What I Read in 2021

book lot on table
Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

The calendar has rolled over, meaning it’s time to provide an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see what I read in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016.

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1ClanlandsSam Heughan & Graham McTavish01-Jan352
2Lean OutTara Henley03-Jan336
3Moon of the Crusted SnowWaubgeshig Rice05-Jan224
4SovereigntyRyan Michler12-Jan266
5Eat a Peach: A MemoirDavid Chang14-Jan304
6NeverwhereNeil Gaiman19-Jan480
7The Office: The Untold Story…Andy Greene24-Jan464
8Angels & DemonsDan Brown30-Jan736
9*MeditationsMarcus Aurelius07-Feb256
10The PracticeSeth Godin23-Feb272
11*The Righteous MindJonathan Haidt12-Mar528
12A Clash of KingsGeorge R.R. Martin29-Mar1040
13Hold Me TightDr. Sue Johnson26-Apr320
14*To Pixar and BeyondLawrence Levy26-Apr272
15Cool SexDiana Richardson & Wendy Doeleman30-Apr128
16MindfuckChristopher Wylie10-May288
17*The Massey MurderCharlotte Gray24-May336
18*On ImmunityEula Biss21-Jun224
19At The Existentialist CaféSarah Bakewell30-Jul448
20Learn Like a ProBarbara Oakley & Olav Schewe05-Aug160
21The Great InfluenzaJohn M Barry05-Aug560
22The New FatherArmin A. Brott07-Aug336
23EffortlessGreg McKeown07-Aug272
24Can’t EvenAnne Helen Petersen13-Aug304
25The Happiness HypothesisJonathan Haidt13-Aug320
26SwitchChip Heath and Dan Heath16-Aug320
27The Bully PulpitDoris Kearns Goodwin22-Aug912
28Saving JusticeJames Comey22-Aug240
29An Elegant DefenseMatt Richtel27-Aug448
30Infinitely Full of HopeTom Whyman06-Sep218
31*The Black CountTom Reiss22-Sep432
32Think AgainAdam Grant01-Oct320
33Lives of the StoicsRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman03-Oct352
34*A Knock on the DoorTruth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada06-Oct296
35Our Own Worst EnemyTom Nichols07-Oct256
36A Storm of SwordsGeorge R.R. Martin11-Oct1216
37How Ike LedSusan Eisenhower17-Oct400
38Braiding SweetgrassRobin Wall Kimmerer29-Oct408
39*Social EmpathyElizabeth Segal05-Nov256
40NoiseDaniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein09-Nov464
41Finding Your ElementKen Robinson with Lou Aronica12-Nov320
42The StorytellerDave Grohl14-Nov384
43Why We Make Things and Why It MattersPeter Korn16-Nov176
44For Small Creatures Such As WeSasha Sagan18-Nov288
45Courage is CallingRyan Holiday24-Nov304
46*The Seven Principles for Making Marriage WorkJohn M Gottman and Nan Silver06-Dec288
47Mr. Dickens and His CarolSamantha Silva08-Dec288
48The Ghost of Christmas PastRhys Bowen14-Dec272
49Why We SleepMatthew Walker19-Dec368
50In A HolidazeChristina Lauren20-Dec336
51Christmas Every DayBeth Moran24-Dec408
52A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens24-Dec112
Total19308
Entries whose number is asterisked was read for our bookclub.

This year was a huge step up in the number of books I got through. In 2020 I came in at 38 books, whereas I settled into a good groove and managed 52 books for 2021, or a book per week on average. The big months were January (8 books), August (10 books), and October through December (7 books each month). 2020 was a tough year on everyone as we made the pivot to pandemic life; I was also preoccupied with my wife’s pregnancy and later the birth of our son. For 2021, things settled and we found new normals to operate within. I still relied heavily on audiobooks, but I found that where I made the majority of my reading progress during my work commutes in the before-times, I now find time while walking the dog and doing chores around the house to squeeze in a listen.

I’m also happy to see I continued my trend started in 2020 to move away from predominantly reading self-help and business books. While they are still sprinkled throughout, I embraced more fiction, memoirs, books on history, and discussions of complex social issues.

My book club was down slightly over last year, coming in at 9 books for the year. We also celebrated a birth and added a new member which is exciting. In the table above, the asterisked numbers denote book club entries, but I have included them collected below:

  1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  2. The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
  3. To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy
  4. The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray
  5. On Immunity by Eula Biss
  6. The Black Count by Tom Reiss
  7. A Knock on the Door by Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
  8. Social Empathy by Elizabeth Segal
  9. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M Gottman and Nan Silver

And to round out the post, here are my top five reads of the year in chronological order:

  1. Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (this book was so good, I bought two copies and mailed them to friends as gifts – one going all the way to Scotland!)
  2. The Great Influenza by John M Barry (if history doesn’t repeat itself, then at the very least it rhymes, and so learning about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 helps to contextualize our experiences over the last two years)
  3. How Ike Led by Susan Eisenhower (I took so many notes reading this book and will revisit the lessons of Dwight Eisenhower often)
  4. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (this was my first proper introduction to Indigenous ways of knowing, and my worldview has been made richer for it)
  5. Why We Make Things and Why It Matters by Peter Korn (a beautiful memoir and reflection on the nature of making, craft, art, and finding your calling within a career)

2021 was a great year of reading for me. Despite feeling adrift in the monotony of the pandemic (or languishing, as Adam Grant claims it), I found exploring both ideas and fictional worlds to be immensely rewarding. My horizons have expanded and I’m looking forward to continuing this exploration into the new year. I’m intending on tackling more biographies, books on history, and works of fiction. I’ve also decided to explore another genre – comic books! With all the great media being adapted from comic books (and now that I have disposable income), I’m intending on diving into some of the celebrated collected volumes that I missed out back in my Wizard reading days.

Happy New Year!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Ethical Shopping

While I don’t condone thinking of capitalism, consumerism and consumption as hallmarks of Christmas, it’s something that is nevertheless on my mind. After a record year for some big box (or big warehouse) retailers last year, many folks in the ethical space really hammered home that we must vote with our money wisely and choose more ethical options when it comes to shopping. Supporting local, supporting products or services that aren’t wasteful, supporting employers that pay good wages are all values that hit louder when we felt safer just staying home and shopping from our phones.

This year, I’ve made some attempts at being more mindful of my shopping, though with a toddler at home during a pandemic, my flexibility is a little more constrained than in the past. Recently I came into an ethical shopping scenario that I found difficult to find a perfect solution for, and it involves comic books.

I’ve been a nerd for a long time and loved comic books as a kid. While I didn’t always have the means or funds to regularly purchase comic books, I would try to keep up with stories through alternative sources like the now shuttered Wizard magazine. Now that I’m older, with more disposable income, I’d like to step back into comics and attempt some regular readership.

Off the top, my goal would be to support local and to ensure I’m paying for the art, rather than finding easy, cheap access to the stories. The first constraint is, as of writing, we don’t have a comic book shop here in town. There is a shop that’s closer to me the next town over, however I feel a deeper connection to the comic shops in Kitchener-Waterloo, a town not that far from me, but still a commitment to travel to for things like this.

The second constraint is I’m trying to be mindful of the environment and the fact that I tend to be a packrat, and I’ve accepted that I don’t intend to collect comics, but just want to read the books, so I would be fine with paying for digital versions of the comic books. However, there is no service that I can find that would purchase the rights to read the stories from comic book shops. Instead, the near-universal option would be to pay for digital books from a platform called Comixology, which is unfortunately a subsidiary of Amazon (side bar – many publishers have their own digital archives that you can pay for access to, though Comixology seems to be the only service that allows you to buy current books, whereas publishers seem to have a lag of when the stories appear in their lists). I already have an Audible subscription, and I purchase way too much from Amazon already, so I am hesitant to give more money to the big A.

The way I see it, there is no easy solution for this – I can pay money to a big corporation for the ease of reading at home (and hoping that the money spent through Comixology makes its way back to the creators fairly – which I doubt given the comic book industry, artists and writers are not compensated well) but then I’m not supporting local businesses, or I can make special trips into town to buy from the local shop, which is inconvenient, requires driving, and requires me to purchase physical books.

In the end, I made a trip into town (I had other errands to run, so it was a more efficient trip) and bought recent releases at the shop, AND (in full, shameful disclosure), I bought a collected series on Comixology that wasn’t available in the shop. While this was hardly the most ethical solution in the moment, I still think it was a good exercise in thinking through the options and consequences of my choices.

Not fully related to the comics example, but in parallel to this consideration is voting with your money on art worth making. Chris Stuckmann released a short meditation recently on films and the question of why movies aren’t made like they used to be (in the sense of artistic films that were riskier box office bets, rather than the safe intellectual properties we see coming out all the time). The same conversations are being had in music, where it’s harder for bands to get a foothold in the world of streaming, and the only big acts tend to be bands that were big before streaming.

In his essay, Stuckmann reflects that our choices to see certain kinds of film sends messages to studios and the system of what works are likely to make money, so the incentives are to continue making only those kinds of art. I’ll let his video speak for itself, but it gives me something consider when I’m choosing how to support art and how to consume more ethically (if such thing is really possible under capitalism).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Leverage

I’ve been reading ‘self-improvement’ books for the last five years. Some of those books dealt with financial and life management, where you leverage the money you earn to create more value for yourself. But until you reach that point in your life, it’s only a theoretical exercise to engage with – there is no point in thinking deeply into investing options or buying your way into freedom until you have money to buy options. I’m sure there are self-improvement adherents who will vehemently disagree with this, but the reality is you aren’t going to gain access to the game by saving money not buying lattes or avocado toast unless you are playing a really long game with a lot of good luck.

I’ve now hit a point in my life where options have opened up for my family, and we can make choices and trade-offs to build out a lifestyle that works best for our goals. This is not to say that all options are available to us – we have to carefully look at the tradeoffs and determine whether the downsides of any option are something we are comfortable living with (e.g. to pay for a given option, should we, say, reduce from two cars to one).

Part of this exercise is critically examining each of our assumptions and systems to determine if they are moving us towards what we want, or if they need to change to better align with what we want. This is where the concept of leverage has entered my mind, because when evaluating costs or expenses, it’s important to note that not all expenses are net negative. Some expenditures end up buying more value than what we spend on them.

This is the game in a nutshell – you trade your time for money. Money represents quantified time and effort that can be exchanged in markets with mixed goods. I spend time at work and my employer gives me money in return. I then take that money to purchases goods or services.

Until now, most of the way I thought about the game was surface-level transactions of 1:1 value transfer – I work x-hours for y-dollars. I then trade y-dollars for a good or service with a transactional value of y-dollars. I haven’t really given much thought to the value (that is, how much I value it subjectively) of the good or service provided back to me, and whether that value is higher than what I’m spending. I suppose I’ve thought about it in an abstract way, such as I receive more enjoyment from the thing than the money I spent on it; the opportunity cost is not higher than the value I’m getting from it.

By focusing on the surface-level transactions, the only metric that was critical was to ensure the revenue was not exceeded by the expenses, that I wasn’t spending more money to buy value than I was getting in exchange for my labour. It’s worked up until now, but the direction my family wants to head requires me to think more deeply about what those expenses are buying us.

Ideally, I should be seeking to engage leverage – I trade time for money, then use the money to buy time in greater quantities. What might this look like?

  • With my wages, I can lease or own a car. The money I spend on the car frees me up to commute to work on my own terms. I could get to work more cheaply, such as public transportation or cycling (ignoring environmental costs in this calculation), but then I’m trading cost for time. Having my own vehicle is more convenient, more comfortable, and faster, allowing me to maximize time at work and time at home.
  • With my wages, I can pay for cleaners to clean my house. This frees up more leisure time and cuts down on bickering in the house. It is cheaper for me to buy the supplies and do it myself, but I value the leisure and time with my family more than the cost.
  • With my wages, I can pay for daycare for our child. My spouse or I could quit our job to care for our child at home full time and save the money. However, the money we spend on childcare frees us up to earn multiples of what we spend for the childcare – e.g. at $1,000/month, we would spend $12,000/year for daycare so that we can make north of 5x of that in our jobs.

This is not an easy exercise as many of our expenses feel necessary on the one hand, or scary large in context. However at this point in our lives, we have to accept that our raw effort will only diminish (I can’t work all-nighters like I used to without significant physical cost), and there are no more hours in a day we can squeeze out through discipline and efficiency. We must now turn to leverage and force multipliers to translate what we have into higher value.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Beachhead

A friend who recently was appointed CEO of a company called me this week looking for a soundboard to sort out ideas he had in his head about how to proceed with company operations and strategic direction. The company is looking to shift strategic priorities, and he was looking for an outside voice to make sense of the new direction in relation to the legacy systems he’d need to grapple with.

One of the topics that came up reminded me of a concept I learned about while reading Susan Eisenhower’s book about her grandfather’s time during World War 2 and his subsequent Presidential years.

At two times during Dwight Eisenhower’s tenure in significant leadership roles, he had to create a beachhead to establish his forces (literal and metaphorical) to push towards his objectives. During the war, Operation Overlord’s first phase was to establish a beachhead in Normandy to create a defensible position to allow Allied Forces to work their way into Europe to push back Germany’s army. Establishing a beachhead is critical to success, but is often difficult for offensive forces to complete as the defending force usually has the upper hand in terms of resources and strategic positioning. While the offensive forces need to both set up a foothold and protect its lines to allow more troops to arrive, the defending forces merely have to reinforce it’s occupying positions to clamp down on fresh troops from joining the beachhead. Once the effects of first-mover advantage wears off, the offensive force must contend with protecting supply lines, fighting active defense from the opponent, and pushing past inertia to avoid grinding to a halt in order to win. Once established, a successful beachhead serves as a ratchet for the offensive force – the location of which all future offensives are launched from, and from which the troops need not backslide past. Traction is gained, and the army moves forward.

Similarly, during Eisenhower’s presidency, he saw the importance of passing civil rights legislation, but saw the difficult uphill battle that would needed to both move the country towards accepting civil rights AND enshrining those rights in law (turning both hearts and minds of the nation). While he would have aspired to complete civil rights equality in his time, he knew that if poorly planned, then history, culture, and opposing interests would ensure that forward progress towards equality would halt. Instead, he sought to establish a kind of metaphorical beachhead for civil rights, working on government programs and legislation that would lay the foundation for future leaders to take up and ratchet their work – allowing the movement to progress forward without worrying about losing traction and backsliding.

In listening to my friend, I noted that he also needed to take this lesson from history and focus on his own beachhead. While we think that a CEO is all-powerful in terms of exerting their will over the company, we must also face the reality that comes with working with legacy systems and people. Change is difficult and slow, and when poorly executed either stalls from inertia or alienates your workforce. And so I suggested he take a leaf from Eisenhower’s example and focus on what his core objective is that is reasonable within the timeline he’s being given, and focus on establishing a beachhead to deliver value back to the company president.

Since reading about Eisenhower, I’ve thought about my own beachheads – what are the areas of my life that I must focus on to ensure I’m moving forward with my goals, whether they are family, work, health, or passions. It is still very much a work in progress, but I want to find those areas that I can carve out and secure so that when it’s time to take risks towards my goals, I have a safe space to launch from.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Planning and Preparation

Last week, Seth Godin wrote a poignant observation about the wisdom of refilling your gas tank at the right time. This of course was a metaphor; it’s not about literally filling your gas tank (except when it is). Instead, the observation is about recognizing that you are better able to weather uncertainty when you are mindful about resources, whether that’s financial, physical, human, or even your own attention.

Yes, sometimes we are so strapped for time that it’s hard to remember to prioritize fil1ing before empty, but if you pay attention to your resources, then as he says you can “have your emergency on your own schedule.”

His post was well-timed, because I’ve found myself falling behind this week on some critical tasks. When I reflected on it in my journal, it’s easy to say I was busy. It’s true, I was busy – I was in a lot of long meetings, I had appointments, and obligations at home. But I’m always busy, so this week wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary.

Instead, my lack of progress is due less in part to other people’s demands on my time, and instead it’s largely due to my own poor planning and preparation. Without an appropriate plan for the time that was all my own, I was left to flit carelessly to this whim and that urgent thing.

As a reminder to myself, open blocks of time in my calendar are not default downtime. I have more control over my time than I realize (or behave).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

World Limits

I’ve been thinking about the limits of my world, specifically as it relates to my ability to understand it. Much of the time, I operate as if I have access to capital-T Truth, that I have some connection with facts about the world. It’s easy to fall into this kind of thinking – when I can predict and explain events, it gives me feedback that I know things about the world in a meaningful sense.

But I also know that this confidence in my knowledge is not as strong as I assume it to be. I have to remind myself to adjudicate the claims I encounter, or to remind myself of the difference between history and the past. It’s also good to listen to others who have learned about issues from multiple vantage points (see this amazing conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast with Noah Feldman, and his experiences with constitution building in the Middle East).

Generally speaking, all of our experience in life has presented us with a mostly successful set of interactions with the world, but those interactions are subjective and limited. Taking the long view of world events, learning new languages, and empathy provide the Archimedean point beyond ourselves to attempt to stand on some point of objectivity (if this is even possible).

As Wittgenstein says, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This shouldn’t be literally taken to mean language (though I’m assuming that’s what Wittgenstein meant), but we should apply this to our understanding vis a vis experience. The limits of my world are constrained by the limits of my experience and the mental framework I use to make sense of it. If I want to seek to expand my worldview, it’s important to both prune out the dead branches of knowledge while cultivating new seeds of wisdom.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Art of Self-Discipline

On the days when I’m languishing and finding it difficult to be productive, where procrastination and anxiety keep me in rabbit holes of distraction, and at the end of the day I look at the clock and realize how much time I’ve wasted, it’s easy to write myself off as a lazy, slovenly person. It’s easy to think of myself as the kind of person who does not have discipline, that I wasn’t born with that trait – fatalism has kicked in; I should accept who I am.

But that’s not what self-discipline is. It’s easy to see self-discipline as some sort of binary state when you are comparing yourself against others further along their own paths than where you want to go.

The Romans had a saying that “we can’t all be Cato’s,” referring to the stoic politician who served the State with self-sacrifice. But that saying is wrong. It should be “we aren’t all Cato’s, yet.”

In virtue ethics, your moral character is judged against an abstract ideal – the Stoic Sage. But possessing virtue is not a trait or character state. Possessing virtue is a process of becoming, of doing the right thing at the right time.

Having self-discpline doesn’t mean you are a paragon of discpline. It means you are exercising discpline in the moment. If you fail, it just means you are still working on becoming who you want to be.

The Japanese refer to this as ““, the Way. You never reach perfection, but your life is one long project of incremental progress towards what you are meant to be.

That is the way of self-discipline.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Last Person to Know Everything

On a recent CBC podcast episode about Leibniz and Voltaire’s thoughts about evil and God, one of the interviewees referred to Leibniz as “the last man to know everything.” I find this notion utterly fascinating. Upon hearing that title, I jumped online to search for the “best biography on Leibniz” and found a highly acclaimed book detailing an intellectual biography of the 17th-century thinker. Once I clear some books on my current reading list, I’ll dive into this hefty book.

“Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography” by Maria Rosa Antognazz

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the moniker of “the last person who knew everything.” In fact, that was the title of a biography I read back in late 2018 on Enrico Fermi.

I’ve been drawn to this idea for a long time, probably originating with the first time I saw the 1994 film Renaissance Man starring Danny DeVito. That was where I first learned of the term renaissance man, or more commonly known as a polymath – a person with considerable knowledge and expertise across a wide variety of domains. While I wouldn’t quite call it a goal, this is an aspiration of mine since I was a child.

I suppose as the sciences progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to lay claim to being “the last person who knew everything.” Each field grows increasingly complex as we push the boundaries of the known world, which raises the threshold higher of what counts as expertise.

It would seem we need to seriously consider the observation recently made by Professor Adam Grant on the differences between experience and expertise:

Instead of seeking to always have depth of knowledge, perhaps we should give equal consideration to wisdom and how we can apply our experiences and expertise to solve interesting problems. While more nebulous as a goal, I think it steers us in the right direction. At the very least, it’s a good vision to aspire towards.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

PS – an unexhaustive list of the traits that distinguishes a “last person who knew everything:”

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Intellectual humility
  • Interests spanning a variety of domains, both sciences and arts
  • A grasp of the methods and tools of science
  • Generating novel insights
  • The ability to see problems in terms of first principles
  • Engaging in idea arbitrage
  • Focus and flow in work – liking what you do

Shrinking the Change

In recent weeks, I’ve built reading time intentionally into my work day. I’ve had it “in my calendar” for quite a while as an intention, but I haven’t meaningfully engaged with that blocked-off time since I first put it into my calendar. The intention was to recognize that my skills and career path would require me to commit time to learning and personal development, but I quickly got lazy and found other less productive things to occupy that time with.

I was annoyed with how I’d allow the whole day to slip by without getting a good start to my tasks (my vice being YouTube’s algorithm), so I thought I’d redirect my attention a bit. I reasoned that if my brain wanted to fight engaging with work (because it’s hard), then I could use that time to read. I set the timer and once I finish the sprint, I would start on some task for the day.

Surprisingly, I’m having some success with the process. It’s not perfect, but on the days I start with reading, I’m more likely to resist temptation and tackle items on my to do list.

Coincidentally I’m reading the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. One of the chapters discusses the concept of shrinking the change, which is just a fancy way of expressing the idea that we should break big scary tasks into smaller, more manageable bites. Committing to something that is long and ill-defined is hard for my lazy brain to comply with, but it will comply with an easy edict, like “read for the next 25-minutes,” or “spend the next 25-minutes downloading course information files to be processed.”

These tips and hacks are not new – everyone has some flavour of it as part of their productivity system. But like losing weight, it’s not a knowledge problem. Learning and reading about how to lose weight won’t make you shed the fat, nor will it help you amp up productivity.

The challenge for me is tricking myself into not being lazy. If the only way I can do that is making an Odysseus pact, or treating myself like a child, setting a timer, and promising to do a little bit before I get a reward, then so be it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan