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Best Books of 2018

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Good morning, Team Room –

First, happy holiday season to everyone! And Happy New Year!

At the beginning of this year, I committed to reading 52 books for an average of one book per week. I only ended up reading 44 books but setting a high-water mark mattered! In the end, I went back and re-read a couple books, such as The Undoing Projectwhich cost me some time, but there’s always 2019! Of the 44 books I finished this year these 12 were my favorites.

I’m selecting my favorite books of 2018 in two ways:

  1. by how much they impacted my thinking, or
  2. if they induced me to change my daily

If the book taught me something radically new or seriously impacted my thinking it’s in this stack. If the book prompted me to do something differently (actually change my daily behavior) it is also in this pile of books. Let’s take them one-by-one.

The Strange Order of Things, by Antonio Damasio. Serving as the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Philosophy, and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, Damasio, is a giant in the fields of understanding brain processes, emotions, feelings, decision-making, and consciousness. For a couple of years now I’ve been on a mini-journey to more fully understand what we too often casually call “mental toughness”. When people ask about, or discuss, or question, or state a need for “mental toughness” I often wonder whether we have adequate shared language to explain, define, and educate for the fundamentals “mental toughness.” In short, I don’t think we do.

Ask yourself if you can, at the very least, explain how muscles are fueled? The basic pieces of the physical energy system? How’d you do? Can you now explain how the nervous system is fueled? How it is energized? How it affects our mental performance? Going back to the physical system, now explain how to improve cardiovascular fitness? How about mental fitness then? What system are we actually training when we train mental fitness? Forgetting the fuel and the fitness aspects for a second, let’s answer a more basic question? What are the basic organs of physical fitness, and how do they interact? If you’re thinking heart, lungs, and muscle that’s acceptable for what we’re doing here. How about the physical parts of the mental performance system? The actual parts of the brain and nerves and how they interact to achieve “mental toughness?”

Working in the areas I do, I’m inevitably and consistently in conversations about “mental toughness,” mental preparedness, and the mental game of performance. If I’ve learned anything it’s that perspectives on “mental toughness” vary widely. What type of mental toughness are we talking about? Is it different in one environment from the next? How do we develop and maintain it? These are just a few sample questions we hear all of the time, over-and-over again. I heard somewhere that the best book to write is the one you wish you had but can’t find. I haven’t gone that far (yet) but in this stack of books you’ll find three (maybe four) that are part of my investigation into what are the first principles of “mental toughness.” What do we really need to know to understand what system we’re dealing with when we talk about mental factors?

Previous author of Descartes Error and The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio, in The Strange Order of Things takes us on a journey through a conscious mental experience (which may/may not be of our own making), the emotional response to an experience (uncertainty, fear, etc.), and how humans make sense of said experience. We do so by 1) building a perspective for images in our minds, 2) mapping feelings to those images, and 3) integrating said experiences. He never once hints at the term “mental toughness” but he’s undoubtedly describing the mental processes we use when we think of toughness or the lack thereof, and how we apply mental skills.

We’ll return to mental toughness, but on a lighter note, When, by Daniel Pink. Dan Pink’s study on timing, organizational rhythms, and the differences between Owls, Larks, and Third Birds is a great read. The book is not about sleep rhythms as I’ve heard many people suggest. It’s as much about group timing and career timing as it is about personal daily and circadian rhythms. Yet, since I’m on the topic and it seems hot right now I also ready Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker this year but find Lights Out, by T.S. Wiley to be a considerably better book on sleep. Lights Out hasn’t enjoyed the popular support in today’s Podcast world of interviews. Maybe because it was written 18 years ago? However, if you’re learning about the effects of sleep, and you are serious, and you’ll only read one book on sleep, put down Why We Sleep and pick up Lights Out!

Seth Godin’s This is Marketing is fantastic, and as he often encourages, remarkable! Worth remarking about! Seth Godin, author of the classic, The Purple Cow, and many other books (and content), such as Stop Stealing Dreams, writes this tome on “learning to see,” showing up for your audience, honesty, finding the smallest viable market, and telling the truth. This book is awesome!

Coming out in 2019, which you can pre-order now, is Places and Names, On War, Revolution, and Returning, by Elliot Ackerman. Elliot, a friend and former U.S. Marine, who fought in some of the bloodiest battles in both Afghanistan and Iraq tells a very personal story in Places and Names. The book takes the reader to both wars plus Elliot’s more recent experience as a journalist in Turkey and refugee camps in Syria. The final chapter of the book should be mandatory reading for every U.S. citizen. In plain and true language, Elliot breaks down his personal Silver Star award citation awarded for “a level of bravery, composure under fire, and combat leadership that is beyond expectations.” What you get from Elliot in italics and between the flowery and positive language similar to every military award for valor is the truth such as “I’ve never been as scared as I was the times I had to run to that grunt phone, bullet impacts dancing on the tanks armor, their ricochets flashing like fistfuls of thrown pennies.”

In How to Change Your Mind, author Michael Pollan, of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, takes on the sticky, interesting, and absolutely fascinating topic of the resurgence of psychedelic research in the United States. As Pollan does so brilliantly in all of his books, he teaches the history, science, research, uses, and cultural phenomenon of (in this case) the entheogen.

Getting back to mental toughness, and its first principles, Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. In this book, the author takes us back to the origins of nervous systems. Hint: humans do not have the oldest nor the most developed nervous system. Godfrey-Smith’s work is too expansive to summarize here but note a couple of key points as this book relates to mental toughness: how we (humans) link perception to action, what micro-actions shape our macro-actions, and do we think our way through mental toughness or feel our way through?

Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, by Patty McCord, Chief Talent Officer at Netflix for fourteen years who helped Reed Hastings build the business one person at a time. I’d read the famous Netflix HR “Culture Deck” years ago but had never really followed up on its origin. I heard the origin story from McCord on this interview on Recode. McCord’s demeanor is fantastic and her principles of building a business and a team remind me of the best teams of which I’ve been a part! The front inside flap of the book says it all: “She argues that the old standbys of corporate HR – annual performance reviews, retention plans, employee empowerment and engagement programs – often end up being colossal waste of time and resources.” Amen. Content in this category that made my honorable mention list are Principles, by Ray Dalio, his TED preso here, Jonie Ive on Steve Jobs and putting the work ahead of yourself, Dan Pink on better feedback in 19 words, and finally, Up the Organization, by Bob Townsend, former turn-around CEO of Avis Rental Cars.

Better, by Atul Gawande, author of Complications, Being Mortal, the Checklist Manifesto, and Slow Ideas. Gawande, still a practicing surgeon, and now the CEO of the Buffett, Bezos, and Dimon healthcare venture is not afraid to take his experiences and present them back to us as a potential map for finding “better” in our own working environments. And I love his perspective on positive deviants in the organization. Also, here’s Gawande on how to get great at something!

Journalist and professor, Robert Wright, author of NonZero and the Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are, the New Science of Evolutionary Psychology brings us, Why Buddhism is True: the Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Wright’s witty style and plain language is incredibly readable and enjoyable! What I loved most about Why Buddhism is True is the book is surprisingly scientific and practical. Wright clearly isn’t a mystic and comes at the topic from a factual point of view. He covers topics such as our brain’s default mode network, mental modules that “run your life,” and self-control (can we actually control anything inside ourselves?)! This book is fun and insightful!

Mastery, by Robert Greene, author of the 48 Laws of Power and the 33 Strategies of War. In Mastery, Greene goes deep into mastering something, anything, in your life or work or sport. After reading a book, I like to go back to summarize my marginalia but with Mastery there were too many notes to summarize so I simply put the book on the shelf to take “a breather.” The book also made me question if I’ve ever mastered anything?! Greene closes the introduction with this which says much about the book:

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became “geniuses” (as we put it), through qualities the lack of which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. may just be my favorite book of 2018. As we learn in Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things, the body’s central tendency is to maintain homeostasis. Yet, our system (this engine) is constantly under stress. The body is constantly being moved away from stasis: muscles get depleted, we become dehydrated, we get tired and need sleep, and our nervous system reacts to both real and perceived threats. Stress isn’t necessarily good or bad but rather contextual. In The Body Keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk, shows us how stressors literally reshapes (physically edits) both body and brain. The effects of stress on the nervous system, if not understood or dealt with effectively, quickly compound. If we’re concerned with mental toughness and mental training, the unchecked effects of stress will leave us physically and mentally unable to adapt and perform in even normal environments, not to mention pressure situations.

Last but certainly not least, Draft #4: On the Writing Process, by legendary Princeton professor and author John McPhee. Well, if we’re talking about Mastery, McPhee is the man. Draft #4 is personally relevant to me right now but also just an incredible example of taking “more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.” McPhee discusses interviewing, structure, addition by omission, and the most important themes of producing any work of creativity! Enjoy this one! My challenge would be to take his and Atul Gawande’s themes in Better and map them to your own environment. Honorable mention in this category is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. See here TED preso here too.

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