All the World's a Classroom
2015 was (is) a good reading year. I was able to return to a decent pace (i.e., pre-wedding planning pace). These are the top 5 of my personal best reads of 2015.
Just Mercy is a powerful account of Stevenson’s lifework in the criminal justice system. He represents those on death row, women, children, and the mentally disabled—those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to good defense. It is both a hard criticism to the criminal justice system, as well as a hopeful voice for change, for giving mercy a chance.
I’ve written a lot about this book—this one was the most impactful book this year for me.
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read! And the best one in its genre—psychology and neuroscience—too, I think. Thinking deconstructs how we make judgment and how biases and heuristics influence—sometimes negatively—our decisions. I highly recommend this book for anyone who cares about his/her thoughts being coherent.
Addario works in conflict regions of the world as a war photographer. This book is an impassioned account of her experiences—including 2 kidnappings—that she went through, her commitment to tell nuanced stories of war, and her reflections on the relationship between her work and life. She was a recipient of the “Genius Grant,” the MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.
Her photographs are absolutely stunning and provoking. Check them out here.
Being Mortal is Gawande’s reflection as a medical professional on mortality, a given fact of human life, and end of life care. His insights on how we do medical training are profound, how it often treats human lives and dying as technical problems instead of human problems. Consequently, doctors, while skillful in prescribing treatments for the elderly or terminally ill, are not as well-versed in talking patients through deeper life questions, such as what matters to them the most at the end of their lives. The most admirable part of the book for me is Gawande’s courage in exposing his own personal experience with his father—his end of life care and death—that encapsulates the essence of the rest of the book. I highly appreciate the message of this book!
Nerdy and hilarious! You can’t have a better combination than that. Munroe, ex-NASA roboticist turned cartoonist, is exceptionally skilled at combining absurdity and science. In this book, he answers those ridiculous questions that we used to generate while we were kids—and as adults too—using physics and true principles. The result: something really awesome.
What were your best reads of 2015? Would love to hear your recommendations! List them out in the comments below.
Other best books lists
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The year is dwindling down and the office gets emptier each day. But if you’ve run out of vacation either because you don’t have enough and/or have wisely taken up all of them so you’re not left with unused paid vacation, you may be stuck in an office building during what everyone says is the best time of the year. While this can be categorized as sucky, it doesn’t have to stay that way. You can use this time to get ahead while everyone else is relaxing at home. It’s very quiet, there’s no one to bother you, there will be no meetings, and it can be very useful to do things that otherwise wouldn’t be done during normal workdays. These are 6 ways on how to get ahead over the holidays and get a head start for 2016.
Take Time to Learn
During the year, it can be hard to learn something new amidst the constant task lists associated with your work. While you have this quiet time, take time to gain new knowledge and skills related to your work. Read a book, or take an online training course. Do something educational that increases your skillset and thus your value to your organization.
Explore Creative Ideas
Creativity needs freedom and space to bear fruit. If you have new ideas that you want to implement in your work, but have been finding no time to develop it, this is the time to build, refine, and test the idea.
While you’re at it, jot down all of your “crazy” ideas. Have a personal session where all ideas can fly, as if the world has no constraint. Who knows, maybe some of them can be a breakthrough in your 2016 work life.
Plan Out 2016
You have goals for 2016 (if not, use this time to create goals for the next year). Chart out a timeline on these goals will be accomplished for the next year. What milestones should be done by what date. Have a game plan on how you want to attack these milestones, so come January, while everyone is still waking up from their holiday slumber, you can hit the ground running, knowing exactly what you need to do.
Clean Up Your Desk and Office
I love purging out clutter. It always makes me feel light and free afterward. I don’t know how often you clean your desk and office (or ever?), but at least do it now while no one will be interrupting you. Throw out old and unnecessary files, dust all of those folders, and store non-immediate materials. Organize the cabinet. Make it easier to find documents and increase efficiency in your own workflow. Get some compressed air dusters and clean your keyboard. Clean the yucky gunk on those keyboard keys too (you know it’s there). Wipe the monitor. Go all out and do it all! A clean and neat working environment is not only good for your mind, but also good for your body.
Clean Up Your Inbox
The same housecleaning applies to your email inbox and digital files. Finish up loose ends from 2015 and reduce that inbox size. Organize your digital folders and archives, and back them up.
Take Time to Reflect
Finally and most importantly, while nobody’s watching, take time to be brutally honest with yourself and evaluate the past year. What went well and what went horribly wrong? Glean lessons learned from the past year and write them down, then commit yourself to apply those lessons in 2016.
With these 6 steps, you’ll be ready to jump-start the New Year with good momentum. Have a productive holiday season!
“I can’t just work with mice!” Billy told me after not seeing each other for 8 years. “I need people, human interaction.” I knew Billy in Boston when he was a biomedical engineering student. Between then and now, he switched to anthropology and went on to do humanitarian work around the world, places like South Sudan and Nepal. He glowed when he said, “I love it.”
I admired his courage to make the turn to his very fascinating, and important, current work.
In describing his human-deprived environment, Billy hit on a distinct aspect of technical work, especially in a research setting. Mental activity—reasoning, analyzing, experimenting—is on overdrive while social needs remain starved. While we’re at it, let’s just be honest here and admit that it puts physical activity in expense too. Who’s got time for the treadmill when you need results? I’ll do it next month. Or year.
The nature of engineering work often requires isolation. Quite a number of us can get away from not talking to anybody in a given day, if we want to (and sometimes I do). This caveman-like behavior becomes a problem, though, when it is elongated, because, well, breaking news, engineers are humans too. And humans need other humans [citation not needed].
As such, engineers then are not exempt from the regular laws that govern normal, daily humanness. Like eating, breathing, and… oh yeah, interacting with other people.
Ever heard someone say, “I wish people are more like machines, give an input and you know what the output will be”? Maybe you heard it from me. Surprise, surprise, humans are nonlinear, unpredictable, and non-formulaic. And we engineers ought to know how to be human too.
What Gives Work Meaning
Why am I making such a big fuss about this? It’s because of this notion of a fulfilled life, which I want and cannot buy. Can I, engineer, have a fulfilled life and glow like Billy when he talked about his work? Can I do engineering with some soul?
I should note that many scientists and engineers glow when they talk about their work, because they just love science. For many, this love is enough to fulfill their lives.
But what I’m seeking for myself is the type of glow from knowing that my work helps another person. It’s the element of service that gives meaning to my existence. I won’t pretend that doing engineering in an office can be as noble as empowering communities out of poverty. They are incomparable. But, can I, in some degree, bring this type of soul work into my daily life?
To me, being an engineer is part of my identity, but not its totality. It’s deeper than a mere role, but there are other things that make up who I am as well. Who I am, in total, is a human being, with a body, mind, and soul.
The Soul Dimension
I wrote before about the segmentation of knowledge, how our education is classified into silos that are often tangential to each other. Here, I’m questioning the segmentation of the things that make us human: the body, mind, and soul.
Of all three, the soul seems to be the most optional in modern, Western society. The body commands greater interests now as health trends occupy media attention. But our greatest preoccupation, though, is mental. Our schools and employers are less concerned with people having good health, good character, and fulfilled lives than with their brains’ outputs. In the race towards prosperity and paid bills, we pursue education to get a job, and work, work, work. Exercising, eating well, thinking about the purpose of work, loving what you do, and giving back to others are luxuries that many can’t afford.
This arena of the soul covers a wide field (or, I’m recasting it as a wide field). It is the sphere where we have human connections, compassion, and appreciation for beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. It is something that is beyond physical or mental, but rather a spiritual aspect being human. By spiritual, I’m not talking about religious experiences exclusively, but a soul component to life that reaches beyond our own selves. I believe all of us seek something spiritual.
Abraham J. Heschel says,
Human is he who is concerned with other selves. Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out. A stone is self-sufficient, man is self-surpassing. Always in need of other beings to give himself to, man cannot even be in accord with his own self unless he serves something beyond himself. Man is Not Alone, p 138.
I think Heschel is on to something here, because there’s evidence of this need to give. We admire individuals who are not only smart and good-looking, but who also invest themselves in the good of the world. The ones that can combine the body, mind, and soul command our greatest respect, perhaps because they have something that we ourselves seek.
[True education] has to do with the whole being… It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. – Ellen White, Education.
Whoever came up with the idea that any one of the body-mind-soul triads can be neglected without consequences? When I first encountered this quote, it was groundbreaking, because it sounded foreign. I thought education only had to do with the mind.
I began to understand the interaction of the three when I started taking stocks of my days. The best days at work for me are those when I feel useful to other people, when my work directly helps another person and makes their lives easier, even in a small way. I now understand this as the spiritual aspect of my work, and though anticlimactic from the grand ideas above, it is a start of a journey.
I think, whatever field one may be in, these body-mind-soul combo needs to be fulfilled. For an engineer, the soul aspect is probably the one more lacking. But other profession fields may suffer in a different way, maybe too much soul or too physical, but not enough mind, or too much soul and mind yet very sedentary.
This balanced development though will not be given to us on a platter. We must seek it and pursue it actively into becoming a whole, holistic human being.
To follow Billy’s work, visit his website http://www.onthemountaintop.org/
 Randall Munroe’s influence.
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