34, Redux

This post was supposed to be a reading roundup, but when I logged into my Kindle I realized the only books I’ve read lately are what a kind person would call “personal development” and what an asshole would call “self-help.” I’ve sort of challenged myself to infuse some personal items into this blog, though I don’t share it widely among people who actually know me.  I’ve learned some lessons over the past few weeks, and as is often the case, these lessons were spurned by personal challenges. So, a few takeaways from 2019 so far, and then a brief list of loosely related reading.

Side note, I wrote a reflective post when I quit my last job and I received quite a lot of feedback, so this is sort of in the same style. It makes me uncomfortable to post this kind of stuff here, but it’s probably a good kind of discomfort.

  • I lost one of my close friends in the beginning of this year. It hit me surprisingly hard, and I think it punctuated the next few months of reflection on how the year was going. I will probably never look at 2019 without the sting of this happening; I cherish my close people, my friends especially, living 5,000 miles from where I spent the first 28 years of my life. Suicide is additionally difficult to deal with; it’s tough to stop yourself from wondering what you could’ve done (the answer is always “nothing”). This friend was also from New Jersey; he grew up a few miles from where my mother did. He was one of the two human links I have to home, here in Alaska. I was crushed. For a long time.
  • Alaska’s 7.1 earthquake in November created tremendous challenges for me work-wise and set the tone for how I spent my working time to present day. I rely on a lot of data sets; most of my vital tools were broken or unreliable as a result of what this earthquake did to hotel inventory across Anchorage. I’ll come out of Q2 at the top of my team, again, but the real-time stress was grinding and part of the struggle was knowing I would fail in certain measures and trying to compensate elsewhere.
  • Every single time I have tried to get away this year, it has been foiled by primary or secondary life responsibilities: work, schedule changes, board meetings and most recently, health. Work-life balance is important, and I have made a huge effort to figure out how to make that happen; this year, not so much. Part of it is on me, part of it is just how the cards have fallen. My life in 2019 is pretty much one I can’t escape. My life isn’t hard by any means, but it’s important to be able to check out at times. I have thus far not had this opportunity to the desired extent.
  • 5 days ago, I turned 35. I was supposed to be at Inti Raymi in Peru, followed by a brutal hike through the Andes. Neither of these things happened: the thyroid function test I had taken before I left for Bosnia and Georgia was ominous, and I went into total thyroid meltdown about halfway through my June itinerary. I called it before I got back to the US, canceled my Peru trip, somehow survived a few long work days in Seattle before I came home to figure out how to play this round. Plus sides: my intuition has been incredibly good my entire life and has failed me fewer times than my shitty thyroid has; also, the Mayo Clinic accepted my case and I’ll be delaying a(nother) trip to instead go there in July to figure out why every few years I am saddled with a few frightening weeks of feeling as though I’ve smoked a pound of meth. Womp womp.
    • This short breakdown will go full-circle; I actually had a kick ass birthday in Anchorage, thanks to (no surprise) my friends, namely my other fellow New Jerseyan, cementing something I haven’t ignored for a single moment of my life: the infinite value of my people.

When I think of the year so far, this is what I think of: the most significant, and the most recent. I am a cynical person. I tend to focus on things that are (a) wrong or (b) broken in order to figure them out and turn them around. This is the lesson, though: I spent the first 6 months of this year thinking this was the shittiest year I’ve had in a long time… which turned out to be patently false.

How do I know this? Mostly thanks to Microsoft Excel. I think I experienced the most nerve-wracking minute and a half in my career recently when I explained to my colleagues during a working session on “best practices” that one of my personal best practices is that I have an actual failure tracker and I use it to give myself a full personal performance review every year on my birthday. So when I did the run-down for this year, there was way more in the The Good column than The Bad and Failures columns. For people interested in behavioral economics, this is the Availability heuristic: I was thinking about these big things, and this recent health stuff, and that’s what I recalled.

So, due to the time of year, I’ve read some interesting books on a variety of topics: growing up, personality forming, etc. Here’s a short list (the books are long and somewhat complex, save the last one, so they’ve taken a fair amount of time):

  • The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do | I wish I had read this long before I did. I’m not sure if I find it completely plausible, but it is interesting. There is a Wikipedia page, as well as a full breakdown of many of her points and examples. I would like to believe this is true, at least to a large extent, and I think it could be. It’s encouraging to think that people can outshine their parents when it comes to behavior and positive character traits; that people are not necessarily as constrained by the ills of their home lives, as many of us are led to believe.
  • Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration | This book is a pretty dry read, but if you can get past the boring language, the concepts are pretty great. This guy also has a Wikipedia page, and there is a summary in PDF. In some ways his general idea is similar to Viktor Frankl: suffering gives life meaning (and, to a large degree, builds character), and people who are developmentally inclined tend to flail an awful lot, but it’s good for them and it helps them grow into themselves while shedding unsavory parts. The author is a pretty tormented individual himself, which makes his theory extra interesting. Again, like anyone I find I tend to gravitate to theories with high confirmation bias; that said, I’ve never quite read anything as meticulously drawn out as this particular development theory. This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, by far.
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success | Pretty basic but also thoughtful book; I was told about this by one of my newer colleagues, and while the TEDTalk by this woman is dreadfully boring, her book is an easy read, and worth considering. It’s something that seems to have gained wide adoption in the corporate sphere these days, which means very little other than I now hear “growth mindset” all the time and I can know what it means instead of assuming.
  • How To Win Friends and Influence People | I read this book when I was a kid, and I recently re-read it, truly mystified by how simple advice written in 1936 is still so relevant. Not a huge surprise, I guess, but some of Carnegie’s points are so simple you actually feel stupid not knowing them all before you read them. The Wikipedia page breaks it down, but reading the entire book is definitely worthwhile, if for no other reason than to marvel at the fact that advice that was pertinent in the 19-frickin’ 30s is still so legit today.

And that’s about it. My next reading roundup will surely not be this stuff. Long story short, sometimes life isn’t as shitty as it seems. Time will tell, I’m sure, but apart from my friend’s death, most of my struggles are what you’d call first-world problems; for perspective’s sake, five years ago when I had my first unfortunate thyroid experience, I had terrible insurance and was strapped with a bill for $10,000 (and no real answers). I was determined to change my life around so (a) I didn’t hate my job and (b) had excellent healthcare… and this time will be different.

I remember Jordan Petersen’s advice about bench-marking against yourself, and through that lens, I am moving in the right direction… at times, more slowly than others.

Q4 Reading Roundup (2 of 2)

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure | This book starts with a completely absurd fictional account of the authors hiking up to some Zen master’s retreat and being granted some advice that is completely wrong. The long, unnecessary anecdote sets the stage for the rest of the book. The rest of it is good, and sad. I am glad I graduated from college over a decade ago, I am sure I’d be disgusted by campus society these days. My main issue with a book like this is that I’m not sure what good it does, other than provide confirmation of a problem will remain unresolved because the people causing the problem will not accept the book’s key points. I would happily pass along copies of this to people who could benefit greatly from its content, but those people have long un-followed me on Facebook and haven’t read much if anything I’ve passed along to them. You could build much more upon this idea, as this learned fragility flows into corporations and government from the university system, and the consequences are already frightening. Review here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined |While this 100-chapter book took me forever to get through; I really enjoyed it, I will never write a review (of anything) as complete or thoughtful as Aschwin’s, so I will link to his.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America | I’m still really unsure how I feel about this very lengthy and bitter-sounding history of poor whites in America. Further, while some explanation of inequality make sense to me (property ownership value compounds over generations, so if you start later you can have less inherited wealth), this tirade against a country that allegedly oppresses opportunities for the poorest whites, who are generationally poor, fails to account for the fact that millions of poor immigrants with even fewer opportunities landed in this country, dispersed and flourished. The book has no real topic order; some of her reflections on people like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin are interesting, and her cultural critique is worth considering. Overall I was not a fan: the disjointed style and the wildly resentful tone were not particularly persuasive. Two completely different reviews, one from the Washington Post here and one from the National Review here. There is a false comparison to Hillbilly Elegy: the two books are nothing alike.

The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society Book 11) | I will never forget the way this book opens, with the shelling of the National Library in Sarajevo. I consider myself a fairly rational and often unemotional person; the Bosnian War has always evoked very deep horror in me, and absent geography, I can’t think of a worse building to go up in flames than a library, though I attribute this partially to my own culture, in which burning books is taboo.

This book is similar in tone to The Serbs: it is highly critical of Serb politicians and nationalists. It is rightfully critical of the West and the UN. Its primary focus is Christoslavism, which is integral to explaining the history of the Balkans. The extent of cruelty and dehumanization and groupthink leading up to and during this war is staggering. That it dragged on for years before anyone intervened is sickening. The book details the rapid destruction of tolerance and history, and the way Serb and Bosnian Serb politicians fanned the flames of hatred. It is not unbiased, but it is very good. I wish I could say that September’s trip to BiH was fulfilling enough to stop reading books about the Balkans. It was not, and I have quite a few others I will read in 2019 before heading back to Sarajevo in June.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives |Not sure why or how I came across this book, it but’s a pretty diverse collection of stories by refugees in America. No real opinion, it’s always interesting to read about how other people live. Pretty good read. SF Gate review here.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border |This book was pretty well-received for offering a different perspective on border patrol, though I’m not sure in the end it lacks any sympathy. It’s tragic and torn; also really well-written. NY Times review here.

Q4 Reading Roundup (1 of 2)

Oops, it’s now December. And, the time of year The Economist and New York Times publish their best of the year: both contain some really great ones. Because I’m lazy and my readership is deliberately limited, I’m only covering Oct-Dec. I’ve read over 100 books this year: ain’t nobody got time for that shit. I will supplement my laziness with other peoples’ reviews — sometimes negative ones — and all reviews are limited to one paragraph, in classic millennial TL;DR style.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress | I am currently reading this, but figured I’d include it anyway. Quite honestly I find this a bit boring, but it’s not Pinker’s fault, it’s mine; I read too many books that end up confirming my world view (I don’t necessarily mean to) and am familiar with (thus far) all of his included references. Many sweeping societal views are deeply flawed: one that I find consistently bothersome is the belief that today’s world is worse. This book is filled with the work of Kahneman & Tversky; Johann Norberg and many others who have commented on this erroneous belief and why people believe this. This book was not widely loved and admired, for obvious reasons. Here’s a positive review, and here are two critical ones, one from the New York Times, and one from Vox (a site I reference because it tends to occasionally feature writers who are not sanctimonious assholes). The New York Times review is particularly interesting, as the group of people who would be inclined to agree with the reviewer’s argument (‘things are overall better, but not individually’) are the same ones who would bleed upper-middle and upper class individuals for the sake of the argument that collectively, society would be better if they paid more taxes. This book is simple, even for Pinker; thus far it reads as a light, data-centric but emotional argument defending prosperity. Some current issues, especially societal polarization, are glazed over. Chapter 4, about how progressives hate progress, made me laugh, though it was cynical laughter, and a point driven home by my own personal experience of gifting Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future to some of my most progressive friends a number of years ago… not one of them has read it. I like Pinker’s books for the references to other books; this one was a bit light on that as well. I will always read his books, this one is my least favorite, but only due to standards set by his previous work. As an aside, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the subtle silver lining to the current ‘life sucks more than it used to’ narrative: it could, and likely will, in some instances, perpetuate further progress. Gratitude is not required to raise the bar even higher in the future.

Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool | I wasn’t a huge fan of this when I began reading, but by the end I was pleased I did. While her distaste for libertarians is obvious throughout the book, I think she makes some good arguments for the high utility of shame, and its misuses, as well as further opportunities to wield it to change corporate behavior (and possibly public policy, but not holding my breath). I was pleased to see a pet issue of mine featured in many chapters: big agriculture (her specialty is environmental protection, and it is a much larger source of ire than industrial farming). Her lack of interest in including the presence of government subsidies seems to fall in line with her political views; shame has diminished utility in agriculture, pharma, biotech and many other industries where government subsidies exist, and she could have made a better case for the shame brought about by modern writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, which increased consumer demand for organic food and humanely reared meat, both of which were incredibly difficult to find 15 years ago. Shame has also not worked for American airlines, where consumers can only purchase sub-par services due to government constraints on supply and competition. Environmental protection shaming will also not help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, due to the relationship between ASRC and the government; the ideas are good, and the book is thoughtfully written, but I think there’s a limit to the power of shame where government and lobbying are involved. It’d be impossible to shame the postal service for arbitrarily closing yesterday due to the GWB ‘day of mourning,’ but consumers could shame a grocery store for doing the same. For that reason, there is a lot of disparity in the power of shame. Chicago Tribune review of two books on shame; I chose this one instead of the other.

The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire | This was an impulse buy following reading The Economist review. Read with a lot of scrutiny; its style echoes Psychopathia Sexualis, in a way, and to the writer’s credit, many of the stories encompass mental issues I’ve never heard of (and I am a person who spends hours scrolling through articles and photos of infectious disease and obscure mental and physical illnesses). I don’t love his writing style, he has a way of weaving his general psych knowledge into the chapters and then being self-deprecating in a way that annoys me, but the mental problems he covers in the chapters are really interesting. These characters are fascinating and deranged; it’s difficult to ignore their innocence, the author displays a lot of empathy and curiosity, traits which, when combined, are not always attractive or unbiased.

American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good | I read this because I read the one below, which blew my mind to some degree. Woodard is not the first to divide America into ideological regions, but his book helped me answer some of my own questions: I spent a long time ruminating on the underlying causes of feeling unimpressed living in Boston, yet having undying love and admiration for New York: this writer’s theories on the subcultures of the US really fascinated me, and a lot of American Character refers back to his former work, though the author spends an awful lot of time railing on the apparently stupid libertarian ideals and making fun of Hayek. He comes to a fairly reasonable conclusion: that we need a blend of ideologies for real progress. Overall, the book below is the better read, but American Character is an easy read that gave me things to think about. Bonus points for the Ceaușescu reference. WSJ review here. Side note, it surprises me so many authors believe there is an adequately straight solution: I find it highly likely, especially due to so many regional subcultures and states’ rights, that America will always oscillate between federalist and anti-federalist, between excessive laissez-faire and over-regulation. It’s especially American to fight and bitch and argue about everything, and to run constant experiments in different states and regions. The squabbling has been a pretty important part of our so-called exceptionalism.

My Struggle, Book 3 | I loved Book 1 and 2 of this series, I found Book 3 to be boring but probably necessary. Thankfully it is shorter than the others. Much of this revolves around the author’s relationship with his father, and the fear conveyed in this book adds a lot of context. I love the order of this series so far… only in book 3 does he return to his childhood. I had no idea how I would feel about the series as a whole, the books take absolutely forever to get through. I’m “reading” this with Audible.  The reader is theatrical, which is an incredible and probably underappreciated feature of the audio version: Scandinavian languages have a completely different cadence, and this feature doubtless increases my enjoyment of the material. A somewhat monotonous Book 3 has not dissuaded me from continuing, and Book 4 is coming up in the queue quickly. I imagine this is the kind of work you either love or hate. I expected to hate it. I’m linking to the Book 6 review in The Economist, where the reviewer implies the high readership is perhaps partially attributed to his “craggy good looks.” This one sentence in an otherwise insightful review earned The Economist another pissed off note from me; after all, it would be taboo to make a statement like that about a female author. His outrageous honesty, in all things relevant and irrelevant, is what makes this an incredible project, especially for a Norwegian (though his honesty would be even more scandalous if he were a Swede).

Part 2 of this roundup coming before the end of the year. I promise.

TL;DR

One of the items on my current to-do list was to create a recommended reading list for my colleagues. I’m a part of a high performing team (I don’t dole out compliments like this; we consistently beat our numbers and we have no interpersonal drama, which combined is a monumental achievement), and twice a year or so we go through our so-called ‘Group Norms’ in order to ensure we are all on the same page, and we properly integrate newcomers and keep the bar high. It has been a brilliant strategy for us to maintain ‘synergy,’ a buzz word I hate but a concept that is integral to consistent performance. On top of that, I am the team bookworm weirdo, and I am fairly sure they did not expect this long of a list. But I want to ‘keep it 100,’ as the young people say.

I think it’s safe to say I’m obsessed with reading. I spent three years of my life in a ‘good school’, Boston University. Otherwise, I don’t consider myself well educated in the way a lot of people mean it. I am well self-educated, and my glory years at a private college were wedged between primary education at a crap public high school in upstate New York and a tediously boring online MBA program I completed as quickly as possible (7 months) to stave off prolonged torture. Watching paint dry is more interesting than getting an MBA. If given the option of doing it again or a shotgun shell to the knee cap, I might honestly choose the latter.

I read all kinds of books. One category of many is what I guess you’d loosely call ‘business books’. I’d venture to call some of them ‘self help’ books (aren’t all books self help books? Books help you to learn, by yourself). Mostly they are books about being a part of the world and functioning in different segments of society.

In any case, below is the list I posted for my team. I left off the few I read that were wholly unimpressive. Most of these are very good, some are better than others.

Top 10 with asterisks.

If you’re ambling around here and think I’ve missed one (or ten, or fifty), leave them in my comments.