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.

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.

Don’t worry about long-term plans

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Long term plans are tough, mostly because we don’t know the future. If you’ve got a 20-year long term goal that’s great, but it’s probably not going to happen, at least not the way you planned; who knows what will happen in the next 20 years? It’s not bad to set long goals if only to set you in a direction, but don’t marry those goals, don’t die on their hills, don’t forsake all other paths or options. People achieve success more often by focusing on what’s right in front of them. It’s called short term planning. When an opportunity arises you make a decision, you work hard at the work in front of you, you make plans for things that are actionable and semi-immediate. Success tends to favor those who, instead of working backward from a goal in the future, make a decision based on the currently available options which will give them the best range of options in the future. They actually keep their options open. It’s a different perspective, instead of an early determination to go all out in one direction or after one thing, you can take things as they come. You’ll obviously still work hard and make good decisions when options present themselves, but you don’t have to sell out for a long term goal. Don’t worry about the next 20 years, worry about the week, the day, the hour in front of you, and make the most of it.

iPad Pro vs MacBook Pro: The Focus Question

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Macs are great devices, they’re capable, they’re powerful, they’re reliable, they even look nice. A large swath of the population relies on their Macs daily to be productive. Steve Jobs famously equated desktop operating machines to trucks, full of power and function.

iPads are also great, but for different reasons and different purposes. The iPad, for most of its existence, has been seen as a consumption machine, but the release of iPad Pro and more recently, iPadOS, the understanding of the iPad has expanded to include creative and productive tasks. When Jobs equated computers with trucks he also equated mobile operating machines (iPads) with cars. As a society/economy evolves, fewer people need the power and function of a truck, or a full desktop computer, opting instead for a less power-hungry, easier to use, mobile operating machine.

This is a helpful comparison between the two types of devices, but I think the iPad vs Mac discussion goes deeper than a distinction in functionality.

iPad-as-a-computer-replacement discussions seem to generate significant traffic in online discussions and forums. I’ve read through countless articles and comment sections weighing the pro’s and con’s myself. As far as I can tell, many people would love to use the iPad as their primary productivity tool but are held back by questions of functionality. Can the iPad really handle all of my computing needs? Will the sacrifice in function be worth the trade-off in form? These were my questions as well. Previously, when I purchased an iPad Pro I thought about it as an all-or-nothing endeavor, either I would cut ties with macOS and use the iPad Pro exclusively, or I would get rid of the iPad Pro and stick with my MacBook. Either the iPad Pro could be a computer replacement or it couldn’t. More than once, I ended up frustrated with the function of the iPad Pro and went back to using a MacBook after a few weeks. I was thinking about the iPad Pro as a MacBook, and since it didn’t perform as well as a MacBook in a MacBook workflow, it felt inadequate. The question was never about the purpose of the device, it was about the raw functionality it offered. The problem with this line of thinking is that raw functionality is not the most important correlate to effectiveness. The function question isn’t the only question, maybe not even the most important question, when thinking about tools and productivity.

Productivity tools exist on a spectrum between function and focus. In order to enhance focus (and effectiveness), it can actually be helpful to give up some function. We think about tools and devices almost entirely as a form of function. Which tool is most capable of performing the tasks I need, or might need, to complete? Because of this, it makes sense that we talk about how the keyboard feels, the power of the processor, the capability of the OS, and the amount of RAM or storage that would best support our use case. Those things aren’t bad, but what we neglect almost entirely is how the tools correlate with our focus, which is arguably more important. We don’t ask how well we’re managing all of the function. Are we distracted by the multitasking capabilities? Have we spent too much time off task? Is all the function actually causing a decrease in our output? Are we burning through diesel gas driving around town? Desktop operating systems by nature offer as much function as possible, and that’s not a bad thing, sometimes we need a truck-type computer to accomplish specialized or complex tasks. But instead of only asking the function question, it’s important to also consider the focus question.

I’m really good at wasting time on a Mac. It happens automatically. All I have to do is turn on the machine, then those floating windows pop up, I see red dots in my dock, a bunch of open browser tabs catch my eye, suddenly I’m clicking links, reading stories, remembering something I wanted to check on, it’s like my mind falls into a state of hyper distraction. And then an hour has gone by, I’ve made no progress on the things that are most important to me, and I’m stressed. I’ll admit, this could be an issue unique to me, and there are ways to clamp down on the distractions of a desktop OS. If nothing else, take this as an exhortation to think about the relationship between your tool and your focus. For me, it has been helpful to use a different type of OS, one that’s not designed for multitasking, one that doesn’t encourage hypnotic attention deficit, one that leans toward the focus end of the spectrum. The iPad Pro limits multitasking, it does away with floating windows, it hides the dock automatically, and it forces the user to attend to one thing at a time. In fact, one of the most annoying things about using an iPad Pro is the friction involved with switching apps and tasks, all those taps and drags. It’s also simply harder to do some things on the iPad Pro, like manage files or build a spreadsheet. Those things may seem problematic on the surface, but when I think about the amount of time I waste task switching and managing files, and the relative unimportance of those things, the tradeoffs don’t seem quite so severe. It’s hard to quantify all of the differences between working from a Mac and working from an iPad Pro, but I know that my mind is more calm and less distracted with an iPad Pro, I know an iPad Pro encourages me to spend much more time on the more important parts of my work. The tool enhances, rather than hampers, my focus and effectiveness. The iPad Pro isn’t the most functional machine you can buy (though it’s come a long way in the last few years), but that very fact is what enables it to strike a balance between function and focus that could have vast implications for your effectiveness, and your stress level.

I’m not saying you have to buy an iPad Pro to be more effective, I’m not even saying that I’ll never buy a MacBook again, but for me, for now, the iPad Pro better accounts for my human weakness and allows me to be more effective by sacrificing some function to enhance focus. If you’re only asking the function question an iPad Pro will probably be found lacking, you can do more things faster on a Mac. But ask the focus question, that’s where the iPad Pro shines. Previously, I tried to use an iPad Pro for productivity because I wanted a better computer. But the iPad Pro is not a better computer, it’s a totally different productivity tool.