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.
Despite my rant a few weeks back on the podcast-book marketing relationship, there are a few authors I will check out when they appear on podcasts I’m subscribed to. For instance, Ryan Holiday just released his new book and is out promoting it to various podcast audiences.
He appeared on Rolf Pott’s podcast, Deviate, and had a conversation about what it’s like to write a big idea book. Towards the end of the episode, he makes an off-hand remark on getting ideas from recently published books, and how he chooses not to do this because it tends to result in recycling the same academic studies. Given how much I rant about animated bibliographies and short term content bias, I was happy to see some convergence in our ideas – that my amateur attempt on commenting on culture is shared by people I admire and hold in regard.
I’ve transcribed his remarks below, but you can go here to listen to the episode yourself. Holiday’s comments begin at the 50:37 mark:
Potts: And that’s why you should feel blessed not to be an academic, right, because that’s such a useful model from which to write a book. The academic world has these different hoops to jump through that often aren’t as useful. And I would think that, sometimes, there’s types of research, like, do you do much Google or Wikipedia research, or is it mostly books?
Holiday: Yeah, I mean, you have to be careful, obviously, relying on Wikipedia, but yeah you do wanna go get facts here and there, and you gotta check stuff out. I like to use obituaries. Let’s say I’m writing about a modern person and they’ve died. New York Times obituaries, Washington Post obituaries often have lots of really interesting stuff. Then you can be really confident that dates and places and names are all correct because they’ve been properly fact-checked. So I like to do stuff like that. I watch documentaries from time to time. In this book, there wasn’t really a great book about Marina Abramović, but there was some really great New York Times reporting about her Artist is Present exhibit, and there’s also a documentary with the same name. So I’m willing to get stuff from anywhere provided I believe it’s verified or accurate, but you can’t be choosy about where your stuff comes from. And in fact, if you’re only drawing from the best selling books of the last couple of years, just as an aside, an example, I find when I read a lot of big idea business books, it feels like they’re all relying on the same fifteen academic studies. It’s “the will power” experiment, and “the paradox of choice” experiment, and the “Stanford Prison” experiment! They think it’s new because it’s new to them, but if they’d read a little bit more widely in their own space, they’d realize that they’d be better off going a bit deeper or treading on some newer ground.
(Note: I’ve lightly edited the transcript to remove filler words and some idiolects).
I’ve noticed an annoying trend in the podcast marketing of new books. The marketing itself works quite well – I’ve purchased a number of books based on authors who appear on podcasts I listen to and discuss the main ideas of the book with the host.
The problem I have is when it seems like a significant amount of the content discussed in the podcast accounts for large chunks of the book’s main ideas. For instance, I picked up a book recently and all of the key ideas (the theoretical framework and main argument for why the topic is important) laid out in the first 70 pages were discussed on a podcast. I’m curious whether the rest of the book will be similarly spoiled, but I’m holding out to be surprised. From what I’ve seen so far, though, the next 150 pages are presented as tactics and strategies to apply the main ideas, so I’m not overly optimistic.
I understand that this is part and parcel of the marketing format for these books. An author is invited onto a show with a certain audience reach, the two discuss the book as a common framing device for the conversation, and everyone is happy – the author gets promoted, the publisher gets advertising, and the podcast generates revenues on sales kickbacks and sponsored content. The only person that loses is the reader who pays for a book that was effectively summarized an hour-long conversation for free. This is doubly bad when the book is an animated bibliography, and you’ve read enough books in the genre to get the punchline from the stories cited.
I can’t put all the blame on the author. After all, they are just trying to sell their book and there is going to be a lot of repetition of the talking points if you do a lot of interviews. A lot of the blame, instead, falls on the quality of the podcasts. I find that podcast hosts tend to stick to a common format of teeing up questions based on key points from the chapters. Sometimes this is handled smoothly, as in cases where the host poses an interesting question that the author uses to circle back to something discussed in the book. But I have listened to podcast episodes where the host states a thesis from the book without a question, and the author then just elaborates on that point.
In an ideal world, I would want an interview the way it used to be when I watched Jon Stewart’s run of the Daily Show, where the author would be invited as a guest to the show on the pretense of discussing the book, however the conversation would be about whatever Stewart wanted. Often the conversation was an excuse to catch up, swap stories, and bore little direct connection with what the book was about; the book was usually mentioned as an afterthought as the interview wrapped up. Maybe this wouldn’t sell as many books, but at least I wouldn’t feel cheated reading through a book I already had the conclusions for.
Or maybe I have too high of expectations of free content, which runs counter to the content farming that needs to occur to regularly post stuff for consumers.
A recent SMBC comic discussing how humans tend to revert to emotional baselines got me thinking. Go check it out; it’s humorously astute.
Shortly after the last Game of Thrones episode aired, reports came out that actor Kit Harington checked himself into a wellness centre to work on personal issues. This was later corroborated with behind the scenes footage showing some of his emotional reactions as they filmed the final episodes. Given that the show was one of his first major long-running parts, it’s not unreasonable that he’s experiencing complex thoughts and feelings around the show coming to a close.
Similarly, Olympian Michael Phelps appeared on Tony Robbins’s podcast and discussed his experiences with depression after his achievements in the pool. He notes that after running on an emotional high from training and competing, returning to “normal life” without any substantial goals is a tough adjustment for athletes. They spend long chunks of their lives devoted to a singular aim, and once they close that chapter of their lives, it can be difficult to find meaning in more mundane pursuits. Instead of reverting to a normal baseline, their sense of balance is skewed and their baseline dips emotionally lower.
I’m neither an acclaimed actor nor athlete, but I have experienced similar emotional falloffs that helps me relate to what these two people might be going through. After a summer of outward bound adventure in my army cadet days (we climbed mountains, glaciers, and biked through the Albertan countryside), I returned to my normal high school life and I experienced a week or so of crushing depression. I felt that after climbing a mountain, what else could I possibly experience in life that would top that? Setting aside that I was a teenager and lacked a more global perspective on life, in that moment I felt that I had peaked, and there was nothing left for me to achieve or look forward to.
The so-called “quarter-life crisis,” which for many coincides with graduating from four grueling years of undergraduate study, is a similar experience, where you no longer are striving towards a goal and now have to seek out to find your own meaning in life. The vast, open stretch before you is daunting in its emptiness. But, instead of possibility, you view the void with pessimism – what do I have before me that can possible measure to what has come before?
I don’t have children, but I suspect that the “empty nest” feeling that parents get when their children head out on their own is similar. You’ve spent nearly two decades caring for your children, nurturing and guiding them towards self-sufficiency, and now that they are heading out, your goal is largely fulfilled and you need to redefine your identity and time in a post-dependent world.
When you experience the closing of a long-term goal that has spanned years, there seems to be a harsh recalibration period for your emotions. Not only do you snap back to baseline, but you have to redefine your expectations for the baseline, and re-code that experience with a new sense of purpose and meaning. The longer you stay in this limbo, it seems the harder you languish.
Achievement and success is wonderful, but I think we tend to only tell stories of the climb up the mountain and we tend to forget the back-half of the experience when we carefully climb back down, taking care not to fall back to earth. I think sharing these stories is important because it lets us know we are not alone in the dark.
You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit. It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist. I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.
This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast. After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book. It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class. You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it. If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.
However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back. On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process. They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.
You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.
How do you set up the bounds of research? How do you delineate what you put in the book? What should I include in the book?
There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes. He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage. Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together. When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it. Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text. Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on. It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.
How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?
He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles). He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas. He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges. It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested. It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
To validate ideas: 1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.” He asks “Is this working for me? Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
Over time, something will emerge and persist. It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).