All the World's a Classroom
It’s time for the mid-year highlights of the best reads of 2017! I’ve been having an especially voracious appetite for reading this year. Since I no longer have to commute to work, the amount of reading time in my life has multiplied. You can view the complete list of the books I’ve read in 2017 and 2016 here:
These are my best picks from this year’s list:
This was the first book I finished in 2017. It is both hilarious and insightful. Trevor Noah, a comedian from South Africa, is a brilliant storyteller. Noah was born during apartheid, and grew up in the complex post-apartheid South Africa. His life stories are out of this world. If you can, I would recommend listening to the audiobook version. He narrates it himself, which is awesome, since he speaks many languages and does accents very well. You’ll get the full characterization of the people he mentions in the book.
Blog posts inspired by the book:
This concise and poignant volume is a critical view of modern society and its isolation. Junger elucidates the power and importance of living in communities, most of which is lost in our typically individualistic lives.
Blog post inspired by the book:
Homegoing is a beautiful novel that traces the lineage of two half-sisters, spanning about 300 years of Ghanaian and American history. Through the story of this split family, we are carried along through history, seeing the impact and legacy of colonization and slavery to individuals, families, and societies. Incredible work of fiction.
Blog post inspired by the book:
4. Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss
This is the mother book of all business and self-help books. Lots of inspiring quotes and life hacks from top performers of all fields.
If you’re into science-fiction, this is a fantastic collection of short stories. One of these stories became the basis of the acclaimed movie Arrival, starring Amy Adams. It’s great writing, combined with provoking exploration on how humanity would behave in alternate realities.
A book by a great storyteller, on a great friendship story between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israeli psychologists whose work on the mind’s judgment-making processes have influenced probably everything in modern psychology. Kahneman is the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of my all time favorite books, where he describes the key conclusions of his and Tversky’s work. The Undoing Project is the behind-the-scenes story on how the research and collaboration took place between these two great minds.
I read several of Adichie’s books this year and though I enjoyed all of them, I especially appreciated Purple Hibiscus. She portrays the inner life of the novel’s protagonist–a teenage daughter of a deeply religious and abusive man–and her complex relationship with her family very powerfully.
For a book about death, this book is a surprisingly delightful read. Doughty works in the death industry and takes us through her reflections–both humorous and serious ones–as she learns about her work in a crematory. It has just enough irreverence to be funny, but it also poses deeper questions about how modern society handles death and the dead.
There’s a satisfaction that comes from crossing off many items from a to-do list that each only requires 15 minutes or less. But there’s also a type of satisfaction that will never come from just crossing off 15-minute items.
The latter type of satisfaction is the one that you get after doing deep work, a work that takes long incubation and construction time, that squeezes your brain until it is fried, that produces something big, whose process seems like childbirth.
Often, the adult life is filled with scattered type activities. Chores, bills, errands. They are short-term activities that never end. It takes a different kind of endurance to do these activities.
But even in artistic endeavors, with the pressure to be visible and noticed throughout social media these days, tend to be quick work at the expense of depth.
Yet, it’s still so satisfying when you read a lengthy investigative journalistic piece, or listen to a story that you know have been crafted for a very long time, with much thought and intention, research and revisions. These are examples of deep work, a type of work that chisels a piece of your soul and you’ll never be the same again as a result of producing it.
Quantity Produces Quality
I tend to believe in a proportionality rule. Things that develop over time don’t disappear over time. Things that get done quickly tend to get forgotten quickly too. And it’s not just the total amount of time required to complete the work, it’s also the amount of time put in for any given work session. There are thoughts you will never get to unless you spend two, three, four contiguous hours thinking about the work.
Which is a problem in today’s distracted world. There are a plethora of things that demand our micro-attention constantly, and it takes immense discipline to switch off and focus about one thing for a long time. The trade is this: what is the opportunity cost of being distracted? It’s that valuable work that would otherwise be produced if we were not distracted.
I remember the first time I transitioned into an 8-hour work day schedule. At first, it was so boring to sit in one place for 8 hours, waiting for that 5 o’clock to come. To pass the time, I checked Facebook, browsed the world wide web, switching between work and distractions to help pass the time, or so I thought.
But then I tried another experiment, which was to block off all distractions for that 8-hour time period and just work. Incredibly, by doing this, I was able to get into another level of focus that made work even more interesting. I got into the zone. More questions emerged. The brain was working, plugged into another gear, and time ceased to be felt. The 8-hour passed by so much quicker, and none of it was boring.
Getting Over the Dip
To get to a state of flow in deep work takes some initiation effort. There’s a dip that we all have to get over–where most people abandon their efforts–to get to the other side. It’s not easy, and sometimes laziness prevails. But past this threshold, there’s something valuable, a combination of our own creativity and individuality, a contribution that only we can make.
The labor of producing something good will be painful in some degree. But it’s always worth it.
A book that I want to read on the subject of deep work is Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.
Ever since I joined the ranks of homeowners, I finally see and feel this pattern of life called the American suburbia. Before this, I was that urban person who was only minutes away to major grocery stores, bookstores—both chain and independent—and delicious, diverse, ethnic restaurants. Not anymore. Part of me is still trying to understand why some call this the American Dream…
One thing that is markedly distinct about the change to suburban life, with all the space that comes with it, is its isolation. Perhaps people enjoy their nice houses so much that they don’t come out? Over the past months, I kept saying, “Where is everybody?” All these houses, and I didn’t see anybody in their front or backyards, or on the streets. Maybe because it was winter. I saw their parked cars though, so there was evidence of life.
People. Not that I’m the most social being on earth, but I do like to see people. People working, people doing activities, walking, even at times yelling at each other. Seeing people at the same place signals a common interest. Even though you may not be interacting with all of them, the fact that you’re there together is a sign of camaraderie. “Oh, you love books too!”
But when there are not many places to gather, how in the world are you supposed to find or form a tribe?
Tribe and Belonging
Sebastian Junger’s concise and poignant book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, was especially resonant when I read it earlier this year. It delves into the role of community in a person’s mental health and well being, except that that description is so watered down and doesn’t do the book justice. Junger calls on the properties of ancient tribal social structures that, though seen as primitive by modern people, in fact supply a sense of home and belonging to their members commonly lacking in modern society.
In its introduction, he writes:
The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with… This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.
It begs the question, is there a group of people whose survival is so important to me that I would share my last food with?
How Money Pulls Us Apart
Wealth and affluence, I daresay the mark of modern society, come with many great blessings. With them, many basic human sufferings are avoided and we are enabled to enjoy and entertain ourselves with much delight. Vacation, eating out, hobbies, etc.
But there are shadows that lurk behind these blessings that may catch people unaware. The fact that our money can satisfy so much of our needs, bolstering our independence, by definition lessens our need of other people. We like this. We like to be able to move and do things on our own and not depend on someone else’s good graces.
Take exercise equipment. In my last apartment I lived in (and boy, what a great apartment it was), I used to walk to my local gym to work out. I saw other people exercising and running, which inspired you and boosted your own motivation. I interacted with the staff and also increased the chances of running into coworkers who lived in the area too.
When my husband and I decided to buy a treadmill instead of paying for gym membership, the convenience of running at home was great to have, but it came at the expense of the people exposure at a communal space. The only “interaction” I would have while running was maybe a podcast, the recorded voice of another human being.
Obviously, there are pros and cons of each option—I’m not saying one is absolutely better than the other. But it is a trade-off. The pros and cons differ.
Junger stretches this privatization of resources and links it further to mental health. Perhaps one of the big cons of independence and self-sufficiency is loneliness and depression.
First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.
The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.
Money doesn’t buy everything, obviously. Especially in an individualistic culture, the lack of people interaction can have a serious effect on someone’s mental health.
Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.
The Leveling Effect of Suffering
In contrast, one of the blessings of “financial dependence” is the community aspect of shared resources. Sure, it comes with many frustrations—you have to deal with other people—but loneliness is likely not part of it. Junger argues that often people cherish the memories of disasters, whether natural or manmade (war), because they seem to level and ennoble human nature. They bring the best in everyone, because each has a role to play in the survival of the community. Everyone feels needed and important.
The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger—or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.
To belong to a tribe, a community with shared experiences, is to find a home. How do you find your tribe?
For more, read Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. It goes deeper into the tribal psychology of war, PTSD, and what a society should do with regards to war veterans.
This article is Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.