The Purpose Driven Life
The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, 1/5
Reading this, one could be forgiven for mistaking Christianity for a pyramid scheme and this book for its investment pitch.
Why I read it (or at least, the first 84 pages): it was included in a bunch of books passed along to me by a friend. I remembered it being really popular for a while, so thought I’d check it out.
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.
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.
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.
Think and Grow Rich
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, 2/5
Just from the title and short author bio on the cover flap, I expected this book to be pure baloney, but I never expected to encounter such a bizarre combination of sound psychological principles, medieval science, “New Thought” spirituality, and grandiose (though entirely unsubstantiated) personal anecdotes.
First, the bad: Napoleon Hill was undoubtedly a committed conman and lifelong liar. Even if you don’t believe all of the unsavory claims in Matt Novak’s extensive exposé of Hill’s life (warning: it’s an almost 20,000-word monster of an article that will suck you in from beginning to end), you would have to be very credulous indeed not to spot numerous red flags that indicate the questionable character, yet unquestionable audacity, of Napoleon Hill. His main claim to credibility hinges on close personal association with an impudent list of famous, well-respected figures such as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and multiple U.S. presidents. Unfortunately, all detailed records of these relationships were allegedly destroyed in a fire (eye roll) and Hill was wise enough to save his stories until the people in question were dead and thus unable to contradict his incredible claims. Even the tale he tells in Think and Grow Rich of his own son, born without ears but allegedly made to hear by the single-minded positivity that is a central tenet of the book, is at complete odds with a later article in which he credits chiropractics alone as the miraculous cure.
Despite the author’s personal shortcomings, this book is strangely motivating and encourages many proven strategies for success, such as goal-setting, visualization, positive thinking, forming good habits, and collaboration. If you can get past the mysticism and pseudoscience, there are some good things to be gleaned. For example, while I don’t agree with the extent to which Hill credits misfortune to negative thinking, I did feel challenged to reconsider the effect that negative thoughts might have on my life. For some reason, I can easily see the benefit of positive thinking, but view negativity as somehow neutral, which is clearly not the case.
Why I read it: Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rafael Lovato Jr. mentioned it in an interview.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, 4/5
This book gave me a feeling of déjà vu since it is the third I’ve read on the same general topic, preceded by Coyle’s The Talent Code and Gladwell’s Outliers. On paper, Peak should have been my favorite of the three. Ericsson, a respected professor of psychology, is able to provide the academic backbone that was missing from Coyle’s otherwise very enjoyable take on the subject. And, as one of the researchers responsible for the original study that Gladwell later contorted into the “10,000-hour rule,” Ericsson is both qualified and motivated to debunk that incorrect (yet annoyingly memorable) interpretation of his work.
That said, I felt that Peak was rather a latecomer to the party and the authors’ efforts to transcend the genre of pop psychology relaxed in the book’s later chapters. Their painstaking attempt to distinguish between “deep practice” and mere “purposeful practice” felt contrived, and the concept of “mental representations,” so vital to Ericsson’s psychology-based perspective on the topic, was discussed in a consistently wishy-washy way. I couldn’t resist an eye roll upon encountering the section about London taxi drivers and their overdeveloped hippocampi, a study that has already been beaten to death (à la the Stanford Prison Experiment). Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I remember enjoying Coyle’s more biology-based perspective and discussion of the topic in terms of deep practice, ignition and master coaching in The Talent Code.
While it might not have lived up to my six-year-old memory of a similar book, Peak still has a lot to offer. I was very interested in the application of the science of expertise to the field of medicine, specifically surgery. No one wants their medical practitioner to be just “average,” but the old joke that goes “What do you call the medical student who graduated last in his class? … Doctor” is unsettlingly accurate. Ericsson poses a real “moneyball” moment for the medical industry by showing how studying the highest performing outliers and applying science-based teaching techniques can raise the success rates of “average” surgeons.
Why I read it: my brother piqued my interest by telling me interesting stories from it.
Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff, 5/5
Bob Goff knows how to tell a story. His stories were almost too good; I devoured them like a kid devours a bowl of fruit loops and had to keep reminding myself to slow down and digest the bigger messages. When someone who has accumulated a lifetime’s worth of remarkable experiences takes the time to write down what they’ve learned from a broad perspective, it’s a gift–a sneak peek of a meaningful work of art when all you could see before was the close-up chaos of individual brushstrokes.
Formerly a lawyer and law professor, Goff was not a “professional Christian” when he wrote this book, so I didn’t get the uncomfortable feeling that he was trying to sell some pre-packaged, preachy, lifeless form of religion. He is very practical and realistic, using stories to transcend the cliched verbiage of encouraging people to fearlessly follow their hopes and dreams while living in God’s love.
I used to think following God required complicated formulas. I thought I needed a big stack of books, so I could figure out exactly where I was all the time. I thought if I constantly measured the distance between me and God, I’d get closer to Him. Early on, the religious people I knew explained to me all kinds of nuances for doing this sort of spiritual math. They suggested that I say certain things in my prayers, have quiet times, go to Bible studies, and memorize Bible verses. They said I needed to know how to explain to someone that God could be a person and a spirit at the same time. They urged me to know how God was going to come back someday but that some people would be here and other people would go missing because it would be a time of great tribulation. They said that for me to know God, there was a whole pile of things I’d need to know first. […] What I realized, though, is that all I really needed to know when it came down to it was the direction I was pointing and that I was somewhere inside the large circle of God’s love and forgiveness (156).
There are a lot of crazy stories and insightful life lessons packed into this easy-to-read book, but perhaps the thing that stuck with me the most a couple weeks later, was how fearlessly Goff loves other people and gets involved in their lives. If he was giving bits of himself away, he would soon be reduced to nothing, but instead his life seems immeasurably richer. It truly seems that he has an endless supply of supernatural love from which to draw. I still don’t fully understand how to live this way without getting used up by the “takers” in the world, but this book was a helpful piece of the puzzle for me and an amazing reminder that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Why I read it: My friend, Joy, recommended it to me.