Happiness Engineering: The 5 Pillars of Happiness, Helsinki Edition (audio)

I just gave a 45min talk entitled Happiness Engineering: Redefining Success in an Age of Anxiety, Greed, and Self-Inflicted Misery at the Magnesia Festival in Helsinki. It’s an extended version of my TEDx talk on the topic, in which I go into more specific recommendations for improving each of the Five Pillars of Happiness:

  1. Relationships
  2. Meaningful Work/Life Purpose
  3. Sleep
  4. Mental Fitness
  5. Bodily Fitness

If you are a fan of yoga, meditation and dance and can free your schedule for the first week of August, I highly recommend the Magnesia Festival. Many thanks to Mari Rasimus, Kaisa Kärkkäinen, Asaf Peled and Oded Peled for inviting me and taking such good care of the speakers!

You can download the MP3 file for Happiness Engineering here.

The 13 Most Insanely Great Books I Read Last Year (including the best one I’ve ever read)

How great are these books? Well, let me tell you. See, my 1-10 rating system not really linear but logarithmic. Meaning the difference between an 8 and a 9 is huge, and that between a 9 and a 10 is even huger. A rating of 10/10 is earned only by the most extraordinary of books, and all of these but one are 10s.

These titles turn out to be about 10% of the books I read last year (13/132). Four of these I consumed in audiobook format (Born a Crime, American Prometheus, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, King Leopold’s Ghost). One of them is technically not a book but a video/audio course from The Great Courses which takes as much time as a long book. Super worthwhile, that one.

Some of these are Herculean works that took a decade or more to write. That we get to hold them and read the monumental effort of these scholars for just a few bucks (or free, if from a library) is an insane privilege. The first 12 are in no particular order. The last two are The Greatest Books I’ve Ever Read. Not just last year, but ever. Seriously.

And if you choose to acquire these books for your reading pleasure, purchasing via the provided Amazon affiliate links deposits several shiny pennies in my account towards supporting this blog and my reading habit. Dig in:

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio). Can I tell you how great this book is? I mean, did you ever wonder how a mixed-race South African kid ended up hosting The Daily Show? This book chronicles that astonishingly unlikely journey from the slums of Soweto where Noah’s mere existence was a crime, since whites and blacks weren’t supposed to talk, let alone have kids together. Growing up “colored” in apartheid South Africa where racism was the law of the land meant Noah didn’t fully belong either the world of whites nor the blacks. But he knew how to hustle. His incredibly poignant relationship with his lioness of a mother had me crying more than once. Damn.

The audiobook benefits from Noah’s comic timing and dead-on rendition of myriad accents and languages. I laughed out loud many times; I don’t think I’ll every forget his story about DJing the bar mitzvah with Hitler (seriously). In the meantime, you and I have no idea how bad black South Africans had it — the shit is bananas. Hilarious, heartbreaking, uplifting and enlightening, this is one extraordinary book to nourish your soul. 10/10

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print). A good popular science book takes a complex topic and makes it accessible to a wide, non-technical audience. A great popular science book also makes the topic engaging, immediately usable, and a catalyst for finding out even more. This is one of the greats.

It turns that a lot of stupendously smart computer scientists have not just thought about our everyday problems, but also came up with mathematically optimal solutions to them. There’s the explore vs exploit dilemma: at what point do you stop searching for a restaurant or date or job, and just settle on one of the available choices? For that, you use the 37% rule: if you’re considering 100 different options, when you hit #37, select the Continue reading “The 13 Most Insanely Great Books I Read Last Year (including the best one I’ve ever read)”

25 Most Fun Books I Read in 2017

Most books I read to learn about a specific topic or to solve a problem. But sometimes, I read just for the curiosity and enjoyment of it. I don’t know much about Patti Smith and her world, but I’ve heard her memoir is superb. Let’s check it out. A hunt for a man-eating Siberian tiger? Oh yeah. Memoir of a guy who’s a mountaineer, ER doc, scientist, and Space Station repairman? Hell yeah.

So I present to you the following Just for the Fun of It books. Whether memoir, ethnography, history, biography or current affairs, all of them are eminently entertaining and superb cocktail-party fodder. If you choose to acquire these books for your reading pleasure, purchasing via the provided Amazon affiliate links deposits several shiny pennies in my account towards supporting this blog and my reading habit. Check ’em out:

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print). Siberian tigers hunt bears. That’s how badass they are. Okay, but why should you read a book about a search for a man-eating Amur tiger, the world’s largest land predator, in the most remote parts of the earth? Because it’s one of the best damn books you’ll ever read, that’s why. And in the process, you’ll learn about Russian history, Communism, Russian-Chinese relations, Siberian tundra and taiga, tiger lore, perestroika, tiger physiology, the Afghan war, poaching, black markets, being a nature warden, extinction, duty, vengeance and survival. Vaillant’s sorcery is in his ability to take you inside the head of the hunted villagers, the hunters, and the Amur tiger, as if you are there. The whole thing reads like a thriller, and yes, you will probably stay up way too late reading it. I came away with a deeper appreciation of the majesty of nature and our place in it as current top predator. 10/10

The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (2017), by Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman (ebook & print). How do exceptionally creative people — like Leonardo da Vinci, Bach, Chopin, Einstein, Edison, Picasso, Steve Jobs — come up with and execute their ideas? What makes the book special are vignettes of the other 200+ artists, scientists, composers and engineers you haven’t heard of yet, and all the cool ideas they’ve come up with as they “bend, break and blend” old ideas to create new ones. The book’s fluid writing style and 200 illustrations make for fun, fast reading.

Some essential new concepts I learned:

  • “Skeuomorphs” are “features that imitate the design of what has come before.” Nothing is 100% new.
  • Every emerging billion-dollar industry is already 10 yrs old
  • To come up with great ideas, embrace error so you can proliferate lots of options
  • The 20% Rule: the brain seems to prefer visual stimulus of 20% complexity
  • The greatest creators (eg Picasso, Edison) were just insanely prolific. The more stuff you make, the more likely that some of it will be great.
  • Let young minds embrace the arts: “This is because the arts, due to their overtness, are the most accessible way to teach the basic tools of innovation.”

Although it can teach you much about the process of innovation, this book’s not a creativity how-to book per se. For that, I recommend Edward de Bono’s classic Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step.

This is a great read for scientists, writers, inventors, artists, musicians, and eternally curious folks who could use an extra shot of creativity. Dozens of fascinating stories of perseverance, ingenuity, and breakthrough – e.g. self-healing concrete, carbon-fiber violins, or James Dyson’s 5,127 vacuum prototypes (!) – demystify innovation, humanize it, and just might catalyze a world-changing story of your own. 8.5/10

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) by Mary Beard (ebook and print). Superb revisionist history of Rome. Beard writes with one eye on historiography: Where did the story come from? How reliable are the sources? What’s the most plausible interpretation? As such, she compels us to reconsider many tropes of Roman history we have come to accept as fact (e.g. Caesar was great, Caligula was awful), and to have a more complex relationship with it that informs modern manifestations of power, tyranny, wealth, war, governance, corruption, and civic life. 9/10

Open (2009) by Andre Agassi (ebook, print & audio). A friend loaned this to me when I was in Bali, and I read it in one sitting. André hated tennis. Hated it. He nevertheless became the #1 player in the world. The coaching of his maniacal Persian dad, leaving school, joining the brutally spartan Bollettieri Academy, acting out, pink mohawks, famous wives and girlfriends, insanely loyal friends and coaches, the relentless pursuit of excellence, Pete Sampras the eternal nemesis, depression, marriage, divorce, re-marriage — it’s all in here. Even if you didn’t follow tennis in his time, this is a rollicking, laugh-out-loud, poignant story. I also picked up a huge life-lesson from it: the best in the world become that by having coaches. So glad I found out for myself why this book was so stupendously popular. 9.5/10

The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (2017), by Scott Parazynski and Susy Flory (ebook & print). Emergency physician, world-class mountaineer, Space Shuttle astronaut, International Space Station repairman, inventor, pilot, explorer, scientist, entrepreneur – these are just some of the lives Scott Parazynski has lived so far. With an exuberant yet gentle voice, he takes us along some extraordinary experiences, like a spacewalk repair of a billion-dollar solar panel, an Antarctic sojourn, and his second life-threatening attempt at the Mt Everest summit.

I particularly appreciate the book’s Kindle in Motion format, allowing me to enjoy the vivid photos, animated diagrams, and full-motion video from the Shuttle, ISS and outer space on my iPad. It enhanced the experience of reading the book, making it even more visceral. Thanks to these, never again will I mistake the Northern approach to Everest with the Southern one, or forget to wear my tactical galoshes to the mouth of a live volcano.

Well-written and fun to read, this is the kind of book that leaves a smile on your face and inspires you to do even more daring things with your time on Earth. 8.5/10

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis (2017), by Annie Jacobsen (ebook, print & audio). Usually books about psychic phenomena either go full-believer or full-skeptic. Jacobsen, however, just reports on the stories and the evidence pro and con from interviews and declassified government documents, letting you make up your own mind.

Some of the characters are professional charlatans — albeit charlatans hired by British intelligence to successfully convince Rudolf Hess to fly to England to get captured (apparently the Nazis were suckers for astrology). Some, like Uri Geller, I couldn’t really figure out. Others are legitimate scientists who earnestly believed they could make headway in this field using the scientific method. These quixotic quests are fun to read, especially when you hear how much money the US government poured into it and how afraid they were of the Russians being ahead.

But the stuff that blew me away were the accounts of remote viewers who actually got results. I mean, in a trillion tries, no one should be able to close her eyes, enter a meditative state, and visualize the location of, say, Muammar Ghaddafi’s chemical weapon stash. And yet that’s exactly what some of these people did — repeatedly, with documentation to prove it. Some of the main players in the US parapsychology program have criticized this book for its cherry-picking and incompleteness. But no one has said that remote sensing doesn’t work, and nobody knows about the programs that have not yet been declassified. Possibly the most mind-blowing book I’ve ever read. 8.5/10

Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) by Joshua Foer (ebook & print). I’m probably the last person on the block to read this, probably because I was already a student of memory techniques when this came out and had a feeling that this would be more story than instruction manual. About that, I was right. It’s a good yarn nevertheless, as Foer starts out as a rank beginner and ends up winning the World Memory Championship under the tutelage of Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke. It’s a pleasant entrée into the quirky and obsessive subculture of memory competitions — and also mnemonic techniques, if you know absolutely nothing about the topic. For the techniques, I recommend Tony Buzan’s Use Your Perfect Memory or Ed Cooke’s Remember, Remember: Learn the Stuff You Thought You Never Could. 8.5/10

Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany (2016) by Prof Catherine Kleier (Great Courses). I knew next to nothing about botany, so I dug up this course. So much fun! Kleier is an energetic teacher who does not shy away from the occasional atrocious pun. Her style is a bit discursive. Instead of a strict top-down or bottom-up approach, she uses a well-known plant (e.g. ferns) as a lead-off point to a more general topic (e.g. vascular plants), thus keeping the lessons engaging. 24 lectures of 30 min each. 8.5/10

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (2016) by William Finnegan (ebook, print & audio). New Yorker staff writer Finnegan is a master storyteller and generous observer of human nature. For years, he hid his surfing obsession from writing colleagues, fearing that he wouldn’t be taken seriously. Now the secret’s out, and thank goodness for that! If you’ve ever wondered why an otherwise sensible person would abandon home for foreign waves that could cripple or kill you on any given day, this book initiates you into that mentality. California, Bali, Australia, Portugal, South Africa — Finnegan covered much ground in his four decades of wave-seeking peregrinations, as well as the political strife in various hotspots of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I still may not risk snapping my neck to ride a wave, but I can better appreciate the impulse. Magisterial enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography. 9/10

Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag, by Michael Tonello (ebook and print). After uprooting his comfortable life in Provincetown for a promising job offer in Barcelona, Tonello finds himself stranded in a strange city without the means to support himself when the job falls through. He happens upon the online world of Hermès aficionados, and quickly finds himself making a mint selling scarves and then handbags of the luxury marque on Ebay. His discoveries of the tricks for acquiring dozens of Birkin handbags (price tag: $7000-$100,000) around the world, for which there is supposedly a 2-year waitlist, and the sale of his goods to obsessively acquisitive clients, is entertaining, insightful, and dishy. Tonello’s knowingness, candor, and humor keep the book from becoming just a chronicle of human vanity — I laughed out loud several times. That said, there’s only so deep one can go with a tale of luxury consumption, and immersion in that world even for a few hours can cause a craving for status trinkets even in the most austere of us. 7.5/10

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (2017) by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman (ebook & print). Claude Shannon was an original genius. He basically came up with the science of information theory out of sheer nothing. Now, the entire planet runs on his brainchild. He also had a lot of fun thinking, tinkering, and having a grand old time as an MIT professor. The authors are not scientists, so they when it comes to the sheer poetry and chutzpah of Shannon’s science, they can only go so deep. Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read on one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century that more people need to know about. 8/10

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison (2016) by Shaka Senghor (ebook & print). The author committed an impulsive drug-related murder at 19, for which he was incarcerated for 17 years. In a discursive narrative, Senghor recounts how his poor Detroit childhood and broken family led to his involvement with drugs, violence, and prison — and that’s when the story really begins. Senghor’s violent ways land him in successively harsher prisons, including three years in solitary confinement. His stories of prison life are candid, bleak, gritty, and harrowing, sparing us no detail when it comes to “shitcake” attacks, gratuitous rape, and improvised shivs put to vengeful use. With time, Senghor sees the futility of his anger, finding a way to reconfigure his injured heart and mind towards compassion. Read it to understand life in American inner cities, the street drug trade, the justice system and the current prison crisis. Hell of a story. 8.5/10

Just Kids by Patti Smith (ebook and print). Winner of the National Book Award. “My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination.” This is Smith’s description of her long, improvised childhood prayers to God, and also an apt initiation into the world of her hardscrabble beginnings in New York City. Hunger, homelessness, chance meetings with Robert Mapplethorpe that bloom into a union, and their insistence on being artists in spite of having neither a path nor the means to tread it — this is as good as origin stories get. The prose has earnestness and poetry, as well as a vivid portrayal of an epoch of creativity and turmoil. A beautiful book. 9/10

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) by Peter Pomerantsev (ebook & print). A 21-year old Russian supermodel jumps to her death from her Manhattan balcony. A month later, another does the same. The owner of a successful chemicals factory is arrested by five black-suited goons inside her luxury gym and tossed in jail for 3 months for no stated reason. Eventually, the charge is revealed to be “making chemicals.” On a Saturday night in Moscow’s most exclusive nightclub, old, potbellied oligarchs audition young gold-diggers looking to score their next sugardaddy. Stories like these make “surreal” the perfect descriptor for this book. Pomerantsev, an Englishman of Russian extraction, is summoned to Moscow to make reality shows for a state-sponsored TV station. His deep access to the underbelly of Russian life makes for stories that are at turns darkly hilarious and utterly heartbreaking. The writing is sharp, witty and riveting, reading with the speed of a guilty-pleasure novel. Except that everything Pomerantsev recounts actually happened. 9/10

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (2012) by Chris Anderson (ebook & print). The age of invention is upon us! Way back when in 2012, the co-founder of Wired magazine foresaw the coming revolution spawned by 3D printers, tech shops and personal biolabs around the world. This is a fun and inspiring read for the inner tinkerer in you or some youngster you know. 8.5/10

In a Sunburned Country (2001) by Bill Bryson (ebook & print). On my way to Australia last year, I realized that the local knowledge I had gleaned from the movie Crocodile Dundee was probably outdated. Or just plain wrong. Bill Bryson to the rescue! This is my first book by him, and now I understand why his books are perennial sellers. Not only is he a riot, but he also provides useful and accurate information. I know this ’cause I asked actual Aussies about their country, and they all corroborated Bill. Loved it! More Bryson for me henceforth. 9/10

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortunes and Random Failures in Silicon Valley (2017) by Antonio Garcia Martinez (ebook & print). Silicon Valley is a small place, so it makes sense not to burn bridges. Garcia Martinez apparently does not give such fucks. A Wall Street refugee, he was brought into Facebook when it acquired Adchemy, his adtech startup, giving him front-row seats to one of the most heated money grabs in world history.

The author is clearly super smart and fully conversant in the languages of technology, finance, and business. His tone is knowing and acerbic about the bumbling and cupidity he witnessed. And any sane person’s would be. I lived in San Francisco from 2012 to 2017, and everything that he says rings true. He’s just the first person to call out the bullshit in print, e.g. Facebook, Google and Twitter are glorified advertising firms, not saviors of the world, and there’s a not a whole lot of real innovation happening in the Valley. Not surprisingly, very few people come off well (Paul Graham of Y-Combinator is an exception).

Garcia Martinez acquits himself by being equally savage on himself: “In contemplating an earlier version of yourself, you’ll realize that young and glorious you was in fact a total and complete fuckwit.” He’s also a damn good writer, pleasingly versed in literature and philosophy — and funny as fuck. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, and will be re-reading this one. Particularly relevant in the era of Facebook’s losing face. 9/10

Mark Twain: A Life (2005) by Ron Powers (ebook & print). It’s a commonplace that biographers fall in love with their subjects. Therefore, from the hundreds of thousands of archival pages Ron Powers had access to, he must have found it reeeally difficult to leave things out — like Twain’s daughter’s letters to her girlfriend. Which is why this biography clocks in at 737 pages, and took me 1.5 years to read.

The flip side is that this biography is comprehensive, giving a deep feel for the mind of Samuel Clemens and his times. Heck, you even get specific gestures he makes during lectures, and the precise delivery of his side-splitting joke at a dinner in honor of President Ulysses Grant. Today, we may not remember that Twain was the most famous person alive in his day, and the forerunner to the modern rock star, with all the requisite impulsiveness and petulance. He was also a serial entrepreneur given to hopeless schemes, and a doting husband and father. It’s a helluva life, and one definitely worth knowing about. Brave the slog and read it, especially if you’re a writer yourself. 9/10

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2017) Michael Lewis (ebook, print & audio). So I’ve got this reading queue 120 books long, and then this book skitters along and skips to the front of the line. How? Well, it’s by Michael Lewis, and it’s about one my favorite scholars of all time, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and his collaborator and best friend, Amos Tversky. Who was I to resist? Also, I’d seen Lewis speak about the book live. I was toast.

The story reads like a love story between Danny and Amos, two utterly brilliant Israeli guys with diametrically opposed temperaments who somehow got attached at the hip. Kahneman was a soft-spoken introvert, often taking second fiddle to the brash Tversky, whom everyone regarded as “the smartest man I’ve ever met.” Man, what I would have given to listen in on one of their legendary rap sessions. In their collaboration, they concoct Prospect Theory — basically, the Grand Theory of Human Foibles. This basically destroys the whole idea of Homo economicus that forms the basis of Western civilization (because surprise! humans are not rational), netting Kahneman the Nobel in economics. This counts as a major BFD because Danny is not an economist

Lewis weaves the science of their discoveries into the story of their friendship, military service, move to the US, collaboration, rivalry, and ultimate falling out. An engaging, touching and enlightening tale that explained the contents of Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (one of the greatest books of all time, which apparently DK did everything to avoid writing and thought was utter crap) into a third of the space while making it three times as fun. 9/10

The Sheltering Desert: A Classic Tale of Escape and Survival in the Namib Desert (1955) by Henno Martin (ebook & print). Is it possible to escape Nazis by disappearing into the desert for the duration of World War II? And once you do, how do you compete for access to a watering hole in the desert against a bunch of hyenas how have no compunctions against fouling the water with poop? And once you successfully kill an antelope, how do you preserve the meat amidst the desert heat? And what happens when you start disagreeing with your sole human companion? The author was a scientist, so the prose benefits from his occasionally poetic powers of observation. Reading it is a great way to appreciate refrigerators and wifi. 8/10

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2007) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (ebook, print & audio). This is an extraordinary book about a singular human. J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie” to his friends) is perhaps best remembered for being the father of the atomic bomb. But he also had outsize talents in almost every department of human endeavor, from literature to oratory to horseback riding to sheer charisma — a true 20th century genius. His movements at the highest level of science and politics define an era: the development of quantum mechanics, WWII, nuclear physics, the Cold War, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and much more that I haven’t even gotten to yet.

Bird and Sherwin took 15 years to write this book, and you can tell: the amount of detail is astonishing (and perhaps excessive). They take pains to provide a comprehensive picture of a stupendously talented and driven man whose flaws and powerful enemies turned him into a tragic figure.  

Read it for a deep understanding of the advent of modern physics, the characters in it, the making of the atomic bomb, the genesis of the Cold War, and the world it created. 10/10

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis (2016) by JD Vance (ebook & print). “Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” After seeing this book on the bestseller shelf of every single bookstore for a year, I finally broke down and bought it, thinking it would provide some insight as to the weirdness of the 2016 US elections. That it did.  Marine, Harvard Law School grad and Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Vance is a native son made good. He turns a candid and unsparing eye towards his native Appalachia: the mix of tribalism, drug abuse, laziness, patriotism, and family loyalty that render the odds of upward mobility infinitesimal. 

A good memoir/ ethnography gets you inside the operating system of its subjects’ minds; Vance does a decent job of that. This passage about working class whites’ inborn animosity to Obama was particularly enlightening: “Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.” Of course this does not explain why they voted so enthusiastically for the next President, who by those standards is even more alien than Obama. A good read nonetheless. 8.5/10

Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (2012), by Scott Jurek & Steve Friedman (ebook & print). Chris McDougall’s fantastic Born to Run piqued my interest about Jurek, so I was curious to know more. This is a fun and easy read about Jurek’s start in the sport and the races he’s run. It’s also about his gradual journey from the standard American junk food diet to one that is wholly plant-based. Every chapter ends in a vegan recipe that is easy to make and delicious-sounding.

Lest his self-effacing voice fool you, please remember that Jurek is a total badass who has won the grueling Western States 100-miler seven times (and the murderous Badwater 135, and dozens more). That’s 100 miles of non-stop running, folks. What I could not fathom was how he could go ahead and not only start a 100-mile race with a sprained ankle swollen to the size of a melon, not only finish that race, not only win it, but also set a course record. This is the kind of madness that strips me of rational powers, leaving me with jaw agape at what humans are capable of doing. Read it to be inspired and bewildered, especially if you’re a runner. 8/10

The Art of Seduction (2003) by Robert Greene (ebook & print). When this book first came out in 2003, I was hugely impressed by it. A grand tour of seduction through the ages, it brimmed with tales of chutzpah, daring and ingenuity from the likes of Cleopatra, Duc de Richelieu, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, and of course, Casanova. Ten years on, having created many books, courses and seminars on human courtship of my own, I am significantly less impressed.

First off, half the characters cited in the book are fictional. That means nothing that they did actually happened. Count Valmont of the Les Liaisons Dangereuses fame makes about five appearances, which is four too many for someone who never existed.

Second, all the real people in the book had a vested interest in exaggerating their exploits, because that’s what seducers do. So their stories aren’t credible either.

Third, a lot of these guys seemed to have unlimited cash and time on their hands. The Duc de Richelieu would buy the house next door to his object of desire and tunnel through a wall. Casanova spent all kinds of time and money to go to operas, masquerades, and exotic locales to ply his trade. These are not tactics necessarily available to the average 21st century day-job schmoe.

Fourth, nobody depicted in the book is alive. Is there not one person amongst the 7.5 billion living worthy of emulating, with verifiable stories and usable techniques? Note that Greene himself is a bit of a hermit. Not speaking from experience ultimately makes for a thin book, regardless of its physical heft.

If you are looking for an entertaining, philosophical read, this is a good one. And I love all the fun marginalia from classical literature, from Sappho to Ovid to Laclos. The 48 Laws of Power is still a classic, but if you’re looking for an instruction manual on seduction, you may want to look elsewhere. 7/10

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way (1998) Ursula K Le Guin (ebook & print). “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” As a Tao Te Ching fanboy, I basically read every translation I can get my hands on (fortunately, it’s a short book). By her own admission, the late Le Guin did not know classical Chinese. However, she is a meticulous reader, and a master of nuance, making this a poetic translation that hews to the spirit of the book. You can’t do much better than this from Chapter 1: “So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.” A perennial treat, all the more poignant for the author’s recent passing. 10/10

The 16 Most Enlightening & Uplifting Books I Read in 2017

There are books that leave a before/after dividing line in your life: after having read them, you just can’t see the world the same way. Some of these titles are spiritually oriented; others, like Traffic or Genghis Khan, will give you a religion of a different kind. Either way, you’re in for a serious a-ha!. Note that if a book from the “Useful” category is especially good, it gets listed here, too.

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams (ebook & print). Got anything against joy? Of course not. How about the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu? They’re the most lovable guys in the world. And what’s more, they’re buddies! In April 2015, Tutu travels to Dharamsala to hang out with the Dalai Lama for his 80th birthday. In that time, they have a dialogue addressing the perennial question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering? These two being professionally wise men (and also wise guys, as it turns out), they come up with some deep and humorous answers to that question. The DL says, “We should have wise selfishness rather than foolish selfishness. Foolish selfishness means you just think about yourself… In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life. So that is what I call wise selfishness.”

The book is a potent counterbalance to the sometimes toxic obsession with ambition and materialism in Western societies:  “The paradox is that although the drive behind excessive self-focus is to seek greater happiness for yourself, it ends up doing exactly the opposite. When you focus too much on yourself, you become disconnected and alienated from others. In the end, you also become alienated from yourself, since the need for connection with others is such a fundamental part of who we are as human beings.”

The ghostwriter Doug Abrams, a great writer and spiritual teacher in his own right, augments the dialogue of the two great men with discursions into positive psychology and the science of happiness. In the process, he has created a fantastic reference manual for living a life of meaning and joy. They even find the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. Rated a stratospheric 4.8/5 by Amazon readers, this is one of the most uplifting books I’ve ever read. 10/10

Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (2015) by Matthieu Ricard (ebook, print and audio). I picked up “Altruism” at Matthieu Ricard’s reading in San Francisco two years ago. Ricard is a remarkable man: Tibetan Buddhist monk with over 30,000 hours of meditation under his belt; French translator to the Dalai Lama; PhD from Institut Pasteur under Nobelist François Jacob; and current title-holder for “world’s happiest man”, according to brain scans done at Richard Davidson’s lab. 

This kind of book is required reading in my line of work, especially when written with the rigor and depth that Ricard brings. At 43 chapters and 849 pages, it’s has the heft of a brick, and the density, too, with tangled sentences like this: “It now had to be demonstrated that people don’t act solely in order to avoid having to justify their non-intervention to themselves either.”

A magnum opus like this takes 5-10x longer to read than the average book. But the rewards can be immense. Ricard brings massive evidence arguing for altruism as an essential part of our human and animal makeup, even beyond the genetic arguments of kin selection. This has far-reaching consequences in how we run our lives, interact with others, and treat the planet. 9.5/10

Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses. Ressler is a superb instructor who has the gift of explaining everything with instantly graspable lucidity. His handcrafted demonstrations bring the concepts to life and burn them in your visual memory. How do they build dams? How is electrical power generated, transported and distributed? How does your POTS (plain old telephone service) work, and why is it so damn indestructibly reliable?

This was my long-overdue education in how the modern world functions — the 7 engineering systems houses comprise, to water use and disposal, power, trash, the combustion engine, transportation engineering, traffic, railroads and sustainability. For me, this was a massive unraveling of the mysteries of the built environment, and feel as if I understand the world much better. I watched it at 2x speed on my iPad (the desktop interface won’t let you change speeds), making it a supremely worthwhile 9-hour investment. 10/10

Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy (2017) by Sadhguru (ebook & print). “The moment I realized that human desire was not for any particular thing, but just to expand illimitably, a certain clarity rose within me… My whole aim since then has been to somehow rub this experience off on other people, to awaken them to the fact that this state of joy, of freedom, of limitlessness cannot be denied to them unless they stand in the way of the natural effervescence of life.” Most Westerners have not heard of Sadhguru, but maybe they should. Think of him as an Indian version of the Dalai Lama who teaches yoga (the original stuff, not downward dog) instead of Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a profundity and simplicity to this book that can only come from someone who has lived its precepts. Personally not down with some of the supernatural bits (e.g. beware of stone deities at home!) and pseudoscience dietary advice, but otherwise one of the best books I’ve read on the practical spirituality of living a joyous, fulfilled life. 9/10

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) (2008) Tom Vanderbilt (ebook, print & audio). I put traffic in the category of “the ubiquitous unexamined” — aspects of life that surround us so completely that we never bother to question how they work (electricity and water are two other ones). This long but eminently readable tome covers all aspects of traffic engineering, which turns out to be a serious science with huge explanatory power over our daily lives. He also does a fine job of describing the psychology of traffic, and why we are at our worst when driving. Stress levels of the average commuter match that of a fighter pilot! I have a much better understanding of the complexities of the urban environment. Although I may not have any less road rage than before, it feels nice to know where it comes from 🙂 8.5/10

The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm (ebook & print). This is a classic by a guy who should be far more widely read in this country. Heck, if I was King of the Universe, I’d make it mandatory reading for every high school kid. This guy drops truth bomb like Kissinger on Cambodia: surreptitiously but in abundance.  Here’s one: “It is hardly necessary to stress the fact that the ability to love as an act of giving depends on the character development of the person. It presupposes the attainment of a predominantly productive orientation; in this orientation the person has overcome dependency, narcissistic omnipotence, the wish to exploit others, or to hoard, and has acquired faith in his own human powers, courage to rely on his powers in the attainment of his goals. To the degree that these qualities are lacking, he is afraid of giving himself—hence of loving.” Damn! 80 highlights in 104 pages = most highlights per page of any book I’ve ever read. Insanely prescient; everything he said 50 years ago rings true today. No one should get married before reading and internalizing this first. 10/10

The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight by Lorin Roche (ebook & print). “Love calls our attention and engages us. When we give love our tender attention, we are in the realm of tantra. Life is a mysterious, self-renewing process. The techniques of meditation are ways of allowing the ecstasy of the life-force at play to renew our bodies and souls. Ask your body to teach you and to take you on adventures into intimacy with your own essence. This is the yoga of wonder and delight.” Roche is an old-school scholar of Eastern wisdom, and a thoroughly lovely chap. This book is a call to true meditation and the deepening of your heart. 9.5/10

 

The Lessons of History (1975) by Will & Ariel Durant (ebook & print). I came to this via Ray Dalio’s Principles (also reviewed) in which he mentioned this as one of his favorite books. “War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.” Say what? Or: “Probably every vice was once a virtue—i.e., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.” If you spend 40 years of your life writing an 11-volume history of all civilization, you too may be able to come up with mind-blowing nuggets like that. In the meantime, we can read the Durants’ 128-page condensation of their masterpiece. 9/10

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) by Peter Pomerantsev (ebook & print). A 21-year old Russian supermodel jumps to her death from her Manhattan balcony. A month later, another does the same. The owner of a successful chemicals factory is arrested by five black-suited goons inside her luxury gym and tossed in jail for 3 months for no stated reason. Eventually, the charge is revealed to be “making chemicals.” On a Saturday night in Moscow’s most exclusive nightclub, old, potbellied oligarchs audition young gold-diggers looking to score their next sugardaddy. Stories like these make “surreal” the perfect descriptor for this book. Pomerantsev, an Englishman of Russian extraction, is summoned to Moscow to make reality shows for a state-sponsored TV station. His deep access to the underbelly of Russian life makes for stories that are at turns darkly hilarious and utterly heartbreaking. The writing is sharp, witty and riveting, reading with the speed of a guilty-pleasure novel. Except that everything Pomerantsev recounts actually happened. 9/10

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2005) by Jack Weatherford (ebook, print & audio). Seasoned historian Weatherford is Genghis Khan Fan #1, and his revisionist history painstakingly reconstructs Genghis’s milieu, upbringing, motives, conquests, and reign. Still keeping in mind that Genghis Khan was responsible for the biggest slaughter in world history — between 20 and 40 million people, depending on who’s counting — he did pioneer many advances during his rule: meritocracy over nepotism; religious tolerance; citizenship for conquered peoples instead of captivity or oppression; patronizing the arts and sciences; and crazy effective leadership. The impact of the man on world history was cataclysmic, and this eminently readable book brings you up to speed on him. I read it in both audiobook and ebook forms. Many big-name CEOs and entrepreneurs swear by this one. 8.5/10

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) by Mary Beard (ebook and print). Superb revisionist history of Rome. Beard writes with one eye on historiography: Where did the story come from? How reliable are the sources? What’s the most plausible interpretation? As such, she compels us to reconsider many tropes of Roman history we have come to accept as fact (e.g. Caesar was great, Caligula was awful), and to have a relationship with it that informs modern manifestations of power, tyranny, wealth, war, governance, corruption, and civic life. 9/10

The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained by Prof Michael Wysession (Great Courses). How is power generated from coal, hydro, natural gas, fracking, tar sands, solar, wind? How is that power then stored and distributed? How does the smart grid work? Wysession explains everything with great clarity, laying out the tradeoffs each form of energy creates, and the solutions humans have come up with. I listened to the audio version; the video version is probably richer. 9.5/10

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis (2016) by JD Vance (ebook & print). “Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” After seeing this book on the bestseller shelf of every single bookstore for a year, I finally broke down and bought it, thinking it would provide some insight as to the weirdness of the 2016 US elections. That it did. Marine, Harvard Law grad and Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Vance is a native son made good. He turns a candid and unsparing eye towards his native Appalachia: the mix of tribalism, drug abuse, laziness, patriotism, and family loyalty that render the odds of upward mobility infinitesimal.

Soul Friends: The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection (2017) Stephen Cope (ebook & print). Cope’s last book, The Great Work of Your Life, is one of my all-time favorites, which I buy in stacks to give away to friends. So I was eager to read his newest creation. The Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the Kripalu Center for over 25 years, Cope turns his learned, wise and compassionate mind towards the topic of deep friendship. He shares stories about friendships and mentorships of his own, as well as historical accounts from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, and Queen Victoria. In a world that seems to be too busy for authentic connection, Cope reminds us of the urgency and transformative power of deep friendship. So good. 9/10

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis (2017), by Annie Jacobsen (ebook, print & audio). Usually books about psychic phenomena either go full-believer or full-skeptic. Jacobsen, however, just reports on the stories and the evidence pro and con from interviews and declassified government documents, letting you make up your own mind.

Some of the characters are professional charlatans — albeit charlatans hired by British intelligence to successfully convince Rudolf Hess to fly to England to get captured (apparently the Nazis were suckers for astrology). Some, like Uri Geller, I couldn’t really figure out. Others are legitimate scientists who earnestly believed they could make headway in this field using the scientific method. These quixotic quests are fun to read, especially when you hear how much money the US government poured into it and how afraid they were of the Russians being ahead.

But the stuff that blew me away were the accounts of remote viewers who actually got results. I mean, in a trillion tries, no one should be able to close her eyes, enter a meditative state, and visualize the location of, say, Muammar Ghaddafi’s chemical weapon stash. And yet that’s exactly what some of these people did — repeatedly, with documentation to prove it. Some of the main players in the US parapsychology program have criticized this book for its cherry-picking and incompleteness. But no one has said that remote sensing doesn’t work, and nobody knows about the programs that have not yet been declassified. Possibly the most mind-bending book I’ve ever read. 8.5/10

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2017) Michael Lewis (ebook, print & audio). So I’ve got this reading queue 120 books long, and then this book skitters along and skips to the front of the line. How? Well, it’s by Michael Lewis, and it’s about one my favorite scholars of all time, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and his collaborator and best friend, Amos Tversky. Who was I to resist? Also, I’d seen Lewis speak about the book live. I was toast.

The story reads like a love story between Danny and Amos, two utterly brilliant Israeli guys with diametrically opposed temperaments who somehow got attached at the hip. Kahneman was the soft-spoken introvert, often taking second fiddle to the brash Tversky, whom everyone regarded as “the smartest man I’ve ever met.” Man, what I would have given to listen in on one of their legendary rap sessions. Amongst their collaborations, they concoct Prospect Theory — basically, the Grand Theory of Human Foibles. This upends the whole idea of Homo economicus which is the basis of Western civilization (because surprise! humans are not rational), netting Kahneman the Nobel in economics. This counts as a major BFD because you may have noted that Danny is not an economist, yo.

Lewis weaves the science of their discoveries into the story of their friendship, military service, move to the US, collaboration, rivalry, and ultimate falling out. An engaging, touching and enlightening tale that explained the contents of Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (one of the greatest books of all time, which apparently DK did everything to avoid writing and thought was utter crap) into a third of the space while making it three times as fun. 9/10

The 36 Most Useful Books I Read in 2017

The following are the books and courses I found the most useful amongst the 130 I read in 2017. Whether it’s for learning a new skill, managing yourself, or understanding the complexities of the world, these books all offered information that could tangibly improve your life. A rating of 8/10 means the book is pretty darn good. 9/10 means it’s outstanding. And 10/10 puts it in the Useful Books Hall of Fame. Please go through the entire list. Although the top ten listed are indeed the best of the batch, beyond that the books aren’t ranked, and you don’t want to miss the gems that may be at the end:

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print). A good popular science book takes a complex topic and makes it accessible to a wide, non-technical audience. A great popular science book also makes the topic engaging, immediately usable, and a catalyst for finding out even more. This is one of the greats.

It turns that a lot of stupendously smart computer scientists have not just thought about certain everyday problems we have, but also came up with mathematically optimal solutions to them. There’s the explore vs exploit dilemma: at what point do you stop searching for a restaurant or date or job, and just settle on one of the available choices? For that, you use the 37% rule: if you’re considering 100 different options, when you hit #37, select the next candidate that’s better than all you’ve seen so far. That’s from optimal stopping theory. There are more: “Sorting theory tells us how (and whether) to arrange our offices. Caching theory tells us how to fill our closets. Scheduling theory tells us how to fill our time.” I feel like this book initiated me into a secret society that knows a lot more than me about the inner workings of the world. 10/10

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong (2017) by Eric Barker (ebook & print). This book is so chock-full of useful information that I highlighted it over 200 times.

What do I like about it? First, it’s full of great stories that stay with you. There’s James Waters with his mental strategies that got him through Navy SEAL training, a Harvard MBA, and a White House job. There’s Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, the illegal Mexican migrant worker boy who became a world-renowned neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. There’s Spencer Glendon with the debilitating ulcerative colitis who became a world-class money manager anyway. Dozens of vivid, funny, inspiring stories of ingenuity, grit, and optimism here.

Second, Barker amply supports all recommendations with research findings. So you will learn fascinating, counterintuitive concepts from social psychology, behavioral economics, game theory, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary biology. It reminds me of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, another great book that’s full of ingenious mindhacks.

Third, it’s full of usable unconventional wisdom. Were pirates the progressives of their day? Why do so few valedictorians become millionaires? Why do jerks succeed? (Hint: they ask for what they want and self-promote to their bosses.) No one book will turn you into an overnight success, but this one has a lot of signposts for living a happier, more fulfilling life. You’d be wise to read and share it. 10/10

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers (2016) by Tim Ferriss (ebook & print). This is quite possibly the most useful single book I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of interview highlights from Tim’s podcast, so there’s no central theme to it other than Doing Things Better. If you don’t mind the mild inferiority complex you’ll develop from hearing about all of these world-changing folks, you stand to learn a lot. It’s a hefty beast, best read piecemeal as a book of reference rather than something to finish in one sitting. 9/10

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017) by Matthew Walker (ebook & print). This is easily the most important book I read in 2017. Why? Because there is nothing more important in your life than sleep. And Westerners (especially Americans) are chronically sleep-deprived, leading to unnecessary car crashes, illness, and depression. We also have terrible sleep hygiene. I’ve been researching this topic for my own book, so I know this is the only decent, up-to-date book out there on sleep. And it’s fantastic. Walker is a renowned sleep researcher himself at UC Berkeley, featuring some of his original findings in the book. All adults interested in their own health should read this. 9.5/10

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) (2008) Tom Vanderbilt (ebook & print). I put traffic in the category of “the ubiquitous unexamined” — aspects of life that surround us so completely that we never bother to figure out how they work (electricity and water are two other ones). This long but eminently readable tome covers all aspects of traffic engineering, which turns out to be a serious science with huge explanatory power over our daily lives. He also does a fine job of describing the psychology of traffic, and why we are at our worst when driving. Stress levels of the average commuter match that of a fighter pilot. Having read this, I have a much better understanding of the urban environment. And although I may not have any less road rage than before, at least now I know where it comes from. 8.5/10

Stick With It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life for Good (2017) by Sean D. Young (ebook & print). The seven forces behind lasting change are SCIENCE: Stepladders, Community, Important, Easy, Neurohacks, Captivating, Engrained. Possibly the best book I’ve read on the process of making effective change in one’s life. 9/10

Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive With the New Science of Success (2017) by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness (ebook & print). One of the best books I’ve read on improving personal performance. 9/10

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (2012), by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). Dan Buettner’s fantastic 2012 New York Times Magazine Article, “The Island Where People Forgot to Die”, was my introduction to Blue Zones. Are there places in the world where people disproportionately live to be 100 or more? And if so, what’s their secret?

With the backing of National Geographic, Buettner and his crack team of top-notch scientists went around the world and found 5 places that fit the strict Blue Zones criteria: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; the Seventh-Day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California; and the Greek island of Ikaria. These regions have a disproportionately high population of centenarians, up to 50 times the US average. But even more remarkable, their centenarians are independent at a rate far higher than in the US and Europe: 90% vs 15%. What’s going on?

Having gone to medical school and read the NYT Magazine article, I thought I knew what was in the book and thus postponed reading it. That was a mistake. Buettner and team are incredibly thorough in their approach, uncovering details about living a good life that casual observation would miss. And they back every one of their conclusions with as much data as they can.

Definite patterns emerge amongst the various groups. All of them foster a strong sense of community and intergenerational cohesiveness. In Costa Rica, there’s a 99-person village all descended from one person, and there’s a touching picture of a blissed-out 104-year old lady holding her great-great-granddaughter. People hang out with family and friends every day, and the elderly live with their offspring.

All the communities eat a mostly plant-based diet. Exercise is also built into their daily activity. Although it’s safe to say that none of these people have ever stepped into a gym, every day they till fields, work gardens, tend sheep over hilly terrain, and walk around.

Some other data points also emerge. Several of the communities incorporate goat milk products in their diet, which is more nutritious than cow’s milk. Red wine features prominently in the two Mediterranean communities, with Sardinian Cannonau offering an extra dose of antioxidants. Almost all the communities eat diets rich in beans.

Although I hope you find this review useful, there are several reasons to read the book in its entirety. First, there are a lot of practices worth incorporating into your own life that I don’t have room to mention in detail, e.g. “ikigai”, your reason to get up in the morning; “moai”, a group of friends who meet regularly; and turmeric.

Second, by reading the stories of all five communities, you not only get the details but also the gestalt of living a long and fruitful life. Is there a worldview that predisposes to healthy longevity?

Third, the healthy, functioning centenarians profiled will turn your preconceptions of aging upside down. They also have sterling advice to offer: “Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, and smile.”

Fourth and most important: do you really have something better to do than learning how to live a long, productive and healthy life? If so, I’d like to know what that is. In the meantime, I also got the book for my parents, and would encourage you to do the same. Its life-affirming message is invigorating and wise for all future centenarians. 10/10

The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People (2017) by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). A National Geographic cover story hooked me into this book, and happiness is my beat anyway, so there really was no avoiding this one. The central idea: if you set up a framework for a more satisfying life, you’re more likely to have one.

Pleasure, purpose, pride: these are the three intertwining strands constituting the robust rope of happiness. The Danes, perennially at the top of world happiness surveys, have a lot of their basic needs met by their generous government services. Danes also have a strong community ethos, so they join lots of clubs and engage in purposeful activities. Costa Ricans, who may have an even stronger community ethos, have lives full of pleasurable moments or “positive affect”: walking to work, joking with friends, playing with their kids. Singaporeans work 60hr weeks to get the 5 C’s: car, condominium, cash, credit card, and club membership. They take pride in their accomplishments, and that supposedly makes them happy. I have not been to Singapore, but the description of their harried, materialistic lives seemed the antipodes of happiness.

What I really appreciate about Buettner’s work is his thoroughness. He goes into the field with a bunch of scientists, gathers the data, crunches the numbers, and presents us with the best practices. That’s why this book led me to his first Blue Zones book, on longevity, which I consider definitive (also reviewed here). He’s also clear-eyed on the benefits of positive psychology: “They may work in the short run, but they almost always fail over time. They’re quick fixes that may evaporate before you know it.” To be happy in the long run, structure a happy life.

I read this book in a day and highlighted 240 passages. It’s fantastic, and should be required reading for all bipeds. As a bonus, the appendix has a collection of Top 10 happiness practices from top experts for individuals and countries. 9.5/10

Money: Master the Game – 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom (2016) – Tony Robbins (ebook & print). Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m a big Tony Robbins fan. Although his style may seem hucksterish, he absolutely definitely positively gets results.  This is his first book in over 20 years, and he’s done a lot of homework for it. The core of Tony’s approach is finding out the expert’s best practices, and then implementing them. So he found the most successful money people in the world — Ray Dalio, John Templeton, John Bogle, Carl Icahn, T. Boone Pickens, Warren Buffett, we’re talking trillionaires dammit — and extracted their best practices for us.

Problem: at 700 pages, it’s a bit of a brick, with a ton of information to sift through. But is your financial future not worth 12 hours of your concentrated attention? Yes it is. It’s not about the how of financial freedom, but also the mindset and overcoming your blocks. Be an investor, not a consumer! Harness the awesome power of compounding! Got this one for myself in print and ebook format, and I expect it will return the investment thousands-fold. Unless you already have more than a quarter billion dollars to your name like Tony, you should listen to him. 9.5/10

The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm (ebook & print). This is a classic by a guy who should be far more widely read in this country. Heck, if I was King of the Universe, I’d make it mandatory reading for every high school kid. This guy drops truth bomb like Kissinger on Cambodia: surreptitiously but in abundance.  Here’s one: “It is hardly necessary to stress the fact that the ability to love as an act of giving depends on the character development of the person. It presupposes the attainment of a predominantly productive orientation; in this orientation the person has overcome dependency, narcissistic omnipotence, the wish to exploit others, or to hoard, and has acquired faith in his own human powers, courage to rely on his powers in the attainment of his goals. To the degree that these qualities are lacking, he is afraid of giving himself—hence of loving.” Damn! 80 highlights in 104 pages = most highlights per page of any book I’ve ever read. Insanely prescient; everything he said 50 years ago rings true today. No one should get married before reading and internalizing this first. 10/10

Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies for a Better You (2016) by Prof Peter M Vishton (Great Courses). There is self-help mumbo-jumbo from self-proclaimed gurus with no credentials, and then there is scientifically-validated advice for changing your behavior by using your brain properly. Per the course This course is the latter.  Like how? “Want to curb a few bad habits? Try making a notebook entry every time you perform the habit. Have a big project and feel the urge to procrastinate? Do nothing for 20 minutes and you’ll feel ready to get to work. Come down with a case of the blues? Eat some fermented foods such as yogurt or sourdough bread.” Another outstanding course from The Teaching Company/Great Courses.

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017) by Florence Williams (ebook & print). “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.” Williams gamely camps with neuroscientists in Colorado, experiences shinrin yoku (“forest bathing”) in Japan, straps on a portable aethelometer (soot-measurer) in DC, rambles in Scotland, hikes in Finland, and visits a Korean “healing forest.”

Through her chatty anecdotes, she presents the evidence that nature strengthens your immune system, lowers stress, increases creativity, decreases rumination, and calms down hyperactive kids. I appreciated her exposition of the great E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, which “posits that peaceful or nurturing elements of nature helped us regain equanimity, cognitive clarity, empathy and hope.” Minimum recommended does of nature: 5 hrs/month. An excellent and persuasive popular science book. 8/10

Disrupt You!: Master Personal Transformation, Seize Opportunity, and Thrive in the Era of Endless Innovation (2015), by Jay Samit (ebook & print). “You have a choice: pursue your dreams or be hired by someone else to help them fulfill their dreams. The great disruptors constantly reinvent themselves and their careers. They never fear losing their jobs, because they create jobs. They control their own destinies. This book is written to answer two very basic questions: How did they do it? How can I do it? The third question is entirely up to you: Will you do it?” I knew Jay from our Los Angeles networking group. I respected the clarity of his thinking and a communication style that cut through bullshit like an argon laser through plastic. His book does not disappoint. “Being a disruptor is simply a state of mind. It is the ability to look for opportunity in every obstacle, to respond to every setback as a new beginning.” Equal parts about both personal and industry disruption, it’s one of the best books on entrepreneurship I’ve read in recent memory.

Whether as a self-employed entrepreneur or top executive in companies like Sony and EMI Music, Samit is a master of taking calculated risks. His anecdotes about creating technologies slightly ahead of their time, reinventing himself multiple times, and accomplishing the seemingly impossible are bold, instructive and inspiring. Read it for a potent shot in the arm that just might awaken the entrepreneurial spirit in you. 9/10

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) by Chip & Dan Heath (ebook & print). Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories: those are the 6 principles of “SUCCES” for communicating your ideas effectively that the brothers Heath lay out in their highly readable, usable, memorable book. Their other books follow a similar structure, with mnemonics, fun case studies, and summaries at the end of each chapter. I recommend all of their works. 9/10

The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life (2015) by Bernard Roth (ebook and print). Roth is one of the co-founders of the Stanford d.school, one of the originators of design thinking, and a professor of mechanical engineering for 40 years. His book is, indeed, partly about achievement. More than that, it’s a collection of life wisdom from a very smart, accomplished, empathetic doer, maker, and teacher who has figured out how to get results from himself and students.

Foremost in Roth’s teachings is bias towards action. Instead of waffling and ruminating, “don’t get caught up in how you’re going to get it just right. That’s what causes people to shut down and never get started. Avoid the desire for perfection right out of the gate. Instead, tell yourself that you’re prototyping your screenplay or your dress. The final version can come later.”

Some of his suggestions may seem radical, but they’re just part of standard d.school curriculum, e.g. getting rid of reasons for doing things. You don’t need them, and they’re all bogus anyway: “Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives.” Substitute all manifestations of “but” with “and.” When you gather up your intention and concentrate your attention, you will move mountains.

There’s a ton of actionable advice here, such as a list of 22 ways to get unstuck (e.g. lists, idea logs, humor, conversation, exercise, compressed conflict, mind maps, working backward), and the “Your Turn” exercises at the end of each section. This is a tremendously useful and encouraging book for anyone whose creative endeavors could use some more bias towards action. 9.5/10

The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold (2005) by Robert A. Levine, Ph.D. (ebook & print) “The psychology of persuasion emanates from three directions: the characteristics of the source, the mind-set of the target person, and the psychological context within which the communication takes place.” Thus begins this revelatory and sobering treatise on the ways humans fool themselves and others. A professor and practicing psychologist for 40+ years, Levine signed up to experience firsthand the persuasive techniques of people like car dealers, door-to-door salesmen (Cutco knives), and cult leaders (the Moonies). One of his key insights is that no one is impervious; we are all susceptible. The persuasiveness triad: “perceived authority, honesty, and likability.” Americans are particularly susceptible to the authority symbols of titles, clothing, and luxury cars (see: current US president). Decisive, swift talkers are no more sure of their facts than more hesitant counterparts, but they create an impression of confidence that audiences perceive as more expert and intelligent. The more jargon you use and the less a jury understands a witness, the more convincing she appears.

Aside from the dismaying news that we’re all patsies waiting to be taken, the book is full of entertaining, insightful stories on scoundrels ranging from psychics to gurus. Moonies recruit in a trademark sequence of “pickup, first date, love bomb”, creeping up on victims with imperceptible subtlety that ultimately engulfs them. Levine’s account of the 10-step method of car salesmen was particularly revelatory and unsettling in the frankness of its manipulation.

The most gripping part of the book was Levine’s depiction of the final hours of the Jonestown cult of Jim Jones, during which 900 members committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, even after witnessing their own infants’ agonizing death throes. To read the transcript of the recording of those hours, and how people just like you and me were rooting for their own demise out of loyalty to a demented and manipulative leader, is to understand how tyranny works, and how it is happening right here, right now. 8.5/10

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How (2009) by Daniel Coyle (ebook & print). The information in this book has kept well even though it’s 8 years old. How does the tiny island of Curaçao produce a hugely disproportionate number of world-class Little Leaguer baseball players? What’s the secret to Moscow’s run-down Spartak Tennis Club suddenly churning out Grand Slam winners? Where did all these South Korean female golf champions come from? Coyle travels to hotbeds of talent all over the world to distill the essence of exceptional performance. Deep practice (aka “deliberate practice”) is essential, involving practicing to the edge of one’s ability while getting timely feedback. Some kind of spark seems to be necessary to fuel the “rage to mastery.” It’s interesting that a disproportionate number of historical figures — Caesar, Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson, Newton, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Twain — were orphans. And finally, having a master coach definitely helps. There are priceless insights into the slow, attentive, straightforward ways legends like John Wooden got results. Coyle’s odd obsession with myelin as the alpha and omega of learning and mastery is misplaced. Otherwise, the book has a ton of actionable information for creatives and teachers. It’s also fun to read. For just the usable facts and none of the stories, I refer you to Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills. 8/10

Principles: Life and Work (2017) by Ray Dalio (ebook, print & audio). This is three books in one: a memoir, life advice, and business advice. Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Capital, the world’s largest hedge fund, which he started from nothing in 1975 to $150 billion in assets today, amassing a personal fortune of $17 billion along the way. What impresses me about Dalio is that he arrived at his wealth mostly through very careful decision-making and self-observation, which he was then smart enough to encode as principles. That kind of meticulous thinking led to his firm foreseeing the crash of 2008 and even profiting from it. This book is the end result of those principles time-tested and market-validated over 40 years.

Dalio’s frank style of describing his triumphs and mistakes keeps this book from lapsing into self-aggrandizement. He’s hobnobbed with every major world player over the past 4 decades, making for some fun anecdotes. The work principles that have made Bridgewater famous worldwide for its radical openness would form a firm foundation that many companies would be wise to emulate. 9/10

The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block (2011) by Hillary Rettig (ebook). Artists, especially writers, who would like to overcome procrastination and produce more, take notice. Rettig decriminalizes procrastination and prohibits self-shaming: “The use of shame and coercion as motivational tools, even on yourself, is not just immoral, but futile. They yield not growth and evolution, but, at best, short-term compliance. They also sabotage the creative process.” Instead, she identifies perfectionism as the real culprit and Compassionate Objectivity as its antidote. She offers six more solutions, as well as how to implement them, such as:

• Develop the Habit of Abundant Rewards and No Punishments: rewards yourself a lot for getting stuff done

• Build Your Capacity for Fearless Writing via Timed Writing Exercises: I’ve found setting a timer to be miraculously effective. Get it get stuff done.

I’m also a huge fan of her Three Productivity Behaviors: “(1) showing up exactly on time, (2) doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing, and (3) doing it uninterruptedly (except for small breaks) for long periods of time.”

I particularly appreciate Rettig’s unequivocal advice to self-publish your books, entirely bypassing the sclerotic traditional publishing industry. She validates the suffering of authors at the hands of prima donna agents and capricious publishers who aren’t really invested in your career. Taking control is the best decision you can make, and more profitable to boot.

In its 182 pages, this book contains zero padding and more actionable wisdom than books three times the length, all coming from a well of deep compassion and understanding. I’ll be referring to this one for a long time to come. 9/10

Entrepreneurial You: Monetize Your Expertise, Create Multiple Income Streams, and Thrive (2017) by Dorie Clark (ebook & print). Solo entrepreneurs, small business owners, domain experts, location-independent knowledge workers, or those who aspire to work for themselves instead of being a corporate cog, take notice: “Becoming a recognized expert these days doesn’t always lead to money. The elephant in the room of modern entrepreneurship is that even people who seem to be at the top of their game aren’t always monetizing successfully. Learning to make money from your expertise is a different skill set from what’s needed to become excellent at your work or well-known in your field.”

What I like about it:

1) It’s concise, well-researched and inspiring. Dorie is not only a first-rate chronicler of the rapid changes in modern work (through the other books in the trilogy, Reinventing You and Stand Out), but she’s also lived at the forefront of these changes. She’s held jobs all the way from stringer for a local newspaper, to political campaign staffer, to corporate consultant. If she’s a sought-after speaker and independent consultant now, it’s all via bootstrapping and sheer hustle. Her story and that of other successful entrepreneurs gives you a roadmap for us to follow. 

2) Radical transparency. Dorie provides dollar figures for how much more (or less) money she made as a result of certain changes, as well as those from such luminaries as Pat Flynn. Most books shy away from such disclosures. EY openly features this information crucial to setting realistic goals and expectations. 

3) Practicality. Dorie provides concrete actions for the three steps to sustainable monetization: building your brand; monetizing your expertise; extending your reach and impact online. And then, she gives us seven golden tactics for accomplishing those three steps: coaching/consulting; public speaking; podcasting; blogging; live conferences; online communities; and selling products. 

Dorie illustrates each of these tactics with real-life examples from top-flight practitioners. For example, for podcasting, there’s Jordan Harbinger (The Art of Charm) and John Lee Dumas (Entrepreneur on Fire). For blogging and email list-building, there’s James Clear (400,000 emails!). For conferences, Jayson Gaignard of Mastermind Talks; for community building, Ryan Levesque. The stories of their process to success are very motivating.

Although the strategies and tactics Dorie enumerates are accessible to all, you need to know that every one of these profiled people has an exceptional work ethic, starting with Dorie herself. These are elite hustlers at the top 0.1% of the population. Are you willing to commit to the work? 

If so, then Entrepreneurial You provides a fantastic framework that will not only save you years of wasted effort but also provide you with ample yes-you-can motivation ammunition. Dorie Clark has written the go-to reference for prosperity, impact and fulfillment in the internet age. Get it to go big. 9/10

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) (2017) by Gretchen Rubin (ebook & print). As a rule, I am skeptical of personality profiles. None are scientifically validated, except for the OCEAN framework (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). The rest are fabricated from thin air with scant experimental support, especially frameworks like the Enneagram and the laughable Myers-Briggs inventory. Sure, you can ask people two questions, like “Do you like barbecued spare ribs?” and “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”, and end up with a 2×2 matrix that tidily divides up the population into 4 categories. But does that have any predictive value outside of a person’s tendency to attend or avoid barbecues with dogs at them?

This book is a follow-up to Gretchen’s last book, Better Than Before, in which she more fully lays out the Four Tendencies that emerge from the answers to two questions: “How do you handle internal commitments?” and “How do you handle external commitments?” Good with both makes you an Upholder; bad with both makes you a Rebel. Obligers are good with external commitments but bad with internal ones; Questioners are the inverse.

The problem is that, depending on time of day, fullness of tummy, looming deadlines, who’s President, and how well last night’s poker session went, I will give different responses to Gretchen’s questionnaire. Sometimes, I’m an Obliger; other times a Questioner; and less often, a Rebel or Upholder. These are not hard-wired aspects of a personality encoded in genes, and to her credit, Gretchen does call them tendencies rather than traits.

Gretchen’s thoughts make up only about half of the book. The other half comprises quotes from her blog readers about how the tendencies show up in their lives. That said, the book was hugely useful in one respect: it made me realize that I work much better when I have external accountability. That insight alone is fully worth 3 hours of my life and $15. 8/10

Transformational NLP: A New Psychology (2017) by Carl Buchheit and Ellie Schamber (ebook & print). This book begins with a comprehensive history of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, where you will find pioneering insights from Grinder, Bandler, Dilts and Steve Andreas. This leads into the exposition of Transformational NLP, as developed by Jonathan Rice and Buchheit himself. This passage about picking unsuitable partners summarizes a lot of its principles:

“The creature brain does not care whether or not the human brain is happy; it cares only about its survival in physical reality. In the remarkable non-logic of creature-level association, the terrible pain of abandonment (in this example) becomes necessary for continued survival precisely because it could have been fatal, but was survived. Because this terrible pain has been survived, it becomes an experience profoundly associated with survival, and actually becomes essential for future survival. Something that is essential for basic survival cannot be permitted to change even a little bit, so the patterning that controls it will be quarantined. Once it becomes quarantined, unless there is an unusually effective intervention, the patterning will never change. Consequently, the core decisions/ beliefs generated by this patterning will never really change, no matter what happens later. The person will go through his/her life both resisting and expecting abandonment, hoping and working for love while waiting to be unwanted and left.”

The book also offers deep insight into how to effectively heal the past: “The goal is to empower the client to view the past not as a fixed source of immutable loss, but rather as a dynamic wellspring of creative decision-making and learning.”

Carl’s been at this for over 30 years, so his observations and therapeutic strategies come from a deep well of experience. There are insights on every other page of this book that would take lifetimes to realize on one’s own. This is essential reading for therapists who want to achieve breakthroughs in treating clients or healing yourself. 8.5/10

Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (1993) by William Ury (ebook & print). “The essence of breakthrough strategy is indirect action. It requires you to do the opposite of what you naturally feel like doing in difficult situations.” Ury, the grandaddy of the Harvard Negotiation Project, proposes a five-step “joint problem-solving” protocol as the way to get past no: “Only they can break through their own resistance; your job is to help them.” The steps: go to the balcony; overcome the other side’s negative emotions by listening to them; reframe the problem; build them a golden bridge; use power to educate. Also remember the five important points along the way to a mutually satisfactory agreement: interests, options for satisfying those interests, standards for fair resolution, alternatives to negotiation, and proposals for agreement. I highlighted 122 passages from this book, so there’s a plethora of practical wisdom here. 9/10

Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (2015) by Matthieu Ricard (ebook, print and audio). I picked up Altruism at Matthieu Ricard’s reading in San Francisco two years ago. Ricard is a remarkable man: Tibetan Buddhist monk with over 30,000 hours of meditation under his belt; French translator to the Dalai Lama; PhD from Institut Pasteur under Nobelist François Jacob; and current title-holder for “world’s happiest man”, according to brain scans done at Richard Davidson’s lab.

This kind of book is required reading in my line of work, especially when written with the rigor and depth that Ricard brings. At 43 chapters and 849 pages, it has the heft of a brick, and the density, too, with tangled sentences like this: “It now had to be demonstrated that people don’t act solely in order to avoid having to justify their non-intervention to themselves either.”

A magnum opus like this takes 5-10x longer to read than the average book. But the rewards can be immense. Ricard brings massive evidence arguing for altruism as an essential part of our human and animal makeup, even beyond the genetic arguments of kin selection. This has far-reaching consequences in how we run our lives, interact with others, and treat the planet. (NB: also featured in “Important”) 9.5/10

59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute (2009) by Richard Wiseman (ebook & print). Bonding over shared dislikes works better than discussing shared enthusiasms. Active listening does not improve relationships. Sit in the middle of a table to make a good impression. Rhyming persuades. Wiseman, perhaps the only person with the job title “Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology”, offers bite-sized, scientifically validated tips on happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, relationships, stress, decision making, parenting and personality. Fun, fast, stupendously useful read. 9/10

The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good (2012) by David J Linden (ebook & paperback). “While we might assume that the anatomical region most closely governed by laws, religious prohibitions, and social mores is the genitalia, or the mouth, or the vocal cords, it is actually the medial forebrain pleasure circuit.” Thus begins this riveting account of how the human brain gets us in hot water. Prof Linden knows his stuff, and the explanatory power of this book about ubiquitous but perplexing phenomena like drug addiction, obesity, falling in love, and deer fighting over yellow snow (?!) is staggering. He explains the science with great clarity and humor without compromising the sophistication of the discourse. 9/10

Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal (2011) Oren Klaff (ebook & print). Although I can’t claim to have used this protocol for an actual sale, Klaff has, and with sepctacular results. His methods mesh with everything I’ve practiced and studied about persuasion and have the ring of truth. Highly recommended if your work involves sales. 9/10

Real Artists Don’t Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age by Jeff Goins (ebook & print). Goins, an independent author whose methods are well worth emulating, lays out the 12 Rules of the New Renaissance distinguishing Starving Artists from Thriving Artists. Some of the ones I like:
1.​ The Starving Artist believes you must be born an artist. The Thriving Artist knows you must become one.
7.​ The Starving Artist always works alone. The Thriving Artist collaborates with others.
11.​ The Starving Artist masters one craft. The Thriving Artist masters many.
12. T​he Starving Artist despises the need for money. The Thriving Artist makes money to make art.

How great is that? He illustrates the rules with engaging stories from real-life artists and entrepreneurs who definitely didn’t starve, from Michelangelo to Jeff Bezos. This book should be the manifesto of all independent artists. I’m going to print his 12 rules and put it up in my workspace right now. Oh, and make sure you have a “leaky mental filter.” 9/10

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for the Work You Love by Cal Newport (ebook & print). A professor of computer science at Georgetown and author the Study Hacks blog, Newport makes abundantly clear with both anecdotes and ample scientific evidence that “follow your passion” is terrible career advice. It turns out that mastery gives rise to passion, not the other way around. And when you get really good at what you do, the world will beat a path to your door. His more recent book, Deep Work, is one of my favorites of all time. 9/10

The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level (2015) by Gay Hendricks (ebook & print). I’d heard of this Hendricks guy before, mostly in the context of relationship advice books. I was pleasantly surprised by this robust call to action and slaying of personal demons. Key insight: the human psyche seeks homeostasis. Therefore it will fight against anything that threatens that equilibrium, including success. Success?! If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you had just gotten a better relationship or job, and you somehow managed to screw it up. Yup, everyone does it. This book proposes some potent remedies. I particularly appreciated the following mantra: “I expand in abundance, success and love every day as I inspire those around me to do the same.” A short 200 pages that pack a punch. 9/10

Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break (2017) by Rachael O’Meara (ebook, print & audio). Americans live amidst a culture of misplaced priorities. The richest country in the history of the world is also the only industrialized nation with no mandated paid maternity/paternity leave. Only 4% of companies allow extended paid leave. Work defines people’s identities, and overachievers believe that being busy is the highest virtue. Nothing could be more effective in self-inflicting misery. O’Meara exhorts us to pause and reconsider this mindset and its ramifications: how you got in this mess, how to get out of it, and what to do upon re-entry into polite rat-race society.

Things I like about this book: tons of case studies that you may identify with, including those from luminaries like Gabrielle Bernstein and Danielle LaPorte; step-by-step instructions for initiating your pause; introduction to incredibly useful concepts like self-validated intimacy and strengths finding; great sections on meditation and digital detox; cool exercises, like the “ten-second micro-pauses” of taking 6 deep breaths or breathing into your palms; easy to read.

O’Meara has done a great service by highlighting the importance of taking a pause and providing the tools to make it happen. If you think you’re too busy to pause, that’s like thinking you’re too out-of-shape to exercise: you need this book, stat. I’m hoping this is the beginning of not just a good idea but a great movement to change people’s attitudes towards leading more balanced, happy lives. 8/10

The 25 Most Important Books I Read in 2017

Two things make a book truly important to read. First is urgency. Does it contain information that could immediately protect you from harm or improve your life? That’s pretty important. Second, could this book change the whole way you look at the world, and maybe even revolutionize the way you live? These books have that potential. Check them out:

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017) by Matthew Walker (ebook & print). This is easily the most important book I read in 2017. Why? Because there is nothing more important in your life than sleep. And Westerners (especially Americans) are chronically sleep-deprived, leading to unnecessary car crashes, illness, and depression. We also have terrible sleep hygiene. I’ve been researching this topic for my own book, so I know this is the only decent, up-to-date book out there on sleep. And it’s fantastic. Walker is a renowned sleep researcher himself at UC Berkeley, featuring some of his original findings in the book. All adults interested in their own health should read this. 9.5/10

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print). “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” Tyranny is on the march not only in the US, but all over the world. Snyder reminds us that we’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well — unless we get off our asses and do something about it. Let this book be your wake-up call. Prescient, cautionary, essential reading for our times. At 128 pages and less than $7, you cannot afford not to read this. 9.5/10

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016) by Tim Wu (ebook & print). Our lives are what we pay attention to, so “how we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.” Prof Tim Wu of Columbia (of Net Neutrality fame) takes us on a ride from the beginning of the attention economy to the age of social media. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, was the first to sell his paper at a loss to make it up in advertising revenue, figuring out that his readers were not his consumers but his product. The whole advertising and marketing industries originated in patent medicine and propaganda. Heck, all advertising used to be called propaganda. Wu covers a lot of fascinating ground here: the rise of radio and TV networks; war propaganda; Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary and LSD; video games and Facebook. This is a thorough history and cautionary tale about the hijacking of our attention by insidious commercial and governmental forces: “Technologies designed to increase our control over our attention will sometimes have the very opposite effect. They open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all.” 9/10

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017) by Adam Alter (ebook & print). While Wu gives you the sweep of history, Alter tells you what’s happening to you right now. Behavioral addiction is affecting millions, making Irresistible one of the most important books I read in 2017.  So how do people get hooked? “Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” Remember that thousands of extremely smart, highly-compensated people are on the other side of your screen, thinking of ways of keeping you hooked. This book tells you how they do it.  9.5/10

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016), by Jane Mayer (ebook & print). I’ve read a lot of depressing books in my day, like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or King Leopold’s Ghost, or the one right above about how everything is going to die. But somehow those tales of mass slaughter were not nearly as big a downer as Dark Money. David and Charles Koch are the billionaires at the center of the concerted effort to purchase American democracy to do the bidding of the ultra-rich. Them and other characters who consistently lack decency, like Richard Mellon Scaife and the DeVos family create front companies and multilayered shell entities to pass the Citizens United verdict, and create the Tea Party, and fund it to the tune of hundreds of millions. The detailed account of their successful experiment in South Carolina is particularly chilling. Not fun to read, but fascinating nonetheless, and utterly crucial. 9/10

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017), by Masha Gessen (ebook & print). I just knew this book had to be dangerously good when I saw all the 1-star reviews by trolls on Amazon. So I bought it immediately. I had read several of Gessen’s meticulous and eye-opening New Yorker pieces, but this book takes it to a whole new level. And happy to report that it has since won the National Book Award, haters be damned.

Gessen tells the story through seven dramatis personae, each “both ‘regular’, in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly.” They give first-person accounts of the everyday ordeal of surviving true to oneself in Russia. Like Zhanna, daughter of popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and activist in her own right, whose life demonstrates some of the consequences of opposing the regime (e.g. exile, incarceration and murder — y’know, the yoozh). The story of Masha the journalist illustrates the perils of truthtelling. Pioneering psychotherapist Marina Arutyunyan tries to shepherd modern mental health to Russia through lacerating thickets of state-mandated ideology. Openly gay academic Lyosha tries to advocate for oppressed minorities without getting fired from his precarious university post.

Gessen weaves the last century of Russian history through the lives of the protagonists. Stalin’s self-cannibalizing reign of terror is particularly chilling: “Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov.” Stalin once invited an old friend from Georgia to Moscow for a reunion, and after lavishly wining and dining him, had him executed before dawn: “This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.”

And that is the most astonishing aspect of this book: it is not fiction. The protagonists’ experiences are so logic-defying, so disheartening, and such violations of basic human decency as to exist in a separate universe that no novelist could concoct. And yet, this universe has an internal logic. Perhaps it’s best explained through Hannah Arendt, whose three-volume “Origins of Totalitarianism” Gessen deftly scrunches down to a few essential paragraphs: “What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”

And yet, the book reads like a novel, which is why I don’t want to give away too much. Who is Homo sovieticus? For whom do Russians vote in the “Greatest Russian Ever” (aka “Name of Russia”) contest year after year? What’s going to happen to Boris Nemtsov after he defies Putin? Do our heroes avoid getting beat up and arrested at the demonstrations? Why is Putin so popular in Russia?

One pervasive theme of the book is the hegemony of doublethink over the Russian psyche. Coined by Orwell in “1984”, doublethink is the necessity of maintaining two contradictory beliefs for survival, e.g. publicly supporting the government ideology while knowing that it oppresses your very existence.

This is some crazy-making stuff that Russians seem to have been put through for over a century. And yet, there are still people who fight for truth, healing, and freedom. Over and over, they rise to attend banned protests very likely to land them in jail (or worse). Their stories of stupendous bravery and selflessness consistently inspire.

And lest you as a Westerner think that you’re somehow safe because, oh, this is something happening elsewhere, please note that the recent rise of authoritarianism in countries like America takes its playbook straight out of Russia. Attacks on the press, construction of alternate realities, propagation of fake news, persecution of minorities, and the shameless grabbing of executive power: it’s all happening right now.

And you know what else? We’ve seen it all before: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. So don’t read this book just because it’s a riveting account of life in what’s still an undiscovered continent for most Westerners. Don’t read it just because it’s a tour de force of journalistic craft and bravery. Read it because it also informs your life as an American, German, Frenchman, Hungarian, or anyone who values the freedom of human life and ideas, and so that you may be impelled to action. 10/10

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011) by Daniel Yergin (ebook, print & audio). Yergin is the pre-eminent scholar on global energy. Intimidated by the sheer bulk of his tomes (the other being The Prize, for which he nabbed another prize called the Pulitzer), I had avoided them till now. But the audiobook was a manageable way to digest this work piecemeal (also, you can’t tell how thick an audiobook is). It’s safe to say no other book has helped me Continue reading “The 25 Most Important Books I Read in 2017”

The 5 Most Heartbreaking Books I Read in 2017

Last year I read about 130 books. At that pace, assuming a long, healthy lifespan with decent eyesight and health coverage, maybe I can get through 5000 more. That’s a pretty small number compared to all the books I’d like to read. So I have to be picky and stuff. Great books only! That’s why every book I review here is going to be pretty darn good. Heck, the ones I can’t say nice things about I don’t even bother reviewing. Highlight reel all the way.

Although I read good books regardless of when they were written, a large number of the books on the list were published in the last year or two, and almost all within the last 20.

There were many truly outstanding books in the batch. If I rate it a 10, it means you should stop what you’re doing right now, get a hold of this book and start reading it. Check the review first to see if it’s your dish. Then read it anyway, because a 10 rating means it’s epochally awesome. It will permanently drop your jaw to the floor so you’ll have to carry it around on a leash. Hey, why are you still reading this!? Go get one of those books. Jeebus.

THE MOST HEARTBREAKING BOOKS I READ IN 2017

Look, if you’re sitting there in front of a Mac with a blazing fast internet connection, you’ve got it pretty good — in fact, better than 99.99999% of the people who’ve ever lived on the face of the earth. Chances are you haven’t been evicted, exiled, enslaved, had your ancestral lands taken away, or gotten massacred yet. This means you’re probably getting a little soft. You need to read about some serious pain, pilgrim. And maybe stand while you read. It’s better for you, and will keep your socks from getting knocked off by these six gale-force hurricanes, all 10/10:

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) by Matthew Desmond (ebook & print) I am not the first person to call this a tour de force, and I won’t be the last. To write this book (which started out as his doctoral thesis), Desmond took it upon himself to live in the neighborhoods he studied: slums, ghettoes, and trailer parks in poor, honest-to-god dangerous parts of Milwaukee. What he found was explosive, eye-opening and heartbreaking. At the heart of urban America, a robust business model exists for landlords to systematically exploit poor tenants through loopholes in the law. The result is an underclass trapped in cycles of poverty, drugs, malnutrition, poor health and crime. After reading this, it’s impossible to see America’s inner cities, law enforcement, and politics the same way. A well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 10/10

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio). One day last year, while  I was traveling in Australia, I thought to myself: “Y’know, self, you’ve led a fairly charmed life. You should read about some pain.” Thus started my Heartbreak Project, in which I took on books about the awful things humans have done to one another. This is totally one of those books.

The plundering of the Congo and the subsequent massacre and enslavement of the Congolese happened on a scale that beggars the imagination, especially compared to how little Westerners know about it. 6-10 million Congolese perished. King Leopold had turned a country half the size of Europe into his own personal colony so he could fund his palaces and the whims of teenage whore-mistresses. If you go to Brussels today — Joseph Conrad’s “sepulchral city” from Heart of Darkness— pretty much every old building you see was built with Leopold’s Congo money.

There are legions of despicable characters in this story, amongst them Henry M. Stanley, the Welsh-American explorer famous for finding Victoria Falls and Dr Livingstone. Only the insane bravery of a few heroes ultimately exposed Leopold’s crimes. Englishman Edmund Dene Morel, black Americans George Washington Williams and Wiliam Sheppard survived multiple assassination attempts and fatal tropical disease to expose the atrocities of the Congo and turn international sentiment against it.

This is holocaust-level stuff that very few people have heard about. The story will break your heart dozens of times, and also redeem and enlarge it. 10/10

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert (ebook & print). Caves that recently contained millions of bats now have none — a fungus massacred them. All frogs are vanishing from the face of the earth. “A third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed to oblivion.” There have been five major extinctions on Earth, and we seem to be amidst the sixth one, largely created by humans. Kolbert of The New Yorker is the human reporting on this for the past decade with a sharp eye, steady voice, and muddy boot. Her unsentimental delivery makes the magnitude of the catastrophe hit you even harder when it finally dawns on you: we’re killing everything. This won the Pulitzer Prize, and may it win any and every award that will make kids better stewards of their only planet. I give it a 10 because not destroying all life forms on Earth is kinda important. May want to stop eating tuna and shark-fin soup, like, now. 10/10

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio). Can I tell you how great this book is? I mean, did you ever wonder how a mixed-race South African kid ended up hosting The Daily Show? This book chronicles that astonishingly unlikely journey from the slums of Soweto where Noah’s mere existence was a crime, since whites and blacks weren’t supposed to talk, let alone have kids together. Growing up “colored” in apartheid South Africa where racism was the law of the land meant Noah fully belonged to neither the world of whites nor blacks. But he knew how to hustle. His incredibly poignant relationship with his lioness of a mother had me crying more than once. Damn.

The audiobook benefits from Noah’s comic timing and dead-on rendition of myriad accents and languages. I laughed out loud many times; I don’t think I’ll every forget his story about DJing a bar mitzvah with Hitler (seriously). In the meantime, you and I have no idea how bad black South Africans had it — this shit is bananas. Hilarious, heartbreaking, uplifting and enlightening, this is one extraordinary book to nourish your soul. 10/10

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio). The United States of America is a nation founded on genocide. The continental US was the ancestral homeland of millions of natives inhabiting it continuously for 40,000 years. Somehow, this vast territory became the domain of white settlers. How? During the massive westward expansion of the US all the way to the Pacific coast in the years 1840-1890, this was the general procedure: Continue reading “The 5 Most Heartbreaking Books I Read in 2017”

Books of 2017 Reviewed, Part 2 of 4

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print). Siberian tigers hunt bears. That’s how badass they are. Okay, but why should you read a book about a search for a man-eating Amur tiger, the world’s largest land predator, in the most remote parts of the earth? Because it’s one of the best damn books you’ll ever read, that’s why. And in the process, you’ll learn about Russian history, Communism, Russian-Chinese relations, Siberian tundra and taiga, tiger lore, perestroika, big cat physiology, the Afghan war, poaching, black markets, being a Russian nature warden, extinction, duty, vengeance and survival. Vaillant’s sorcery is in his ability to take you inside the head of the hunted villagers, the hunters, and the Amur tiger, as if you were there. The whole thing reads like a thriller, and yes, you will probably stay up way too late reading it. I came away with a deeper appreciation of the majesty of nature and our place in it as current top predator. 10/10

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) by Peter Pomerantsev (ebook & print). A 21-year old Russian supermodel jumps to her death from her Manhattan balcony. A month later, another does the same. The owner of a successful chemicals factory is arrested by five black-suited goons inside her luxury gym and tossed in jail for 3 months for no stated reason. Eventually, the charge is revealed to be “making chemicals.” On a Saturday night in Moscow’s most exclusive nightclub, old, potbellied oligarchs audition young gold-diggers looking to score their next sugardaddy. Stories like these make “surreal” the perfect descriptor for this book. Pomerantsev, an Englishman of Russian extraction, is summoned to Moscow to make reality shows for a state-sponsored TV station. His deep access to the underbelly of Russian life makes for stories that are at turns darkly hilarious and utterly heartbreaking. The writing is sharp, witty and riveting, reading with the speed of a guilty-pleasure novel. Except that everything Pomerantsev recounts actually happened. 9/10

The Lessons of History (1975) by Will & Ariel Durant (ebook & print). I came to this via Ray Dalio’s Principles (also reviewed) in which he mentioned this as one of his favorite books. “War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.” Say what? Or: “Probably every vice was once a virtue—i.e., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.” If you spend 40 years of your life writing an 11-volume history of all civilization, you too may be able to come up with mind-blowing nuggets like that. In the meantime, we can read the Durants’ 128-page condensation of their masterpiece. 9/10

Transformational NLP: A New Psychology (2017) by Carl Buchheit and Ellie Schamber (ebook & print). This book begins with a comprehensive history of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, where you will find pioneering insights from Grinder, Bandler, Dilts and Steve Andreas. This leads into the exposition of Transformational NLP, as developed by Jonathan Rice and Buchheit himself. This passage about picking unsuitable partners summarizes a lot of its principles:

“The creature brain does not care whether or not the human brain is happy; it cares only about its survival in physical reality. In the remarkable non-logic of creature-level association, the terrible pain of abandonment (in this example) becomes necessary for continued survival precisely because it could have been fatal, but was survived. Because this terrible pain has been survived, it becomes an experience profoundly associated with survival, and actually becomes essential for future survival. Something that is essential for basic survival cannot be permitted to change even a little bit, so the patterning that controls it will be quarantined. Once it becomes quarantined, unless there is an unusually effective intervention, the patterning will never change. Consequently, the core decisions/ beliefs generated by this patterning will never really change, no matter what happens later. The person will go through his/her life both resisting and expecting abandonment, hoping and working for love while waiting to be unwanted and left.”

The book also offers deep insight into how to effectively heal the past: “The goal is to empower the client to view the past not as a fixed source of immutable loss, but rather as a dynamic wellspring of creative decision-making and learning.”

Carl’s been at this for over 30 years, so his observations and therapeutic strategies come from a deep well of experience. There are insights on every other page of this book that would take lifetimes to realize on one’s own. This is essential reading for therapists who want to achieve breakthroughs in treating clients or healing yourself. 8.5/10

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong (2017) by Eric Barker (ebook & print). This book is so chock-full of useful information that I highlighted it over 200 times.

What do I like about it? First, it’s full of great stories that stay with you. There’s James Waters with his mental strategies that got him through Navy SEAL training, a Harvard MBA, and a White House job. There’s Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, the illegal Mexican migrant worker boy who became a world-renowned neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. There’s Spencer Glendon with the debilitating ulcerative colitis who became a world-class money manager anyway. Dozens of vivid, funny, inspiring stories of ingenuity, grit, and optimism here.

Second, Barker amply supports all recommendations with research findings. So you will learn fascinating, counterintuitive concepts from social psychology, behavioral economics, game theory, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary biology. It reminds me of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, another great book that’s full of ingenious mindhacks.

Third, it’s full of usable unconventional wisdom. Were pirates the progressives of their day? Why do so few valedictorians become millionaires? Why do jerks succeed? (Hint: they ask for what they want and self-promote to their bosses.) No one book will turn you into an overnight success, but this one has a lot of signposts for living a happier, more fulfilling life. You’d be wise to read and share it. 9.5/10

Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection (2017) by Sharon Salzberg (ebook, print & audio). Salzberg is one of the pioneers to bring Buddhism and meditation to the West. With a voice like a wise, compassionate aunt we all wish we had, she conveys principles of lovingkindness, mindfulness and connection through stories and simple exercises. A centerpiece of the book is the RAIN protocol to handle negative emotions: Recognize it, Acknowledge it, Investigate it with a sense of openness and curiosity, and Non-Identify with it — it’s not you! This is not just one of the foundations of Buddhist psychology, but also of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — excellent life advice that totally works.

The exercises are not just effective but also easy to implement, e.g. for practicing lovingkindness, forgiveness, and handling anger. I felt their effects immediately and intend to incorporate some into my daily routine, like the one about extending love to neutral passersby.

And then there are the final five pages in which she summarizes the whole book. This was the most concentrated wallop of wisdom to hit my face in a long time. If you feel like you could use more love in your life, here’s the recipe book. 9/10

Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break (2017) by Rachael O’Meara (ebook, print & audio). Americans live amidst a culture of misplaced priorities. The richest country in the history of the world is also the only industrialized nation with no mandated paid maternity/paternity leave. Only 4% of companies allow extended paid leave. Work defines people’s identities, and overachievers believe that being busy is the highest virtue. Nothing could be more effective in self-inflicting misery. O’Meara exhorts us to pause and reconsider this mindset and its ramifications: how you got in this mess, how to get out of it, and what to do upon re-entry into polite rat-race society.

Things I like about this book: tons of case studies that you may identify with, including those from self-help luminaries like Gabrielle Bernstein and Danielle LaPorte; step-by-step instructions for initiating your pause; introduction to incredibly useful concepts like self-validated intimacy and strengths finding; great sections on meditation and digital detox; cool exercises, like the “ten-second micro-pauses” of taking 6 deep breaths or breathing into your palms; easy to read.

O’Meara has done a great service by highlighting the importance of taking a pause and providing the tools to make it happen. If you think you’re too busy to pause, that’s like thinking you’re too out-of-shape to exercise: you need this book, stat. I’m hoping this is the beginning of not just a good idea but a great movement to change people’s attitudes towards leading more balanced, happy lives. 8/10

Principles: Life and Work (2017) by Ray Dalio (ebook, print & audio). This is three books in one: memoir, life advice, and business advice. Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Capital, the world’s largest hedge fund, which he started from nothing in 1975 to $150 billion in assets today, amassing a $17 billion personal fortune along the way. What impresses me about Dalio is that he arrived at his wealth mostly through very careful decision-making and self-observation, which he was then smart enough to encode as principles. That kind of meticulous thinking led to his firm foreseeing the crash of 2008 and even profiting from it. This book is the end result of those principles time-tested and market-validated over 40 years.

Dalio’s frank style of describing his triumphs and mistakes keeps this book from lapsing into self-aggrandizement. He’s hobnobbed with every major world player over the past 4 decades, making for some fun anecdotes. The work principles that have made Bridgewater famous worldwide for its radical transparency forms a firm foundation that many companies would be wise to emulate. 9/10

Open (2009) by Andre Agassi (ebook, print & audio). A friend loaned this to me when I was in Bali, and I read it in one sitting. André hated tennis. He nevertheless became the #1 player in the world. The coaching of his maniacal Persian dad, leaving school, joining the brutal Bollettieri Academy, acting out, pink mohawks, famous wives and girlfriends, insanely loyal friends and coaches, the relentless pursuit of excellence, Pete Sampras the eternal nemesis, depression, marriage, divorce, re-marriage — it’s all in here. Even if you didn’t follow tennis in his time, this is a rollicking, laugh-out-loud, poignant story. I also picked up a huge life-lesson from it: the best in the world become that way by having coaches. So glad I found out for myself why this book was so stupendously popular. 9.5/10

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis (2017), by Annie Jacobsen (ebook, print & audio). Usually books about psychic phenomena either go full-believer or full-skeptic. Jacobsen, however, just reports on the stories and the evidence pro and con from interviews and declassified government documents, letting you make up your own mind.

Some of the characters are professional charlatans — albeit charlatans hired by British intelligence to successfully convince Rudolf Hess to fly to England to get captured (apparently the Nazis were suckers for astrology). Some, like Uri Geller, I couldn’t really figure out. Others are legitimate scientists who earnestly believed they could make headway in this field using the scientific method. These quixotic quests are fun to read, especially when you hear how much money the US government poured into it and how afraid they were of the Russians being ahead.

But the stuff that blew me away were the accounts of remote viewers who actually got results. I mean, in a trillion tries, no one should be able to close her eyes, enter a meditative state, and visualize the location of, say, Muammar Ghaddafi’s chemical weapon stash. And yet that’s exactly what some of these people did — repeatedly, with documentation to prove it. Some of the main players in the US parapsychology program have criticized this book for its cherry-picking and incompleteness. But no one has said that remote sensing doesn’t work, and nobody knows about the programs that have not yet been declassified. Possibly the most mind-bending book I’ve ever read. 8.5/10

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2005) by Jack Weatherford (ebook, print & audio). Seasoned historian Weatherford is Genghis Khan Fan #1, and his revisionist history painstakingly reconstructs Genghis’s milieu, upbringing, motives, conquests, and reign. Still keeping in mind that Genghis Khan was responsible for the biggest slaughter in world history — between 20 and 40 million people, depending on who’s counting — he did pioneer many advances during his rule: meritocracy over nepotism; religious tolerance; citizenship for conquered peoples instead of captivity or oppression; patronizing the arts and sciences; and crazy effective leadership. The impact of the man on world history was cataclysmic, and this eminently readable book brings you up to speed on him. I read it in both audiobook and ebook forms. Many big-name CEOs and entrepreneurs swear by this one. 8.5/10

Stick With It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life for Good by Sean D. Young (ebook & print). Fantastic book! Review upcoming. 9/10

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017) by Matthew Walker (ebook & print). This is easily the most important book I read in 2017. Why? Because there is nothing more important in your life than sleep. And Westerners (especially Americans) are chronically sleep-deprived, leading to unnecessary car crashes, illness, and depression. We also have terrible sleep hygiene. I’ve been researching this topic for my own book, so I know this is the only decent, up-to-date book out there on sleep. And it’s fantastic. Walker is a renowned sleep researcher himself at UC Berkeley, featuring some of his original findings in the book. All adults interested in their own health should read this. 9.5/10

Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power by Meghan L O’Sullivan (ebook, print, & audio). Main premise: the rise of unconventional energy sources in the US — shale gas and oil plus renewables — will reduce American dependency on foreign energy, tipping the balance of power away from the Middle East, Russia and China and back towards the US. As one would expect from a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, O’Sullivan’s research is meticulous in supporting her thesis. It’s an up-to-date account of the flow of global energy and its concomitant distortions of the fields of power and diplomacy, and a good complement to Daniel Yergin’s definitive The Quest (also reviewed here). O’Sullivan served as an advisor in Iraq under Bush II, so a lot of her observations on petropolitics are firsthand. Her political leanings may also account for her treatment of unconventional gas and oil (read: fracking and tar sands) as unalloyed boons, sidestepping their well-documented environmental hazards and unsustainability. 8.5/10

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011) by Daniel Yergin (ebook, print & audio). Yergin is the pre-eminent scholar on global energy. Intimidated by the sheer bulk of his tomes (the other being The Prize, for which he nabbed another prize called the Pulitzer), I had avoided them till now. But the audiobook was a manageable way to digest this work piecemeal (also, you can’t tell how thick an audiobook is). It’s safe to say no other book has helped me understand global dynamics of energy and politics better than this one.

Yergin is a master storyteller, weaving together a compelling narrative out of the encyclopedic amount of data he covers — Saudi Arabia and ARAMCO, the Kuwait war, Iran, Angola, renewable energy, Russia, China, and scads more. His exposition on the natural history of the petrostate — a country rendered inherently unstable because of its heavily petroleum-dependent income — and the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez in Venezuela was particularly memorable. A contemporary classic. Read it to better understand your world. 10/10

Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) by Joshua Foer (ebook & print). I’m probably the last person on the block to read this, probably because I was already a student of memory techniques when this came out and had a feeling that this would be more story than instruction manual. About that, I was right. It’s a good yarn nevertheless, as Foer starts out as a rank beginner and ends up winning the World Memory Championship under the tutelage of Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke. It’s a pleasant entrée into the quirky and obsessive subculture of memory competitions — and also mnemonic techniques, if you know absolutely nothing about the topic. For the techniques, I recommend Tony Buzan’s Use Your Perfect Memory or Ed Cooke’s Remember, Remember: Learn the Stuff You Thought You Never Could. 8.5/10

Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull (ebook & print). This is the manual for building a great company. It’s also the tale of Pixar’s creation, growth, and well-earned triumph. Both a world-class computer scientist and illustrator, Catmull is a mashup of Steve Wozniak, Walt Disney and Gandhi, minus the annoying parts. Pixar arrived at its culture of collaboration, flat hierarchy and radical innovation through a lot of trial and error. And none of its success was pre-ordained: both Toy Story and The Incredibles, were stopped and completely re-done. The book is chock-full of pointers for storytellers, technologists and leaders who want to be world-class at their craft. Bonus: Catmull’s contrarian insider perspective on Steve Jobs, having worked with him for 25 years. 9/10

Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive With the New Science of Success (2017) by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness (ebook & print). One of the best books I’ve read on improving personal performance. Full review upcoming. 9/10

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) (2017) by Gretchen Rubin (ebook & print). As a rule, I am skeptical of personality profiles. None are scientifically validated, except for the OCEAN framework (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). The rest are fabricated from thin air with scant experimental support, especially frameworks like the Enneagram and the laughable Myers-Briggs inventory. Sure, you can ask people two questions, like “Do you like barbecued spare ribs?” and “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”, and end up with a 2×2 matrix that tidily divides up the population into 4 categories. But does that have any predictive value outside of a person’s tendency to attend or avoid barbecues with dogs at them?

This book is a follow-up to Gretchen’s last book, Better Than Before, in which she lays out the Four Tendencies that emerge from the answers to two questions: “How do you handle internal commitments?” and “How do you handle external commitments?” Good with both makes you an Upholder; bad with both makes you a Rebel. Obligers are good with external commitments but bad with internal ones; Questioners are the inverse.

The problem is that, depending on time of day, fullness of tummy, looming deadlines, who’s President, and how well last night’s poker session went, I will give different responses to Gretchen’s questionnaire. Sometimes, I’m an Obliger; other times a Questioner; and less often, a Rebel or Upholder. These are not hard-wired aspects of a personality encoded in genes, and to her credit, Gretchen does call them tendencies rather than traits.

Gretchen’s thoughts make up only about half of the book. The other half comprises quotes from her blog readers, talking about how the tendencies show up in their lives. That said, the book was hugely useful in one respect: it made me realize that I work much better when I have external accountability, like deadlines. That insight alone is fully worth 3 hours of my life and $15. 8/10

The Art of Seduction (2003) by Robert Greene (ebook & print). When this book first came out in 2003, I was hugely impressed by it. A grand tour of seduction through the ages, it brimmed with tales of chutzpah, daring and ingenuity from the likes of Cleopatra, Duc de Richelieu, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, and of course, Casanova. Ten years on, having created many books, courses and seminars on human courtship of my own, I am significantly less impressed.

First off, half the characters cited in the book are fictional. That means nothing that they did actually happened. Count Valmont of the Les Liaisons Dangereuses fame makes about five appearances, which is four too many for someone who never existed.

Second, all the real people in the book had a vested interest in exaggerating their exploits, because that’s what seducers do. So their stories aren’t credible either.

Third, a lot of these guys seemed to have unlimited cash and time on their hands. The Duc de Richelieu would buy the house next door to his object of desire and tunnel through a wall. Casanova spent all kinds of time and money to go to operas, masquerades, and exotic locales to ply his trade. These are not tactics necessarily available to the average 21st century day-job schmoe.

Fourth, nobody depicted in the book is alive. Is there not one person amongst the 7.5 billion living worthy of emulating, with verifiable stories and usable techniques? Note that Greene himself is a bit of a hermit. Not speaking from experience ultimately makes for a thin book, regardless of its physical heft.

If you are looking for an entertaining, philosophical read, this is a good one. And I love all the fun marginalia from classical literature, from Sappho to Ovid to Laclos. The 48 Laws of Power is still a classic, but if you’re looking for an instruction manual on seduction, you may want to look elsewhere. 7/10

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (2017) by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman (ebook & print). Claude Shannon was an original genius. He basically came up with the science of information theory out of sheer nothing. Now, the entire planet runs on his brainchild. He also had a lot of fun thinking, tinkering, and teaching as an MIT professor. The authors are not scientists, so when it comes to the sheer poetry and chutzpah of Shannon’s science, they can only go so deep. Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read on one of the greatest unsung minds of the 20th century. 8/10

Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (1993) by William Ury (ebook & print). “The essence of breakthrough strategy is indirect action. It requires you to do the opposite of what you naturally feel like doing in difficult situations.” Ury, the grandaddy of the Harvard Negotiation Project, proposes a five-step “joint problem-solving” protocol as the way to get past no: “Only they can break through their own resistance; your job is to help them.” The steps: go to the balcony; overcome the other side’s negative emotions by listening to them; reframe the problem; build them a golden bridge; use power to educate. Also remember the five important points along the way to a mutually satisfactory agreement: interests, options for satisfying those interests, standards for fair resolution, alternatives to negotiation, and proposals for agreement. I highlighted 122 passages from this book, so there’s a plethora of practical wisdom here. 9/10

59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute (2009) by Richard Wiseman (ebook & print). Bonding over shared dislikes works better than discussing shared enthusiasms. Active listening does not improve relationships. Sit in the middle of a table to make a good impression. Rhyming persuades. Wiseman, perhaps the only person with the job title “Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology”, offers bite-sized, scientifically validated tips on happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, relationships, stress, decision making, parenting and personality. Fun, fast, stupendously useful read, written by a wise man indeed. 9/10

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio). Can I tell you how great this book is? I mean, did you ever wonder how a mixed-race South African kid ended up hosting The Daily Show? This book chronicles that astonishingly unlikely journey from the slums of Soweto where Noah’s mere existence was a crime, since whites and blacks weren’t supposed to talk, let alone have kids together. Growing up “colored” in apartheid South Africa where racism was the law of the land meant Noah fully belonged to neither the world of whites nor the blacks. But he knew how to hustle. His incredibly poignant relationship with his lioness of a mother had me crying more than once. Damn.

The audiobook benefits from Noah’s comic timing and dead-on rendition of myriad accents and languages. I laughed out loud many times; I don’t think I’ll every forget his story about DJing the bar mitzvah with Hitler (seriously). In the meantime, you and I have no idea how bad black South Africans had it — the shit is bananas. Hilarious, heartbreaking, uplifting and enlightening, this is one to nourish your soul. 10/10

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) by Matthew Desmond (ebook & print) I am not the first person to call this a tour de force, and I won’t be the last. To write this book (which started out as his doctoral thesis), Desmond (a professor at Harvard and now Princeton) took it upon himself to live in the neighborhoods he studied: slums, ghettoes, and trailer parks in poor, dangerous parts of Milwaukee. What he found was explosive, eye-opening and heartbreaking. At the heart of urban America, a robust business model exists for landlords to systematically exploit poor tenants through legal loopholes. The result is an underclass trapped in cycles of poverty, drugs, malnutrition, poor health and crime. After reading this, it’s impossible to see America’s inner cities, law enforcement, and politics the same way. A well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 10/10

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) (2008) Tom Vanderbilt (ebook, print & audio). I put traffic in the category of “the ubiquitous unexamined” — aspects of life that surround us so completely that we never bother to question how they work (electricity and water are two other ones). This long but eminently readable tome covers all aspects of traffic engineering, which turns out to be a serious science with huge explanatory power over our daily lives. He also does a fine job of describing the psychology of traffic, and why we are at our worst when driving. Stress levels of the average commuter match that of a fighter pilot! I have a much better understanding of the complexities of the urban environment. Although I may not have any less road rage than before, it feels nice to know where it comes from 🙂 8.5/10

Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break (2017) by Rachael O’Meara (ebook & print). Americans live in a culture of misplaced priorities. The richest country in the history of the world is also the only industrialized nation with no mandated paid maternity/paternity leave. Only 4% of companies allow extended paid leave. Work defines people’s identities, and overachievers believe that being busy is the highest virtue. Nothing could be more instrumental in the self-infliction of misery. O’Meara exhorts us to pause and reconsider this mindset and its ramifications — how you got in this mess, how to get out of it, and what to do upon re-entry into polite rat-race society.
There are tons of case studies that you may identify with, including luminaries like Gabrielle Bernstein and Danielle LaPorte; step-by-step instructions for initiating your pause; introduction to incredibly useful concepts like self-validated intimacy and strengths finding; great sections on meditation and digital detox; cool exercises, like the “ten-second micro-pauses” of taking 6 deep breaths or breathing into your palms; easy to read.
O’Meara has done a great service by highlighting the importance of taking a pause and providing the tools to make it happen. If you think you’re too busy to pause, that’s like thinking you’re too out of shape to exercise: you need this book, stat. I’m hoping this is the beginning of not just a good idea but a great movement to change people’s attitudes towards leading more balanced, happy lives. 8/10

The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good (2012) by David J Linden (ebook & paperback). “While we might assume that the anatomical region most closely governed by laws, religious prohibitions, and social mores is the genitalia, or the mouth, or the vocal cords, it is actually the medial forebrain pleasure circuit.” Thus begins this riveting account of how the human brain gets us in hot water. Prof Linden knows his stuff, and the explanatory power of this book about ubiquitous but perplexing phenomena like drug addiction, obesity, falling in love, and deer fighting over yellow snow (?!) is staggering. He explains the science with great clarity and humor without compromising the sophistication of the discourse. 9/10

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print). Along with Robert Greenberg, Sapolsky is The Greatest Lecturer Alive. Not only is he a straight-up genius pioneer in both neuroscience and primatology, but he’s also brilliant at explaining things in a way that is exciting, humorous, and accessible.

The core of this book is the answer to this question: Why did you do what you just did? Sapolsky goes back to the second before, seconds to minutes before, hours to days before, days to months before, and centuries and millennia before the behavior happened, examining what happened at the level of molecules, genes, cells, organs, organisms, societies and nations.

If that sounds like everything there is to know about being human, you would be correct. Neurotransmitters, hormones, dominance hierarchies, infancy, brain development, childhood, behavior, obedience, morality, metaphors, justice, war —  it’s all in there.

At 800 pages, this is a substantial book that took me a month to get through. Even though Sapolsky’s writing is fluid and fun, I still had to read paragraphs several times to understand what was going on.  Using the brain to understand the brain is pretty trippy business.

As one of the leading neuroscientists of our day, Sapolsky is in a position to debunk many popular misconceptions. Evolution doesn’t have to be slow; it can happen quickly. Testosterone does not cause aggression; it merely intensifies our predisposed behaviors. Oxytocin only makes you more warm and cuddly towards Us; it actually makes us more ethnocentric and xenophobic versus Them.

The richness of this book — the multiplicity of a-ha! moments, the wit, the fun factlets (re-feralized subway-riding Moscow dogs! ), the explanatory power — you just have to experience on your own. It’s a tour de force wrapped in a magnum opus of a masterpiece. Simply, the greatest book I’ve ever read. Get it to get you, human. 10/10

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016) by Tim Wu (ebook & print). Our lives are what we pay attention to, so “how we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.” Prof Tim Wu of Columbia (of Net Neutrality fame) takes us on a ride from the beginning of the attention economy to the age of social media. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, was the first to sell his paper at a loss to make it up in advertising revenue, figuring out that his readers were not his consumers but his product. The whole advertising and marketing industries originated in patent medicine and propaganda. Heck, all advertising used to be called propaganda. Wu covers a lot of fascinating ground here: the rise of radio and TV networks; war propaganda; Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary and LSD; video games and Facebook. This is a thorough history and cautionary tale about the hijacking of our attention by insidious commercial and governmental forces: “Technologies designed to increase our control over our attention will sometimes have the very opposite effect. They open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all.” 9/10

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017) by Adam Alter (ebook & print). While Wu gives you the sweep of history, Alter tells you what’s happening to you right now. Behavioral addiction is affecting millions, making Irresistible one of the most important books I read in 2017.  So how do people get hooked? “Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” Remember that thousands of extremely smart, highly-compensated people are on the other side of your screen, thinking of ways of keeping you hooked. This book tells you how they do it.  9.5/10

Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2013) by Mahzarin Banaji & Anthony Greenwald (ebook & print). How reliable is your own mind? Are you a nice person? Well, the way I phrase a question can dramatically change the way you recall an event. Self-proclaimed non-racists people turn out to harbor hidden biases against all kinds of races. And not only are men willing to take a 11% pay cut to have a male boss, but women are, too. Banaji and Greenwald are venerable professors of psychology whose work reveals our hidden biases owing to a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality. The authors have many tests in the book to reveal our own mind bugs in real time, making this a delightfully disturbing book. You can even take some free Implicit Association Tests online for fun. After reading this, you will know a lot more about how little you know yourself. 9/10

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (2016) by Ed Yong (ebook & print). Did you know that your right hand shares just a sixth of its microbial species with your left hand? Why is a third of human milk made of oligosaccharides that babies can’t digest? The microbiome revolution is upon us, which means it’s time to find out more about the tiny organisms that effectively run life on the planet. The degree to which humans and every other life form depend on microbes for their proper functioning is staggering. Microbes can alter our mood, quell autoimmune disease, soothe irritable bowel syndrome, and protect us against noxious invaders.

Yong, a multi-award winning science journalist, guides with a steady hand through the fantastically rich world of microbes, providing an accessible amount of detail spiked with occasional English wit. The science coming out of this field is upending long-held assumptions on a daily basis, 95% of which I never encountered in medical school. For example: “The immune system’s main function is to manage our relationships with our resident microbes. It’s more about balance and good management than defence and destruction.” The oligosaccharides I mentioned earlier are there to feed the gut bacteria with which a baby’s health is wholly intertwined. If you’re in the mood for a tour through an undiscovered universe that just happens to underpin your entire existence, this book’s for you. 9/10

Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal (2011) Oren Klaff (ebook & print). Although I can’t claim to have used this protocol to close an actual multi-million dollar deal yet, Klaff has, and with spectacular results. His distinction between hot and cold cognition is dead on: to persuade, you must communicate emotionally. His methods mesh with everything I’ve practiced and studied about persuasion and have the ring of truth. Highly recommended if your work involves any kind of sales. 9/10

Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies for a Better You (2016) by Prof Peter M Vishton (Great Courses). There is self-help mumbo-jumbo from self-proclaimed gurus with no credentials, and then there is scientifically-validated advice for changing your behavior from a tenured prof. This course is the latter.  But how? “Want to curb a few bad habits? Try making a notebook entry every time you perform the habit. Have a big project and feel the urge to procrastinate? Do nothing for 20 minutes and you’ll feel ready to get to work. Come down with a case of the blues? Eat some fermented foods such as yogurt or sourdough bread.” Another outstanding course from The Teaching Company/Great Courses. 9.5/10

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way (1998) Ursula K Le Guin (ebook & print). “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” As a Tao Te Ching fanboy, I basically read every translation I can get my hands on (fortunately, it’s a short book). By her own admission, the late Le Guin did not know classical Chinese. However, she is a meticulous reader, and a master of nuance, making this a poetic translation that hews to the spirit of the book. You can’t do much better than this from Chapter 1: “So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.” A perennial treat. 9.5/10

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis (2016) by JD Vance (ebook & print). “Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” After seeing this book on the bestseller shelf of every single bookstore for a year, I finally broke down and bought it, thinking it would provide some insight as to the weirdness of the 2016 US elections. That it did. Marine, Harvard Law grad and Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Vance is a native son made good. He turns a candid and unsparing eye towards his native Appalachia: the mix of tribalism, drug abuse, laziness, patriotism, and family loyalty that render the odds of upward mobility infinitesimal.

A good memoir/ ethnography gets you inside the operating system of its subjects’ minds; Vance does a decent job of that. This passage about working class whites’ inborn animosity to Obama was particularly enlightening: “Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.” This does not explain why they supported the next President so enthusiastically, who by those standards is even more alien than Obama. A good read nonetheless. 8.5/10

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (2017) by Seth Stevens-Davidowitz (ebook & print). Big data gives us four new powers: offering new types of data, access to honest data, allowing us to zoom in on small subsets of people, and the ability to run causal experiments. These powers can reveal peculiar patterns, e.g. when the author finds that the search term with the highest correlation with the unemployment rate is the name of a porn site (“Slutload”, for the curious).

Stevens-Davidowitz spins a compulsively readable yarn with scores of findings ranging from the merely counterintuitive to downright shocking, e.g. “if someone says he will pay you back, he won’t pay you back,” men worry a lot about their penis size, or the porn watching habits of women. There are specific linguistic markers that reveal if your date is into you, e.g. using the word “I” a lot (too many questions, on the other hand, are bad). All of this points to the previously squishy discipline of social science becoming more and more of a science — and one that can actually improve our lives. Loved it! 9/10

Soul Friends: The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection (2017) Stephen Cope (ebook & print). Cope’s last book, The Great Work of Your Life, is one of my all-time favorites, which I buy in stacks to give away to friends. So I was eager to read his newest creation. The Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the Kripalu Center for over 25 years, Cope turns his learned, wise and compassionate mind towards the topic of deep friendship. He shares stories about friendships and mentorships of his own, as well as historical accounts from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, and Queen Victoria. In a world that seems to be too busy for authentic connection, Cope reminds us of the urgency and transformative power of deep friendship. So good. 9/10

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print). “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” Tyranny is on the march not only in the US, but all over the world. Snyder reminds us that we’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well — unless we get off our asses and do something about it. Let this book be your wake-up call. Prescient, cautionary, essential reading for our times. At 128 pages and less than $7, you cannot afford not to read this. 9.5/10

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013) by Michael Moss (ebook & print). Why does Big Food employs thousands of really smart people to figure out stuff like the “bliss point”, the amount of sugar, salt and fat in a food that evokes the maximum amount of pleasure in the eater’s brain? Because that’s how it can make its products addictive, just like heroin or crack. And from the ever-expanding waistlines of the American (and world) populace, their methods are working fabulously.

As someone in the health field, I thought I knew about this stuff. Oh no I didn’t. The incredibly devious, deliberate ways the food companies set out to addict everyone, regardless of health consequences, can only be described as evil. Because profits! As a result, Americans are in the midst of a health crisis unprecedented in the history of mankind, namely the obesity and diabetes pandemic. Read this book to arm yourself against the Nestles, General Mills, and Krafts of the world who have the determination and resources to make you and your family unhealthy. 9/10

Mark Twain: A Life (2005) by Ron Powers (ebook & print). It’s a commonplace that biographers fall in love with their subjects. Therefore, from the hundreds of thousands of archival pages Ron Powers had access to, he must have found it reaaally difficult to leave things out — like Twain’s daughter’s letters to her girlfriend. Which is why this biography clocks in at 737 pages, and took me a year to read.

The flip side is that this biography is comprehensive, giving a deep feel for the mind of Samuel Clemens and his times. Heck, you even get specific gestures he makes during lectures, and his precise delivery of a side-splitting joke at a dinner in honor of President Ulysses Grant. Today, we may not remember that Twain was the most famous person alive in his day, and the forerunner to the modern rock star, with all the requisite impulsiveness and petulance. He was also a serial entrepreneur given to hopeless schemes, a completely doting husband and father, and The Greatest American Writer. It’s a helluva life, and one definitely worth knowing about. Brave the slog and read it, especially if you’re a writer yourself. 9/10

Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy (2017) by Sadhguru (ebook & print). “The moment I realized that human desire was not for any particular thing, but just to expand illimitably, a certain clarity rose within me… My whole aim since then has been to somehow rub this experience off on other people, to awaken them to the fact that this state of joy, of freedom, of limitlessness cannot be denied to them unless they stand in the way of the natural effervescence of life.” Most Westerners have not heard of Sadhguru, but maybe they should. Think of him as an Indian version of the Dalai Lama who teaches yoga (the original stuff, not downward dog) instead of Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a profundity and simplicity to this book that can only come from someone who has lived its precepts. Personally not down with some of the supernatural bits (e.g. beware of stone deities at home!) and pseudoscience dietary advice, but otherwise one of the best books I’ve read on the practical spirituality of living a joyous, fulfilled life. 9/10

Money: Master the Game – 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom (2016) – Tony Robbins (ebook & print). Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m a big Tony Robbins fan. Although his style may seem hucksterish, he absolutely definitely positively gets results.  This is his first book in over 20 years, and he’s done a lot of homework for it. The core of Tony’s approach is finding out the expert’s best practices, and then implementing them. So he found the most successful money people in the world — Ray Dalio, John Templeton, John Bogle, Carl Icahn, T. Boone Pickens, Warren Buffett, we’re talking trillionaires dammit — and extracted their best practices for us.

Problem: at 700 pages, it’s a bit of a brick, with a ton of information to sift through. But is your financial future not worth 12 hours of your concentrated attention? Yes it is. It’s not about the how of financial freedom, but also the mindset and overcoming your blocks. Be an investor, not a consumer! Harness the awesome power of compounding! Got this one for myself in print and ebook format, and I expect it will return the investment thousands-fold. Unless you already have more than a quarter billion dollars to your name like Tony, you should listen to him. 9.5/10

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert (ebook & print). Caves that recently contained millions of bats now have none — a fungus massacred them. All frogs are vanishing from the face of the earth. “A third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed to oblivion.” There have been five major extinctions on Earth, and we seem to be amidst the sixth one, largely created by humans. Kolbert of The New Yorker is the human reporting on this for the past decade with a sharp eye, steady voice, and muddy boot. Her unsentimental delivery makes the magnitude of the catastrophe hit you even harder when it finally dawns on you: we’re killing everything. This won the Pulitzer Prize, and may it win any and every award that will make kids better stewards of their only planet. May want to stop eating tuna and shark-fin soup. 10/10

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print). A good popular science book takes a complex topic and makes it accessible to a wide, non-technical audience. A great popular science book also makes the topic engaging, immediately usable, and a catalyst for finding out even more. This is one of the greats.

It turns that a lot of stupendously smart computer scientists have not just thought about certain everyday problems we have, but also came up with mathematically optimal solutions to them. There’s the explore vs exploit dilemma: at what point do you stop searching for a restaurant or date or job, and just settle on one of the available choices? For that, you use the 37% rule: if you’re considering 100 different options, when you hit #37, select the next candidate that’s better than all you’ve seen so far. That’s from optimal stopping theory. There are more: “Sorting theory tells us how (and whether) to arrange our offices. Caching theory tells us how to fill our closets. Scheduling theory tells us how to fill our time.” I feel like this book initiated me into a secret society that knows a lot more than me about the inner workings of the world. 10/10

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio). One day last year, while  I was traveling in Australia, I thought to myself: “Y’know, self, you’ve led a fairly charmed life. You should read about some pain.” Thus started my Heartbreak Project, in which I took on books about the awful things humans have done to one another. This is definitely one of those books.

The plundering of the Congo and the subsequent massacre and enslavement of the Congolese happened on a scale that beggars the imagination, especially compared to how little Westerners know about it. 6-10 million Congolese perished. King Leopold had turned a country half the size of Europe into his own personal colony so he could fund his palaces and teenage whore-mistresses. If you go to Brussels today — Joseph Conrad’s “sepulchral city” from Heart of Darkness— pretty much every old building you see was built with Leopold’s Congo money.

There are legions of despicable characters in this story, amongst them Henry M. Stanley, the Welsh-American explorer famous for finding Victoria Falls and Dr Livingstone. But Leopold’s crimes were exposed only because of the insane bravery of a few heroes. Englishman Edmund Dene Morel, black Americans George Washington Williams and Wiliam Sheppard risked assassination and fatal tropical disease to expose the atrocities of the Congo and turn international sentiment against it.

This is holocaust-level stuff that very few people have heard about. The story will break your heart dozens of times, and also redeem and enlarge it. 10/10

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (2016) by William Finnegan (ebook, print & audio). New Yorker staff writer Finnegan is a master storyteller and generous observer of human nature. For years, he hid his surfing obsession from writing colleagues, fearing that he wouldn’t be taken seriously. Now the secret’s out, and thank goodness for that! If you’ve ever wondered why an otherwise sensible person would abandon home for foreign waves that could cripple or kill you on any given day, this book initiates you into that mentality. California, Bali, Australia, Portugal, South Africa — Finnegan covered much ground in his four decades of wave-seeking peregrinations, as well as the political strife in various hotspots of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I still may not risk snapping my neck to ride a wave, but I can better appreciate the impulse. Magisterial enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography. 9/10

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortunes and Random Failures in Silicon Valley (2017) by Antonio Garcia Martinez (ebook & print). Silicon Valley is a small place, so it makes sense not to burn bridges. Garcia Martinez apparently does not give such fucks. A Wall Street refugee, he was brought into Facebook when it acquired Adchemy, his adtech startup, giving him front-row seats to the one of the most heated money grabs in world history. The author is clearly super smart and fully conversant in the languages of technology, finance, and business. His tone is knowing and acerbic about the bumbling and cupidity he witnessed. But any sane person’s would be. I lived in San Francisco from 2012 to 2017, and everything that he says rings true. He’s just the first person to call out the bullshit in print, e.g. Facebook, Google and Twitter are glorified advertising firms, not saviors of the world, and there’s a not a whole lot of real innovation happening in the Valley. Not surprisingly, very few people come off well (Paul Graham and Sam Altman of Y-Combinator are exceptions).

Garcia Martinez mitigates his hauteur by being equally savage on himself: “In contemplating an earlier version of yourself, you’ll realize that young and glorious you was in fact a total and complete fuckwit.” He’s also a damn good writer, pleasingly versed in literature and philosophy — and funny as fuck. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, and will be re-reading this one. 9/10

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2017) Michael Lewis (ebook, print & audio). So I’ve got this reading queue 120 books long, and then this book skitters along and skips to the front of the line. How? Well, it’s by Michael Lewis, and it’s about one my favorite scholars of all time, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and his collaborator and best friend, Amos Tversky. Who was I to resist? Also, I’d seen Lewis speak about the book live. I was toast.

The story reads like a love story between Danny and Amos, two utterly brilliant Israeli guys with diametrically opposed temperaments who somehow got attached at the hip. Kahneman was the soft-spoken introvert, often taking second fiddle to the brash Tversky, whom everyone regarded as “the smartest man I’ve ever met.” Man, what I would have given to listen in on one of their legendary rap sessions. Amongst their collaborations, they concoct Prospect Theory — basically, the Grand Theory of Human Foibles. This upends the whole idea of Homo economicus which is the basis of Western civilization (because surprise! humans are not rational), netting Kahneman the Nobel in economics. This counts as a major BFD because you may have noted that Danny is not an economist, yo.

Lewis weaves the science of their discoveries into the story of their friendship, military service, move to the US, collaboration, rivalry, and ultimate falling out. An engaging, touching and enlightening tale that explained the contents of Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (one of the greatest books of all time, which apparently DK did everything to avoid writing and thought was utter crap) into a third of the space while making it three times as fun. 9/10

In a Sunburned Country (2001) by Bill Bryson (ebook & print). On my way to Australia last year, I realized that the strategic information I had gleaned from the movie Crocodile Dundee was probably outdated. Bill Bryson to the rescue! This is my first book by him, and now I understand why his books are perennial sellers. Not only is he a riot, but he also provides useful and accurate information. I know this ’cause I asked actual Aussies about their country, and they all corroborated Bill. Loved it! More Bryson for me henceforth. 9/10

 

 

Books of 2017 Reviewed, Part 1 of 4

These are 40 of the 130 books from last year, in reverse chronological order of reading. In the next posts, I will include the rest of the books, plus the various lists and top titles: best overall, most important, most mind-blowing, most useful, and some special categories. The first three are Great Courses, which are like long audiobooks. All are nonfiction. Enjoy!

Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses. Ressler is a superb instructor who has the gift of explaining everything with instantly graspable lucidity. His handcrafted demonstrations bring the concepts to life and burn them in your visual memory. How do they build dams? How is electrical power generated, transported and distributed? How does your POTS (plain old telephone service) work, and why is it so damn indestructibly reliable?

This was my long-overdue education in how the modern world functions — the 7 engineering systems houses comprise, water use and disposal, power, trash, the combustion engine, transportation engineering, traffic, railroads and sustainability. For me, this was a massive unraveling of the mysteries of the built environment. I watched it at 2x speed on my iPad (the desktop interface won’t let you change speeds), making it a supremely worthwhile 9-hour investment. Amongst millions of titles on Goodreads, this has one of the highest ratings. 10/10

Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany (2016) by Prof Catherine Kleier (Great Courses). I knew next to nothing about botany, so I dug up this course. So much fun! Kleier is an energetic teacher who does not shy away from the occasional atrocious pun. Her style is a bit discursive. Instead of a strict top-down or bottom-up approach, she uses a well-known plant (e.g. ferns) as a lead-off point to a more general topic (e.g. vascular plants), thus keeping the lessons engaging. 24 lectures of 30 min each. 8.5/10

The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained (2015) by Prof Michael Wysession (Great Courses). How is power generated from coal, hydro, natural gas, fracking, tar sands, solar, wind? How is that power then stored and distributed? How does the smart grid work? Wysession explains everything with great clarity, laying out the tradeoffs each form of energy creates, and the solutions humans have come up with. I listened to the audio version; the video version is probably richer. 9.5/10

The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life (2015) by Bernard Roth (ebook and print). Roth is one of the co-founders of the Stanford d.school, one of the originators of design thinking, and a professor of mechanical engineering for 40 years. His book is, indeed, partly about achievement. More than that, it’s a collection of life wisdom from a very smart, accomplished, empathetic doer, maker, and teacher who has figured out how to get results from himself and students.

Foremost in Roth’s teachings is bias towards action. Instead of waffling and ruminating, “don’t get caught up in how you’re going to get it just right. That’s what causes people to shut down and never get started. Avoid the desire for perfection right out of the gate. Instead, tell yourself that you’re prototyping your screenplay or your dress. The final version can come later.”

Some of his suggestions may seem radical, but they’re just part of standard d.school curriculum, e.g. getting rid of reasons for doing things. You don’t need them, and they’re all bogus anyway: “Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives.” Substitute all manifestations of “but” with “and.” When you gather up your intention and concentrate your attention, you will move mountains.

There’s a ton of actionable advice here, such as a list of 22 ways to get unstuck (e.g. lists, idea logs, humor, conversation, exercise, compressed conflict, mind maps, working backward), and the “Your Turn” exercises at the end of each section. This is a tremendously useful and encouraging book for anyone whose creative endeavors could use some more bias towards action. 9.5/10

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017) by Florence Williams (ebook & print). “We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other. Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.” Williams gamely camps with neuroscientists in Colorado, experiences shinrin yoku (“forest bathing”) in Japan, straps on a portable aethelometer (soot-measurer) in DC, rambles in Scotland, hikes in Finland, and visits a Korean “healing forest.”

Through her chatty anecdotes, she presents the evidence that nature strengthens your immune system, lowers stress, increases creativity, decreases rumination, and calms down hyperactive kids. I appreciated her exposition of the great E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, which “posits that peaceful or nurturing elements of nature helped us regain equanimity, cognitive clarity, empathy and hope.” Minimum recommended dose of nature: 5 hrs/month. An excellent and persuasive popular science book. 8/10

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (2015) by Jane McGonigal (ebook and print). “The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.” A popular lecturer in psychology at Stanford, McGonigal provides ample evidence to support the radical thesis that stress can be good for you, provided that you think of it as friend rather than foe. You can do this by reframing anxiety about an upcoming performance as excitement, which is physiologically identical. Or by re-thinking threats as challenges. Or by watching a video about “how stress can increase physical resilience, enhance focus, deepen relationships, and strengthen personal values.” Or by just telling someone “You’re the kind of person whose performance improves under pressure”, which increases their actual performance by 33%. Or taking 10 minutes to write down your core values.

Some of these interventions continue to work months and even years after they have occurred. “The things that protect us from the dreaded dangers of stress are all attainable”, and McGonigal eloquently conveys the science and practical steps to attain them. This is a potentially life-changing book that can positively affect your health, success and relationships for years. 8.5/10

Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag (2008) by Michael Tonello (ebook and print). After uprooting his comfortable life in Provincetown for a promising job offer in Barcelona, Tonello finds himself stranded in a strange city without the means to support himself when the job falls through. He happens upon the online world of Hermès aficionados, and quickly finds himself making a mint selling scarves and then handbags of the luxury marque on Ebay. His discoveries of the tricks for acquiring dozens of Birkin handbags (price tag: $7000-$100,000) around the world, for which there is supposedly a 2-year waitlist, and the sale of his goods to obsessively acquisitive clients, is entertaining, insightful, and dishy. Tonello’s knowingness, candor, and humor keep the book from becoming just a chronicle of human vanity — I laughed out loud several times. That said, there’s only so deep one can go with a tale of luxury consumption, and immersion in that world even for a few hours can cause a craving for status trinkets even in the most austere of us. 7.5/10

The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold (2005) by Robert A. Levine, Ph.D. “The psychology of persuasion emanates from three directions: the characteristics of the source, the mind-set of the target person, and the psychological context within which the communication takes place.” Thus begins this revelatory and sobering treatise on the ways humans fool themselves and others. A professor and practicing psychologist for 40+ years, Levine signed up to experience firsthand the persuasive techniques of people like car dealers, door-to-door salesmen (Cutco knives), and cult leaders (the Moonies). One of his key insights: no one is impervious, not even you. The persuasiveness triad: “perceived authority, honesty, and likability.” Americans are particularly susceptible to the authority symbols of titles, clothing, and luxury cars (see: current US president). Decisive, swift talkers are no more sure of their facts than more hesitant counterparts, but they create an impression of confidence that audiences perceive as more expert and intelligent. The more jargon you use and the less a jury understands a witness, the more convincing she appears.

Aside from the dismaying news that we’re all patsies waiting to be taken, the book is full of entertaining, insightful stories on scoundrels ranging from psychics to gurus. Moonies recruit in a trademark sequence of “pickup, first date, love bomb”, creeping up on victims with imperceptible subtlety that ultimately ensnares them. Levine’s account of the 10-step method of car salesmen was particularly revelatory and unsettling in the frankness of its manipulation.

The most gripping part of the book was Levine’s depiction of the final hours of the Jonestown cult of Rev. Jim Jones, during which 900 members committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Flavorade, even after witnessing their own infants’ agonizing death throes. To read the transcript of the recording of those hours, and how people just like you and me were rooting for their own demise out of loyalty to a demented and malevolent leader, is to understand how tyranny works, and how it is happening right here, right now.

Disrupt You!: Master Personal Transformation, Seize Opportunity, and Thrive in the Era of Endless Innovation (2015), by Jay Samit (ebook & print). “You have a choice: pursue your dreams or be hired by someone else to help them fulfill their dreams. The great disruptors constantly reinvent themselves and their careers. They never fear losing their jobs, because they create jobs. They control their own destinies. This book is written to answer two very basic questions: How did they do it? How can I do it? The third question is entirely up to you: Will you do it?” I knew Jay from our Los Angeles networking group. I respected the clarity of his thinking and a communication style that cut through bullshit like an argon laser. His book does not disappoint. “Being a disruptor is simply a state of mind. It is the ability to look for opportunity in every obstacle, to respond to every setback as a new beginning.” Equal parts about both personal and industry disruption, it’s one of the best books on entrepreneurship I’ve read in recent memory.

Whether as a self-employed entrepreneur or top executive in companies like Sony and EMI Music, Samit is a master of taking calculated risks. His anecdotes about creating technologies slightly ahead of their time, reinventing himself multiple times, and accomplishing the seemingly impossible are bold, instructive and inspiring. Read it for a potent shot in the arm that just might awaken the entrepreneurial spirit in you. 9/10

Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith (ebook and print). Winner of the National Book Award. “My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination.” Smith’s description of her long, improvised childhood prayers to God is also an apt initiation into her hardscrabble beginnings in New York City. Hunger, homelessness, chance meetings with Robert Mapplethorpe that bloom into a union, and their insistence on being artists in spite of having neither a path nor the means to tread it — this is as good as origin stories get. The prose has earnestness and poetry, as well as a vivid portrayal of an epoch of creativity and turmoil. A touching book. 9/10

Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (2012), by Scott Jurek & Steve Friedman (ebook & print). Chris McDougall’s fantastic Born to Run piqued my interest about Jurek, so I was curious to know more. This is a fun and easy read about Jurek’s start in the sport and the races he’s run. It’s also about his gradual journey from the standard American junk food diet to one that is wholly plant-based. Every chapter ends in a vegan recipe that is easy to make and delicious-sounding.

Lest his self-effacing voice fool you, please remember that Jurek is a total badass who has won the grueling Western States 100-miler seven times (and the murderous Badwater 135, and dozens more). That’s 100 miles of non-stop running, folks. What I could not fathom was how he could go ahead and not only start a 100-mile race with a sprained ankle swollen to the size of a melon, not only finish that race, not only win it, but also set a course record. This is the kind of madness that strips me of rational powers, leaving me with jaw agape at what humans are capable of doing. Read it to be inspired and bewildered, especially if you’re a runner. 8.5/10

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (2014 revised edition), by Lt Col Dave Grossman (ebook & print). My friend who’s a prison educator and eloquent speaker on violence and restorative justice turned me on to this book. Since its initial publication in 1995, this book has become required reading at the FBI Academy, DEA Academy, West Point, US Marine Corps, and US Air Force — and for good reason. Main thesis: killing comes unnaturally even to soldiers whose own lives are at stake, as evidenced by the low shooting rates (15-20%) in the Civil War, WW I and WW II. This changed with Vietnam, where extensive training in desensitization and reflexive shooting got the rates up to 95%.

What did not change, however, was the traumatic effects the killings had on the soldiers committing them. Grossman — Army Ranger and psychology professor, amongst many other credentials — is about as omnicompetent and thoughtful as humans come. He places much of the blame for our cultural desensitization to killing on violent entertainment. The depictions of battle experiences can be gut-wrenching, and yet the glimmers of nobility amongst the obedient carnage is cause for hope. Required reading for understanding modern civilization and the warfare that supports it.

Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything (2017) by Ulrich Boser (ebook & print). This is the first time I ignored the warning of reviewers about a book and got it anyway because it happened to be the Amazon Editor’s Pick for Best Science Book of the Year. Well, it’s actually kinda mediocre, especially compared to such powerhouses as Magness & Stulberg’s Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, Benedict Carey’s How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How and the magisterial Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson. Sure, it contains lots of stories, which is one of the oft-discussed learning tools. But the stories don’t really make strong, memorable points.

The unfortunate fact is that this book contains a lot of mistakes — sloppy, avoidable ones. The phalanx of writers and editors going through this book misspell “gaffe” as “gaff” a dozen times — funny if it were intentional. Mistakes like these diminish my trust in the source.

I appreciated the very useful 10-page “Took Kit” summary at the end of the book. If you have no exposure to the science of learning, you will pick up some interesting and actionable information from Learn Better. Otherwise, I refer you to the other books mentioned above. 7/10

The Heart to Start: Win the Inner War and Let Your Art Show (2017) by David Kadavy (ebook & print). “The same way a rocket needs to escape the gravitational pull of Earth to get into space, your art needs to escape the pull of ego to get into the world. You’re going to need some serious fuel to make that happen.” I’m a perennial fan of punchy, exhortative get-off-your-ass books such as Stephen Pressfield’s classics The War of Art and Turning Pro, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, and Seth Godin’s entire oeuvre. This book by the creator of the Love Your Work podcast is a welcome addition to the genre. I’ll be rereading its 140 pages often for rocket fuel. 8.5/10

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) by Mary Beard (ebook and print). Superb revisionist history of Rome. Beard writes with one eye on historiography: Where did the story come from? How reliable are the sources? What’s the most plausible interpretation? As such, she compels us to reconsider many tropes of Roman history we have come to accept as fact (e.g. Caesar was great, Caligula was awful), and to have a relationship with it that informs modern manifestations of power, tyranny, wealth, war, governance, corruption, and civic life. 9/10

The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (2013) by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield (ebook & print). Fun vignettes of 36 highly accomplished individuals of eclectic talent: athlete (Martina Navratilova), chef (David Chang), teacher (Erin Gruwell), neuropyschologist (Richard Restak), erotic film maker (Candida Royalle), activist (Constance Rice, who’s totally unlike her sister Condi), entrepreneurs (Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Bill Gross of Idealab) and many more. I felt as if the book did not hold together as a whole, since the path to success is always meandering and the 36 people dispense contradictory advice.

That said, these people are doers par excellence, and reading their accounts is a shot in the arm for those who could use a dose of inspiration. Also, the short interviews contain a lot of condensed wisdom from world-class performers. The one from Richard Restak on brain science was particularly good, as was the one on hostage negotiation.

If you’re hungering for exposure to a pleasant potpourri of fascinating information that you may not have otherwise sought on your own, this is a fun book to read. But if you are looking to improve your performance, the two indispensable books are Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson and Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. 7/10

The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience (2014) by Kent Kiehl, Ph.D. (ebook & print). Kiehl has is one of the few scientists in the world to take a mobile MRI unit into maximum-security prisons to scan the brains of dozens of remorseless criminals. Whereas the average North American male’s score on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist is 4, these serial rapists and murderers score 30 or above. “Lack of empathy, guilt or remorse; glibness; superficiality; parasitic orientation; flat affect; irresponsibility; and impulsivity” characterize psychopaths.

There are some fascinating facts here. The triad of bed-wetting, fire-setting and animal cruelty “predict a child who is on a trajectory toward future severe antisocial behavior as a teenager and adult.” Psychopaths cannot grasp abstract concepts, rarely know details about their children, are hard to startle, and do not get distressed by being in prison. Case histories of inmates like “Gordon” with his attempted artful long con on a still-green Kiehl, and the utterly vicious “Shock Richie”, are sobering and instructive. Presidential assassin Charles Guiteau was a psychopath while John Wilkes Booth was not, making for an interesting historical comparison.

About half the book is a mildly self-congratulatory memoir of Kiehl’s illustrious scientific career; less of that may have made for a stronger book. Otherwise, this is very useful stuff. Read this to sharpen your detectors for the 1 in 150 people who fit the psychopath profile so you can protect yourself from them. 8/10

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) by Chip & Dan Heath (ebook & print). Great book! Review upcoming. 9/10

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (2012), by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). Dan Buettner’s fantastic 2012 New York Times Magazine Article, “The Island Where People Forgot to Die”, was my introduction to Blue Zones. Are there places in the world where people disproportionately live to be 100 or more? And if so, what’s their secret?

With the backing of National Geographic, Buettner and his crack team of top-notch scientists went around the world and found 5 places that fit the strict Blue Zones criteria: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; the Seventh-Day Adventist community of Loma Linda, California; and the Greek island of Ikaria. These regions have a disproportionately high population of centenarians, up to 50 times the US average. But even more remarkable, their centenarians are independent at a rate far higher than in the US and Europe: 90% vs 15%. What’s going on?

Having gone to medical school and read the NYT Magazine article, I thought I knew what was in the book and thus postponed reading it. Big mistake. Buettner and team are incredibly thorough in their approach, uncovering details about living a good life that casual observation would miss. And they back every one of their conclusions with as much data as they can.

Definite patterns emerge amongst the various groups. All of them foster a strong sense of community and intergenerational cohesiveness. In Costa Rica, there’s a 99-person village all descended from one person, and there’s a touching picture of a blissed-out 104-year old lady holding her great-great-granddaughter. People hang out with family and friends every day, and the elderly live with their offspring.

All the communities eat a mostly plant-based diet. Exercise is also built into their daily activity. Although it’s safe to say that none of these people have ever stepped into a gym, every day they till fields, work gardens, tend sheep over hilly terrain, and walk around.

Some other data points also emerge. Several of the communities incorporate goat milk products in their diet, which is more nutritious than cow’s milk. Red wine features prominently in the two Mediterranean communities, with Sardinian Cannonau offering an extra dose of antioxidants. Almost all the communities eat diets rich in beans.

There are several reasons I urge you to read the book in its entirety. First, there are a lot of practices worth incorporating into your own life that I don’t have room to mention in detail, e.g. “ikigai”, your reason to get up in the morning; “moai”, a group of friends who meet regularly; and turmeric.

Second, by reading the stories of all five communities, you not only get the details but also the gestalt of living a long and fruitful life. Is there a worldview that predisposes to healthy longevity?

Third, the healthy, functioning centenarians profiled will turn your preconceptions of aging upside down. They also have sterling advice to offer: “Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, and smile.”

Fourth and most important: do you really have something better to do than learning how to live a long, productive and healthy life? If so, I’d like to know what that is. In the meantime, I also got the book for my parents, and would encourage you to do the same. Its life-affirming message is invigorating and wise for all future centenarians. 10/10

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017), by Masha Gessen (ebook & print). I just knew this book had to be dangerously good when I saw all the 1-star reviews by trolls on Amazon. So I bought it immediately. I had read several of Gessen’s meticulous and eye-opening New Yorker pieces, but this book takes it to a whole new level. And happy to report that it has since won the National Book Award, haters be damned.

Gessen tells the story through seven dramatis personae, each “both ‘regular’, in that their experiences exemplified the experiences of millions of others, and extraordinary: intelligent, passionate, introspective, able to tell their stories vividly.” They give first-person accounts of the everyday ordeal of surviving in Russia while staying true to oneself. Like Zhanna, daughter of popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and activist in her own right, whose life demonstrates some of the consequences of opposing the regime: exile, incarceration and murder. The story of Masha the journalist illustrates the perils of truth-telling. Pioneering psychotherapist Marina Arutyunyan tries to shepherd modern mental health to Russia through lacerating thickets of state-mandated ideology. Openly gay Lyosha tries to advocate for oppressed minorities without getting fired from his precarious university post.

Through the lives of the protagonists, Gessen weaves the last century of Russian history. Stalin’s self-cannibalizing reign of terror is particularly chilling: “Stalin’s terror machine executed its executioners at regular intervals. In 1938 alone, forty-two thousand investigators who had taken part in the great industrial-scale purges were executed, as was the chief of the secret police, Nikolai Yezhov.” Stalin once invited an old friend from Georgia to Moscow for a reunion, and after lavishly wining and dining him, had him executed before dawn: “This could not be explained with any words or ideas available to man.”

And that is the most astonishing aspect of this book: it is not fiction. The protagonists’ experiences are so logic-defying, so disheartening, and such violations of basic human decency as to exist in a separate universe that no novelist could concoct. And yet, this universe has its own internal logic. Perhaps it’s best explained through Hannah Arendt, whose three-volume “Origins of Totalitarianism” Gessen deftly scrunches down to a few essential paragraphs: “What distinguishes a totalitarian ideology is its utterly insular quality. It purports to explain the entire world and everything in it. There is no gap between totalitarian ideology and reality because totalitarian ideology contains all of reality within itself.”

And yet, the book reads like a novel, which is why I don’t want to give away too much. Who is Homo sovieticus? For whom do Russians vote in the “Greatest Russian Ever” (aka “Name of Russia”) contest year after year? What’s going to happen to Boris Nemtsov after he defies Putin? Do our heroes avoid getting beat up and arrested at the demonstrations? Why is Putin so popular in Russia?

One pervasive theme of the book is the hegemony of doublethink over the Russian psyche. Coined by Orwell in 1984, doublethink is the necessity of maintaining two contradictory beliefs for survival, e.g. publicly supporting the government ideology while knowing that it oppresses your very existence.

This is some crazy-making stuff that Russians have had to endure for over a century. And still, there are people who fight for truth, healing, and freedom. Over and over, they rise to attend banned protests very likely to land them in jail (or worse). Their stories of stupendous bravery and selflessness consistently inspire.

And lest you as a Westerner think that you’re somehow safe because, oh, this is something happening elsewhere, please note that the recent rise of authoritarianism in countries like America takes its playbook straight out of Russia. Attacks on the press, construction of alternate realities, propagation of disinformation, persecution of minorities, and the shameless grabbing of executive power: it’s all happening right now.

And you know what else? We’ve seen it all before: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. So don’t read this book just because it’s a riveting account of life in what’s still an undiscovered continent for most Westerners. Don’t read it just because it’s a tour de force of journalistic craft and bravery. Read it because it also informs your life as an American, German, Frenchman, Hungarian, or anyone who values the freedom of human life and ideas, and so that you may be impelled to action. 10/10

The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (2017), by Scott Parazynski and Susy Flory (ebook & print). Emergency physician, world-class mountaineer, Space Shuttle astronaut, International Space Station repairman, inventor, pilot, explorer, scientist, entrepreneur – these are just some of the lives Scott Parazynski has lived so far. With an exuberant yet gentle voice, he takes us along some extraordinary experiences, like a spacewalk repair of a billion-dollar solar panel, an Antarctic sojourn, and his second life-threatening attempt at the Mt Everest summit.

I particularly appreciate the book’s Kindle in Motion format, allowing me to enjoy the vivid photos, animated diagrams, and full-motion video from the Shuttle, ISS and outer space on my iPad. It enhanced the experience of reading the book, making it even more visceral. Thanks to these, never again will I mistake the Northern approach to Everest with the Southern one, or forget to wear my tactical galoshes to the mouth of a live volcano. Click to see the cover image on Amazon – it’s trippy.

Well-written and fun to read, this is the kind of book that leaves a smile on your face and inspires you to do even more daring things with your time on Earth. 8.5/10

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio). The United States of America is a nation founded on genocide. The continental US was the ancestral homeland of millions of natives inhabiting it continuously for 40,000 years. Somehow, this vast territory became the domain of white settlers. How? During the massive westward expansion of the US all the way to the Pacific coast in the years 1840-1890, this was the general procedure:

1) Invade Native American (aka Indian) territory by making trails, building railroads, staking land claims, stealing livestock, or just attacking them without warning.
2) Provoked Native American tribes fight back to reclaim their hunting grounds, get back their livestock or their captives, or take revenge for the murders white people committed.
3) Settlers complain to the US Government, which now sends overwhelming force to attack the tribe.
4) Even though massively outnumbered and only possessing primitive weapons, the tribes inflict huge casualties on the US Military or outright defeat them.
5) The US Government makes a treaty with the tribes, granting them rights to a diminished, marginally livable territory, supposedly in perpetuity, and forbidding trespassing upon Indian hunting grounds and pastures. In the meantime, they forcibly march the Indians on foot to their new territory hundreds of miles away. Many Natives perish in the marches.
6) The Native Americans do not read or write English, so with each treaty, the US routinely swindles Natives out of vast swathes of their territories. Many are confined to restrictive, barely habitable reservations. Their government-issued food rations are meager, or stolen, or of inedible quality provided by profiteers. Widespread disease and death ensues.
7) Within 1-5 years, the treaty is violated by white settlers who want to mine gold, raise cattle, build railroads or make trails through the supposedly sacrosanct Native American territory. The US Government fails to enforce its own treaties. The tribes have no choice but to undertake the defense of their lands.
8) Completely ignoring their own treaties, the US Army takes this as justification to exterminate the Native Americans. Their usual modus operandi is to attack unarmed villages without notice, moving down everyone, including women and children. They all fervently believed in Gen. Sheridan’s maxim, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
9) The few surviving Native Americans are confined to unlivable reservations far away from their homelands. Most die of disease, malnutrition, or broken hearts.
10) Repeat cycle for any remaining tribes until all are exterminated or confined to reservations.

The pattern of genocide is similar to how the Nazis exterminated Jews. First, Native Americans were declared subhuman, and therefore worthy of slaughter. This was completely accepted public opinion amongst white Americans.

Second, the Americans controlled all the means of creating and disseminating information, which they used to create outright lies and propaganda to further demonize Natives.

Third, once the tribes were overpowered and captured, they were confined to reservations, which functioned just like concentration camps.

Fourth, whites used manufactured, quasi-religious doctrine such as “Manifest Destiny” to justify breaking the treaties they themselves had written up, then invade more territory. America’s destiny was to go from sea to shining sea. The Natives just had bad luck to be in the way, and had to be removed.

Before reading the book, I knew that non-Indo-European place names in the US were of Native American origin. Twenty-six of US States have Indian names, as do hundreds of cities, counties, lakes, mountains and rivers. And you know what? 99.9% of the owners of those names were murdered by the US Government.

If everyone knew about the atrocities committed against the indigenous people, seeing these names – like Nantucket, Seminole, Tuskegee, Massachusetts, Algonquin, Alabama, Tennessee – would have the same emotional valence as signs saying “Auschwitz”, “Buchenwald” and “Treblinka.”

But most people don’t know, because history is written by the victors. And when I was a kid, we watched Westerns and played Cowboys and Indians, and everyone knew that the Indians were the bad guys.

Except that we were wrong. The Indians were the good guys. They were peaceful animists with venerable cultures who had figured out how to live in balance with their environment for 40,000 years. They had a real sense of honor and right and wrong. They were tremendously brave, in a way that astonished their white assailants. They were not afraid of death. And every white person who got to know them well became convinced of their nobility of spirit.

If it weren’t for the Indians teaching the Mayflower pilgrims how to hunt, build homes and farm, all those white people would have died in their first winter, and there would be no Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, the white people grew in number, overtook and massacred the peaceful Indians who just wanted to be left free to live like they had for the 40,000 years prior. The Native American culture was a humanistic, just and ecologically sound one, and the Western world is impoverished for having destroyed it.
Most Indian tribes did not have a written language. Dee Brown’s detective work to find these stories told from the Indian side, dig up government archives, and come up with a cohesive narrative, is nothing short of Herculean. The details of the battles, the marches and councils are alive — and heartbreaking. Americans may want to think about how reflexively proud they want to be of a military that has been a force for genocide and imperialism whose last just war was WWII. 10/10

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2007) by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (ebook, print & audio). This is an extraordinary book about a singular human. J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Oppie” to his friends) is perhaps best remembered for being the father of the atomic bomb. But he also had outsize talents in almost every department of human endeavor, from literature to oratory to horseback riding to sheer charisma — a true 20th century genius. His movements at the highest level of science and politics define an era: the development of quantum mechanics, WWII, nuclear physics, the Cold War, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and much more.

Bird and Sherwin took 15 years to write this book, and you can tell: the amount of detail is astonishing (and perhaps excessive). They take pains to provide a comprehensive picture of a stupendously talented and driven man whose flaws and powerful enemies turned him into a tragic figure. Read it for a deep understanding of the advent of modern physics, the characters in it, the making of the atomic bomb, the genesis of the Cold War, and the world it created. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 10/10

Entrepreneurial You: Monetize Your Expertise, Create Multiple Income Streams, and Thrive (2017) by Dorie Clark (ebook & print). Solo entrepreneurs, small business owners, domain experts, location-independent knowledge workers, or those who aspire to work for themselves instead of being a corporate cog, take notice: “Becoming a recognized expert these days doesn’t always lead to money. The elephant in the room of modern entrepreneurship is that even people who seem to be at the top of their game aren’t always monetizing successfully. Learning to make money from your expertise is a different skill set from what’s needed to become excellent at your work or well-known in your field.”

What I like about it:

1) It’s concise, well-researched and inspiring. Dorie is not only a first-rate chronicler of the rapid changes in modern work (through the other books in the trilogy, Reinventing You and Stand Out), but she’s also lived at the forefront of these changes. She’s held jobs all the way from stringer for a local newspaper, to political campaign staffer, to corporate consultant. If she’s a sought-after speaker and independent consultant now, it’s all via bootstrapping and sheer hustle. Her story and that of other successful entrepreneurs gives you a roadmap for us to follow.

2) Radical transparency. Dorie provides dollar figures for how much more (or less) money she made as a result of certain changes, as well as those from such luminaries as Pat Flynn. Most books shy away from such disclosures. EY openly features this information crucial to setting realistic goals and expectations.

3) Practicality. Dorie provides concrete actions for the three steps to sustainable monetization: building your brand; monetizing your expertise; extending your reach and impact online. And then, she gives us seven golden tactics for accomplishing those three steps: coaching/consulting; public speaking; podcasting; blogging; live conferences; online communities; and selling products.

Dorie illustrates each of these tactics with real-life examples from top-flight practitioners. For example, for podcasting, there’s Jordan Harbinger (The Art of Charm) and John Lee Dumas (Entrepreneur on Fire). For blogging and email list-building, there’s James Clear (400,000 emails!). For conferences, Jayson Gaignard of Mastermind Talks; for community building, Ryan Levesque. The stories of their process to success are very motivating.

Although the strategies and tactics Dorie enumerates are accessible to all, you should know that every one of these profiled people has an exceptional work ethic, starting with Dorie herself. These are elite hustlers at the top 0.1% of the population. Are you willing to commit to the work?

If so, then Entrepreneurial You provides a fantastic framework that will not only save you years of wasted effort but also provide you with ample yes-you-can motivation ammunition. Dorie Clark has written the go-to reference for prosperity, impact and fulfillment in the internet age. Get it to go big. 9/10

Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (2015) by Matthieu Ricard (ebook, print and audio). I picked up Altruism at Matthieu Ricard’s reading in San Francisco two years ago. Ricard is a remarkable man: Tibetan Buddhist monk with over 30,000 hours of meditation under his belt; French translator to the Dalai Lama; PhD from Institut Pasteur under Nobelist François Jacob; and current title-holder for “world’s happiest man”, according to brain scans done at Richard Davidson’s lab.

This kind of book is required reading in my line of work, especially when written with the rigor and depth that Ricard brings. At 43 chapters and 849 pages, it’s has the heft of a brick, and the density, too, with tangled sentences like this: “It now had to be demonstrated that people don’t act solely in order to avoid having to justify their non-intervention to themselves either.”

A magnum opus like this takes 5-10x longer to read than the average book. But the rewards can be immense. Ricard brings massive evidence arguing for altruism as an essential part of our human and animal makeup, even beyond the genetic arguments of kin selection. This has far-reaching consequences in how we run our lives, interact with others, and treat the planet. 9.5/10

The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World (2017), by Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman (ebook & print). How do exceptionally creative people — like Leonardo da Vinci, Bach, Chopin, Einstein, Edison, Picasso, Steve Jobs — come up with and execute their ideas? What makes the book special are vignettes of 200+ artists, scientists, composers and engineers you haven’t heard of yet, and all the cool ideas they’ve come up with as they “bend, break and blend” old ideas to create new ones. The book’s fluid writing style and 200 illustrations make for fun, fast reading. Some essential new concepts I learned:

  • “Skeuomorphs” are “features that imitate the design of what has come before.” Nothing is 100% new.
  • Every emerging billion-dollar industry is already 10 yrs old
  • To come up with great ideas, embrace error so you can proliferate lots of options
  • The 20% Rule: the brain seems to prefer visual stimulus of 20% complexity
  • The greatest creators (eg Picasso, Edison) were just insanely prolific. The more stuff you make, the more likely that some of it will be great.
  • Let young minds embrace the arts: “This is because the arts, due to their overtness, are the most accessible way to teach the basic tools of innovation.”
  • Although it can teach you much about the process of innovation, this book’s not a creativity how-to book per se. For that, I recommend Edward de Bono’s classic Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step.

This is a great read for scientists, writers, inventors, artists, musicians, and eternally curious folks who could use an extra shot of creativity. Dozens of fascinating stories of perseverance, ingenuity, and breakthrough – e.g. self-healing concrete, carbon-fiber violins, or James Dyson’s 5,127 vacuum prototypes (!) – demystify innovation, humanize it, and just might catalyze a world-changing story of your own. 8.5/10

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers (2016) by Tim Ferriss (ebook & print). This is quite possibly the most useful single book I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of interview highlights from Tim’s podcast, so there’s no central theme to it other than Doing Things Better. If you don’t mind the inferiority complex you’ll develop from hearing about all of these world-changing folks, you stand to learn a lot. It’s a hefty beast, best read piecemeal as a book of reference rather than something to finish in one weeklong sitting. 9/10

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How (2009) by Daniel Coyle (ebook & print). The information in this book has kept well even though it’s 8 years old. How does the tiny island of Curaçao produce a hugely disproportionate number of world-class Little Leaguer baseball players? What’s the secret to Moscow’s run-down Spartak Tennis Club suddenly churning out Grand Slam winners? Where did all these South Korean female golf champions come from?

Coyle travels to hotbeds of talent all over the world to distill the essence of exceptional performance. Deep practice (aka “deliberate practice”) is essential, involving practicing to the edge of one’s ability while getting timely feedback. Some kind of spark seems to be necessary to fuel the “rage to mastery.” It’s interesting that a disproportionate number of historical figures — Caesar, Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson, Newton, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Twain — were orphans. And finally, having a master coach definitely helps. There are priceless insights into the slow, attentive, straightforward ways legends like John Wooden got results. Coyle’s odd obsession with myelin as the alpha and omega of learning and mastery is misplaced. Otherwise, the book has a ton of actionable information for creatives and teachers. It’s also fun to read. For just the usable facts and none of the stories, I refer you to Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills. 8/10

Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Skills (2012) by Daniel Coyle (ebook and print). A concise summary of the principles from Coyle’s The Talent Code. 8.5/10

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison (2016) by Shaka Senghor (ebook & print). The author committed an impulsive drug-related murder at 19, for which he was incarcerated for 17 years. In a chronologically discursive narrative, Senghor recounts how his impoverished Detroit childhood and broken family led to involvement with drugs, violence—and prison, when the story really begins. Senghor’s violent ways land him in successively harsher prisons, including three years in solitary confinement. His stories of prison life are candid, bleak, gritty, and harrowing, sparing us no detail when it comes to “shitcake” attacks, gratuitous rape, and improvised shivs put to vengeful use. With time, Senghor sees the futility of his anger, finding a way to reconfigure his injured heart and mind towards compassion. Read it to understand life in American inner cities, the street drug trade, the justice system and the current prison crisis. Hell of a story. 8.5/10

The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, revised 2012) by Richard Rhodes (ebook, print & audio). This is the greatest nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, so others seem to like it, too. It’s really more magic trick than book. It was not enough to write mini-biographies of 30+ towering figures—Oppenheimer, Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, Teller, Rutherford, Leslie Groves, Roosevelt, and that’s just in the first quarter of the book. It was not enough to track down all the letters they wrote to one another, and the declassified records of confidential conversations and surveillance. It was not enough to explain the rise of modern physics — quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, radiation — in lucid prose accessible to the layman and accurate for the scientists. It was not enough to chronicle the advent of WW I, Hitler, anti-semitism, Fascism, and WW II, and place them all in their historical context.

Rhodes’ magic trick is to put you at the very edge of history, when the likes of Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger are trying to explain the unexplainable by creating a whole new field of science, bizarre and counterintuitive, as if you’re there, and it’s all new — like being at the world premier of Beethoven’s 9th. As a former physics student who studied this stuff in textbooks long taking the science for granted, I felt like Rhodes gave me access to that primal mind searching in the dark for answers to the mysteries the universe. Exhilarating stuff.

The story of humans cracking the atom and harnessing nuclear energy is arguably The Greatest Story Ever Told (sorry, JC), and nobody tells it better than Richard Rhodes. Tuck in for a fun, mind-expanding ride. 10/10

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain (ebook & print). I had successfully avoided reading this for 5 years, confident in the assumption that it was not written for raging extroverts like yours truly. But the ebook was on sale, so I had to find out what the fuss was about. How does the other half live? Cain points out that introversion is not a choice, and that states of quiet contemplation are responsible for a disproportionate amount of humanity’s greatest hits. I particularly appreciate her takedown of the bloviating loudmouth, an archetype that has enjoyed far too much success in US business and politics (see: presidency).

That said, I do not buy the main premise of the book: that introverts and extroverts are constructed from completely different blueprints. Why? Because everything she says about extroverts is true of me, as well as everything she says about introverts, depending on context. Do I appreciate moments of intimacy? Why yes. Do I enjoy raging parties? Absolutely. “Highly sensitive”? Yup. Blabbermouth? You bet. All depends on when and where. This kind of monism — the One Thing to Explain It All — seems to characterize a lot of science writing done by non-scientists (also see: Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Coyle). Real science is far messier than that.

There is some evidence that one side of the amygdala is slightly larger in introverts. Aside from that, there is scant hard data behind the “introvert” designation. Until there is some kind of genetic marker that not only tests for introversion but also shows it’s mutually exclusive from extroversion, I will continue to assume it’s a context-dependent tendency rather than a hardwired trait.

Even so, it’s a worthwhile book. There’s a tremendous amount of useful advice on how to handle the loudmouths, pick a suitable career, and navigate introvert-extrovert relationships. If you happen to classify yourself as an introvert, I can imagine this being a very empowering read. 8/10

The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People (2017) by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). A National Geographic cover story hooked me into this book, and happiness is my beat anyway, so there really was no avoiding this one. The central idea: if you set up a framework for a more satisfying life, you’re more likely to have one.

Pleasure, purpose, pride: these are the three intertwining strands constituting the robust rope of happiness. The Danes, perennially at the top of world happiness surveys, have a lot of their basic needs met by their generous government services. Danes also have a strong community ethos, so they join lots of clubs and engage in purposeful activities. Costa Ricans, who may have an even stronger community ethos, have lives full of pleasurable moments or “positive affect”: walking to work, joking with friends, playing with their kids. Singaporeans work 60hr weeks to get the 5 C’s: car, condominium, cash, credit card, and club membership. They take pride in their accomplishments, and that supposedly makes them happy. The description of their harried, materialistic, cramped lives seemed the antipodes of happiness, but for now, I’ll take Dan’s word for it.

What I really appreciate about Buettner’s work is his thoroughness. He goes into the field with a bunch of scientists, gathers the data, crunches the numbers, and presents us with the best practices. That’s why this book led me to his first Blue Zones book (on longevity) which I consider definitive (also reviewed here). He’s particularly clear-eyed on the benefits of positive psychology hacks: “They may work in the short run, but they almost always fail over time. They’re quick fixes that may evaporate before you know it.” To be happy in the long run, structure a happy life.

I read this book in a day and highlighted 240 passages. It’s fantastic, and should be required reading for all bipeds. As a bonus, the appendix has a collection of Top 10 happiness practices from top experts for individuals and countries. 9.5/10

The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block (2011) by Hillary Rettig (ebook). Artists, especially writers, who would like to overcome procrastination and produce more, take notice. Rettig decriminalizes procrastination and prohibits self-shaming: “The use of shame and coercion as motivational tools, even on yourself, is not just immoral, but futile. They yield not growth and evolution, but, at best, short-term compliance. They also sabotage the creative process.” Instead, she identifies perfectionism as the real culprit and Compassionate Objectivity as its antidote. She offers six more solutions, as well as how to implement them, such as:

• Develop the Habit of Abundant Rewards and No Punishments: rewards yourself a lot for getting stuff done

• Build Your Capacity for Fearless Writing via Timed Writing Exercises: I’ve found setting a timer to be miraculously effective. Get it get stuff done.

I’m also a huge fan of her Three Productivity Behaviors: “(1) showing up exactly on time, (2) doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing, and (3) doing it uninterruptedly (except for small breaks) for long periods of time.”

I particularly appreciate Rettig’s unequivocal advice to self-publish your books, entirely bypassing the sclerotic traditional publishing industry. She validates the suffering of authors at the hands of prima donna agents and capricious publishers who aren’t really invested in your career. Taking control is the best decision you can make, and more profitable to boot.

In its 182 pages, this book contains zero padding and more actionable wisdom than books three times the length, all coming from a well of deep compassion. I’ll be referring to this one for a long time to come. 9/10

Test it out: New audio sleep script to help you fall asleep

As you may know, one of the five pillars of Happiness Engineering is good sleep. Statistics say that over 30% of the population suffers from some sort of insomnia. If you’re one of those who has difficulty falling asleep, I’ve made this recording for you. It works best when you listen to it through headphones:

Dr Ali’s Sleep Script (15:48, 11Mb)

You may take it for a free test drive right here, so long as you promise that you don’t listen to it while driving 🙂 Length is 15:48min, but most people conk out by 7min. If you’d like to download it to your devices, click here to pay whatever you consider reasonable.