What I Learned in 2018: Books Part I (Self Improvement)

For me, 2018 was definitely a learning year. I learned a lot from colleagues, friends and others both at Red Hat and in other contexts. There are lots of things to write about on that front, but it’ll take time to distill out what turns out to be important.

One thing that’s easy to cover though is 2018 in books. I read (and listened to) more books last year than I think in any other year previously. Partly that was due to there being a lot of travel time and partly because I was able to organize my time better.

Throughout the year there were some great books that stood out and felt like they gave me some Aha moments. They might not do the same for others but I figured I’d share the best of them. I’m splitting them into 3 categories: 1) self-improvement, 2) society and economics, 3) science fiction. I never thought of myself as reading a lot of books in the first category, but the 2018 data doesn’t lie :-). Perhaps it was a particularly reflective year.

I’ll split the book thoughts into three posts, one for each category. They are all books I read (or re-read) in 2018, but they weren’t necessarily written in 2018. I read about half of my books on Kindle and about half, I listen to as Audiobooks. A small number I read as physical books. Scientific, technical and self-improvement books tend to be read, entertainment more Audiobook.

I’m not sure I started out 2018 looking to read a lot of self improvement type books, but there were a few topics that interested me: habits, what people felt made meaning in their lives and just general ways to get better at things.

Anyway, let’s get started. Out of the 15–20 books in this category I read last years, here are the ones I found the most meaningful:

  • “Atomic Habits” (James Clear): I’ll say right out of the gate I’m not a huge fan of “happiness hacks” type books and on the surface, this looks like one. While there are some “hacks” in the book, goes significantly deeper. The central message that “systems” matter a lot more than goals resonates with me. I see the effects of that in work settings (setting goals, but not always finding the right day-to-day activities to execute) and in personal ones (struggling to find the right type of goal somewhere between impossible dream and minor gain). The book reworks some existing context but in an intriguing and well-structured way.
  • “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi): This subtitle of the book feels a little overblown, but there are some great observations here. The book was published in 1990 and I’m not sure how the book itself is, but I listened to the Audible Audiobook version and very much enjoyed this cross-disciplinary look into what makes an enjoyable experience. The book does a great job of separating the notions of pleasure and happiness. Going deeper it also deconstructs what it is that genuinely contributes to happy, productive states. If you want a quick hack for your work life that uses some of the same principles check our Paul Graham’s classic Maker/Manager Schedule blog post.
  • “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” (Jonathan Haidt): Another dramatic title (!): I guess it goes with the category! The premise of the book is simple: digging through ancient and modern literature to try to find the most repeated and strongest concepts that describe the human condition. The author goes further though and builds these into an end-to-end narrative. At one level the book is an interesting historical journey. Beyond this though, it is thought-provoking for one’s own life. What resonated most with me was the interesting observations near the end which reflect on the seeming dichotomy between “non-attachment” concepts from religions such as Buddhism and the happiness derived from trying to achieve something distinct.
  • “How will you measure yourself?” (Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, Karen Dillon): Clayton Christensen is famous for his business writing and in particular his work “The Innovators Dilemma” which, despite being from the late ’90s is still essential reading today. In this book, Clayton and his co-authors look at how modern lives often drive us to measure our “success” in ways which drive us to poor decisions. There is some re-hashing of business-related ideas so skimming over the text might make it seem shallow, but the questions the authors ask are well worth thinking about for yourself! Thank you Victoria for pointing me to this one. There is a TEDxTalk which covers some of the same materials (Clayton Christensen is a religious man and the talk leans in a faith based direction, but the book doesn’t focus there.)
  • “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing” (Mignon Fogarty): It’s probably fair to say I need to re-read/re-listen to this every twelve months. While English is my primary language, I still make way too many grammatical mistakes. This book is the most fun as an Audiobook where it takes the form of a podcast-like series of short mnemonics on how to structure your language. A surprise hit of the year and I’m glad I put it in the queue!

In addition to these, I’d give honorable mentions to “Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently” by Beau Lotto (thank you for the pointer Mike) and “12 Rules for Life” by Jordan Peterson. Both books look at how instincts, our filters, and biases affect our decisions. A caveat on Jordan Peterson’s book. I was unaware of this when reading the book, but recently the author has made some statements which have been as patriarchal and sexist (see here for a summary). So this may mean it’s one to avoid now. There are also some passages in the book which lean a little too much towards the justification of traditional gender roles. On the other hand I include the book here since there are some other sections with genuinely useful perspectives.

It’s a little hard to know what I was thinking as I choose these books as I went through the year and they likely wont appeal to everybody. Hopefully though there might be one or two that pique someone’s interest!

In the next post: Society & Economics…

Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash


Originally published at Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers.