The Most Influential Things I Read This Year
Continuing the tradition begun last year, here are my most memorable reads in 2014. Each of these changed my thinking or behavior in some manner. (Note: my daily reading makeup is roughly 85% articles and 15% books.)
…On maintaining a growth mindset
“Before you’re 30, you make your habits. After you’re 30, your habits make you.”
I started this blog, The Year of the Looking Glass, with this maxim looming like a dark and ominous cloud above my head. I wanted to capture what I was still learning in the last year of my 20s. I wanted to record it all down so I could prove them tangible and real, lest those flexible, budding thoughts begin to calcify through the years, as if succumbing to a disease that renders them stiff as statues.
Well, I turned 30 this year. And I became a new mother. And I’m still obsessed with the idea that learning and changing shouldn’t end. Not now, and not ever.
But reading “I don’t want to be right” from the New Yorker completely demoralized me because I had always believed that increased transparency to information (through sites like snopes.com, for example) led to more informed opinions. But as the article points out, once thought calcification happens and minds are made, changing that opinion is exceedingly difficult.
Which, of course, made me worry that maybe I was already losing touch with the mainstream. After all, I’d never heard of the trend that this New York Times piece on “unboxing videos” describes. (Clearly, something needed to change, and that change was spending more time on Youtube. Hello PewDiePie, Michelle Phan, and “haul” videos!)
Of all the articles I read on education, Salman Khan’s brief but powerful “Why I’ll never tell my son he’s smart” rang the most true. Smartness is not inherent. In fact, the label is an instant ball and chain. The only things that matter are will and effort. A good lesson for kids and adults both.
…On the importance of experience
My entire philosophy of gifting changed this year after reading “Buy Experiences, Not Things”. Now, instead of fine objects, I try and imagine the memories that will be created through the gift—hours spent at a concert or event, family game time with a new board game, lessons to improve a craft or learn something new.
Our time here is short, which is also why Clay Shirky’s “Why I asked my Students to Put their laptops away” struck a chord. I have a huge problem with device-obsession. I tell myself I’m multi-tasking and being efficient by getting shit done on my phone in the middle of less important activities, but the truth is that I’m playing into our culture of distraction. I’m being less efficient at living. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2015: blocking out specific chunks of time as screens-off.
I devoured The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz and loved his succinct, direct style and the book’s rap-infused wisdom. There were so many great management frameworks, some specific to the context of being CEO, but many more that I think about on an almost daily basis—how to lead in wartime vs. peacetime, how to avoid creating a culture of politics, how to interview, the critical importance of training, etc.
Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc would probably also make my list, except I just started reading this and am not yet done. But so far, reading this book is like uncovering buried treasure.
…On gender equality
This year, the topic of women felt like it was consistently in the public spotlight, sometimes positively (Emma Watson! Malala! Egg-freezing as a company perk!) and sometimes excruciatingly (Gamergate, college sexual assault, actresses’ private photos hack, the words of Uber executives).
One of my favorite reads was Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl. Not because I love Lena’s work (I didn’t watch “Girls” until after I read the book), and not because she was so charming in person (she wished me “have a great baby”) but because the book felt authentic and hilarious and I loved that she didn’t care what the naysayers and haters and the general public thought of her, she was just going to be herself. That kind of attitude makes me want to be more like Lena. That kind of attitude makes me want more girls like Lena out there in the world doing their thing.
From an edification perspective, and what I’d give to every man to read if I could: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture.” Especially the part about what men can do in the presence of other men.
Also, can we make like Sweden and adopt a neutral pronoun? Saying “him or her” in text is too awkward, alternating “him” and “her” is just confusing, and choosing either “him” or “her” is too loaded.
And lastly, some of the deepest and most poignant things I read this year had to do with death and dying.
In particular, it’s hard to describe how big of an impression Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (excerpt from the New York Times here) had on me. Prior to this year, I actively avoided thinking about aging and mortality. The thought made me uncomfortable. My parents and friends were in good health, and I told myself I had years to go before I’d have to deal with any of that. I didn’t want to be reminded of what was waiting down the road for all of us. But the truth is, death doesn’t just arrive out of the blue anymore. It tiptoes nearer and nearer as our bodies go through a long and gradual process of decay. Most of us will see it happen with loved ones before it happens to us. And most of us will be utterly unprepared—as I discovered I was—for how to think about and talk about death and end-of-life care.
Other thought-provoking reads on mortality include “Why I hope to Die at 75", a thoughtful rumination on taking control of when and how one ought to pass, “What Being a Mortician Taught Me About Dying”, and “What the Dying Really Regret”, which brought tears to my eyes.
Thank you, 2014. Thank you, writers and readers. Onward, and Happy New Year.