Friday, February 8, 2019

Favorite Books from 2018

I read close to 100 books in 2018. Here is my top ten. Most of these were new or recent releases but a few classics made it in.


1) Nassim Nicholas Taleb Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life 

Taleb is one of my favorite intellectuals. His writing is fun, brilliant, irreverent, and deep. Skin in the Game is the most recent volume of his Incerto ("uncertainty") series. Each of the earlier volumes: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile are equally worthy of your time. Skin in the Game makes the point that you should never trust any expert, builder, banker, or professor who has no "lived experience" or "skin in the game." Yet the folly of modern banking, government, and education is that there is little "skin in the game" by those at the top. Experts, who have little personal experience or no exposure to the risks of their own policies, serve as decision makers and influencers. This leaves common people to carry the brunt of the risk exposure, clean up the messes and pay for costly bailouts. One of Taleb's favorite villains in Robert Rubin of Citibank fame and a member of Obama's administration. Rubin earned millions of dollars in bonuses leading Citibank in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Yet when Citibank and the world economy crashed due to the profound duplicity of bankers carrying risky debt, Rubin kept all of his bonuses and even became Secretary of the Treasury. It is deeply ironic that Rubin as SOT was charged with fixing the problem that he was partially responsible for creating. Common people lost their homes and we the people ultimately paid for the bailout of these elites who lacked "skin in the game." On the other hand, Taleb demonstrates the power that a tiny minority of a population can wield over the whole by their steadfast commitment and willingness to stand publicly for their preferences ("skin in the game"). Throughout the book, Taleb offers a rich philosophical and historical portrait of the principle.


2) Cal Newport Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work is an outstanding read for creatives who need to increase productivity. Newport is an academic who writes prolifically for scholarly and popular audiences. He lays out the secrets of his productivity. As ground work, he argues that to find success in our present/future economy, one must learn to master difficult tasks and be able produce at an elite level. Therefore, we must learn to guard, value, and take advantage of peak periods of productivity. Any one struggling to make deadlines, consistently achieve goals, and live up to one's potential will find Newport's wisdom and tactics helpful. Deep Work is not merely recycled time management advice. It is in touch with the challenges of our high tech world's 24/7 noise and Newport walks the walk or as Taleb would say, "has skin in the game."


3) Ray Dalio Principles: Life and Work

Ray Dalio is one of the most successful investors of our era and one of the wealthiest men in the world. His investment returns at Bridgewater Associates are legendary. In Principles, Dalio tells his personal story and lays out his philosophy for making decisions and building teams. This book is less about investing than it is a manifesto on creating systems for taking the right decisions in high pressure moments. Success at an elite level in investing and any human endeavor turns on our ability to leverage a team to assess evidence/data objectively and make the best decision out of all competing options. I found Principles refreshing from an organizational perspective. At Bridgewater Associates, Dalio led his team to pioneer workplace transparency and truth-telling. When billions of dollars are at stake, the contribution of each team member is critical. There is a wealth of knowledge in this book. Any one who wants to build a powerful team should study this book carefully. There is literally a lifetime of wisdom here.


4) Robert Greene The Laws of Human Nature

Greene take a deep dive into human behavior. This is not a philosophical or scientific volume that approaches human nature from a theoretical or theological perspective. Instead Greene, a keen observer of the human condition, lays out 18 "laws" that illustrate and synthesize an array of human behaviors. If you've read 48 Laws of Power or Mastery, you will find Greene familiar style of drawing from academics, historical figures, and philosophy. At the core, The Laws of Human Nature rightly views humans as social animals. We talk much about the need for "emotional intelligence." Greene's laws describe what various flavors of emotional intelligence looks like. I personally found his chapter on "Confronting Your Darkside" particularly helpful. It focuses on what Jung termed the "shadow." Luckily Greene doesn't just summarize these laws he offers ways to recognize in others or develop in one's own life each of the laws he includes. You can read The Laws of Human Nature as a guidebook for success and self-improvement. You can also use it to build enough self-awareness to avoid being manipulated by others or as Greene himself says for "self-defense."


5) Stephen Pressfield The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles 

I finally read Pressfield's classic guide to creative work this past year. If you have to produce art in your life: writing, speeches, sermons, lessons, songs, poems, or paintings, this is a must read. There are two critical takeaways. First, Pressfield writes eloquently about resistance. Those of us who are authors call this writer's block. The ancients talked about finding their muse for support. Pressfield shares secrets for conjuing up our own muse to empower our writing. It involves doing the psychological work of confronting our inner demons of procrastination, excuse making, and fear and developing a writing routine that serves our highest creative goals. Second, he uses the metaphor of "going pro." I like this. Treat your creative work as a professional and not as an amateur. Pros get work done. No excuses. Read The War of Art alone or in combo with Deep Work. You'll be glad you did. 2019 can be your most productive year ever. 


6) Jordan B. Peterson 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos 

Discovering the work and thought of Jordan Peterson was one of the revelations of 2018. I've now listened to dozens of interviews on podcasts as well as watched hours of his lectures on YouTube. I also had the opportunity to hear him live in Orlando in September 2018. I consider him one of the leading public intellectuals of our day. He is well read across disciplines but approaches most topics from his expertise in psychology and Jungian analysis. 12 Rules is a rich text in which Peterson distills his philosophy for a life that courageously strives to empower people to live well regardless of circumstances.  Some of 12 rules seem common-sensical such as "Make friends with people who want the best for you" or "Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today". Others are slightly comical "Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them." Others sound odd "Don't bother children when they are skateboarding" or "Pet a cat when you meet one on the street." Don't let the particular articulation of the principles throw you off. The power of Peterson is not in the wording of the rules (though it helps to make them memorable) but in his exposition of their meaning. His writing is deep and meanders through multiple pathways of understanding. He takes the reader on journey through academic research, biblical stories, personal experiences and Jungian mythic archetypes to bring his rules to life. Peterson is often criticized for having a predominantly male audience. I have a different experience. Peterson's lectures profoundly helped my daughter this past year. She is the one who introduced me to this thinker.


7) Lewis Howes The Mask of Masculinity: How Men Can Embrace Vulnerability, Create Strong Relationships, and Live Their Fullest Lives 

Howes is best known for his popular podcast "The School of Greatness." In this book, Howes shows his vulnerable side. He suffered suffered sexual abuse as well as bullying as a boy. This set Howes off on a path where he lived with a chip on his shoulder and constantly had to prove his worth. In Mask of Masculinity, Howes explores various persona or fronts that men use to cover up their pain, shame, and vulnerability. This was a well written book that is helpful for both men open to inner transformation and the women who love them.


8) Thomas Merton New Seeds of Contemplation 

This is a spiritual classic on contemplative prayer from one of the 20th century giants of spirituality. New Seeds is a series of short chapters that offer a rich characterization of the inner world of the contemplative life. Merton's ability to capture in words the depth of love experienced as the false self dies in the presence of God. His reflection on the idolatrous projections we make about life, the divine, and others is moving and spiritually cleansing. I can imagine myself reading this book dozens of times and still finding new insights. I think that persons practicing other forms of mediation such as mindfulness can read this book profitably even if they don't share Merton's Christian faith.


9) Epictetus Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics)

2018 was the fourth consecutive year that I consumed the wisdom of Epictetus. Epictetus is my favorite of the Roman stoics. This volume includes both his longer Discourses, his abbreviated Enchiridion, and some fragments from other sources. I consider Epictetus to be the best personal development author of all time (the GOAT). By reading this book, you will essentially have gained the core understanding of human behavior and deep inner-game work that you'll encounter in therapy or from any writer in the self-improvement sphere. At the heart of Epictetus' thought is the necessity of understanding what one controls (not much) and what one does not control. He then unflinchingly reflects and teaches how to live in light of this difference. For my Christian readers, they may be interested to know that Epictetus was read consistently by monastics for his deep spiritual insights.


10) Dave Asprey Game Changers: What Leaders, Innovators, and Mavericks Do to Win at Life 

I'm an amateur bio-hacker so Dave Asprey of Bulletproof Coffee and Diet fame is one of my heroes. Gamechangers is sourced from his podcast guests. Asprey distills the learning gleaned from his long form interviews into key takeaways that can be applied to enhance life. He divides the book into three sections: smarter, faster, happier. He explores topics such as the power of gratitude, importance of sleep, how altered states can enhance cognitive function and happiness (this is one of the most interesting chapters–he covers topics from the controlled use of hallucinogens [fascinating but illegal in the U.S.] to the power of meditation [my practice of centering prayer squared with Asprey's thinking on the topic]), proper breathing, the most efficient forms of exercise, and finding one's purpose. In some ways, Game Changers contains the topics one might expect in personal development text, but Asprey's biohacking approach mixes modern technology and "hacks" with ancient wisdom. Great book!

What were your favorite books this year?