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.

 

Reading Interview Episode 1: Justin Kim

Reading Interview Episode 1: Justin Kim

Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Reading Interview Series, where I chat with bookworms, avid readers and learners, to unpack their reading habits and philosophy.

 

My first guest is Justin Kim. Justin Kim is a public speaker and minister for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His official title is Assistant Director of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Church, as well as the Editor of Collegiate Quarterly, a religious publication for young adults. He graduated from a Roman Catholic high school, a Jewish-sponsored university, and has dialogued with many denominations.

 

In this conversation, we talked about how he digests books, how he uses audiobooks, reading in first and second languages, parenting and reading, reading for students and graduate students, how he finds time to read, using emotion as a tool for learning, and much more. I enjoyed it tremendously and I hope you will too.
 

Visit Justin’s Blog, beforethink.org. Connect on Twitter: @justinkimjk

 

 

Mentioned Books, Authors, and Links
How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler
Encyclopedia of Britannica
The Bible
Ellen G. White
The Big Five
John Stott
Philip K. Dick
J. R. R. Tolkien
Curious George
Little Blue Truck

 

Minute Markers:
Current work at the General Conference of  Seventh-day Adventist Church [1:53]
People’s behavior towards digital vs. print publications [4:42]
How he started reading and loving to read [7:00]
On collecting series [8:40]
How the genres he reads change over time [10:29]
Learning reading and writing skills in college [12:12]
On the book, How to Read a Book, and the multiple ways to read a book [14:57]
Whether he reads cover to cover [18:45]
Reading in first and second languages [19:27]
The types of books he reads now [23:04]
How to improve the mind’s life: reading 7 types of books [23:50]
What he is reading right now [25:34]
How he finds titles to read [26:24]
Books vs. ebooks [28:20]
On audiobooks [30:29]
The power of narratives [32:40]
How many books he goes through per month [33:33]
How he remembers what he read [34:53]
On lending books to other people [38:11]
On using public libraries and borrowing audiobooks [40:19]
How he arranges his bookshelves [43:47]
What he reads for entertainment [47:53]
The relationship between science fiction and systematic theology [48:47]
How he finds time to read [53:02]
Parenting and reading [55:23]
Selecting children’s books [59:33]
Favorite children’s books [01:02:00]
What he wants to get better at in terms of reading [01:04:14]
Important skills for students and graduate students [01:05:45]
Books he would give to a younger version of himself [01:06:13]
What people should read [01:07:25]

 

Attributions

 

*Amazon Product links on this blog are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that each time you purchase something through those links, I get a small commission without you paying any extra. Of course you don’t have to use them, but if you want to chip-in towards content creation for this blog, I’d really appreciate it!

 

Honda’s Three Joys: How the Founder Understands Human Psyche

Honda’s Three Joys: How the Founder Understands Human Psyche

Ever owned a Honda? I have one. And I enjoy driving a Honda.

 

While reading the book A Whole New Engineer by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville, a brilliant piece on the coming revolution in engineering education, I came across this gem from Soichiro Honda, the man who originated the now-giant car company.

 

In 1951, he wrote this manifesto to his employees in a company newsletter, also known as Honda’s Three Joys. You can find it here.

 

Honda Monthly No. 4

December 1, 1951

 

The Three Joys

 

I am presenting “The Three Joys” as the motto for our company. These are, namely, the joy of producing, the joy of selling, and the joy of buying.

 

The first of these, the joy of producing, is a joy known only to the engineer. Just as the Creator used an abundant will to create in making all the things that exist in the natural universe, so the engineer uses his own ideas to create products and contribute to society. This is a happiness that can hardly be compared to anything else. Furthermore, when that product is of superior quality so that society welcomes it, the engineers joy is absolutely not to be surpassed. As an engineer myself, I am constantly working in the hope of making this kind of product.

 

The second joy belongs to the person who sells the product. Our company is a manufacturer. The products made by our company pass into the possession of the various people who have a demand for them through the cooperation and efforts of all our agents and dealers. In this situation, when the product is of high quality, its performance is superior, and its price is reasonable, then it goes without saying that the people who engage in selling it will experience joy. Good, inexpensive items will always find a welcome. What sells well generates profits, as well as pride and happiness in handling those items. A manufacturer of products that do not bring this joy to people who sell those products is disqualified from being a manufacturer worthy of the name.

 

The third, the joy of the person who buys the product, is the fairest determiner of the products value. It is neither the manufacturer nor the dealer that best knows the value of the product and passes final judgment on it. Rather, it is none other than the purchaser who uses the product in his daily life. There is happiness in thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad I bought this.” This joy is the garland that is placed upon the products value. I am quietly confident that the value of our company’s products is well advertised by those products themselves. This is because I believe that they give joy to the people who buy them.

 

The Three Joys form our company’s motto. I am devoting all my strength in order to bring them to reality.

 

It is my hope that all of you, as employees of the company, will exert every effort so that you never betray this motto. I also hope that our agents will understand my desires in this regard so that we may continue to benefit from cooperation.

 

In the post-WWII era of assembly lines, in a mechanistic industry such as car manufacturing, I love that Honda understood that his was a human endeavor. Given that everyone involved was human, it was important to him to establish joy as the essential drive to live and work well. In a sense, this newsletter is very much in sync with our generation’s aspirations of combining work, passion, and play into one.

 

These three joys capture the essence of doing good work, that there’s pleasure in doing something well and doing something right. They’re timeless principles that every organization would do well to emulate.

 

Still curious? Couple this with how engineering needs to be a work with soul, using individuality as an asset in the joyful act of creating something, and how a creator uses his free will to transform a thought into reality.

 

Curiosity: The Key to Maximal Learning

Curiosity: The Key to Maximal Learning

This is the fourth post of a series on Individuality. Read the firstsecond, and third article.

 

What is the best way to learn? What is the precondition that ensures a learner gets the most out of whatever it is that she is learning?

 

Great classroom, inspiring teacher, well-written textbook, tools, and interactive software—they all assist learning. But these things are external; they belong to the environment. Is it surprising that the key to maximal learning needs to be internal, something that comes from inside the person?

 

The key to maximal learning is one simple thing: the will to learn. You will learn the most when you want to learn.

 

Curiosity, self-will, the drive to ask, to think, and to do is under appreciated. Yes, it’s talked about in motivational articles and books, but it is still treated as an extracurricular subject. It’s nice to have, but you don’t have to have it to survive. There’s not much program on how to train someone to be curious, especially for adults.

 

We were all curious when we were kids. It was so natural; we went after what we were curious about without much thought. But the growth to adulthood often does not sustain this pattern. I think it’s safe to say that many adults stop learning and being curious at some point.

 

How did we lose curiosity and how to get it back?

 

How to Kill Curiosity

 

Most people associate learning with school; school with the dread of endless classes, assignments, and exams, all of which are imposed upon them. Someone else told them they had to learn. The Pew Research Center in 2015 reported a reading survey that 28% of Americans did not read a book, in whole or in part, in the previous year. When broken down by age, the older people were, the less they read.

 

For most of someone’s first three decades of life, he goes through imposed learning. By this I mean that a set lesson has been prepared for the person and he simply goes through the program step by step. This structure can bring a lot of good, encouraging discipline and systematic learning. It also introduces the person to various subjects before he could develop his own interests. But the weakness in this general system is not in what it commits, but in what it omits.

 

Amidst the abundance of exams and standardized tests, it’s easy to forget to ask the question, what is it that the person wants to learn? How can we encourage him to continue to learn after all schooling is done?

 

The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. Robert M. Hutchins

 

When learning is 100% imposed, a person is on the receiving end of someone else’s will and thought, with no account of his own will. If there is no space to exercise his own curiosity and self-will, is it really a wonder that he grows up into an adult with no motivation for learning? If the curiosity muscle doesn’t get exercised, it will atrophy.

 

Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge

 

The general arc of our formal education goes from theoretical to practical. Learn the theories first on paper, then go out to practice them years later. The problem is that this gap takes a long time. Some never practice their knowledge until they’re in their twenties. They swim in theories without knowing what they are for; ever heard students say, “Why am I learning this for? I will never use this in my entire life!” By the time they get thrown into real life situations, they would have forgotten the important key lessons and they don’t know what to do.

 

What is missing is the synthesis of all the subjects they have learned in school. How does history connect to math and to the arts and to science? Why as a student in this age do I have to learn all these things? I don’t believe we spend enough time answering these types of synthesis questions.

 

Yet there may be an easier approach to address issues that stem from a theoretically overloaded learning system: practical knowledge.

 

In any class, the practical aspect of knowledge—how does a lesson apply to real life—is always the most interesting part of learning. So why not integrate this as part of the curriculum, not as an occasional insert to the classroom, but as the engine of learning.

 

When the connection between theories and practice happens, two things take place. First, you find out how the theories apply to real life. Oh, that’s what they mean by that. Second, you find out that not everything works like they do on paper, and they are called to make decisions and judgment based on wisdom and character, not just their intellect. This is about practical knowledge, the street know-how to handle what you don’t know, and to exist, live, and work as a full human being.

 

Individuality: An Engine for Learning

 

Exposing students face to face with real life problems would increase the likelihood of someone finding something that incites his interest. Inspiration, instead of lethargy, is more likely. It’s helping them find a personal connection to what they are learning, the birth of their individualities.

 

This feeding to the inner life of a student is the key to breeding self-learners who are motivated to contribute to society.

 

How do we train people who can identify with a problem and seek out the skills needed to solve that problem? How do we empower them and make them believe that they can learn and discover by themselves? If we could teach self-learning, the skill will be an asset that keeps compounding for the rest of the students’ lives.

 

The beauty of falling in love with a problem is that the multidisciplinary synthesis we struggle with in the classroom gets addressed naturally, because not one real life problem deals only with one particular subject. At the very least, it requires you to deal with other people, which automatically necessitate communication skills and empathy.

 

The key point is this: we should use our individuality as an engine for learning. Find what we’re interested in, and learn everything that interest touches. This is even more important when we’re out of school, now that no one’s telling us to study. If we were to grow, then we must exercise our own curiosity and self-will.

 

The good news is that we live in a century in which the democratization of learning is a reality. In the age of the Internet and open source learning, there is nothing that cannot be learned from books and online resources. Experts are a tweet away or an email away, and the 21st century rewards those who are generous with their expertise.

 

Don’t wait. Ask questions, find out what you’re curious about, and pursue it.

 

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. John Dewey

 

 

Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

Hamilton: The Revolution is the third post in a series on Individuality. Read the first and second.

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. If you hear someone saying these famed words with a beat, then you’ve come across someone who has been bitten by the Hamilton bug. I’m talking about Hamilton, the Broadway musical that is making waves in the theatre world with ripples in contemporary American culture.

 

As someone whose day job is as far away as it can be from the Arts, I am immensely fascinated by the artist’s mind. How do artists create? How do they think? What thought process occurs when they work? What is it like to operate with the right brain in dominance?

 

These questions, of course, are decidedly left-brained, which, I suspect, miss the whole essence of artistic endeavors. It seems to me that the Arts involve more nonlinear processes, merging divergent thoughts and feelings that may at some point converge into a masterpiece. The actual work from the blank canvas to a painting may take a short time, but the process of creation has likely started long before that moment of inspiration.

 

Which is why I’m crazy about one of my latest reads, Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, that unveils a little of the creative process, the story of how this revolutionary Broadway musical came about. There’s a marvelous story of individuality here.

 

Individuality: An Asset in Creative Endeavors

 

Hamilton is about the life of Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill (of which I was completely ignorant before this musical), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the first Secretary of the Treasury. It traces his life during the American Revolution and the early years of the nation, to his death.

 

Sounds like a bland historical statement? Yes. But, Hamilton is anything but boring.

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and creator of the musical, said in an interview, “We take it as a given that hip-hop music is the music of the revolution.” That’s right. This is a hip-hop musical, a sound that is not typical Broadway. It’s fast-paced, energetic, delivering high words-per-minute density that covers vast amount of information in mere minutes. Cabinet debates are performed as rap battles, with contemporary language that makes these idealized Founding Fathers accessible to the 21st century audience.

 

“This is my brain and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing a will on the world. It’s more about…if I don’t get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.” – Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

Lin-Manuel is a master wordsmith. There are 4 dozens of songs in this musical, much more than typical Broadway shows, and he wrote them all. I love the story of how it began, how he connected Founding Father to hip-hop.

 

About to go on vacation in 2008 from his first musical, In the Heights, he picked up Ron Chernow’s doorstopper book, the biography of Alexander Hamilton. (What kind of person does that? A nerd. Read about Lin’s relationship with books here.) Within a few chapters, something clicked in his mind: this was a hip-hop story. Needless to say, not very many could make this kind of connection! Hamilton, an outsider, an immigrant, wrote his way out of his doomed life in the Caribbean, rose with ambition through his skills with words, and helped build the country. This connection was so obvious to him that he Googled whether anyone had done a musical on Hamilton. (That would be a no.)

 

As I went through the creation story in the book, it became abundantly clear that Lin was probably the only person on the planet whose brain could birth this breakthrough musical. The marriage of an avid reader, history learner, writer, hip-hop connoisseur, rapper, freestyler, and musical buff in his personhood, plus the friends who collaborated with him, are what made this possible. If that’s not a story of individuality, I don’t know what is.

 

Lin said something profound about individuality in the last 1 minute of this interview.

The book Hamilton: The Revolution traverses the 7 years between Lin’s first moments of inspiration in 2008 to the show opening on Broadway in August 2015. It tells the stories of how the songs came about and what inspired them. The complete libretto is reproduced here (on gorgeous papers) with Lin’s annotations, plus snapshots of his notebook pages when he first wrote the lyrics. In other words, it’s a little peek into his brilliant mind. It also tells the stories of the many collaborators that built the masterpiece, that even though Lin’s name has the strongest association with the musical, the revolution did not happen just because of one person.

 

Need more reasons to read Hamilton: The Revolution? Keep reading.

 

Lessons on History

 

The biggest reason why I love this book is because of its profound insights on history. It does not treat history as a list of facts, but as stories. Stories of people, real people with real ambitions, emotions, and flaws. The Revolution here is meant to refer both to the American Revolution of the 18th century and the show itself, “a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding.”

 

The book touches upon the fallacies through which we see history, how in hindsight revolutions may look obvious and inevitable, but in fact at the moment, they were “unprecedented and all but impossible to imagine ahead of time.” It’s hindsight bias. There’s also our faulty memory and how unreliable it is in reproducing sequence of events, something they experienced in putting this book together. If we couldn’t keep our recent facts right, how are we expecting something from 240 years ago to be entirely solid.

 

The book is a precious record of the experiences of the artists today as they are living through them. It is contemporary, and thus can capture thoughts and feelings more accurately. We know how hard it is to piece together something from the past, to capture the atmosphere and essence of the events, even in the presence of evidence. In a way, this book too is a piece of history.

 

Lessons on Collaborations

 

Even though Lin wrote the musical, the creation of Hamilton involved many bright minds. Genius work is often a collaborative effort. My favorite story is of Alex Lacamoire who was in charge of orchestrating the music, tweaking each part of the 10-person band to get the music exactly right and tell the story as best as they can. I’ve been listening to the cast album for a few days now, and I am simply blown away by the incredibly layered composition of the music.

 

There was also the stage director, stressing over little details to reproduce 18th century New York. These are things that the audience may never notice, but contribute to the feel and atmosphere of the stage, which help the actors get into their stories more.

 

With each piece, the revolution becomes less of a mythical story into a story of community, of hard work, and of ingenuity. There are iterations, false starts, and revelatory moments. But most of all, it’s a composite of individuals, with distinct individuality and gifts, pushing for something that has never been done before.

 

Quoting Lin in the video above:

“I think that’s what we do as artists. What’s the thing that only I can contribute? It’s not about the confidence to like, “Hello, world, here is this idea that never existed.” It’s… This is my brain and unless I express it, it’s only going to stay in my brain. It’s more about personal expression than imposing a will on the world. It’s more about…if I don’t get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.” – Lin Manuel Miranda

 

Previous posts in this series on Individuality:

Individuality: What Makes You, You

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

See also this NYT article: Why ‘Hamilton’ Has Heat

 

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