Best Books of 2016: Part 1

Best Books of 2016: Part 1

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.

 

1. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler

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:

Mortimer Adler: The Art of Reading

Before Learning: The Role of Awe in Life and Learning

After Learning: The Role of Reflection in Gaining Wisdom

How to Be an Excellent Student

 

2. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel

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.

 

3. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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:

Consciousness of Time: Wisdom in the Sabbath

Excellence: Why It Matters

 

4. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

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.

 

5. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why by Richard Nisbett

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:

Asian and Western Minds, Part 1: Why They Differ

Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ

I also wrote a narrative of my own cultural experiences in these posts:

A Child of East and West, Part 1

A Child of East and West, Part 2

 

6. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

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!

 

7. Believer: My Forty Years in Politics by David Axelrod

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.

8. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

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.

 

9. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nicholas Nassim Taleb

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.

 

10. Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

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.

 

 

Anatomy of Excellence

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:

The One Trait Inspiring People Have in Common

 

 

Favorite Books Lists

2021: Best Books of 2021 Part 1

2020: Best Books of 2020 Part 1, Best Books of 2020 Part 2.

2019: Best Books of 2019 Part 1, Best Books of 2019 Part 2.

2018: Best Books of 2018 Part 1, Best Books of 2018 Part 2.

2017Best Books of 2017 Part 1, Best Books of 2017 Part 2.

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

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

 

*Amazon Product and Bookshop links on this blog are 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!

 

The One Trait Inspiring People Have in Common

The One Trait Inspiring People Have in Common

Inspiration. Moments when life gets elevated to a kind of dreaminess. The belief that there’s something more, something better than what the eyes see.

 

I think about my last decade, about the books I’ve read, about the people I’ve known about, and I notice a pattern. From time to time there are individuals who inspire me not just intellectually, but also emotionally. I may encounter their voices in a book, an interview, or a speech, but a single trait impresses me over and over again. It is this: the ability to treat work as a calling [1].

 

What Inspiring People Have in Common

 

Muses—that’s what they are, spanning across time and interests. From Paul Kalanithi’s poetic reflection on the moral imperative to be excellent in neurosurgery, a work that treads delicate boundaries between the body and the soul, the brain and the person’s identity, Atul Gawande’s pursuit to better medical practitioners as stewards of other human beings, Oliver Sacks’ deep awareness of the humanity in each of his neurology patient, war photographers and conflict journalists’ death-defying commitment to tell the truth, David Axelrod’s hopefulness on politics as a powerful medium to impact the lives of many people, in spite of the corruptions that he has witnessed, Seth Godin’s anthem on true and genuine content as the essence of marketing, that trust is the currency transacted between you and your audience, a sacred thing not to be abused, Hope Jahren’s love for plants and for a science that can’t be measured by its money-making power, but still important to study, Bryan Stevenson’s dedication to advocate for the most helpless in the criminal justice system, to artists and craftsmen toiling to perfect their creation. Each of these individuals treats their work, almost ceremonially, as something sacred. They handle their lifework with reverence, embracing its true value, and applying themselves to it with excellence, rigor, and most of all, love.

 

They treat work with a deep sense of personal responsibility. It’s not a job that someone else imposed on them, something they would push to someone else if they could. They work with conviction, a commitment to do the right thing even if it’s hard, no matter what the consequences. There’s stubbornness in their hope and optimism, which in its self-fulfilling way propagates to the rest of us. They don’t only exist in book world. Occasionally I meet them in real life too, everyday heroes who see the true essence of their work, the essence of its good, and do them with excellence.

 

I resonate with this Way of living in the core of my being. I consider these individuals having reached a certain fullness of being alive. These are not perfect people, as their strengths may be interwoven with weaknesses in other areas. They may even be tortured souls in one way or another. But because they have lived, we become better.

 

Living a calling requires an idealism that must be tested by hardships. The inevitable struggle, an incarnation of the classic idealist vs. realist debate, will manifest itself. How to work with purity in the face of life’s commercial need? What about money? How do we pay the bills?

 

Some of us don’t have the luxury to be idealists, some may say, and yes, fair points. But let’s face it. The idealists are the ones who ennoble humanity here on earth. Their approaches, infusing meaning to the mundane, lift our existence up and refresh us with honor and nobility. They remind us that there’s something better, some way better.

 

Searching for True Value

 

In my own life, I seek for this deep meaning in engineering, in reading, and in writing. What does it mean to do good engineering, not just doing it well? What does it mean to read well, to not just be entertained, but to be taught and to share experiences with the author? What does it mean to write well, to honor the trust that you, readers, have given me by spending your time on this site? How can I produce something valuable, something that would make people better, somehow, as a result of reading the blog?

 

I consider these worthy questions, never too idealistic to pursue. In fact, without this pursuit, my own idealism and optimism would have died. Like those muses, I want to live a worthy life, do worthy things, and present a little gift to the world during my existence on this planet.

 

The Power of Choices

 

Often times, there are disappointed or wistful voices lamenting the fact that society is not as noble as it used to be. There’s this nostalgia of a time and place where humans were collectively better, when everyone valued work as a calling.

 

I’m actually not sure if such times existed. I don’t think that there was ever an ideal time to be an idealist, for each age and society has always had their optimists, their in-betweens, and their pessimists, with tensions between each group. This nostalgia may be hindsight bias, a cleaned-up version of history, because idealism makes good stories. Stories get told and re-told for generations, and somehow, we convince ourselves that only these good things happened, or that past has a monopoly on good stories.

 

The truth is, honor and nobility of purpose have always had its oppositions and naysayers. Idealists will always have lovers and haters. There’s nothing essentially different about human nature now, vis-à-vis idealism, than in the past. Idealism and hopefulness have always been inspiring. They have always incited a spectrum of reactions, among which are dismissal and contempt.

 

But if any age and society could produce heroic idealists, this would mean that there’s nothing preventing me from being one today. In fact, all those who have inspired me recently are my contemporaries in the 21st century.

 

What’s left between me and having a worthy life is a choice. Sure, there will be resistance, challengers, and naysayers. Circumstances may make it difficult; bills still need to be paid. But ultimately, these external factors cannot override the simple fact that I decide to strive for a noble life. It’s my decision. And it can be yours too.

 

You can choose to live honorably today. You can choose to treat your work with excellence today.

 


[1] This is a twin concept of finding your calling. Similar, but not identical, since I believe one can know one’s calling in life intellectually and still treat the work with no reverence.

Between Jerusalem and Athens

Between Jerusalem and Athens

Between Jerusalem and Athens is a 7-part essay series on worldviews.

 

Since last year, I’ve been thinking about meta-questions: What caused us to think in a certain way? Where did ideas—those I subscribe to and those I don’t understand—come from? What influenced the prevailing thoughts in a given society? What are their strengths and shortcomings?

 

You may say it’s an exercise of intellectual empathy, an attempt to understand others and myself, and to learn the vocabularies by which we can converse across different worldviews.

 

Between Jerusalem and Athens as a title represents this cross-cultural look at the world, which is probably more a reflection of me than of the world itself. Jerusalem and Athens are not to be interpreted as two ends of a spectrum—the ideas in this series of essay extend beyond these—but as an analog of the cultural blends that shape my thinking. Jerusalem is an analog of the East, although there are many versions of “East”, which influences me through my heritage, birthplace, faith, and early education. Athens is an analog of the West, the intellectual culture inherited from ancient Greece, in which my life and work are immersed. Between Jerusalem and Athens is also a tribute to Abraham J. Heschel, whose writings have opened up new horizons in the way I see faith and spirituality—a peek into the philosophy of Judaism.

 

The 7 essays in this series, split into 9 posts, are descriptions of the world through my lens. Looking around, I see a siloed world—academically, in the workplace, spiritually, personally, in public service, media—segmented based on certain artificial categorizations. In many cases, these categories and classes have helped us focus, analyze, and make much progress as a species. But they are not without downfalls, as the categorizations may turn into barriers, dividing people. These essays are my response to the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and my quest to find solutions by exploring other worldviews.

 

When A Single Narrative Is Not Enough

On avoiding single-mindedness and telling a one-sided story. “The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.”

 

From the Equad to the World

On the silos of knowledge that prevent communication and collaborations across artificial barriers that are much needed to solve complex real world problems. This is a vote for multidisciplinary thinking, the widening of the scope of our thinking beyond conventional academic categorizations.

 

Engineering With Soul: A Spiritual Dimension to Work

On the separation between the mind, body, and soul—the components that make up our humanity—that causes an unfulfilling life. Addressing the need for a balanced development on all aspects of our being.

 

Wonder and Fear: Thinking Two Thoughts at Once

On the reality that two seemingly contradicting experiences can coexist at once. A precursor to the last essay below.

 

Asian and Western Minds, Part 1: Why They Differ

Asian and Western cultures are descendants of two different ancient philosophies, namely the ancient Chinese and Greek cultures, respectively. This essay is on the core principles of each culture and how they affect today’s societies.

 

Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ

This post highlights the key findings of Richard Nisbett’s social psychology experiments, observations on how specifically Asian and Western minds differ.

 

A Child of East and West, Part 1

The chronicle of an Indonesian in America. This is the story of my upbringing in the East and my cultural experiences after moving to the West.

 

A Child of East and West, Part 2

Continuing the story with my life in the West and the re-discovery of the East.

 

Theoretical Dichotomies: When Either-Or Thinking Gets You Nowhere

When a paradigm categorizes things too much and has difficulties reconciling paradoxes. Real life is messier than theoretical analyses.


 

There is a book that I return to many times, titled Education by the insightful Ellen White. Its profound first paragraph never fails to strike me every time I read it, and it serves as inspiration for the essays above. It is an argument for a life of learning that is wide is scope, multidisciplinary, practical, and well integrated. This, to me, is the perfect way to end this series.

 

Our ideas of education take too narrow and too low a range. There is need of a broader scope, a higher aim. True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study. It means more than a preparation for the life that now is. It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.

 

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