Best Books of 2017: Part 1

Best Books of 2017: Part 1

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:

1. Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

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:

Trevor Noah’s Insights on the Power of Language

Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing

2. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

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:

Tribe: Home in Community

 

3. Homegoing: A Novel by Yaa Gyasi

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:

Home-Longing: Thoughts on Home and What It Means. A Prequel.

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.

 

5. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

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.

6. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis

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.

 

7. Purple Hibiscus: A Novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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.

 

8. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

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.

 

 

To see the best-of lists from previous years, check out these links below:

2016: Best Books of 2016 Part 1, Best Books of 2016 Part 2.

2015: Best Books of 2015 Part 1, Best Books of 2015 Part 2.

What are your best reads in 2017 so far?

Life Lessons: How To Be More Resilient

Life Lessons: How To Be More Resilient

Sometimes life throws something unexpected that requires you to be more resilient, more pliable, and tensile. It calls you to come up higher, and you just have to figure out how to.

 

I had one of these recently. I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, requiring me to transform life habits and diet overnight. It’s not an uncommon complication—many people have gone through it—and by no means the hardest thing someone could ever face in a pregnancy, though severe consequences are possible.

 

Since living with the diagnosis, the number of internal dialogues in my mind has gone up. It goes from being fine, feeling guilty, discouraged, hopeful… all cycling multiple times a day. It seems to me like something that needs resilience, a virtue that combines patience and endurance, as opposed to a one-time event that I can get over. There’s a time element to it, and the way to face it requires small forms of courage every day.

 

I’d be remiss to not learn something about resilience from this experience. So here are some of the things I’m learning, and have to tell myself often, on how to be more resilient.

 

1. Resilience Requires Obstacles

 

No strength can be built without resistance. This is true in every realm of life: physical, emotional, mental, intellectual, spiritual, professional. We grow because we face challenges. There is a desired amount of misery that is good for our life education.

 

So the first step to resilience is to realize the necessity of difficult situations and obstacles, to not resist but embrace them.

 

Sure, the diagnosis sucks, and it may take some time to accept your given situation. But as a student of Tim Ferriss, I have to believe—and I am, in fact, convinced—that every disadvantage can be turned into an advantage. I’ve read all these books and blogs. Now it’s time to practice them.

 

The obstacle becomes the teacher, the tool, the stepping-stone to go higher. They’re not necessary evil. They’re just necessary.

 

2. Keep Your Eyes Forward

 

Keep your eyes and mind on the thing you need to overcome. Resist the temptation to look around.

 

It’s easy to compare yourself with others and with you didn’t have to go through this challenge, envying what others have instead. This is not helpful and it doesn’t change reality one bit. It will weaken your spirit instead. Focus on the path forward and embrace its uniqueness.

 

3. Take Time to be Quiet

 

Another temptation is to multiply the company for your misery and complain to every ear in sight. Resist this impulse too. There’s strength to be gained by simply being quiet. Keep some of your challenges to yourself. Don’t cheapen the experience by complaining or over-sharing. Sure, talk to your trusted few, but no one’s really entitled to know every single thought and feeling that you have. They probably don’t want to know. Too much talking may weaken your resilience. So don’t discourage yourself by your words.

 

4. Be Open to Advice…with Limits

 

Those with whom you share will undoubtedly have an infinite amount of advice. And the probability of all of that advice being correct is a big fat zero. They mean well, of course, or they just want to self-affirm.

 

Regardless, be open to what people say. It’s going to be tempting to be defiant: “You don’t know what it’s like.” But don’t do yourself a disservice by being too stubborn. Listen, take what you can, and discard the rest. Don’t fight advice, but don’t accept everything. Receive help, as long as it is helpful.

 

5. Your Path is Yours Alone

 

Ultimately, you are on the path to resilience alone. No one else can strengthen your muscles. You may have company and others’ support, but our human experience is ours along to bear. No one else will understand completely your thoughts, feelings, and motives. And that is how it should be.

 

If you were to be more resilient, you alone are responsible in developing that strength.

 

6. Ask the What-If Question

 

Because resilience is about strength over time, it’s not a bad exercise to ask the what-if question. What if this challenge persists forever, if things won’t ever change? What if I can never eat a Nutella crepe ever again?

 

Sometimes we can develop strength momentarily, when we know a certain situation is finite. But sometimes, there is no guarantee that it will be over. What then?

 

If we could make peace with a persistent condition, then maybe we would have learned something about true resilience.

 

Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing

Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing

Part 1 of a series of posts on Home-Longing.

 

If my sister speaks English to me, there is a first, instinctive reaction within me that says, “Why are you speaking to me like that?” It’s not because there’s anything wrong with her tone or words, but simply because English is not our first language.

 

English was a foreign language that we acquired. We did not grow up speaking English, did not fight or argue in English, and did not learn sisterly affection in English. Consequently, English doesn’t fully reflect the nature of our relationship, nor does it capture exactly the sentiments that we want to express to each other. The language that does these things is Indonesian, our mother tongue.

 

Of course, we get more used to speaking English to each other because we live in the U.S. Yet the psychology of speaking Indonesian vs. English is something that, I don’t think, we can change. Speaking a foreign language to each other makes us feel foreign to each other. It just feels weird, too formal, we often say, as if the language puts a distance between us.

 

To Understand and Be Understood

 

Language plays a powerful role in creating that visceral sense of home and belonging in a person. There’s nothing simpler than feeling like you belong when you hear people speak in your native language, especially in a foreign place. This homey feeling comes from the very basic premise of language, which is to connect and communicate to another person on the same terms. To understand and be understood, without having to explain much to say something simple, is to feel at rest, at home.

 

On the flip side, there’s nothing that makes you feel more foreign than being in a room of people who speak an entirely different language. In this sense, language difference is the first obvious signal of your foreignness. And to find people who speak the way you do is to find your tribe.

 

The Need for Exposure

 

As in other cultural experiences, the realization of how deep your mother tongue relates to your psyche probably would not come until you step out of your own world or take on another language. If you never left home, then you’d probably never feel homesick. The more prevalent feeling may be, “I need to get out and see the world.” Yet often, you learn more about yourself and your origin once you can compare and contrast it with a different experience.

 

Which is why I’m an advocate of multilingualism. Learning a second language is always a good idea. Learning a third or fourth, and for the masters, fifth, sixth language, and so on, brings a different experience each time. And adding a language enriches rather than diminishes your ability in any particular language, analogous to C.S. Lewis’ description of friendship when it is expanded from two to three people: the more we share our minds with different languages, the more we have of each, since each language shines a light on another, whether by comparison or by contrast.

 

Back to the Mother Tongue

 

Yet through all the tours of other world languages, nothing will compare to the intimacy and dearness of your own mother tongue.

 

Nelson Mandela said,

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

 

Your mother tongue is your home. My reading interview with Justin Kim touched on this point a little bit, on the difference between reading in our first and second languages. For me, reading in English is more cerebral, even though this is the primary language I read in these days. The analytical part of my brain is engaged more to make sure I understand what the sentence is saying. Reading in Indonesian, though, is entirely different. It’s more natural, and more often than not, I can read faster in Indonesian. I can sense the musicality of the language more, appreciate the poetry in the sentences more, and feel the text more viscerally. When I read a piece of Indonesian literature, I could feel the humidity of the air, the muddy soil, the smell after the rain, the cracks and stains on the wall, the corner kitchen with blackened wall, the vibrant green that only belongs to tropical floras. It is an echo of where I came from.

 

Now, another person’s mother tongue is just as precious to them as it is to you, and as Trevor Noah writes, when you reach out to communicate to someone else in their mother tongue, it becomes a powerful acknowledgement and affirmation of their identity and culture… More on this in a future post.

 

If you happen to be bilingual/multilingual, how have other languages make you appreciate your mother tongue? What’s your experience in reading in multiple languages? Comment below! I would love to hear your story.

 

Best Books of 2016: Part 2

Best Books of 2016: Part 2

Back in July 2016, I highlighted the best books of 2016 that I had read during the first half of the year. You can find that list here. This post continues the list with my favorites from the second half of the year.

As always, if you’re curious about what I’m reading right now, visit my Goodreads profile.

1. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, are still two of the greatest inventors in human history. Considering how commonplace air travel is today, compared to just a century ago, one can’t help but marvel at humanity’s ingenuity, for good and for bad. The Wright Brothers’ first successful flights were only in the first decade of the 1900s, yet a few decades later, planes were key weapons of war in WWII. Yet a few decades later, mankind reached the moon.

This book, of course, covers the story of the Wright Brothers themselves. One thing I love about it is the emphasis on their noble characters that were just as invaluable as their ingenuity.

2. Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur by Derek Sivers

One of my favorite books of all time! Derek is one contemporary, contrarian thinker whom I admire. This short book distills his thoughts and rationales in creating a business that is truly his. His values and life lessons, like his views on money and creating things that are simple but great, are so good they are worth reading over and over again.

3. Night by Elie Wiesel

A classic account of the nobility, resilience, and evilness of humanity.

4. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Lots of non-typical insights on how the world is changed by individuals.

5. Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy Carter

This is the creation account of the hit musical Hamilton. I love this book because it tells an honest story about how a creative endeavor is birthed, one little step at a time, and also how history–the re-telling of what happened in the past–and our view of history can evolve, which may deviate from the actual facts.

I wrote on this book in this post: Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

6. A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education by David Goldberg

I was cheering for this book while reading it because I loved it so much. Goldberg is arguing for an engineering education that is not only analytical and theoretical, but practical, project-based, and holistic. The wholeness of the education includes emotion and passion–embracing them to motivate generations of engineers to create even greater things in the future, and feeling fulfilled doing so.

7. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

This is the book that inspired Hamilton the musical, and it is a fine, 700-plus paged biography. I haven’t managed to finish it, but the book is a captivating read, in a non-academic kind of way. The remarkable short life of Alexander Hamilton is a life to marvel at. The man was so prolific; he produced so many original thoughts and documents that became the foundation of the country known as America.

8. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

Probably the best management book I have ever read. This is the story of Pixar, from its inception until now, a studio that keeps on producing top-notch animation movies. Pixar’s movies have never bombed, and this is all credited to a culture of creativity that is meticulously created and maintained by the management team. A culture of creativity is fragile, but the team so far has seemed to master a way of fostering this culture, even replicating it in Disney Animation. You will never look at an animated film the same way again after reading this book. My favorite movie from this year is Zootopia, a direct product of the things Ed Catmull talks about in this book. I have a whole new appreciation for it and its creation.

I hope you can check some of these books out. Also check out Part 1 of this list, and the 2015 list here and here.

 

My Fall Reading List: 2016. What Are You Reading?

My Fall Reading List: 2016. What Are You Reading?

When fall arrives, my brain turns academic. Here are my picks for this Fall!

 

1. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

 

 
This 832-page of a doorstopper needs to be conquered! With me being obsessed with Hamilton, the Musical, it’s only natural and responsible to actually read the biography, the source of the musical’s inspiration.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow presents a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.
 

In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is “a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.”
 

Few figures in American history have been more hotly debated or more grossly misunderstood than Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s biography gives Hamilton his due and sets the record straight, deftly illustrating that the political and economic greatness of today’s America is the result of Hamilton’s countless sacrifices to champion ideas that were often wildly disputed during his time. “To repudiate his legacy,” Chernow writes, “is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Chernow here recounts Hamilton’s turbulent life: an illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, he came out of nowhere to take America by storm, rising to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Continental Army, coauthoring The Federalist Papers, founding the Bank of New York, leading the Federalist Party, and becoming the first Treasury Secretary of the United States.Historians have long told the story of America’s birth as the triumph of Jefferson’s democratic ideals over the aristocratic intentions of Hamilton. Chernow presents an entirely different man, whose legendary ambitions were motivated not merely by self-interest but by passionate patriotism and a stubborn will to build the foundations of American prosperity and power. His is a Hamilton far more human than we’ve encountered before—from his shame about his birth to his fiery aspirations, from his intimate relationships with childhood friends to his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr, and from his highly public affair with Maria Reynolds to his loving marriage to his loyal wife Eliza. And never before has there been a more vivid account of Hamilton’s famous and mysterious death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July of 1804. Chernow’s biography is not just a portrait of Hamilton, but the story of America’s birth seen through its most central figure. At a critical time to look back to our roots, Alexander Hamilton will remind readers of the purpose of our institutions and our heritage as Americans.

 

2. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

 


 
Gawande is one of my favorite authors. After his book, Better, inspired the Anatomy of Excellence essay–my most popular post this year–I’m determined to read every book he has written.

The modern world has given us stupendous know-how. Yet avoidable failures continue to plague us in health care, government, the law, the financial industry—in almost every realm of organized activity. And the reason is simple: the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people—consistently, correctly, safely. We train longer, specialize more, use ever-advancing technologies, and still we fail. Atul Gawande makes a compelling argument that we can do better, using the simplest of methods: the checklist. In riveting stories, he reveals what checklists can do, what they can’t, and how they could bring about striking improvements in a variety of fields, from medicine and disaster recovery to professions and businesses of all kinds. And the insights are making a difference. Already, a simple surgical checklist from the World Health Organization designed by following the ideas described here has been adopted in more than twenty countries as a standard for care and has been heralded as “the biggest clinical invention in thirty years” (The Independent).

 

3. Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal

 


 
Some leadership lessons from the military.
 

What if you could combine the agility, adaptability, and cohesion of a small team with the power and resources of a giant organization?

THE OLD RULES NO LONGER APPLY . . .

When General Stanley McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2004, he quickly realized that conventional military tactics were failing. Al Qaeda in Iraq was a decentralized network that could move quickly, strike ruthlessly, then seemingly vanish into the local population. The allied forces had a huge advantage in numbers, equipment, and training—but none of that seemed to matter.

TEACHING A LEVIATHAN TO IMPROVISE
It’s no secret that in any field, small teams have many ad­vantages—they can respond quickly, communicate freely, and make decisions without layers of bureaucracy. But organizations taking onreally big challenges can’t fit in a garage. They need management practices that can scale to thousands of people.
 
General McChrystal led a hierarchical, highly disci­plined machine of thousands of men and women. But to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, his Task Force would have to acquire the enemy’s speed and flexibility. Was there a way to combine the power of the world’s mightiest military with the agility of the world’s most fearsome terrorist network? If so, could the same principles apply in civilian organizations?
 
A NEW APPROACH FOR A NEW WORLD
McChrystal and his colleagues discarded a century of conventional wisdom and remade the Task Force, in the midst of a grueling war, into something new: a network that combined extremely transparent communication with decentralized decision-making authority. The walls between silos were torn down. Leaders looked at the best practices of the smallest units and found ways to ex­tend them to thousands of people on three continents, using technology to establish a oneness that would have been impossible even a decade earlier. The Task Force became a “team of teams”—faster, flatter, more flex­ible—and beat back Al Qaeda.
 

BEYOND THE BATTLEFIELD

In this powerful book, McChrystal and his colleagues show how the challenges they faced in Iraq can be rel­evant to countless businesses, nonprofits, and other or­ganizations. The world is changing faster than ever, and the smartest response for those in charge is to give small groups the freedom to experiment while driving every­one to share what they learn across the entire organiza­tion. As the authors argue through compelling examples, the team of teams strategy has worked everywhere from hospital emergency rooms to NASA. It has the potential to transform organizations large and small.

 

4. Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

 


 

“While the history books are filled with tales of obsessive visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, I’ve found that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.” —from the prologue
 
Many of us insist the main impediment to a full, successful life is the outside world. In fact, the most common enemy lies within: our ego. Early in our careers, it impedes learning and the cultivation of talent. With success, it can blind us to our faults and sow future problems. In failure, it magnifies each blow and makes recovery more difficult. At every stage, ego holds us back.
 
Ego Is the Enemy draws on a vast array of stories and examples, from literature to philosophy to his­tory. We meet fascinating figures such as George Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Katharine Graham, Bill Belichick, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who all reached the highest levels of power and success by con­quering their own egos. Their strategies and tactics can be ours as well.
 
In an era that glorifies social media, reality TV, and other forms of shameless self-promotion, the battle against ego must be fought on many fronts. Armed with the lessons in this book, as Holiday writes, “you will be less invested in the story you tell about your own specialness, and as a result, you will be liberated to accomplish the world-changing work you’ve set out to achieve.”

 

5. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull 

 

 
Learn creativity from the world of Pixar!
 

From Ed Catmull, co-founder (with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter) of Pixar Animation Studios, the Academy Award–winning studio behind Inside Out and Toy Story, comes an incisive book about creativity in business and leadership—sure to appeal to readers of Daniel Pink, Tom Peters, and Chip and Dan Heath. Fast Company raves that Creativity, Inc. “just might be the most thoughtful management book ever.”
 
Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation—into the meetings, postmortems, and “Braintrust” sessions where some of the most successful films in history are made. It is, at heart, a book about how to build a creative culture—but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”
 
For nearly twenty years, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing such beloved films as the Toy Story trilogy, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, WALL-E, and Inside Out, which have gone on to set box-office records and garner thirty Academy Awards. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Here, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques that have made Pixar so widely admired—and so profitable.
 
As a young man, Ed Catmull had a dream: to make the first computer-animated movie. He nurtured that dream as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, where many computer science pioneers got their start, and then forged a partnership with George Lucas that led, indirectly, to his founding Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986. Nine years later, Toy Story was released, changing animation forever. The essential ingredient in that movie’s success—and in the thirteen movies that followed—was the unique environment that Catmull and his colleagues built at Pixar, based on leadership and management philosophies that protect the creative process and defy convention, such as:
 
• Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.
• If you don’t strive to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.
• It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.
• The cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.
• A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.

 

To see the books I read this summer, check out my Summer Reading List. Also see my Best Books of 2016 (mid-year review).

 

 

Page 1 of 912345...Last »