The most powerful books I've read this year
2018 has been one of the best years of my life, in large part because of what I've learned. This continuous DIY education helped me change in myriad little ways and helped me understand a bit more about what's going on in the world.
According to my semi-rigorous, semi-sloppy bookkeeping, I've read 47 books this year.
It was another of my typical non-fiction years, as the only fiction book I managed to finish was one I couldn't wait to read: Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk. He's a genius writer and the novel promised to be a juicy, social justice inspired dystopia that was written with a psychological profile of me on the table. I'm sad to say, it was a painful read full of compulsive eye rolling that will very probably keep me from dipping my toes into the fiction bucket in 2019. Sorry, Chuck.
Given that it's the end of one of the best years I can remember, a year of change, a year of growth and the year this little blog started - this is probably the most useful roundup post I could offer you. Each of these books has changed the way I think in some important way and improved my understanding of why the world is the way it is and, especially, why humans are the way they are.
One of the most profound realizations I've had in the last few years is how much our lives are still under the grip of genes, of ancestral drives, of the unconscious. We spend our days drifting in a hazy simulation of complete objectivity, but we're anything but the rational beings we imagine ourselves to be. The more I understand about our species, the forces that formed us, and the internal patterns these processes have forged, the easier it is for me to see the strings that guide my own life, and to peer into the darkness at the ultimate puppet master - Mama Nature herself.
So, you'll see a theme here. It's definitely a nature over nurture kinda year.
To spare you the usual reviews and give you some useful nuggets that will prepare you for a wiser 2019, I've rounded up the three most important lessons that each book has taught me.
The Laws of Human Nature - Robert Greene
Robert Greene is a master of straight talk about the dark sides of humanity.
He's written about how to use human nature to your own advantage in a few of his books, like the "48 Laws of Power" or "Mastery", but now he's turned the spotlight on human nature itself.
1. Master your emotions
This has been "the lesson of the year". *cue fireworks*
There is never a reason to throw a tantrum, have a fight, and, essentially, turn into a dick in front of the people you love. Or acquaintances. Or strangers. Really now, contain yourself.
Emotions are signals, not orders. To become strategic about what you want in your life, you need to gain some distance from your feelings and act with a cool head. Impulsiveness may be fun in music videos but in real life, all those teenagers are in jail.
2. Stay focused on your own journey
Though feedback is important, many people live their lives chained to an outside focus. What will my family and friends think? Where am I in the company pecking order? Am I keeping up with the Jones'? All these questions can end up running your life and guiding you away from what you truly enjoy and what you're really good at.
It's a far better idea to simply focus on mastering your craft and keeping the yardstick focused on yourself rather than what others think.
3. Be realistic about human nature
People are capable of the most amazing acts of kindness and generosity but they are also capable of immense evil. That is all people, including you.
Being realistic about the true nature of humans, their opportunism, their narcissism, their self-interested traits and calmly observing it rather than raging at it is an amazing strategic advantage. Turning that lens on yourself and noticing your less than noble impulses is even more powerful as you become a stealthy self-knowledge ninja.
Skin in the Game - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb is probably one of the most interesting people alive. I remember loving his Black Swan book when I read it ten years ago, then I remember absolutely detesting him because he was getting into fights with Sam Harris and Steven Pinker, but now I'm back on the Taleb boat - full circle. What are the odds?
I've come to love Taleb. He's your loud, boasting, hyper-Mediterranean uncle who swears at the dinner table, always has mysteriously large amounts of money in cash and is usually right, if obnoxiously so, about most things.
He's an exceptionally clear thinker on matters of probability, risk, morality, and fairness, and this book has been my favorite so far - though his Antifragile book is a marvel in itself.
1. Minorities rule
It seems logical that in most situations, majorities decide an outcome. The beliefs and options of most people should, according to our intuition, dominate the way society is run. Nope. The group who has most "skin in the game" - most to gain or lose, can, and usually do skew the results in their favor. Take Kosher standards. Though most people do not keep Kosher, all the Coca-Cola sold in the US is certified Kosher. Why? Because the majority doesn't care if Cola is Kosher, but the 1% that does care, cares a lot. Enough to make it the standard for everyone else. Same with non-GMO, gluten-free, fair-trade or Halal standards or even social justice mobs on college campuses.
A loud minority, especially during a moral panic, can create new rules and impose strictures that are not endorsed by the majority, but because there may be high social costs to fighting the minority, like being called a racist/sexist/bigot, most people abstain, and the minority norms become the new standard. I feel like that's how the Inquisition started. A few potato-sack-wearing zealots, foaming at the mouth, calling everyone a blasphemer. Before you know it, all of Europe is chopping off nipples, inserting hot irons into holes they don't belong and drowning alleged witches to check if they really die. They do.
2. Why getting skin in the game will change your life
Consequences are everything.
Odds are that your strategies for spending your own money and for using your employer's expense account are very different. With your own money, you have skin in the game, you try to maximize value in the long term and not fritter it away, while with the company account, you don't mind getting a diamond-encrusted lobster dinner if it's expensed. It's all money, of course, but the consequences to you differ.
Understanding the importance of personal consequences is an incredibly useful tool to create systems to incentivize people, but maybe more importantly, to incentivize yourself to become the person you want to be. Most of our goals don't have a significant enough downside. You fail, the most you get is a bit of a deflated look on your friends' faces. If you lose money, or a socially important bet, though - the stakes are higher. That's why sites like Stikk.com can be useful, where you can make a contract with yourself to either follow through on your commitments or donate to a hated charity - like these guys .
3. A great Fat Tony-ism
"Always do more than you talk. And precede talk with action. For it will always remain that action without talk supersedes talk without action."
Man's Search for Meaning - Victor Frankl
This book is a classic Holocaust memoir that I wanted to read for a long time, but I'm happy I didn't until now. When I was younger, I used to read famous, complicated books because of what I thought that said about me, about being smart, about being an intellectual. I read The Will to Power by Nietzsche when I was 14 and it was like reading the phone book. I did it, though, and got all the words too. But, obviously, about 100% of the intended meaning escaped me.
Man's Search for Meaning couldn't have come at a better time. This year could well be called the start of Alex's search for meaning and it culminated in launching this blog.
1. We are meaning-seeking creatures
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
When I was younger, I could never imagine a time when I would get tired of playing, of eating ice cream and watching TV. Life was all about creature comforts and it was good. Then, when I hit my teenage years, I could feel the first stirrings of "the void". Something was constantly missing, something was not right. What is this all for? I went for a bit of utopianism of the "workers of the world unite" variety, but all I got was resentful. Still. something. missing.
I didn't realize for a very long time that what I was searching for was meaning. I had all the comforts and freedoms in the world. What I needed was a goal, a constraint, a self-imposed obstacle to overcome. I needed a burden.
2. What is the meaning of life? is the wrong question
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked."
This was the most memorable part of the book to me. The question "what is the meaning of life?" can't be answered in the abstract because there is no meaning in the sense of a purpose or function. Life is not like a can opener.
The meaning of life is a challenge, a responsibility for each person to decide on. Will you take the high road, or slither through without improving anyone's existence?
What is the meaning of your life?
3. Suffering has meaning
"If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death."
In the West, we live in incredible comfort and abundance. Still, every person's life is marked by unavoidable suffering. The breakdown of relationships, infirmity and death haunt us all, but we are less and less equipped to handle them, as we live farther away from suffering than any generation before. No hunger, no frost, no unimaginable physical labor.
Man's Search for Meaning has taught me that not only is there meaning in suffering, there is also meaning in voluntarily seeking out suffering, in getting an education in it, in doing your homework and preparing your soul for the moment when life inevitably hits. For Frankl, the concentration camps provided more suffering than is conceivable, but he noticed that the inmates who had voluntarily taken on the responsibility of keeping their dignity in conditions that would turn men into animals experienced an inner triumph and the meaning it took to keep going.
And a little bonus:
The Easy Way to Stop Smoking - Allen Carr
This was by far the most useful book that I have read this year.
In short, it worked.
I was smoking about a pack every two days, some days a bit more and had picked up smoking about a year and a half prior. Old smokers might think that a year and a half doesn't make you an addict, but my-jump-out-of-bed at-6-to-have-time-to-have-my-five-morning-cigarettes-before-work-habit begs to differ. I was hooked completely and it was progressively getting worse.
Allen Carr's book really turned it around for me.
If you're expecting literature in the vein of "Crime and Punishment", look elsewhere, because the writing is often atrocious. It's more along the lines of a 6 hour used car sales pitch. But once you're done, Carr has literally talked you out of smoking. All the reasons you give yourself to have "just one more" have been nuked out of the realm of the reasonable and you have no choice but to accept that you're so much better off without the habit. At the same time, he paints a vivid picture of the delicious freedom on the other side of quitting: the health, the wealth, the personal sovereignty. He has you not just running away, but also running towards something great.
I could not recommend this book more. If you're struggling with smoking, it's well worth a shot for the absolutely marvellous taste of freedom on the other side of addiction.
2018 was an absolutely fabulous year for reading, and though I could add quite a few more to this list, these were the ones that stuck with me the most.
P.S. You can also check out my review of Atomic Habits by James Clear and what I've learned about habit change from him. It is probably one of the most actionable and inspiring books on habit change I’ve ever read (twice!).