I give myself permission to stop reading a book if I don’t find it helpful. In those instances there are times when I’ll return to the book later. Other times I’ll abandon it altogether.
I hope there’s a book waiting for you below that enriches your life and inspires you to face the New Year with knowledge in your head and hope in your heart.
1. Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis
The main idea in Wanting is based upon the work of French polymath René Girard, who believed humans are taught to want what they want. We imitate each other more than we realize. Our desires are not really our own and understanding this is important for determining what we truly want, or more importantly, what we actually need.
Wanting provides many examples of models that manipulate us into wanting what might not be good for us. An exercise Burgis provides is to read a newspaper that’s at least a week out of date. With hindsight we can better determine how we are unknowingly influenced. Burgis wants us to rely on our own meditative thought, which includes having the patience to allow truth to reveal itself without relying solely on the opinions of others.
2. Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Anna Lembke
As the subtitle states, Americans live in a time of indulgence. We are constantly distracting ourselves from the present moment, and entertainment reigns supreme. Unfortunately, the pleasure dopamine provides comes with consequences. Lembke writes that based upon studies conducted by neuroscientist Nora Volkow, “prolonged consumption of high-dopamine substances eventually leads to a dopamine deficit” (page 55). She explains the continual pursuit of pleasure for its own sake can lead to anhedonia, “which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind” (page 57). Every pleasure has a price, and in most cases that price is diminishing returns. The first moment of pleasure never feels as good as the second.
So how do we combat this? Through pursuing pain. There is a connection between pleasure and pain. Lembke quotes Socrates: “… whenever the one is found, the other follows up behind” (page 147). If we attain a fleeting moment of pleasure, pain isn’t too far away. Likewise, if we seek forms of pain, pleasure may arrive as a byproduct.
What are some healthy pursuits of pain? Intermittent fasting, exercise, cold showers, “pro-social shame,” and truth-telling. Of course, experiencing pain can become an addiction on its own, so it’s important to seek balance. This is helpful to know, but it drives home a point with which we’re all familiar: life isn’t easy.
3. Just Keep Buying: Proven Ways to Save Money and Build Your Wealth by Nick Maggiulli
As the title suggests, Maggiulli is a proponent of investing as frequently as possible. With dollar cost averaging and compounding interest, he does a good job explaining the difference between investing and saving, which makes Just Keep Buying a helpful book for those getting their financial house in order. He provides tips I haven’t read in other books, such as the 2x Rule to spend money guilt free (i.e. anytime Maggiulli wants to splurge, he has to take that same amount of money and invest it). Some other rules Maggiulli includes are “saving is for the poor, investing is for the rich;” “save what you can;” “focus on income, not spending;” “save at least 50% of your future raises and bonuses;” “debt isn’t good or bad, it depends on how you use it;” “you’ll never feel rich and that’s okay;” and many more.
4. Peer Power: Unite, Learn, Prosper: Activate an Assessment Revolution by Paul Bloomberg, Barbara Pitchford, Kara Vandas, et al.
Peer Power has a number of contributors, and I found almost every chapter to be helpful. The biggest clarity it brought to my thinking is what “empowering all learners” truly means. For me, being empowered means that students own their learning. You may ask, “What does owning your learning mean?” For me, students own their learning when they can answer the following questions: 1) Where am I going? 2) Where am I now? 3) How will I be successful?
This book’s beginning is pretty gloomily because it discusses the ages at which adults begin to decline, and it’s unfortunately much sooner than you’d think. By the end of Chapter 1, Brooks provides three “doors” one can choose to go through once the decline has begun.
1. You can deny the facts and rage agains the decline–setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. 2. You can shrug and give in to decline–and experience your aging as an unavoidable tragedy. 3. You can accept that what got you to this point won’t work to get you into the future–that you need to build some new strengths and skills.From Strength to Strength, page 22
The rest of the book is dedicated to door 3, and I highly recommend what Brooks shares.
6. The Outward Mindset: How to Change Lives and Transform Organizations by The Arbinger Institute
This book if for leaders, and I can sum it up as follows: having an outward mindset means you do not use people as a means to an end. Leaders must find ways to garner buy-in, determine win/win scenarios, and produce results.
7. Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry
Comanche Moon is the fourth book McMurtry wrote within the Lonesome Dove saga but the second chronologically. It provides readers with everything they’ve come to expect in a story featuring Woodrow Call and August McCrae: unforgiving landscapes, the absence of justice, violent and unexpected deaths, love lost, and an enthralling tale.
It took me two years to finish the Lonesome Dove saga, and I’m so thankful I did. After investing so much time in the previous books, passages such as the following approach the reader like a melancholic drift through the prairie.
Several times in his life he had felt an intense desire to start over, to somehow turn back the clock of his life to a point where he might, if he were careful, avoid the many mistakes he had made the first time around. He knew such a thing was impossible, but it was still pleasant to dream about it, to conjure, in fantasy, a different and more successful life, and that is what he did, sitting on a large rock by the river and watching the brown water as it rippled over the rocks where Matty had caught the turtle.Comanche Moon, page 614
The characters McMurtry created will be with me forever, and I’m thankful for the experience. That’s whey we read fiction, right?
8. Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain
This past spring was a bittersweet time of my life–perhaps more bitter than sweet. I probably wouldn’t have purchased this book if I wasn’t experiencing what I felt then, but I’m glad I did. Cain provides a compelling case for why its beneficial to embrace the bitter portions of life. Pain helps us see clearly. By embracing it, creative people can “look pain in the eye, and… decide to turn it into something better” (page 61).
Cain’s insight is helpful. “Just because someone makes a claim against you doesn’t mean it’s true,” a friend once told her (page 156). Or regarding painful experiences, another person says: “It’s like a cracked mirror now… Something is always missing. The mirror doesn’t get put back the way it was, but if you work, you can get a piece back” (page 202). Or in regard to our life partner: “This means we should stop longing for the unconditional love of our missing half; we should come to terms with our partner’s imperfections and focus instead on fixing ourselves” (page 29).
Bittersweet helps the reader acknowledge that it’s ok to embrace pain and longing because by doing so we can live healthier, richer, and more meaningful lives.
9. The Midrange Theory by Seth Partnow
A good book for hardcore NBA fans. Partnow describes the evolution of the game from where it was, where it is now, and where it might be going. If you’re familiar with Steph Curry, you know basketball has changed a lot over the past decade, and the midrange shot (10-16 feet from the basket) waned as the 3-point shot became triumphant. In addition to delving into this evolution, Partnow shares a lot of additional insight into the game. He discusses what makes teams playoff contenders, the true definition of “good stats,” and how to conduct successful basketball analytics.
Not surprisingly, the data Partnow provides is interesting, but it also does what data is notorious for: providing more questions than solutions. At one point he even writes:
In fact, as models become more sophisticated and precisely tuned, the ‘black box effect’ of not knowing what’s going on underneath the hood grows more prevalent.The Midrange Theory, Location: 1,751 (Kindle edition)
Although our human brains seek order and certainty, it’s refreshing to read a sports writer who’s comfortable saying he’s uncertain. In fact, at one point he states:
It’s unsatisfying, but ‘I don’t know’ is usually a better answer than the false projection of confidence, and when it comes to defense, there’s much more that we don’t know than that which we do.The Midrange Theory, Location: 2,873 (Kindle edition)
There are some ESPN pundits that could benefit from this sentiment.
10. The TB12 Method: How to Do What You Love, Better and for Longer by Tom Brady
Most football fans fall into two camps when it comes to Tom Brady. They either think he’s the GOAT or a fraud. I fall into the former group, and this year I finally read The TB12 Method. The book can be described as follows: Brady’s biography, workout (pliability), nutritional plan, and brain training.
The TB12 Method can be helpful if you’re interested in a new framework for becoming more healthy. I haven’t adopted everything Brady outlines, but the two things I have incorporated are his advice on hydration and becoming more pliable through the use of a roller before workouts.
11. True and False: Hersey and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet
David Mamet is an American playwright and screenwriter, and he wrote True and False to teach actors how to approach their craft on the stage. In the book Mamet refers often to Konstantin Stanislavsky, who was a theater legend. Here’s my best shot at what both men would say good acting is: Actors leave their personal lives outside the theater, they learn what their character wants and perform the action that’s needed to bring the character to life, they work simply and without unnecessarily flourish, they trust their own common sense and do not read too much into the playwright’s intent, they show courage through fighting self-doubt, they do not complain, and at the end of the show they leave it all on the stage.
You don’t have to be an actor to find wisdom in this book. Yes, Mamet provides constructive thoughts on how to perform well on the stage, but his advice can be applied in any professional field. Take this except:
The greatest performances are seldom noticed. Why? Because they do not draw attention to themselves, and do not seek to—like any real heroism, they are simple and unassuming, and seem to be a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the actor. They so fuse with the actor that we accept them as other-than-art.True and False, page 79
In other words, work hard and don’t go out of your way to draw attention to yourself–the goal should not be to garner recognition.
Mamet also provides the reader with a salutary reminder about complaining and feeling sorry for oneself.
Such remarks as ‘I am a fraud, I am no good, I was terrible tonight’ are the opposite of effective self-improvement. They are obeisance to an outside or internalized authority—they are a plea to that authority for pity for your helpless state.True and False, page 48
‘Oh, how terrible I was.…’ How difficult to keep those words in—how comforting they are. In saying them one creates an imaginary group interested in one’s progress. But give up the comfort of an imaginary group. This ‘group’ that is judging you is not real; you invented it to make yourself feel less alone.True and False, page 49
One shouldn’t confuse feelings of worthlessness with self-improvement. Instead we must try our best and leave it all on the stage–both in the theater and in life.
12. Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardware Warrior by Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson knows success, and this book is a thoughtful, meditative explanation of his worldview. It also provides great lessons for leaders. Jackson writes:
Albert Einstein once described his rules of work: ‘One: Out of clutter, find simplicity. Two: From discord, find harmony. Three: In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.’ That was the kind of attitude I had to have… I had to let go of my compulsive need for order and learn how to stay composed when everything seemed hopelessly out of control.Sacred Hoops, page 70
I know the feeling. Another feeling leaders know:
An NBA team is a highly charged environment, and players are always grumbling about something, no matter how compassionate the coach is or how well the team is doing.Sacred Hoops, page 103
Leadership is hard, and there are so many excerpts I could share from this book that I underlined. Jackson knows it takes a clear mind and open heart if you want to be a leader, and this book is a great source of quiet strength for anyone bold enough to lead others.
13. Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates
This is a great book to read if you want a clear understanding of what Balanced Literacy is. For a while I placed excerpts at the end of my morning emails to my staff just to provide some food for thought. Some of these include:
Orthographic mapping is aligning speech to print. Decoding is aligning print to speech.Shifting the Balance, page 99
In fact, it seems a bit crazy but thirteen little words account for more than 25 percent of the words in print!Shifting the Balance, page 91
If these snippets sound interesting, then you’ll really like the book.
14. Will by Will Smith and Mark Manson
I mentioned to a few people I was reading this book. Each time I received the same question: Why?
The answer is that during a Dodgers game Mookie Betts was mic’d up on the field and answered a series of questions–one of which was which books he recently read. Will was one of them. (For the record, I’m a Giants fan.)
It would be a shame to avoid Will because of “The Slap.” The book is fascinating because a careful reading helps explain why The Slap occurred. Will was published well before the Oscars ceremony, which makes its revelations even more astonishing. Smith cracks himself open and offers an unvarnished look at his psyche. Because of this, I found Will to be the most engaging book I read this year.
If understanding what makes Smith tick (or explode, for that matter) doesn’t interest you, maybe you’ll find his insights, and–dare I say–wisdom interesting.
In the book Smith refers to himself as “Uncle Fluffy.” Uncle Fluffy is the one who wants everyone to like him. With the help of a therapist named Michaela, Smith begins to understand the destruction that comes from trying to please everyone. Michaela tells him:
We need you to be solid; we need your ‘yes’ to be a yes, and your ‘no’ to be a no. As long as you are twisting and contorting and selling yourself for the affection of others, you will always be untrustworthy.Will, page 379
I want you to have an experience of yourself minus the need to be approved of… Who are you really? What does your heart truly want? What are your deepest values and authentic goals? The problem with Uncle Fluffy is that you are never free to make a pure decision, one that is honest and true for you. You are always forced by Fluffy to compromise and to do the thing that gets the most approval, likes, or sales. Will’s creativity is thwarted by Fluffy’s need for approval. What are Will’s feelings, Will’s opinions, Will’s needs, Will’s ideas?Will, page 380
Michaela says Smith becomes trapped by the expectations of others because he doesn’t want to let them down and receive their disdain. She ultimately wants him to become a “Freestanding Man.”
…a Freestanding Man is self-aware, self-reliant, self-motivated, self-confident, and utterly unswayed by people’s approval or disapproval. He knows who he is, he knows what he wants. And because of this, he surrenders his considerable gifts into the service of others.Will, page 381
This is good advice for a people pleaser. It’s also possible this realization planted the seeds of The Slap. Who am I to say? Banishing a people pleaser mentality is healthy, but like anything, every strength has a weakness.
15. The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is my favorite novelist, and this is his first book since 2006’s The Road. A friend of mine and I have talked and texted a lot about this novel, and at the end of each conversation we basically conclude that the book is impenetrable, but we’re thankful McCarthy has given us something new.
The experience of The Passenger is similar to reading a really long poem. Don’t expect a traditional plot or an author who holds your hand during the character’s dialogue (all without quotation marks). McCarthy makes you fend for yourself. If, however, you’re up for the challenge, once in a while you’ll catch a glimpse of, perhaps, what McCarthy wants you to understand–or at least halfway comprehend. Towards the end he writes:
To prepare for any struggle is largely a work of unburdening oneself. If you carry your past into battle you are riding to your death. Austerity lifts the heart and focuses the vision. Travel light. A few ideas are enough. Every remedy for loneliness only postpones it. And that day is coming in which there will be no remedy at all.The Passenger, page 379
If you’re not interested in what any of that could possibly mean, steer clear of The Passenger.
16. Heat 2 by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner
I was 15-years-old when I first watched Michael Mann’s Heat in the movie theater with my dad. From what I remember I liked it, but it’s really been in my thirties and early forties that Heat has become a staple I watch on an annual basis.
This novelized sequel isn’t as great as the movie, but it is good. Heat 2 takes place both before and after the events of Heat, and it’s entertaining to see how the characters’ pasts and futures weave together. During a podcast interview Mann said he was going to make Heat 2 into a movie. I’m not sure how that’s possible–De Niro, Pacino, and Kilmer can’t reprise their roles. Will Mann recast the actors? Use age reduction technology à la The Irishmen? Make it a CGI film?
Heat is perfect and the sequel is entertaining. Part of me thinks Heat 2 should remain a novel, but I could definitely be wrong.
17. Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins
This is the other book Mookie Betts mentioned when he was mic’d during a game. He said that Goggins makes you feel like you can “run through a wall.” Betts was spot on.
Can’t Hurt Me is an anecdote to a lot of bad advice out there, and its wisdom is a culmination of what’s shared in many of the other books I read this year: embrace pain and suffering to become stronger. Goggins is one hard individual, his difficult upbringing and the many obstacles he’s overcome have built him into a barrier breaking machine. Time and again he asks himself, “What am I capable of?” Then he seeks out the most difficult challenges in order to prove to himself that nothing can hurt him.
Toward the end of the book Goggins mentions The 40% Rule, which states that once we think we’ve hit our limit running, studying, etc., we most likely still have 60% more effort we can give. This is the mindset he has used to complete ultramarathons, break world records, and train within elite military organization.
As I wrote my thoughts for these books, it gradually dawned on me that there’s a theme of pain and survival threading the works together.
Nothing is easy in life, and there’s no guarantee hard times will subside, but books provide us with solace and inspiration, and I’m grateful I was able to read the books listed above.
Here’s to a great year of reading in 2023.