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.

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.

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.

2018 Book Recommendations

I would say that reading, specifically reading books, is the single most important method of self-improvement that a person can engage in. A few years ago, in a desire to improve myself and my circumstances, I decided to read more books, and the payoff has been overwhelmingly positive. Probably the main benefit reading has imparted to me these last few years is to change the way I think. My goals and ideas and aspirations are bigger, my concept of what’s possible has grown. This change in thinking has also affected my behavior, my actions have been more consistent and more ambitious, I even waste (a little) less time with TV and on my phone. Basically, reading books can have a transformational effect. So, I want to share some of the best books I read last year (2018) in the hope you can reap some similar benefits from them. The list is broad, ranging from self-help and productivity to history to fiction and anything in between. Dig in!

The Three Laws of Performance is top shelf coaching material. Steve Zaffron delves into what actually causes transformation in people’s lives and organizations, how to really induce change. It’s not the typical rah-rah motivational material, this is real, strategic, transformative coaching. It’s also filled with real-life examples and stories, which makes it very accessible.

What’s Best Next is an incredible guide to greater personal productivity. Matt Perman is a confessed productivity junky who has gathered and distilled some of the best productivity literature available, conducted interviews with accomplished subjects, and drawn from his own experience to build his best strategies for increased effectiveness. It’s organized, well-researched, very practical, I even found it inspiring. The structure of my entire week is based on things I gleaned from What’s Best Next.

The Marks of a Spiritual Leader is not simply for pasters and Bible-study leaders. This little book is packed with practical and helpful advice for anyone in any type of leadership role. It’s clear, concise, practical, and at less than an hour total read time, it is well worth the investment.

The One Thing may be the best book on setting and achieving goals that I’ve come across. The title is a giveaway, but Keller stresses the need to determine your most important one thing and focus on that one thing tenaciously. It’s full of practical, actionable advise presented in a fun and engaging way.

Tim Keller is a leading Christian apologetic. Making Sense of God builds upon his previous popular work The Reason For God. Whether or not you’re a Christian, this inquisition into foundations and defenses of Christianity is remarkably insightful.

Reset is a type of self-help book, but instead of pushing readers to do and be more and more, David Murray encourages us to understand our limits and work within the bounds. Humans tend towards arrogance, limitations are seen as an inconvenience, but our unwillingness to acknowledge them leads to burnout. Through his concept of ‘Repair Bays,’ Murray encourages us to slow down and live consistently with reality.

I started reading Earnie Pyle during my WW2 phase in high-school. I still remember the day I finished Pyle’s Brave Menit was the most visceral, funny, and affecting account of war I had, and probably still have encountered. Ernie Pyle in England is his first collection of essays during WW2 (Brave Men is his third collection). Before the U.S. had joined the effort Pyle spent several months in England observing and reporting for an American newspaper.

In the Garden of Beasts is a look at the rise of Hitler’s regime through the eyes of the American ambassador’s family in the 1930s. It’s fascinating. Larson is a historian, but In the Garden of Beasts is not like the college history textbooks that may have put you to sleep, it reads almost like a novel, very accessible.

The Last Kingdom is the first installment of a multi-book series called The Last Kingdom Series (Cornwell just published the 11th book of the series in 2018). The genre is historical fiction, the setting is 9th and 10th century Britain, the story features protagonist Uthred of Bebbanburg fighting the Danish invasion. Cornwell is simply a great story-teller. I’ve gladly resolved to read the entire series after finishing The Last Kingdom.

I picked up The Richest Man in Babylon on a whim a few months ago. The book is a series of parables, all taking place in the context of ancient Babylon, and all dealing with a point of wisdom surrounding life and work. It’s surprisingly compelling. Clason weaves the stories around wisdom in such a unique and interesting way, and it sticks.

The Call of the Wild is an old classic that my sister encouraged me to revisit last year. Jack London’s brilliant use of language and word pictures are on full display. It’s short and profound, well worth the read.

You Need a Budget is another little gem. Jesse Mecham is the founder and CEO of YNAB, the best personal online budgeting tool out there. But the book is not a sales pitch, he digs into the nuts and bolts of building and operating a successful, zero-sum budget. This look book is packed with valuable guidance for your personal finances.

Sometimes you need to kick back and read something for the pure enjoyment of it. Ready Player One was that for me, I could hardly set it down. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s interesting, it moves quickly, and it’s thoroughly entertaining.