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.

Affirmation is not the path to growth

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We live in an age of affirmation. It’s on church signs, it’s enforced in the court of public opinion (Twitter), it’s even taught to children in school. Everyone is great just the way they are (unless they’re not affirming). That’s obviously not all bad, but if affirmation is the highest good we’re missing something.

We tend to think of affirmation as a virtue on a spectrum. Affirmation occupies one side of the hypothetical spectrum and pure evil hatred exists on the other. If that’s true then anything less than affirmation is bad, or at least tainted. But that’s not a real spectrum. Affirmation and hate are not opposites, love and hate are opposites. And love and affirmation are two very different things. We tend to think that the loving thing to do for people is to affirm them, but that’s not true either. Love seeks what’s best for people.

Affirmation can be crippling if we begin to believe that we’re just right the way we are. If we’re affirmed as we are, why make an effort to change? Why take responsibility if it’s not your fault? Why take some initiative if you have no control over what happens to you? Instead of affirmation, you may benefit from a loving nudge towards something better.

Growth happens when we’re challenged, pushed, when we realize that we might not be great just the way we are, when we see a new world of potential. It doesn’t happen by affirmation but by relationships, by tough conversations and experiences, by a new way of seeing or understanding, by coaching.

We all want affirmation, but most of us would benefit from some growth.

You should give board games another chance

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We’re all humans, right? We have these incredible senses of touch and sight and hearing and tasting (is there one more?). We also thrive in community, when we talk to other people and interact with each other. What better way to combine all of these human things than to sit down with some friends or family in front of a board and some little pieces of plastic?
One of our greatest temptations today is to turn to our technology instead of engaging with other people. Our phones are some of the most helpful and useful pieces of technology ever invented, but unfortunately, they can also inhibit the things that make us human.
A helpful category for thinking about this is to distinguish between rest and leisure (which I have shamelessly hacked from The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch, a really helpful read). Leisure is mindlessly scrolling through social media or news on your phone, playing some kind of video game by yourself, or maybe worst of all, watching reality TV. Leisure is fine, but ultimately not all that helpful. It puts you into a sort of trance, you lose track of time, you’re probably more stressed when you quit, and you haven’t achieved anything except to waste some time and feel more harried. Rest, on the other hand, is restorative. Restful activities typically engage your mind instead of putting you into a coma. They include things like reading a book, conversing with close friends and family, playing an instrument, fishing (obviously), working out (it might take a few weeks, but once it becomes a habit it’s the best), building Legos, or playing a board game. An interesting note here, leisure activities often involve screens, restful activities often don’t.
As I write this we’re in the thick of the holiday season, Christmas hits this week, we’ll celebrate the New Year next week. Most of us will be spending at least some amount of time away from work and with family. Take the opportunity to enjoy a board game together. Engage your mind, indulge in some conversation, enjoy the people in your life. If my reasoning holds up, you’ll feel much better having done that than to have entered your trace space. We’re humans after all.