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.

Read for the sake of reading

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Books are awesome. They do all sorts of good things for people (not the least of which is longer life). Most of us have no problem admitting that books are great and reading is a beneficial thing, at least to some degree. Some people don’t read, which is fine, though they’re definitely missing out. Some people devour fiction because it’s fun, though seemingly more and more people turn to Netflix for escapism. Many treat reading as a purely pragmatic exercise, hoping to glean helpful information for work and life. Those things are all good, but consider this a quick encouragement not to read for any explicit or immediate benefit, but to read for the sake of reading. A couple of notes:

  • Read things that you’re interested in and enjoy. A wide variety of books and topics is not bad, in fact, it’s better. Read novels, read history, read self-help, read stories and studies and theories and thought experiments. If you start reading something that interests you, your interests will likely broaden.
  • Don’t read for escapism (only). By all means, read novels, read lots of them, delving into another world is one of the greatest gifts of literature. But don’t limit yourself to novels and don’t only read to escape reality. Occasionally pick up something that challenges you, delve into something that will stretch you.
  • Don’t read pragmatically (only). Books are pragmatic, you won’t be able to help but pick up practical tips and helpful things that will change the way you think about and accomplish things. But don’t avoid a book that interests you because you don’t see how it could immediately benefit your life or work. A good book will impact you in ways you’ll never suspect, and may not even realize.
  • Read because you’re curious. As you read your curiosity will grow, you’ll probably find it’s impossible to satiate, you’ll probably end up with more books than you’ll ever be able to read, but you’ll be so happy to have learned and stretched and changed because of the books you’ve read. I have never encountered a person who regretted their reading habit. So pick up a book, and read for the sake of reading.

Why can’t you get that good habit to stick?

I’ve been reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and this writeup is an exploration of a few ideas I found there. Side-note, it’s a really great book.

First things first, let me show you what Duhigg calls a ‘habit loop:’

A habit involves a cue, something that tells your habit to kick in; a routine, what you actually do; and a reward, what that action does for you. Here’s a quick example: when I hear my phone buzz I pick it up and check the notification which makes me feel like I’m on top of things. The cue is my phone buzz, my routine is to check the notification, my reward is to feel like I’m accomplishing something (I just love to see those red notification dots go away!). For better or worse that’s a habit, I do it without even thinking.

But what about when we want to create a new habit? It’s probably not currently a habit because it’s hard or painful or generally not fun. Checking notifications is one thing, it’s a habit I basically fell into because it’s easy. But we want productive helpful habits right?

So it’s the new year, and you’ve resolved to get up earlier every morning to hit the gym, a very productive and helpful habit. And you did, a few times, like January 2 through 4, but then it was cold and you missed a day. But you don’t give up that easily, you got back to it for a day or two, but then you were tired and it was the weekend and who gets up early on the weekend anyway? The next week you only made it to the gym twice, but you did wrestle with yourself to get out of bed a few other mornings. By the third week, it’s clearly not working and you’ve basically given up on the whole morning workout thing. Maybe you’re just not a morning person. But that would have been such a great habit, why couldn’t you get it to stick?

Duhigg recalls a study that was conducted with older folks coming out of knee or hip replacement surgery. Those surgeries are no walk in the park, and they require tremendous amounts of painful physical therapy to recover completely. The study required some of the participants write down their therapy plans while the rest didn’t do anything differently, everything else between the two groups was exactly the same. As you can guess, the group who wrote things down recovered much more quickly, two to three times faster than the other participants. It didn’t happen by magic, and the point isn’t just that you need to write your goals down, though that’s not a bad idea, the trick is in how they built habits.

For most of us humans, our willpower is about as reliable as a hedge fund’s returns (not very reliable). But it turns out that willpower is an essential component of creating a new habit. The cue is easy, the alarm goes off; the reward is obvious, more energy and a rockin’ bod. But the routine, actually getting out of bed when it’s dark, going outside to your car when it’s cold, wandering around the gym with people who look like they know what they’re doing, breaking a sweat at the crack of dawn, can be tough. That takes some willpower, which, again, isn’t our most reliable skill. This is where the hip-replacement story comes in. Those folks who wrote down their therapy plan didn’t have more willpower than the others, they weren’t even thinking about building habits, they were just following the instructions of the study. So what did they write? Interestingly, the common theme was a focus on pain points or difficulties in their routines where the temptation to quit would be most acute. The writing forced them to specifically confront those hard parts in their routine and make a plan to overcome them. They unknowingly designed their own ‘willpower habits,’ as Duhigg refers to them.

So here’s a quick takeaway: instead of intending to get up early and go the gym (or insert whatever habit you’d like to incorporate here), what if we specifically think about the pain points, write them out, and determine ahead of time what we’re going to do or think when the pain happens? After the habit cue, what’s the first thought or feeling that submarines your routine? Make a small plan for that specific thing. Then take the next one, and the next one, until all of the excuses and obstacles give way to a new habit. If it’s good enough for those elderly folks striving to walk again, it ought to be good enough for me.