Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller, 3/5
Miller is an entertaining writer, but not a very convincing psychologist. While it is fun to read the story of how he developed a healthier approach to relationships and gradually found love at a relatively late age, I felt like he spent a lot of time answering easy questions I didn’t have while skirting around the most important, mysterious, confusing aspects of the topic. He claims to want to teach that “love is worth what it costs,” but the focus of the book is much more on how to pay the cost than the worth. For me, the real question isn’t what caused his previous relationships to fail and his current one to succeed (that is fairly obvious–turns out that authenticity and vulnerability make a better foundation than insecurity and manipulation), the big question is why did he suddenly feel compelled to make it work with someone in particular? Now that I’m thinking about it, this is the exact issue I had with the previous book on relationships I read. Perhaps one day, I’ll find a book that focuses on the why, not the how, but until then I guess I’ll just hope they are as entertaining as this one.
Why I read it: a family member recommended it to me.
The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional, and Physical Conditioning from One of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists by James E. Loehr, ED.D., 4/5
For the casual participant in competitive sports, this book is the literary equivalent of that annoying person who gives you really hard, practical advice when maybe all you wanted was some encouragement and affirmation (I don’t actually know anyone like that, so That Person is probably me). While I was put off by all the self-assessment, soul-searching, diary-keeping, essay-writing, plans, logs and mantras Loehr recommends, they do seem like a plausible way to at least take your mind off negative emotions, clarify your commitment to your sport and get focused.
Defining “toughness” as “the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances” (5), Loehr explores the concepts of Real Self vs Performer Self and how your mental and emotional habits affect your Ideal Performance State. One of the most interesting ideas in this book is wave-making–achieving growth through alternating phases of stress and recovery (mental, emotional and physical). This is something I’d already figured out on some level, but never seen put into words. Also, Loehr’s clarification of just how much stress is healthy was very helpful. I’ve long thought that the whole “no pain no gain” mentality is a bit simplistic and possibly dangerous for people with over-achieving personalities; yes, you should push yourself, but going too far just to make a point is a bad long-term strategy. Loehr distinguishes between discomfort and pain, identifying the first as stress that toughens and the second as a symptom of overtraining.
My first impression of this book was not good, but as I dip into it again to write this review, I start to suspect that it might reward a slower, more thoughtful reading than the first one I gave it. It contains a lot of information, but all very concisely communicated, which can give the impression of shallowness during a quick reading. If it wasn’t overdue at the library, I’d read it again, but perhaps I will buy a copy instead.
I’ve always suspected that I belong to one of the thin ends on the bell curve of normality, so perhaps I should not have been so surprised that reading this book was like reading placards at the zoo about weird animal mating rituals. In this case, the strange animal is a human being who is definitely sure that being married is the key to their happiness and isn’t too hung up on the minor details, like exactly who to marry or why. After all, if you’re determined to find a spouse, Welch argues that it’s just a simple case of creating a list of more or less arbitrary criteria that can be used to sort through participants in a tireless grind of date-interviews that goes on until you find someone who is either a) if you are a woman, a man who pays for everything and is infatuated with you thanks to your hard-to-get attitude or b) if you are a man, a woman who can be convinced to love you and is as young and beautiful as your status and economic resources merit.
As a guide to getting what you already know you want in a relationship, this book is both practical and disturbingly plausible. But for people who not only don’t know what they want, but doubt even the possibility of being able to predict what will actually make them happy, this book is worse than useless–it’s nauseating.
Why I read it: it was a gift from a family member.
They say that opposites attract, in which case I suspect that I may be very similar to the author, who I found to be thoroughly grating. Perhaps it’s her approach to the topic, which is somehow both overly analytical and overly anecdotal, or perhaps it’s because studying how to make habits seems pointless to me (surely the hard part is deciding what habits to have, not how to keep them up?). I knew I was in trouble when Rubin’s first attempt (of many) to organize her readers into overly-tidy categories failed to resonate with me–am I an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Does it even matter? At any rate, I felt so little interest in this book that I had a difficult time finishing it and remember practically nothing about it now. It has joined the growing ranks of faceless self-help books that have made the New York Times Best Seller list but not an impression on me.
[Why I read it: my friend Joy recommended it to me.]
When a psychiatrist who endured the German concentration camps of WWII has something to say about happiness and the meaning of life, you can bet it’s something worth paying attention to. Frankl’s thoughts on the bigger questions in life are woven into the first part of this short book–an account of the author’s experiences and observations in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. An introduction to the foundations of logotherapy (the author’s approach to psychotherapy) comprise the second part of the book, in which Frankl’s ideas really come into focus.
Frankl’s refreshing premise is that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (121) and that “A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease” (125). The author’s theory of the meaning of life encompasses the complexities of human existence with startling simplicity:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible (131).
I have seldom been moved as this book moved me, right from the preface, which contains this bit of wisdom that alone would make the book worth reading:
Don’t aim at success–the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run–in the long run, I say!–success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it (17).
[Why I read it: it was mentioned in Your Money or Your Life and the title sounded interesting.]
I didn’t enjoy reading this book very much; it does not seem well focused, does not flow very well and flip-flops annoyingly between information that is too technical to be useful and organizational ideas that are too simplistic. In one paragraph, the author explains that the enzyme catechol-O-methyltransferase regulates dompamine and noradrenaline in the prefrontal cortex, in another he suggests the not-exactly-earth-shattering idea of writing things down instead of trying to remember everything.
That said, there were still a lot of very interesting concepts in this book and several of the things I learned merited being read aloud to the family or being brought up in conversation over the last few days. For example, it should be common knowledge by now that multitasking is not a thing, but did you know that watching TV while studying can actually cause the information you learn to be stored in the wrong part of your brain? That’s powerful stuff. Or that humans naturally tend toward a bimodal sleeping pattern that includes two four or five hour chunks, separated by an hour or two of wakefulness in the middle of the night and supplemented by an afternoon nap?
In my opinion, this book can’t hold a candle to Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (who, along with his partner Amos Tversky, is referenced quite often in The Organized Mind), but Levitin compensates for a sub-ideal reading experience by the fascinating and varied topics he explores.
[Why I read it: My friend, Joy, recommended it to me.]
Everyone likes a good story and this book is full of them, from Steven Spielberg’s broken mechanical shark to the unintuitive results of a psychological study involving marshmallows and SAT scores. However, the point of the book is ostensibly to enlighten, not just entertain, and this is where the weaknesses start, in my opinion. Every couple of anecdotes, Niven stops to draw conclusions and give tips about problem solving which tend to be counter-cultural and surprising, such as “when you are stuck, find a good distraction that takes you away from your problems” (22) or “don’t follow the leader…[who] in many cases is just the person with bad ideas who has been around the longest” (182). These tips are generally supported by two or three cherry-picked examples or studies and represent a gross oversimplification and overly-broad application of psychological findings. For example, just because doctors in a study who were given candy made more accurate diagnoses doesn’t necessarily mean “eat a candy bar” is helpful advice (though, in case you needed an excuse to break your diet, this advice can be found on page 40).
[Why I read it: I think my friend Joy mentioned it, but I’m not sure. I also had a good feeling about the author’s name, which I thought I recognized, but it turns out I was thinking about a different David Niven (the English actor).]