I learned a valuable lesson this Christmas about being intentional with how one goes about building their space. With all the decorations up – the tree, the lights, and arranging the room to nurture a sense of closeness and conversation – my wife and I were creating a feeling of a cozy home. As we packed up the decorations this past weekend to reflect the end of the holiday season, I felt a twinge of sadness. I will both miss the excitement that comes with the holiday break (yay time off work!), but also the feeling of coziness that comes from Christmas decorations. The green from the tree, the red from the decorations, and the warm yellow hue of the lights. More than time off, I am going to miss relaxing in the living room with the main lights off, basking in the glow of the tree and candles we had burning.
Surprising, candles played an important role of this. I first noticed it back in October during our honeymoon. We had a short stop in Germany to visit family, and it was customary for us to enjoy dinner together by candle light. It gave things an intimate, personal feeling, where time stood still as we enjoyed each other’s company.
I learned that there is a word to describe this feeling. I was listening to the Art of Manliness podcast where they discussed the Danish concept of hygge, which can be translated to represent something like the art of getting cozy. It encompasses a number of sensory feelings you get, such as when you come in after being out in the snow, and you warm up in fresh clothes and a hot beverage. Light, smells, decorations, comfort, and warmth all help one feel cozy, which is attributed in part to explain how the Danes endure long, harsh winters.
This is something I want to carry forward throughout the year. Until now, I’ve largely viewed where I live from a utilitarian perspective – it’s a place to store my stuff. However, now that my basic needs are met, I feel a call to build my space into something that brings me happiness for itself and what it represents, instead of for what it can give or do for me. I want to pay closer attention to all the flourishes that make a house into a home, such as decorations and having things in their place. It’s not just orderliness or tidiness, but instead giving us a place that makes us happy regardless of the harshness beyond our door.
Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Bullet Journal Method
Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic
Daniel H. Pink
The Gift of Failure
Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
The Graveyard Book
Built to Last
Right Here Right Now
Stephen J. Harper
Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
J. Michael Straczynski
A Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin
Scott H. Young
Reader Come Home
Andrew G. McCabe
The Path Made Clear
I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.
Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.
Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.
Podcasts and Music
If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.
However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.
Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.
Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.
I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.
In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.
Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.
In the waning days of 2018, I gave a preview of the books I read for the year by listing my top five books. I doubt my current list of books will grow before the new year chimes in tomorrow night, but I will save the 2019 list for next week, and instead present you with my top books I read this year.
My overall volume of reading this year was less than half of what I read last year. Since 2016, I’ve intentionally set about to increase my reading and I was able to keep the pace for three years. However, for some reason my reading slowed down a bit. I’ll reflect on this over the coming week and share some thoughts with my 2019 reading list post. Given the relatively short list this year, I will instead highlight all of my favourite books since it seems that these were the books that stuck with me.
In chronological order of when I finished them, here are my top books I read in 2019.
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
A delightful fictional story about a boy who grows up in a graveyard among ghosts and other creatures of the night. Rather than a horror story as you might expect from the premise, instead this is a charming and whimsical coming of age story that gripped me from start to finish. Like all good stories, I was sad when the book was over and missed the characters dearly.
The story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos company. Not only is this book a journalistic account of the deceptive “science” and events surrounding the failed tech venture, but it also explores the toxic achievement culture at the company’s top and the lengths the journalists and ex-employees had to go to in order to bring the company down. It’s a riveting story to experience, and I was happy to hear of the Ethics in Entrepreneurship initiative founded by two of the whistle blowers.
This memoir took me to the highest highs and the lowest lows. While Straczynski is known for his ability to craft human stories in the most magical and alien of settings, none of his work of fiction can come close to matching his own personal story of growing up in an abusive home and how that shadow followed him throughout his life. Running in parallel with his own story, he also tells a mystery story about his family’s origins that spans three generations. I mostly started this book to learn about his craft and the origins of some of my favourite projects he’s worked on, but in the end I witnessed a masterclass in writing and reflection.
With the end of the show this year, I felt like it was time for me to crack into the books that kicked-off the phenomenon. I am grateful that I watched the series first as it really helped me keep track of all of the characters in this massive tale. Also, reading a large fictional story was a welcomed relief. Over the last three years, my primary genre to read is at the intersections of business, productivity, and personal development. I think one thing that has lead to me reading less is feeling burnt out of that kind of content, so it was great to read something for pleasure. I am still proud of going through 500-pages while up at the cottage; there is nothing quite like reading by the lake.
Thanks to the Libby app and the library, I was able to check out books I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered if I had to purchase them. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this memoir was fascinating. I’m drawn to books where people look over their life and career to draw lessons when connecting their experiences. Whatever the political climate we find ourselves in, I find it somewhat reassuring to know there are people in the deep state who work to put the mission above party, though as more evidence comes to light, that faith is beginning to crumble.
Despite the subject matter, there is no other word I can think of to describe this book than “awesome.” And I mean “awesome” in both senses of the word. The book inspires “awe” at the sheer scope of things, but also a riveting tale of Snowden’s life to date, full of creativity, ingenuity, and technological espionage. I marveled at the fact that he is only a few years older than me, but what he has gone through is likely to dwarf any contributions I’ll ever make. I hope he can come home one day, but for the present I hope he remains safe while the effects of his actions continue to simmer in the current political climate.
In looking over my top books for the year, we see three genres stand out – fantasy, current events journalism, and memoirs. I would have also included biography in this list, however one book is missing that I unfortunately couldn’t finish before it was checked back in to the library: Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It’ll get added to my 2020 list when the library finally releases it back to me.
As I said above, I think I’m starting to burn out of the business and productivity genres of books. When I reviewed the list for the year, I had almost no recollection of the content for nearly all of the books. It would seem I’ve hit a bit of a block, where I’ve consumed so much content in a short amount of time that I’m failing to hold on to it (or, as a corollary, the content is so superficial that it doesn’t stick…).
I still have a number of books on the go that I hope to finish early next year (such as the first Witcher book that the game and Netflix series was based on, Robert Greene’s Laws of Human Nature, and Working by Robert A. Caro, to name a few). Once I clear some of the current backlog, I plan to start selecting my reading a bit more intentionally so that I can reflect on the lessons the books have to offer. Overall, the main themes that stick out in the books that speak to me personally are good moral stories, cautionary tales, and the reflections of/about people over a long period of time to draw connections and lessons from their life and work.
As the year is winding down, I (like many others) am beginning the process of looking over the year that was and weighing in on how things went. While I ideally would have set goals for myself for 2019, truthfully I am terrible on the follow-through and I ended up setting something more akin to an “intention.” For instance, over the last two years, I had set as a New Year’s resolution to 1.) stop being late for things, 2.) keep exercising, and 3.) start making better eye contact when talking to people.
In reality, I’m still late for everything (but at least I track it), I stopped exercising a while ago (I’m disheartened no one called me out about it on social media), and I still feel my eye contact at work is spotty at best.
Last year though, instead of creating a quarterly goal for myself, I set a grand focus or theme for the year. I had tried setting quarterly themes for myself a few years ago, but I found that I wasn’t making progress during the quarter through poor goal management on my part, so I simplified and decided to work on one thing for the year.
At the start of 2019, I decided I would place greater emphasis on my health. I kept it fairly broad in its application, but I did brainstorm a number of concrete areas I could work on, such as weight loss, lowering my blood pressure, regularly attending the gym, better nutrition.
I think the fact that I kept things open-ended was a main reason why I feel like I didn’t accomplish this focus as well as I had wanted to. Had I set specific goals with realistic action items, I might have made better progress.
That’s not to say I haven’t “lived healthier.” For instance, I have:
experimented with intermittent fasting all throughout the year which did help to keep my overall weight regulated.
finally got a family doctor after having been dropped from my doctor when she closed her practice a decade ago.
went in for my first physical in a long time and had blood work done to check-in on how my body is doing.
been weighing myself and measuring blood pressure more frequently, though still haphazardly.
experimented with app-based meditation; I found the experience interesting and meriting further exploration, but I haven’t carved out the time to dedicate to it.
while on my honeymoon I hiked up Mt. Vesuvio and did a roundtrip on the Path of the God hike (nearly 20km and 200 flights of stairs registered on my Fitbit for the day).
began tracking things like my down/depressed days, headaches, and time with family and friends in addition to my sleep tracker.
visited my optometrist for a check-up.
two regular visits to the dentist.
cut down on the amount of junk food I take in my lunches at work to essentially zero.
While these aren’t quantified victories, there are worthwhile achievements to celebrate. As I look to the new year, one lesson I can draw is that limiting my one thing for the year is a good way to focus my attention, but if I want to make any tangible progress (e.g. weight loss on the scale), I would still need to set proper SMART goals and create an action plan that requires me to carve out time intentionally.
I’ve been thinking about endurance recently, specifically in two areas of my life. First, I’ve been experimenting with intermittent fasting since January of this year and I’ll be sharing some reflections on it soon. By fasting each day, it requires a certain amount of endurance to push through on cognitively and physically demanding tasks while your body deals with the exertion in a fasted state.
Second, as the winter weather hits us, I have to endure colder temperatures while working at the bar. I’ve managed to push myself over the last two years and use a sufficient number of clothing layers to eschew wearing a coat while on the door position. I have the coat on hand, but I like the challenge of working without it and standing outdoors for long stretches of time exposed to the elements.
It might seem silly or pointless to put myself in these positions when I don’t have to – I make enough money so that I never need to worry about food scarcity or not owning enough proper clothing to protect myself. On some level, it’s stupid machismo to willfully deprive myself in this way. Yet, I like the challenge and the sense of satisfaction that I can achieve some level of control or mastery over myself and my situation.
While recently listening to Oprah’s book The Path Made Clear, I came across a really interesting way of framing this tendency I have. The specific section runs from 4:53-5:52 of the clip below, where Oprah is chatting with Alanis Morissette about the yearning to seek out a time in the future where all your present problems are solved and you are finally happy. They discuss that this forward-orientated hope for the future never manifests itself as peace; that money and fame doesn’t bring you happiness or contentment. Instead, you are always chasing that future where you are free from whatever pain you feel in the present.
“One of the big lessons I’ve learned over the last little while has been that if I can be comfortable with pain, which is different than suffering, if I can be comfortable with pain, as just an indication, and it’s potentially a daily thing (in my case it often is) then there won’t be my living in the future all the time; that one day if and when I will be happy.
“And even if I’m not comfortable doing that, I’m very uncomfortable in pain – I hate it – we run from it with all kinds of addictive, fun things (temporarily fun things). But at least knowing it’s a portal, and that on the other side is this great sense of peace that goes beyond this ego development.”
~Alanis Morissette (lightly edited for readability)
This sentiment spoke to me. I have an affinity towards stoicism and the idea that one should re-frame their relationship with the external. To me, I like knowing that I can endure, even when I don’t have to. It becomes practice for those moments when I need to dig in deep to perform, because life isn’t always easy. Through this practice, I can also appreciate my comforts all the more. And, it also doesn’t need to run in opposition of my goal to remove discomfort from my life so long as I remember that I’m not entitled to a life of comfort and ease and instead have to intentionally earn it.
I acknowledge that I’m fortunate not to live with serious pain or suffering. I have a comfortable life and I wouldn’t exchange it for machismo points. I don’t think the point of life is to suffer, but instead my goal is to learn to suffer well when life brings me pain.
Previously, at the start of the notebook I would collect a running series of to-do items. Most of the items at the top of the list would be things that had been carried-over for multiple months, with a few small items at the bottom that likely were first jotted-down in the previous month. I found that I was continuously copying out the same items month-over-month and the list was growing. On the one hand, if the thing isn’t important enough for me to complete in a reasonable amount of time, it could be the case that it’s not important enough for me to carry-forward and that I should just drop the task all together.
Yet, I felt that some of the tasks were things I’d want to complete “one day” in the undefined future, but that I had lots of other pressing things that needed my attention first. Or, some tasks would require a fair amount of planning or coordination, and so I would tackle it after an adequate amount of lead time.
Some time ago, I created an account on Trello, but it was sitting unused as I didn’t know what kind of boards I would find useful. This seemed like the perfect experiment to help me remain flexible.
I set up several columns (buckets) of items. In the far left, I labelled the list “Pool” and dump in all to do items. Within each of the cards I can make notes or sub-lists to help keep me on track of things. At the start of each month, if there is something I don’t want to carry forward into the new book, I put the item into the bucket.
Next, is the “Planning Phase” bucket. The beauty of Trello is I can drag cards from one column to the next, so when I’m ready to move stuff from the Pool to another phase of activity, I can easy drag-and-drop. Items in the Planning Phase might require me to do research or make purchases in preparation to work on the project.
If no further planning is required, I move it into the “Active” column. When a task is active, it’s something that I’m placing priority on and is meant to remind me to carve out space in my schedule to address.
Sometimes, a project needs to be put on hold. I created a bucket to put tasks that are underway but I’m not making active progress on. Items in this bucket might require someone to get back to me on some action of detail, or maybe I need to wait until a future date to complete the tasks. Whatever it is, if I don’t want to move a task back into the pool column, I place it here and make a note of why the tasks is in limbo.
“Completed” is my win column – it gives me a chance to see what I’ve crossed of my list and as the column grows, I can take satisfaction in my accomplishments.
I created an “Abandoned” column because sometimes I will choose not to complete a task but I don’t want to delete it outright. Maybe it’s something that’s still important, or maybe I missed a window but I want to be reminded of it.
Finally, for tasks that occur regularly but infrequently, I have a column so that I can see when the last time was that I finished a task, and remind myself that it will need to go back into the active column (e.g. changing my tires, changing the furnace filter, etc.).
I’ve been using this revised system for a few months and it seems to be satisfying my immediate needs. It both cuts down on the number of items I need to manually copy from book to book while allowing me to indefinitely store things in a user-friendly format – effectively marrying my love of analogue with the convenience of digital.
It is sometimes amazing how cyclical social and political problems can be. While I am not pessimistic in our ability to move forward in something that can be recognized as “progress,” I do have some cynical attitudes towards our collective habit to backslide. I realized some time ago that while we espouse enlightened positions, such as “never again,” people as a whole tend to by historically myopic and prone to letting fear get the best of them – or to quote Agent Kay “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
As of writing, I’m working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Around ten-hours into the audiobook, Chernow is discussing the political maneuvering between Hamilton and New York Governor George Clinton over trying to get the newly-drafted Constitution ratified in 10 States in order to bring it into force. The two sat on opposite sides of the federal government question, with Hamilton believing a strong central federal government was the key to sustaining the American experiment, while Clinton was distrustful of a central government superseding the power of the States. Hamilton had a poor opinion of Clinton, believing Clinton to be only concerned with consolidating his own wealth and power, and only pandering to the populace when elections rolled around.
Chernow gives a striking description of what Hamilton feared, and in a single line spells out a looming threat we are seeing anew in our own modern political discourse. Hamilton worried that “American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populace shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”
Chernow penned those words some fifteen years ago. Whether it’s 1788, 2004, or the dawning of the neo-20’s, the fears expressed in those words caution us that we must remain vigilant against those who seek to exploit our fears to manifest their vision in reality.