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 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.
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek, 2/5
Sinek poses an interesting premise: companies wishing to develop an extremely loyal customer base and have the greatest influence on society and industry must let a clear sense of why they do what they do influence all decisions about what and how. By communicating a sense of purpose and how this purpose fits into the bigger picture of life, a business can ostensibly attract similarly-minded, passionate customers and ultimately have the freedom to be more innovative and influential than the faceless corporations trapped in “features” battles with each other, desperate to manipulate buyers with endless “deals” and minute spec improvements. Sinek basically argues that companies should function like good people, with strong character, ethics and a sense of higher purpose, instead of being focused solely on the bottom line. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. When we are selective about doing business only with those who believe in our WHY, trust emerges” (80).
While Sinek’s approach is thought-provoking, I see a clear conflict between it and a society that is rife with lawsuits against businesses who refuse to provide services, based on religious beliefs. I wish the author had addressed this issue instead of beating one simple idea to death with a tedious, repetitive writing style and relentless references to Apple Inc. Perhaps he also could have supplemented his few cherry-picked examples, by explaining why numerous industry-leading companies have achieved great success while clearly not following his why-centered philosophy. He also does not adequately address the connection between authenticity and advertising–couldn’t it be argued that the only difference between companies appearing to have a strong “why” and all the others is merely superior advertising strategies (not necessarily fundamental differences in philosophy and operation)?
Why I read it: My brother recommended it under circumstances I have since forgotten (I procrastinated on writing this review for far too long!).
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, 2/5
Is it the mystery of death or mere crass curiosity that makes people so fascinated by “last words”? For whatever reason, the appeal is undeniable. However, it is also undeniable that everyone dies and, heartless as it may sound, imminent death is no philosophical or literary credential. Mostly according to himself, Pausch was a great success as a human being: intelligent, successful, hard-working, loved and loving…but this short book somehow still left ample opportunity for me to repeatedly wonder when it was going to get profound, insightful, or helpful in any way. It felt rather like a Wikipedia article written about someone, not because they had such a noteworthy effect on the world that it deserved lasting mention, but merely because they died. (Interestingly, I later looked up Pausch’s Wikipedia article and that is almost exactly what happened–it was created the month he got his terminal diagnosis, not at any time during his career). Perhaps people who are dealing with life-threatening illness would have a different perspective, but I felt this book had very little to offer besides voyeuristic appeal, though I’m sure that as a memoir for his family, it is beyond value.
Why I read it: My gym friend, Tyler, thought I might enjoy it and lent me his copy.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, translated by William Scott Wilson, 5/5
It is absolutely stunning how relevant this book remains to today’s students of combat sports, though it was written almost 400 years ago for Japanese swordsmen. I recognize so many of the techniques and concepts that Musashi describes from my own kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA sparring experiences. In fact, I believe such review and recognition is likely where this work’s main interest and value lies–I certainly don’t feel able to learn subtle martial arts concepts from a book (certainly not from a picture-less book!), but it is fascinating to see what I have learned from my coaches and through experience reflected on the page. Perhaps this is why the ever-practical Musashi ends each lesson with a comment like “You should make efforts in this,” or “You should practice this well.”
Why I read it: I came across Musashi’s “21 Rules of Life” online, read a bit about him and remembered that though I had given my brother a beautifully illustrated copy of The Book of Five Rings many years ago, I had never actually gotten around to reading it myself.
The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, 4/5
Making and receiving apologies has always seemed like a fairly natural part of human interaction to me, so I’ve never given the topic much thought. However, I was recently very confused to be told plaintively by someone that “so-and-so has never apologized to me in twenty years!” What was so confusing about this comment? Well “so-and-so” had recently made an unexpected and unsolicited apology to me! Was I to believe this same person had purposefully withheld all apologies from someone else, or was there some other communication issue at play?
It turns out that different people have different expectations when it comes to what makes a sincere apology. According to this book, if one or more of the five “languages” of apology is lacking, the whole effort can fail to register with the recipient as a sincere apology, no matter how genuine it was intended to be.
- Expressing Regret: “I am sorry.”
- Accepting Responsibility: “I was wrong.”
- Making Restitution: “What can I do to make it right?”
- Genuinely Repenting: “I’ll try not to do that again.”
- Requesting Forgiveness: “Will you please forgive me?”
I feel that the use of the word “languages” to describe these five aspects is a too-obvious effort to tie this book in with Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, but it is undeniably helpful to know what shortcomings could cause an apology to ring untrue. While the main focus of the book is on how to make sure your apology meets the intended recipient’s subconscious criteria, it is also interesting to understand that just because an apology doesn’t cover the aspect that is most important to you, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is insincere.
Another very interesting point the authors make is that, while forgiveness is a decision, trust is an emotion (213). You can choose to forgive someone, but trust should be earned. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what someone has done, making light of their bad actions, or going back to the way things were, but it does mean giving your relationship with them a chance to heal and grow.
Why I read it: my sister recommended it and I’m always interested in learning to be a better communicator.
Wired to Eat: Turn Off Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite for Weight Loss, and Determine the Foods that Work for You by Robb Wolf, 3/5
If lack of information is the reason you struggle with weight loss, then you may find this book to be life-changing–it certainly contains a lot of information. If lack of motivation is what’s holding you back, then you may find this book to be helpful–its tone is very motivational. However, if you are already familiar with the ultimate weight loss triumvirate Sleep More, Move More, Eat Less Processed Food, but you simply lack the self control to put it into practice, then you will likely find this to be just another useless diet book.
Many of Wolf’s observations are in line with my personal experience, especially that junk food makes you feel hungrier beyond reason and hyper-palatable, highly-processed foods are pure evil. However, I think of these facts as incidental to weight loss; in other words, learning them was simply the by-product of successful weight loss and maintenance in my case, not the cause. If knowledge gained through personal experience is insufficiently motivating, how much less is knowledge gained from merely reading a book? Such pessimistic practicalities aside, Wolf does his best to get his readers fired up and seems genuinely motivated to help people. His use of pop science/psychology is purposeful at least, though somewhat nauseating, and I respect his unusual advice that each person find the foods that work for them (within limits, obviously) instead of slavishly following some one-size-fits-all diet/religion. However, I feel that Wolf does not make nearly as convincing, scientific or detailed a case for the paleo diet as Good Food, Great Medicine makes for the Mediterranean diet (with the added benefit of much less hype and pop science).
Why I read it: My boyfriend thought it sounded interesting but I thought it sounded sketchy, so I read it first to save him time in case it sucked.
The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate by Gary Chapman, 5/5
It took an effort to get past the cringe-worthy cover and subtitle, but this book is well-written and explores concepts that can apply to a variety of relationships besides marriage (such as between friends, family members, or people who are dating). Using common sense and many examples from his years of experience as a marriage counselor, Gary Chapman proposes that, while everyone needs to feel loved, each individual tends to recognize and express love in primarily one of five ways: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service and physical touch. Two people with loving intentions who speak different “languages” can be left each feeling uncared for and confused as to why their expressions of love aren’t accepted as such. Chapman encourages people in relationships to notice which of the five categories their partner might belong to and adjust their own behavior accordingly. It seems to me that this could be a bit forced and awkward in some cases, especially if the other person knows you very well and notices that you start acting out of character. I think it makes more sense for everyone to learn each other’s love languages, not so that they can necessarily speak them, but so that they can appreciate love in its different forms. For example, if someone prefers to hear affirming words, they should learn to appreciate the love of a person who makes time for them or quietly does helpful things. Or if a person wants their partner to show they care by giving them gifts, they should also realize that a kind word or touch can be equally meaningful and heartfelt expressions of love.
Why I read it: One of my sisters said it was interesting and it is important to me that the people I care about feel loved.