All the World's a Classroom
2016 is half over! Which makes today a good time to do a mid-year review of the great books from this year. As a result of my decision to read books for understanding and wisdom back in January, my reading selection and habits have changed, and when I look back at the reading list, I actually like almost all of them. Here are the best books of 2016 so far. Part 2 of this list will cover the favorites from the second half of the year. Wait for it in early 2017!
If you’re curious about what I’m reading right now, visit my Goodreads profile.
This book marked a turning point in my reading experience. I decided to read better and no other book could teach reading better than this book. Adler outlines the 4 levels of reading, namely elementary, inspectional (with a brilliant section on how to skim a book effectively), analytical (understanding what the ideas are and how they are connected), and syntopical (synthesizing ideas across multiple books). The goal is to extract as much wisdom as possible from the book you are reading, to understand what the author is trying to communicate. This book should be a must-read for all high school and college students, as well as everyone else who takes reading seriously. The ideas in How to Read a Book inspired these essays in this blog:
Thiel is a Silicon Valley giant who co-founded PayPal and invested early in Facebook. This book was compiled from the notes of a student from his entrepreneurship class. He describes two kinds of growth. Zero to one refers to a step growth, a radical invention that changes the world, as opposed to a “one to n” growth, where a great idea is being replicated many times over. We see this phenomenon a lot. Something revolutionary comes out, then a hundred imitators build something similar to it. This book is about the first kind of growth, the radical changes, which according to Thiel is how we make progress in society.
Everyone who has read this book loves it. It is a profound and moving piece by a dying man. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon resident when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. In between the diagnosis and his death, he produced a remarkable reflection on medicine, excellence, and the true meaning of life. To get a flavor of what he wrote about, check out these posts:
Some of my favorite writers are medical practitioners. Perhaps their close connections to human lives inspire a special depth of understanding in humanity and our existence. Sacks was a neurologist and a prolific writer. This small book is a collection of 4 essays that he wrote towards the end of his life. There’s something special about reading an octogenarian reflects about his own life. The Consciousness of Time essay above was also inspired by this book.
This was probably the most fun book I picked up this year. I obliterated it with notes, dog ears, and highlights. I didn’t necessarily buy into every conclusion of Nisbett’s experiments, since a deeper reading of the actual journal papers was warranted for this, but the general trends of how Asian thoughts differed from Western thoughts were observable in real life, especially in mine, being Indonesian in the US. This book fit perfectly into the essay series on worldview that I had been working on since last year. If you just wanted to know the key conclusions of this book without reading it, I’ve summarized them in these posts:
I also wrote a narrative of my own cultural experiences in these posts:
I absolutely love this memoir! Jahren is a geobiologist, which is a fancy way of saying she studies plants. This memoir is about her journey as a woman in science, academia, her love of trees, and her friendship with Bill, her longtime lab partner. Their adventures are the stuffs of storybooks. What is most magnificent about Lab Girl is Jahren’s language. She has a knack of putting words together poetically, whether it be on the life of a tree or on the joy of discovery. Highly recommended for women (and men) who love science.
As a side note, it is also thrilling to see that science writing has been having a good run in 2016!
Axelrod was one of the key minds behind President Obama’s revolutionary campaign in 2008. He was the strategist for both of Obama’s campaigns and an advisor in the White House in Obama’s first term. Politics is usually associated with bad sentiments: skepticism, corruption, hypocrisy, etc. Which is why it’s refreshing to read about someone who has been in the thick of it for 40 years and still believe in the power of politics in bringing good to society. Axelrod believes that politics is and should be a calling, and this book is a frank review of his choices in working with candidates who did and did not emulate this value.
I love political memoirs because they give me a different picture of reality compared to what the media depicts. Part of being informed is examining the sources of our information. The media is one source and they have their take on reality. But this is far from the only one. Books like Believer and other political memoirs lift up the curtain a bit and let you see what goes on behind the scene. One thing I’ve learned is this: I may or may not agree with the writer’s politics, but the work ethics of many public servants in the White House is laudable.
This is the scariest book I have ever read. It tells stories of patients with neural degeneracies. Because something goes wrong in the brain, a person can not recognize his own hand or leg, hear a constant song in her head, not able to recognize faces or objects, or think only in prime numbers. These are not stories of despair, though. Quite the contrary, Sacks brings out the humanity in these cases, helping us see them as fellow human beings rather than just patients. For one thing, it teaches me that it is a gift and privilege to have a brain that works properly.
Taleb is one of the best contrarian thinkers of today. He couldn’t care less about intellectualism; it’s all about practical wisdom. This book proposes a contrarian philosophy in investing and probability by focusing on blind spots, the events that you deem highly unlikely to happen, but if they do, will radically impact your life or your organization. The proverbial black swan refers to this: if you believe all swans are white, it only takes one black swan to obliterate your belief system.
This is not a book that one can read lightly or quickly. It’s instructive because it teaches you to think differently. Taleb also recently gave a graduation speech, something he doesn’t do often. You can read the script here.
Another doctor on the list. Gawande is a general surgeon, recipient of the 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and a writer for The New Yorker. This book is about what it takes to be successful in medicine. Gawande is an effective writer and the book is almost like an anatomy lesson in excellence.
[Update] Based on this book, here comes the densest article on this blog so far. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re driven enough to read 3500 words on how to excel, click the link below.
Great books let you meet and spend time with inspiring people. I’ve noticed that there’s one thing that these people have in common that inspires me again and again. Read about this unique trait in this post:
Other best books lists
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In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande, surgeon, 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, writer for The New Yorker, reflects on what it means to excel and be successful in medicine. The MacArthur Foundation website states that the Genius awards go “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” It’s a very suitable description of Gawande, who in his writings is greatly concerned in making medicine better.
Write something. I do not mean this to be an intimidating suggestion. It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.
You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest. As Lewis Thomas once pointed out, quoting the physicist John Ziman, “The invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of ‘fragments’ of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science.” By soliciting modest contributions from the many, we have produced a store of collective know-how with far greater power than any individual could have achieved. And this is as true outside science as inside.
You should also not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself. I did not write until I became a doctor. But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write. For all its complexity, medicine is more physically than intellectually taxing. Because medicine is a retail enterprise, because doctors provide their services to one person after another, it can be a grind. You can lose your larger sense of purpose. But writing lets you step back and think through a problem. Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.
Most of all, by offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world. Put a few thoughts on a topic in just a newsletter, and you find yourself wondering nervously: Will people notice it? What will they think? Did I say something dumb? An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.
So choose your audience. Write something.
In June 2015, I relaunched my blog after a 2-year hiatus. It was a soft launch, because one, the domain name had existed for years un-utilized, and two, I didn’t know which direction to go with the blog, hence no big reveal.
Since then, my approach to blogging has evolved drastically, a compound effect of the decisions I had made. As someone who advocates oft reflections, I intend to share some, maybe unsolicited, but hopefully useful lessons learned during this past year. If you’re a blogger and writer, I’d love to hear if you agreed, commiserated, or disagreed with any of these points.
1. Finding a Focus Starts with Asking Questions
The backstory: I spent the first 6 months after the launch finding a focus. Previously, my blogging approach covered eclectic topics on the things I experienced–travel, food, silly experiences, personal reflections, and essays. But, personally, there was something unsatisfying about this format. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, and I even enjoyed other blogs of this nature, but when I looked at my own posts, I knew there was a category that, when read, gave me most satisfaction. More on this below.
The blog relaunch was then an opportunity to do something different and ask different questions. For me, the question was this: What is the single umbrella theme that I want my blog to have? Just one.
This question set me off on a journey. I simply started blogging, because only action would bring answers to said question, and if you saw the posts between June and December 2015, you would still see the sporadic nature in themes and topics. I was experimenting.
What did I experiment on? Initially, it was to test people’s responses–which posts would have more readership, wider audience engagement, page views, etc. It seemed like the most natural metric to use. But as I observed responses over those posts, one thing troubled me: the ones that were more popular were not the ones I would want to be the most popular.
I realized then that the real experiment was on myself. How did I feel about my posts? And I surely had different reactions to them. Faced with contradicting results, I had to make a choice: Which types of posts should I do and which should I abandon?
In the mean time, I also explored the blogosphere, reading websites and blogs of writers that I admired and respected. I discovered that my favorite kinds of blogs had dense and thoughtful entries, well-written pieces by people who devoured books. They were the self-learners, perpetual students, and wisdom seekers. It was almost like finding a tribe, as I resonated with this way of life.
Lesson Learned: Ask questions. Blogging, or intentional creative efforts of any kind, is a craft. It’s a design exercise–not just graphically, but internally, a design of content. It takes effort and prodding and questionings. What do I want my creation to look like? How do I iterate to find out what I want? If the question doesn’t get asked, a journey doesn’t get discovered. And if things don’t get measured, they don’t get improved.
2. Doing Work I’m Most Proud Of
I found out that I was most satisfied when people read my thoughts rather than life updates, or rants on paper towels. These were usually long essays with messages that I’d like to send to the world, sharing what I had learned from books, people, and experiences.
So, should I write things that I knew had attracted readers in the past, or should I write things that I was truly proud of?
I decided on the latter one: to only produce things I was proud of.
What did this decision mean? It meant dropping travel updates from the blog, since I never intended this site to be a travel blog, nor a food blog. I used to blog about scrapbooking or random meet ups with friends. Dropped those too. I supposed this was what it meant to focus. What stayed on the blog was one of the constants in my life: books.
Now, a larger percentage of this blog, if not entirely, revolves around books, packaged mostly in an essay format. Naturally, this genre overlaps with blogs that I admire. I frankly want to emulate what they have done, but also remain distinct, which is easy to do since I have different sets of interests and reading selections.
I can confidently say that I’m proud of the posts published since the beginning of this year. I say proud in the sense that there’s immense pleasure when thoughts germinated in the head find their expressions in the published words. It’s incredibly satisfying.
Lesson Learned: You can choose what you want to work on and how you want to create. Don’t underestimate the power of choices.
3. Audience: Lose Some, Gain Some
As a result of this pivot, I lost readers. I mentioned that in the past these types of posts didn’t get as much attention, so I probably lost quite a number of readers. It was natural, but still not fun to go through. But I made a decision and this came with it, so I made peace. Some, though, remained.
I focused on writing and thinking better, learning more systematically, and reading more intentionally. It was probably the harder way to blog, hours and days spent on a single post, but I enjoyed it, so much so that it was probably abnormal. As ideas and thoughts mounted, they created a compounding effect that produced more thoughts and ideas, more than what I could keep up in writing. New questions emerged and new searches began. I started writing essay series, since one post was not enough to express the whole thought. The series on worldview—Between Jerusalem and Athens—and on excellence and learning were my personal highlights of the year. They were dense, but they were a labor of love.
As it turned out, this type of content could find its audience too, in fact, in wider scope than friends and family. More importantly, the ones who visited the blog stayed longer. This was incredible to find, because truthfully, this was the audience I wanted. The ones that would stay reading long essays, these were my kind of people! I’ve come to respect this audience, goading me to do even better work to honor the time they spend on this blog.
Lesson Learned: The saying goes, if you try to reach everyone, you’ll reach no one. Dare to reach just a few, and maybe the few will turn out to be not so few after all.
4. No More Hiatus
I’ve maintained a personal blog since 2008. For some reason, I thought I could take a break some time in 2013, and I went on a 2-year unintentional hiatus. I said unintentional because blogging became one of those things that drifted away as I let other things took priorities. The result: nothing good.
I heard Brené Brown once said that the suppression of the creative energy inside us was a dangerous thing. I used to think, Dangerous, really? That’s a strong word, isn’t it? But then I thought about my life happiness vis-à-vis blogging (blogging = proxy for reading and writing), it couldn’t be truer. Imagine all of those focused hours on crafting and creating essays, channeled out as negative energy toward those around me (ask my husband). It was ugly. Something felt missing. I needed a purpose, something to expand my world.
When I finally decided to read and write again, all of these suppressed energy found their outlet.
It was weird how that worked, and this was all new personal discovery. Now, I know that reading and writing are so essential to my being that I can’t afford to do without them. Thus, I’m purposed to not take any extended hiatus from blogging, for my own sake.
Lesson Learned: Got to find a positive outlet to your creative energy.
5. From Hobby to Priority
It’s hard to find time in an adult’s life for a hobby, but you always find time for a priority. Knowing how important blogging is for my happiness, I now carve out hours to work on the blog on a consistent basis. It occupies my thoughts and it’s part of my schedule, even when I don’t feel particularly inspired. The discipline of sitting down and writing is necessary and rewarding, because I always end up finding something to write on, even if it’s just crappy stuff in my notebook.
The time to blog is a matter of decision. I always find time to do what I want to do, and if I don’t get to do something, there’s a good chance I don’t really, really, want to do it in the first place. On another note, to be consistent, I have also started changing my words in saying no to things. I try to prevent myself from saying “I don’t have time” and replace it with, “I can’t make that a priority right now.” It feels more honest.
If blogging were my hobby, I probably would never have time for it. But now, it’s a priority, hence the time is found.
Lesson Learned: Decide whether what you want to do is worth making into a priority. Then commit.
6. More Lessons to Learn
The blog has evolved to a certain shape right now, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the end. After all, it’s only one-year old. Part of it being a priority means putting the time and money into it (yes, gotta have some skin in the game). I’m learning from people who have created substantive content in the world and there are areas that I need to improve. I’m taking Jeff Goins’ Intentional Blog course and I’ve invested in software to help me gain skills to evaluate my own work.
It’s a continual learning approach, always tweaking, tinkering, and measuring. It’s about perfecting a craft and loving the process more than the results. I guess I am an engineer after all.
“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” – Hope Jahren
Such is the tale of my first year after relaunching my blog. Do you resonate? What have been your experiences thus far? Let me know!