Goals are fine, they help give direction, but only our systems can take us where we want to go. Clear guides us through how habits operate and how to make meaningful and lasting changes by changing our defaults. It’s a fascinating and fun read, and one that has had a profound impact on how I think about behavior and pursue change.

3. Factfulness – Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling made it his life’s mission to reinform commonly help misconceptions about our world. He penned Factfulness as he battled the cancer which would eventually take his life. Through ten chapters he addresses ten fascinating topics that we routinely misunderstand (world population, poverty, bias, etc.). He emphasizes the fact that the world can sometimes be bad, while still being significantly better than it was before. By offering clarity, thoughtfulness, and objective facts, Rosling helps us to see things they way they are. It’s occasionally mind-bending, which is a good thing, and always enjoyable.

4. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah.

Born a Crime is an autobiography. Trevor Noah takes us through his wild, funny, and unlikely childhood in one of the more engaging books I’ve ever read. It’s at times hilarious (I literally laughed out loud more than once), sentimental (his relationship with his mother is remarkable), thoughtful (interacting with apartheid in South Africa), and ultimately a completely rewarding read.

5. Billion Dollar Whale – Tom Wright.

Billion Dollar Whale consistently made my jaw drop as I read it. The story is absurd, unbelievable, scandalous, incredible, and completely true! It’s about a young Malaysian fancier/businessman (Jho Low) who cons billions of dollars from the Malaysian government in a stream of devious business deals and spends it on some of the most extravagant partying the world has ever seen. The story involves Hollywood actors and actresses, world-leading finance companies, even the president of the United States. Another interesting part of this story (as if it wasn’t interesting enough) is that it hasn’t concluded yet. Jho Low is currently a wanted man hiding out, most believe, in China, but is certainly still active. In fact, his team of lawyers aggressively campaigned to ban Billion Dollar Whale from being sold, and succeeded to keep the book off British bookshelves for a year! Truly, a remarkable read.

Reading books will change your life

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If you hope to instill any change in your life this year, let me recommend a reading habit.

Books are amazing things. They’re a portal into a different way of seeing the world. Often the most important things holding us back from doing or being something we want to do or be are our own thought ruts. The way things and situations occur to us is foundational to the way we will interact with them. An example: the gym occurs to me as an intimidating place and every time I set foot inside I feel uncomfortable, so the chance that I’ll consistently go to the gym is close to zero. The gym isn’t inherently intimidating or not intimidating, it’s obvious that many people there are quite comfortable (here’s to you guy flexing in the mirror). But how can you build a habit of going to the gym? You’ve got a serious mental racket running in the back of your mind. Well, the answer is to change how the gym situation occurs to you, or to put it more normally, think about the gym differently.

This is where books come in, books can change the way we think. Books offer a different perspective, a new point of view. They force us to think critically and differently than we would by default. They let us interact with new ideas and thoughts that have been all the way thought through (or least most of the way thought through). They’re great for learning, sure, but more importantly, they open up our minds. A book might not make the gym suddenly seem less intimidating, but it could begin dislodging some of your bad thought ruts, it could start shifting how you occur to yourself. Start a reading habit this year. Start small and don’t stop. It might just change your life.

Why Do New Year Resolutions Never Work?

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It’s January, the time of year when we aspire to be or accomplish something new. You don’t have to wait for January to decide to improve yourself, but it’s as good a time as any, and definitely the most popular time. We’re two weeks in now, the gyms are packed, we’re paying closer attention to our budgets, our pantries are full of healthier foods, you know how it goes. These are all good things, but unfortunately, studies show that about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February. Maybe your resolution is already floundering.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says people don’t rise to the level of their goals, they fall to the level of their systems. I think he’s exactly right. We’re good at setting goals and making resolutions, but we’re bad at making lasting changes. And it’s not because we don’t want it enough or because we make disingenuous resolutions, it’s because humans operate by default and we fail to address our default habits. Goals don’t change behavior regardless of how SMART they are or whether or not they qualify as BHAG. We need new systems, new defaults, and new habits, maybe not another resolution.

So how do we change our systems? James Clear talks about becoming 1% better each day by doing something small. It could be one pushup per day if you want to build a workout habit. It could be one call per day if you want to build a networking habit. You mold your identity by consistently doing the things the type of person you aspire to be does. Each time you do something, no matter how small, your new identity is reinforced. If I’m an athletic person, I workout. Weight loss and muscle gains simply follow. If I’m a successful salesperson, I network. Income is simply a result. My default habits would never change by simply thinking about my weight loss goal or even by putting down my income goals on paper (I, like most of us, have tried). Change requires action, no matter how small. A helpful quote I’ve come across (attributed to several different authors including Millar Fuller and Jerry Sternin) summarizes this idea nicely: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Alan Deutschman, in his book Change or Die, says, “It’s obvious that what we believe and what we feel influences how we act. That’s common sense. But the equation works in the other direction as well: How we act influences what we believe and what we feel. That’s one of the most counterintuitive yet powerful principles of modern psychology (p78).” He adds, “You have to do things a new way before you can think in a new way (p79).”

It’s interesting to think about the purpose of all of this. We set goals at the beginning of each year because we want to accomplish things, for sure. But I think the more significant reason we spend all of this time on goals is that we aspire to be better persons. The most basic thing we’re after is a change in our identity. I won’t stray into the mire of philosophical implications here, but I think that’s a clarifying thought. The accomplishment we’re after is a change in identity, not another New Year’s resolution. Our identity changes when our default behaviors and habits change. Act different in order to think different. Start small, start simple, do something laughably easy, and then don’t ever stop.

iPad Pro and commitment issues

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I’ll be completely honest with you, my audience. I love my iPad Pro, it’s what I’m using to write this very post. But, in the two months I’ve been using it my commitment hasn’t been 100% unwavering. I’ve checked Apple’s refurbished website (maybe the best place to buy a laptop, full stop) for MacBook Pro options more than once. I’ve read several reviews of the new 16 inch MacBook Pro, and I questioned my friend about his with a noticeable uptick in enthusiasm. I’ve even used my iMac more than I expected, although with lackluster results (have I mentioned how distracting those things are?). The point is, working from an iPad Pro is a large adjustment, and sometimes I just want to go back to my comfortable place wasting time on a MacBook Pro. Here’s what I’ve realized, the feelings aren’t bad and it doesn’t mean I’m going to buy a MacBook Pro.

It’s normal to feel a little nostalgic for the old way of doing things. And it takes time, more than a week or two, or maybe even a month or two, to get comfortable with a new setup. But I’ll say this, after a while, it does get more comfortable. The question of whether my feelings of nostalgia are rooted in some flaw in the iPad Pro or in my own addiction to familiarity is slowly being revealed as the latter. All that stuff I wrote about the focusing power of the iPad Pro? It still rings true. All the capability and portability are still there. I still get more of my most important things done on my iPad Pro, it has forced me to work more intentionally.

So I guess this is my thought: when you commit to something, you probably have to commit to it for more than a few weeks. Change isn’t easy but it’s often better. My iPad Pro experience falls right in line with other good change initiatives, not always comfortable, but ultimately moving me in a better direction.

Quitter

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We hate quitting. Quitters are losers, quitters are weak, quitters don’t accomplish anything, you get the picture. We’ve even got some nice quotes, like “winners never quit and quitters never win” from Vince Lombardi, and “all quitters are good losers” from Robert Zuppke, and “when my car runs out of gas, I buy a new one. I don’t want to ride around in a quitter” from Stephen Colbert. Quitters may be losers, but those are some winning quotes, eh?

I’ve mostly bought into this quitting stuff over the course of my life, most of us probably have. It sounds awesome to never give up, to always achieve whatever you set out for in the end. It speaks to the unconquerable human spirit, the idea that we can do anything we set our minds to. Well, I’ve changed my mind, with the help of David Epstein and his awesome book Range.

Before I get too far I should make a distinction, there are different types of quitting. I’m not talking here about quitting in the sense that you’ve given up on life, or decided to live out your days in your parent’s basement, or stopped trying. Don’t ever quit only because things are difficult or scary.

What I am endorsing is a relentless search, an unwavering experimentation, a commitment to continually try things. This means quitting, probably a lot, probably in a lot of different pursuits. It means trying and failing quickly. Maybe it’s a project at work, maybe it’s a fruitless side-hustle, maybe it’s a crappy book. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to pull the plug. Not because you’re giving up, because you’re after something better, trying something new.

Epstein points out that success does not come from early specialization and simple grit (passion and perseverance in one area). Grit is important, and specialization can be too, but perseverance for the sake of perseverance is not helpful. “No one in their right mind would argue that passion and perseverance are unimportant, or that a bad day is a cue to quit. But the idea that a change of interest, or a recalibration of focus, is an imperfection and competitive disadvantage leads to a simple, one-size-fits-all Tiger story: pick and stick, as soon as possible” (Epstein, p 145). Counterintuitively, trying and changing are much more closely tied to success than blunt perseverance. Seth Godin, in his popular little book The Dip, notes that perseverance through difficulty is a real competitive advantage in business, but he also notes that perhaps the best advantage is knowing when to quit. The ability to walk away from something in pursuit of something better, to keep moving instead of persisting in stagnation, is a mark of success.

This all takes some wisdom, we need the ability to distinguish between a simple aversion to difficulty and a smart move towards better options. But here’s the important point stated positively: try things! If it doesn’t work out, or it isn’t what you hoped for, quit! Just don’t ever quit trying.