Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, 5/5
On good days, I appreciate the diverse array of skills and experiences that make me who I am. Not yet 40 years old, I can make a credible case for claiming the informal titles of musician, intellectual, artist, athlete, teacher, and photographer. Many days, though, I struggle with feeling like a failure for never having pursued a “proper” career (and the money that comes with one) and so far not finding that one big, important thing I am supposed to be doing with my life.
If I’d read this book earlier, I could have avoided some of those bad days. Epstein blows apart the notion that choosing a career path as early as possible and pursuing it single-mindedly in ever-increasing depth, is the only road to success. Instead, he makes a convincing argument for the value of developing a broad base of interests and experiences, while unashamedly searching for pursuits with high “match quality” to yourself (instead of making a virtue of never quitting). The time this takes need not be wasted, since the most innovative contributions tend to come from people making connections between superficially disparate experiences and ideas, not from those who have specialized the most in any given field.
Life has not been as linear and predictable as I expected; in this book I was comforted to see a reflection of that experience. I learned that, contrary to the claims of pop psychology, personalities and even core values can change over time. That it is ok not to jump on the academic bandwagon of learning more and more about less and less. That continuing to follow my curiosity will provide the best chance of encountering my life’s purpose. And that I shouldn’t undervalue (or under-utilize) the skills and experiences I accumulate along the way just because they weren’t all acquired on a traditional timeline.
Why I read it: I think it was mentioned in Steven Kotler’s The Art of Impossible.
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., 5/5
Life-changing, thought-provoking, fascinating, insightful, convicting–it’s hard to write a review of this book that doesn’t sound super clichéd. Starting with a chillingly relatable description of “learned helplessness,” Seligman then explores the characteristics of pessimistic vs optimistic interpretations of events, makes a compelling (but not naive or condescending) case for optimism and provides a simple approach for changing pessimistic thinking patterns.
Usually, I would try to summarize an impactful point or two for future recollection, but it’s difficult, in this case, because there was so much helpful info that I feel like it would be more useful to simply re-read the book if my memory fades. Also, I don’t want my own summary of the concepts to taint their potential novelty for other readers.
Now, for the answer to the million-dollar question: yes, I am a moderate pessimist (but also, triumphantly, more of a realist than optimists are).
Why I read it: I was intrigued by Stephen Kotler’s mention of it in his book The Art of Impossible.
The Art of Impossible
The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler, 4/5
The author believes that the average person can achieve groundbreaking results by finding and fulfilling their life passion, a process that he attempts to reduce into a series of replicable steps through analysis of the “flow” state, the characteristics of high achievers (in whose company he firmly places himself, with less-than-convincing self-deprecation), and grossly over-simplified neuroscience.
Ironically, this book both poses and fails its own test. Kotler attempts the impossible and succeeds in writing a book that is slightly unlikable, painfully over-systematized, and, crucially, ascribes prescriptive value to what I strongly suspect are merely descriptive (if well-researched and insightful) observations. This last failing is a pervasive one in the self-help genre and, if the author had promised less, it would be easier to focus instead on the book’s many positive aspects.
While I strongly doubt that one could make long-lasting and meaningful life changes merely from following the steps in this book, it does provide some helpful ideas to fine-tune and recognize good character qualities and habits that already exist and to understand a little of the brain chemistry behind concepts like motivation, creativity, and fear.
Why I read it: a recommendation from a gym friend.
Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack with David Casstevens, 1/5
Determined to develop a healthier mental approach to martial arts competition, I started this book with an optimistic attitude and pencil in hand, committed to completing every exercise and buying into the inevitable inspirational cliché or few. How unprepared I was for the relentless barrage of banalities I would encounter! Every exercise (and they were exceptionally few) was eye-rollingly familiar and the text was a hodgepodge of quotes and borrowed anecdotes that descended into the utter madness that can be found on page 198…
So what happens on page 198? Well, firstly, the author states that “His [Kurt Warner’s] bags-to-riches story is as inspiring as the song I play for athletes at the end of every training session. The song, by Mariah Carey, is titled Hero.” … Let’s take a moment to process that statement. A legitimate counselor of sports psychology habitually inflicts a Mariah Carey song on his clients for its raw motivational power? Really? Every training session? That song? Do they sit there with eyes closed for the full 4 minutes, absorbing all that sweet 1990s inspiration, or does it play on his phone as a sort of alarm to mark the end of a session, or is it background music for a hasty exit? The more you think about it, the less sense it makes. And the less sense it makes, the more it starts to throw into doubt literally everything else the author has to offer.
Just two sentences later, the unfortunate reader encounters this clunker of a paragraph: “Competitive sports can bring out the best in people. Instead of playing small, they overcome their self-doubts and fears. They let their light shine. They find courage, which is the opposite of discourage, and tap into their reservoir of potential. Reflect a moment.” The author means for us to reflect on moments of personal heroism, but instead, let’s focus on the much more interesting question of how the phrase “courage, which is the opposite of discourage” made it into print.
By the end of this book, I had lost so much faith in author Gary Mack that I became curious about his academic qualifications (conspicuously absent from the author bio). From his obituary, I learned that he did earn a Masters of Counseling Psychology, but what I find far more impressive is that he built a credible career in that field without have a single original thought! Perhaps it is a common failing, though. The next sports psychology book in my to-read pile (Champion’s Mind) was written by a PhD, yet peeking out from under the dust jacket flap was a note from a fellow, disillusioned library user: “Terrible–a bunch of slogans strung together by poor writing. Skip this.” Thank you, kind stranger. I shall.
Why I read it: lent to me by a gym friend.
What to Expect the Second Year
What to Expect the Second Year: From 12 to 24 Months by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, 2/5
I found this book to be good primarily for two things: 1. confirming that all the craziness is normal and 2. making me thankful for all the craziness that we haven’t encountered. That said, I was disappointed by the same issues that bothered me in the previous book–namely, a laughably paranoid thoroughness that would be unhealthy in practice (if even attainable at all), and a patronizingly dismissive approach to non-mainstream points of view on controversial topics.
The sections on parenting and discipline were especially underwhelming, which was unfortunate because those are the topics about which I have the most burning questions. In effect, Murkoff associates all physical discipline with uncontrolled parental rage, providing as a substitute for this straw man a form of “discipline” that involves removing the source of temptation from the child or the child from the situation. This seems like a great strategy for handling delicate scenarios and other people’s children, but in my opinion, it is not discipline at all and fails to teach important lessons about self-control and boundaries that I know my almost-two-year-old is capable of learning.
Why I read it: It is very relevant to my life at the moment.
What to Expect the First Year
What to Expect the First Year by Heidi Murkoff, 3/5
My husband and I were fortunate enough to have the world’s most chill baby, so I didn’t bother reading most of this book until we were halfway through year two of parenthood. Though raising our little guy has definitely become more challenging as he matures, the first twelve months were relatively straightforward; most issues that came up were easily addressed by a quick internet search, knowledgeable friends and family, or at medical check-ups. I didn’t feel the anxious anticipation, curiosity, and solitariness of first-time pregnancy that made What to Expect When You’re Expecting so comforting and helpful. For me, this book occupies a weirdly unhelpful middle ground, at times too hyper-focused to be practical or too general to be a reliable source for researching complex issues (especially controversial ones like vaccinations or discipline).
Why I read it: a friend and parent of two young children recommended it very highly.
All Hallows’ Eve
All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams, 5/5
I had very little idea what to expect from this slim book and that, perhaps, is partly why I found it to be so absolutely astonishing (though pure novelty cannot account for that fully). I don’t want to give away too much, but think Gothic thriller meets supernatural romance in the interest of exploring highly-developed and unconventional theological beliefs. I was not at all surprised to later learn that Williams was a regular member of the Inklings, enjoying the friendship and literary criticism of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
This book demands to be re-read, but I would avoid this edition (Oxford Reprints) at all costs. The binding has that ubiquitously cheap, self-published feel and the text contains a baffling number of typos. Most egregious of all is the use of hyphens in place of em dashes. I know how pedantic that complaint sounds, but Williams used em dashes often and in very long sentences. The relentless and incorrect use of hyphens disrupted visual flow in addition to hindering comprehension.
Why I read it: another entry on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.
Solve for Happy
Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy by Mo Gawdat, 4/5
If I wasn’t absolutely, abjectly ready to hear someone else say what my husband has been telling me for years, then I probably would have hated this book for its many cliches, general cheesiness, and cringy clip art. Though a highly intelligent and successful businessman, Gawdat is rather a layman in terms of psychology and philosophy, so one might expect that his contribution to the well-worn topic of “happiness” would be in a uniquely analytical approach to existing research, rather than any foundational insights. I was very surprised to find that this was not the case. In fact, the much-advertised “happiness equation” and concept of “solving for happy” seemed under-developed and forgettable to me. What will stick with me for a long time and, in fact, motivated me to copy all those “cheesy cliches” into a Word document for later reference, was three concepts: 1. the natural, default human state is happiness, 2. unhappiness is generally rooted in thoughts about the past or the future, and 3. mental suffering is useless.
These ideas fly in the face of what have been, up until now, my beliefs that 1. happiness is an otherwise unattainable by-product of pursuing a passion in life, 2. controlling every aspect of my life will compensate for my uncontrollable thoughts (and their accompanying emotions), and 3. suffering is necessary to stimulate personal growth. Frankly, these beliefs have not worked out that well for me over the last three decades and recently having a child has intensified my desire to enjoy every moment and make peace with my own existence, instead of obsessing over what the “point” of it all is.
Though it did not come from any of the many decorated philosophers or psychologists whose work I have read, and it can feel over-simplified and unreasonably optimistic at times, Gawdat’s perspective brought me immediate relief and seems to be in line with the life experience I have accumulated. I don’t expect everything to be sunshine and roses from now on, but (or maybe, and) I’m excited to apply this new perspective to each moment as best I can.
Why I read it: my dad sent me a link to an interview with Mo Gawdat, but I don’t have the attention span to watch slow, unstructured conversations, so I opted to read his book instead.
The Culture Code
The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle, 5/5
Impeccably organized around three main skills (1. Build Safety, 2. Share Vulnerability, and 3. Establish Purpose), this book examines some of the world’s highest-functioning groups in such varied fields as business, tech, the military, sport, comedy and medicine. Coyle achieves a beautiful balance of well-referenced information, firsthand observations, anecdotes, and suggestions for real-life applications. I was fascinated to see how similar a healthy culture is to a healthy family and recognized many of the ideas and values from my own experiences growing up in a large and loving family.
Why I read it: While writing my review of Peak and refreshing my memory on Coyle’s contribution to the same topic via The Talent Code, I was happy to discover he’d written this book more recently.
Experimenting with Babies
Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid by Shaun Gallagher, 5/5
This book is very good for what it is–a light-hearted and accessible collection of activities, based on scientific experiments, that highlight the nuances of a baby’s development. The presentation is not at all rigorous and might even uncharitably be considered “dumbed-down,” but does go well beyond the few common reflexes (e.g. rooting, Moro, stepping, etc.) with which parents might already be familiar. Personally, I do not feel motivated to actually perform any of the experiments with my own baby, but it was still fascinating to learn more about his fascinating progression from potato to person.
Why I read it: A friend lent it to me.