What I Read in 2020

Here we are at the dawning of a new year, which for me means it’s time to post an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see them here: 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. It’s hard to believe this is my fifth reading list!

TitleAuthorDate CompletedPages
1Creative CallingChase Jarvis22-Jan304
2The Age of Surveillance CapitalismShoshana Zuboff25-Jan704
3Animal FarmGeorge Orwell27-Jan112
4Alexander HamiltonRon Chernow02-Feb818
5RangeDavid Epstein12-Feb352
6The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan29-Feb384
7Call Sign ChaosJim Mattis12-Mar320
8The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams19-Mar208
9The AlchemistPaulo Coelho22-Mar208
10Guns, Germs, and SteelJared Diamond06-Apr496
11UpstreamDan Heath16-May320
12SymposiumPlato18-May144
13Gulliver’s TravelsJonathan Swift25-May432
14Anything You WantDerek Sivers11-Jun96
15Extreme OwnershipJocko Willink & Leif Babin18-Jun384
16The Code. The Evaluation. The ProtocolsJocko Willink 23-Jun93
17How Will You Measure Your LifeClayton M. Christensen28-Jun236
18The Last WishAndrzej Sapkowski05-Jul384
19The Expectant FatherArmin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash06-Jul336
20The Coaching HabitMichael Bungay Stanier14-Jul234
21The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksRebecca Skloot23-Jul400
22WorkingRobert A. Caro08-Sep240
23Crime and PunishmentFyodor Dostoyevsky15-Sep544
24Every Tool’s A HammerAdam Savage18-Sep320
25Love SenseDr. Sue Johnson20-Sep352
26NaturalAlan Levinovitz22-Sep264
27The Kite RunnerKhaled Hosseini06-Oct363
28My Own WordsRuth Bader Ginsburg10-Oct400
29Kitchen ConfidentialAnthony Bourdain20-Oct384
30Stillness is the KeyRyan Holiday06-Nov288
31The Oxford InklingsColin Duriez07-Nov276
32The Infinite GameSimon Sinek14-Nov272
33The Ride of a LifetimeRobert Iger21-Nov272
34As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to PowerJames Allen26-Nov182
35Medium RawAnthony Bourdain06-Dec320
36A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens06-Dec112
37The Little Book of HyggeMeik Wiking12-Dec288
38Nicomachean EthicsAristotle30-Dec400
Total12242

Overall, I’m happy with how the year went for reading. In reviewing the list, a few things stood out to me. First is that I surpassed my total books read for the year over 2019 by 13 entries. While we can certainly have a discussion about the merits issues of using the number of books read as an accurate key performance indicator of comprehension or progress, it was nice to see that I stepped things up a bit. I was fairly consistent in making my way through the books, with only a dip in April (likely because of the life-adjustment that came from working from home) and the silence seen from mid-July to the start of September thanks to the birth of our son in early-August.

I’m also happy to see that I read fewer self-help and business books last year and instead dove into more fiction, memoirs, and books about history. In my previous roundup, I had commented about wanting to be more intentional with my reading after feeling burnt out on certain genres of books.

One significant change in my reading habits this past year was that I joined a reading group/book club. A friend organized it just as things went into lockdown in March. We meet online every few weeks to discuss books selected in a rotation by the group. I commented earlier that I read 13 more books this year than last, and I’d attribute the book club to being the single biggest reason for the boost in completions (we cleared 12 by year’s end). Here are the books that we read:

  1. Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis
  2. Symposium by Plato
  3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  4. How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen
  5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  8. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  9. The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez
  10. As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to Power by James Allen
  11. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  12. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (finished in the final days, though we haven’t met to discuss it yet.

I’d normally create a separate post about my top reads for the year, but I’ll include it here for simplicity. In chronological order of when I finished, my top 5 reads of the year are:

  1. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (among my top reads ever; I was fortunate to see the stage play before the shutdown in March)
  2. Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis (the first book I chose for the book club; I was struck by how Mattis talks about self-education and reflection)
  3. The Expectant Father by Armin A. Brott & Jennifer Ash (since we were expecting this year, this book was a nice roadmap to know what to expect, and it provided some comfort along the way)
  4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (I recommend everyone read this book; it reminds me of the important work we do on the research ethics boards I sit on, and why we must be critical of research)
  5. My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsberg (I started this collection of writings and speeches before RBG died, and was sadly reminded after finishing of what we lost in her death).

This was a pretty good year for reading. It felt good to get lost in more fiction, and I’ll have things to say in the future about the value I’m finding in reading as part of a group. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and it’s time to keep tackling my reading backlog.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Observations on “A Christmas Carol”

Our bookclub tackled A Christmas Carol as one of the last reads for the year. It was a wonderful chat about what the holidays means to us, how things have changed over time, and what the moral lessons are from the short story.

This was my second time reading the story, so in addition to my knowledge of it from cinema (thanks largely to the Muppets), I was able to pay closer attention to the themes threaded through the story.

I noticed, for instance, that while the story is largely about redeeming one’s soul and the spirit of giving during the holidays, knowledge kept popping in. For instance, when Scrooge is haunted by Jacob Marley, Marley notes that he walks the earth as a result of not letting his spirit roam while alive. This unfinished business suggests that experiencing the world (cultivating awareness of those beyond yourself) was an important element of living a fulfilling live (after all, why would a spirit need to roam if they had a fulfilling life?).

The chains worn by Marley were a symbolic reminder of the knowledge he now possessed of his life’s actions. Each link forged by his life’s misdeeds are discrete representations of his lack of personal knowledge of his actions while alive.

Scrooge is unable to be receptive to the ghosts’ messages of redemption until he gains personal knowledge of himself by traveling to the past and understanding the choices that lead him to this point.

The Ghost of Christmas Present beckons Scrooge with “Come in man, and know me better!” Becoming acquainted with the present requires one to be present in the moment.

Scrooge’s redemption is only realized because he confronts the Spirit of Christmas-Yet-To-Come, pleading to know whether the shadows he sees are set. Why would you show these images to me if my knowledge of them won’t change what’s to come! he cries to the ghost.

I couldn’t help but draw a connection to our own problems with empathy in our charged political moment. We often lament our failures to connect with folks “on the other side.” We lack the empathy to understand their position to see how our similarities vastly outweigh our differences.

Dickens’s solution to the problem of empathy is rooted in knowledge. Yes, Scrooge is motivated initially by the desire to redeem his immortal soul and to avoid the fate of Marley. But his change of heart comes by letting his soul out to walk around and to know others. He connects with them, which in turn creates empathy and a desire to help.

It’s a delightful story that I was more than happy to revisit at this time of year.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A History of My Charitable Giving

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

I took a new step today in the evolution of my personal giving. For Giving Tuesday 2020, I finally set up my first set of recurring monthly donations. Now, every month the The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Brantford Food Bank will each receive a deposit of $10 from me. It’s a small, almost embarrassing amount to type (when I think of charitable giving, I’m thinking of impressive amounts with more than two zero’s to the left of the decimal point), but the important thing to keep in mind is a.) it’s my initial amount that I expect to grow over time as my circumstances allow, and b.) the total for the year will actually be higher than what I would normally have given.

I’ve been growing more intentional over time with my charitable giving. Many moons ago, I was involved with a program created by the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation called Engage. The program has since ended, but the experiences have stuck with me. If I want to live in a vibrant and thriving community, it’s important that I take the benefits and privileges I’ve accumulated to help others in different living circumstances than my own.

In philosophy, there is a thought experiment called the veil of ignorance, where if I were to be placed randomly in a society, I would obviously want to choose a position that afforded me a degree of wealth, freedom, security, and privilege. To me, this translates into a moral imperative that we should actively work to raise the living situations for all persons in our community to promote flourishing and happiness. I don’t want to live in a world where people have to rely on charity, but it’s an inescapable reality and therefore it must be confronted.

If we are being technical, charitable giving breaks down into three kinds of support, known as the three “t’s” – time, talent, and treasure. Time and talent were my first introduction to giving back to my community. It started in my various youth groups, where I would exchange my time to support a cause: raising money for Beavers/Cubs/Scouts/Army Cadets/swim club, marching in Remembrance Day parades, highway cleanups, and building a library abroad. Later, when I was but a poor student, I volunteered my talents to support causes for school and to help fundraising efforts for the HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre (and eventually I became the minute-taker for their Board of Directors). I also supported my friends with their charitable causes, such as helping with my buddy’s Headshots from the Heart videogame marathon event. As I started to transition out of my student phase of life, I began exploring the third “t” – treasure.

My history of charitable monetary giving started in my mid-20’s. I created an elaborate birthday ritual for myself in an attempt to imbue the day with significance (after 21, there weren’t any milestones I cared to look forward to). One ritual I set for myself was to make a donation to a cause I was interested in. When I was a student of the Engage program, I reflected that I wanted my charitable giving to go to “feeding bellies and minds,” and so I would make a yearly donation to the local food bank. Despite having never used it myself, I recognize the value they bring.

My first donations were in physical goods. I would save up rewards points from the grocery store, then buy as much food as I could for a few hundred dollars, and bring all the canned goods in for donation. Then I found out that their purchasing power was much higher than mine, so I switched to monetary donations once a year on my birthday.

The next evolution in my charitable giving happened a few years back when I wanted to help support the preservation of our environment. The Bruce Trail is a massive network of linked trails that allows one to hike 900km from Niagara to Tobermory in Ontario. Despite having never hiked on the trail myself (though I have ambitions to take up the activity), this seemed like a good cause to support, so I started purchasing yearly memberships. This year, I switched from a buying a membership each year to an automatic renewal system.

Switching back to the Food Bank, my next evolution in giving started in January of this year. I emailed to follow up on the Christmas drive and to ask what kind of shortfall the KW Food Bank saw.  They kindly shared their yearly report, but what stuck out was a throwaway comment that they were successful with the campaign, but that the regular commitments were more important to ensure meals throughout the year.  So, I decided I would eventually switch to small monthly donations that would increase over time as my circumstances allowed.

It was accelerated this summer with the BLM protests.  I wanted to do more than empty social media posts, so I started to think about how I could contribute financially to important causes. A close friend of mine has created a line in his budget for philanthropy, which I took some inspiration from. 

But in the Canadian context, I thought I should find a way to support Indigenous causes.  Truthfully, I haven’t yet made that commitment – I’m still on the lookout for an ongoing support cause that resonates with me. I value the input of my peers, so if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear your input.

That brings us to today. I decided to finally set up my regular payments to support these organizations that do so much good in our community. While I don’t live in KW anymore, I still feel called to help them in their mission. And since I support KW, I thought it appropriate to also give money to support the same cause but for my neighbors. The $10 per month I’ve committed is indeed small, but over the year will amount to a higher giving than my one-off donations. Also, it’s important to note that these campaigns help to raise awareness (and it feels good to help feed people at Christmas), but the need is felt year-round. The reality is that these campaigns serve as a funnel to bring donors into the organization.

This isn’t to say that I will stop giving one-off donations. A lesson I took from Engage is that it’s ok to say no to charitable asks that come your way. You do it each time you decline to contribute a few dollars at the cash register when you check-out at the store. Rather than having to give to every cause, it’s important to determine how much you feel you can give, then to be selective with where you allocate your funds. During Charitable Tuesday today, I also made one off contributions to my alma mater’s Arts student fund because I value the time and experiences I collected when I was a student. I also made an additional donation to the Bruce Trail’s latest campaign to purchase and preserve additional land in the Niagara region for the trail. I doubt I’ll ever get out to see that portion of the trail, but it’s important to enable the organization to leverage its resources to improve access for everyone (include some of my friends who I saw posting to social media from the trail this summer!).

My birthday is coming up, and I plan to give another one-off donation to the Food Bank to keep with tradition. And in time, I’ll find new ways to offer support. There is no one right way to give, but regardless of the type and degree of your impact, there will always be needs that go unmet in our communities. In addition to my monetary donations, I still volunteer where time allows, such as on the two ethics boards I serve.

Both Stats Can and Imagine Canada are seeing that while average donation amounts are trending upwards, the average donation rate is holding-to-declining over time. I hope to do my part in reversing this trend.

Thank-you for reading my story, and perhaps it might inspire you to reflect on your giving history.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

200+ and Counting

Last week, I finished reading As A Man Thinketh & From Poverty to Power by James Allen for the book club I am in. I noticed I hadn’t updated my reading tracker for the year, so I quickly updated my progress in 2020 to date.

195The Kite RunnerKhaled Hosseini3632020
196My Own WordsRuth Bader Ginsburg4002020
197Kitchen ConfidentialAnthony Bourdain3842020
198Stillness is the KeyRyan Holiday2882020
199The Oxford InklingsColin Duriez2762020
200The Infinite GameSimon Sinek2722020
201The Ride of a LifetimeRobert Iger2722020
202As a Man Thinketh & From Poverty to PowerJames Allen1822020
65981pages

I have been maintaining my reading tracker since 2016 when I chose to make reading a priority in my life. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had surpassed 200 books in the last 5 years, which amounts to around 65,000 pages (caveat – a lot of these books are in audiobook format, and the page counts are taken from Amazon’s book listings, so the amount is inflated to include front and back matter).

I’ll be posting my 2020 reading list in January, but I thought it would be fun to boast about this a little bit in the interim. I may not remember everything that I’ve read, but on the whole I find this time very much well spent. Through slow, incremental steps, I’ve made a lot of progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What Is “Creative” Work?

One thing I love about reading Seth Godin is how he tends to reframe how I think about things. Like many other people, I’ve been feeling in a bit of a rut with work. Without the context shift of going to work in an office, the days start to blur, and working from a distance keeps me detached from my colleagues. Instead, my work is largely done on documents and spreadsheets, and the tedium easily sets in. It feels monotonous and largely procedural.

However, the first page of Seth’s new book forced me to reconsider how I view my work. When reflecting on my work, I realized that I was defining “creative” narrowly.

“The Practice” by Seth Godin (2020), page 3

Were you to ask me whether my job is creative, I would probably take a view that conforms to my notes on the left. My job has some elements that I have “artistic” control over, but largely “no” because it’s process driven. However, if I define “creative” more broadly, it’s easy to see how my job is creative. I create tools and process flows. I define problems and find creative solutions, then teach them to others.

We often bind our thinking about “creative” to notions like innovation and novelty (divinely given?), when instead we should think of “creative” as deriving from “create,” which is more process driven than outcomes driven.

This doesn’t solve my tedium with spreadsheets, but it helps me frame my work within a different context. I am not just a cog, but instead I have the ability to adapt the cogs I use to suit my needs.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Right Season To Learn

Something that I’ve started taking more seriously as of late is the idea that there is a seasonality to learning some things in life. In this case, I mean “seasonality” not in the calendar sense that we experience during the year (Spring, Summer, etc.), but more in a broad metaphorical sense, such as seasons of life. I think there are seasons of our lives where certain lessons are easier to learn than others. This is not to say that you can’t learn them outside of the “right” season, but that some lessons are easier to learn at certain points in your life.

For instance, I’ve heard complaints about the secondary school system’s curriculum not teaching useful skills. Where the modern high school student is wasting their time learning about Shakespeare, the argument goes, they should instead be focusing their attention on more practical matters such as learning how to budget.

I’ve long been skeptical of this criticism for two reasons. First, I don’t think it should be the job of the school to teach every skill that’s deemed important. When people complain that they didn’t learn useful things in school like how to do laundry, how to eat properly, how to do taxes, etc., I place the blame of the lack of skills on them and their parents. Those bits of know-how are readily searchable online now, and short of an accessibility issue with being able to use technology, I see no reason for being ignorant. No, instead, I see school as the domain of more specialized knowledge that would be challenging to teach in the home environment by your parents who otherwise might not be skilled in teaching subjects like the maths, sciences, and humanities.

However, the second reason why I don’t find those arguments persuasive is that there are some concepts that are not easily absorbed at that time of your life. I can only speak from my experience, but when I was a teen, I wasn’t earning an income to support myself, nor was I carrying the bills and debts that would require me to keep a budget. I didn’t have the frame of reference, experience, or need to learn those kinds of skills. Instead, I understood what it meant to set up a budget, but not how to actually keep it.

I’m finding the same for home repair during this season of my life. Prior to owning my own home (where I am directly responsible for its upkeep and my family’s comfort and security), I didn’t feel an incentive to invest time and energy into learning how to maintain the home. Growing up, I would help with the chores and some light maintenance, but otherwise my parents largely were the ones who did the important stuff with troubleshooting problems. Now, those responsibilities fall squarely on my shoulders, and I’ve had a number of instances where I’ve had to pay costly invoices to tradespeople for repairs and work that largely could have been handled by me had I possessed a better understanding of how my home worked.

This is not to say that people don’t learn these skills when they are young. Whether it is through personal interested, a keen disposition, or a patient and knowledgeable parent/mentor, plenty of people know how to do amazing things by hand that puts my simple repairs to shame. Nevertheless, I have now reached a season where I’m more receptive to these lessons, and I’m embracing them with an open mind and a willingness to try.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Unintended Tech Shabbat Consequences

This week’s post is late. The proximal cause is that because of the Tech Shabbat experiment, I was shutting my computer down for the weekend. Weekends are the most common time I write and prepare to publish my posts. Therefore, an unintended consequence of the Tech Shabbat is that I didn’t have a post ready for Monday.

However, that is a poor excuse when we consider the distal causes of why the post is late, because the Tech Shabbat was a known event in my calendar. It wasn’t something that was unanticipated, and I knew roughly what participating in the Tech Shabbat would entail. I knew, for example, that I had to get my course marking done before the Shabbat if I wanted to give my students their feedback with sufficient time for them to use my feedback in their next assignment. I was able to always get my grading done before the Tech Shabbat began each week of the experiment, so why did I not do the same for the weekly blog posts?

The Tech Shabbat became a convenient excuse to blame, when really the blame lies with a poor writing habit. Maybe I would have finished the posts had I not participated in the Tech Shabbat, but instead of dwelling in a possible else-world, I should focus on fixing the things I have control over, such as my schedule and how I set my priorities.

Proximal causes are easy to fixate on, and are often more expensive to address (it’s why we spend lots of money on shiny new toys that promise to fix our problems). Distal causes can be harder to spot and require longer, steady investment to overcome.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Tech Shabbat Experiment

Almost a decade ago, I co-started a semi-formal group with some friends. It was intended as a bit of a mutual-beneficial group – we were all just starting out in our careers and felt that getting together monthly to practice public speaking would help us in our jobs. The nature of the group has evolved somewhat now that we are having kids and have grown comfortable in our jobs. Instead, we treat the monthly meetup as both social time and a chance for us to share experiences with each other.

This month, we’ve been challenged to try out the Tech Shabbat as discussed in Tiffany Shlain’s book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week (note: I haven’t read the book). In essence, we pick one day a week to abstain from screens – no smartphones, no computers, no television. It’s not a complete removal from all technology (for instance, I use my smart speaker to stream podcast episodes and listen to live radio), but instead we seek to disconnect from an increasingly interconnected existence.

I have completed three of the Shabbats, with the final one this weekend. Overall, this has been a very positive experience for me. There are some challenges and moments where I have to play fast and loose with the rules (like this weekend when I got lost on a hike…).

It’s also not clear if I should abstain from using our smart speaker at home; I’ve been using it to listen to podcast episodes and radio over the internet. I’ll even admit that there are moments of boredom or tedium where I feel a strong pull to give up the challenge and open a social media app. But despite any of these missteps or moments of weakness, I can say without any qualification that I’ve enjoyed the experience. I may look forward to the close of the 24-hours, but I do so with a sense of mental calm. The break gives me a bit of a reset, a chance to journal and bring order to my life. Instead of mindlessly consuming content, I’ve chosen activities that create memories and allow me to be more present in the now.

I’m not sure if I’ll keep the Tech Shabbat once the group activity is over, but it has given me a lot to reflect on. Cal Newport has discussed taking a more hardline stance on cutting unnecessary tech out of our lives. I’m sympathetic to the idea, though in practice I have to balance my quirky experiments with my wife’s needs, and I doubt she would entertain any drastic measures like what Newport suggests. Regardless, just taking the opportunity to pause and reflect is a worthwhile activity, which the Tech Shabbat has afforded me over the month.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – August 7, 2020

This was a light week for consuming content that stuck with me, so here is the sole round-up list for the week ending on August 7th:

💭Reflection – Citing our sources – How to Think for Yourself | Ozan Varol blog post and Don’t Quote. Make it Yours and Say it Yourself | Derek Sivers blog post

The Varol piece was new, and as I read it, it reminded me of the Sivers piece, so I’m pairing them together. I’m a little conflicted with the message. On the one hand, I agree with both writers about the sentiments they are expressing. In Varol’s case, often citation becomes a short-hand for original thinking. Rather than expression your own unique ideas, you regurgitate what you’ve consumed from others (whether you are citing it or not, as is on display in the Good Will Hunting example). Likewise, Sivers is on to something when he suggests that integrating facts into our mental apparatus should not require us to cite our sources when it’s no longer the appropriate context. It makes sense to cite sources when writing something that will be graded in school, but it is stilted while in informal settings.

Where I feel conflicted is when there is a need to trace ideas back to verify the content. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but it has certainly accelerated in recent years that misinformation is being thrown out into the void at a rapid pace. The internet has optimized itself on three facts of human nature – we like sensation, we like things that are familiar (that accords with what we already believe), and we are less critical of our in-group. Therefore, information bubbles get set up online, which creates a digital environment that’s conducive to rapid spreading of memetic viruses. When you think about it, it’s a marvelous analogy: the online information bubble is a closed environment where people are like-minded, which amounts to a roughly analogical immune system. A memetic virus then latches hold on one person, who spreads it to people in their network. Since the folks in the network share similar belief structures, the homogeneous group quickly spreads the meme throughout the information bubble. The meme is then incorporated into the belief network of the individuals through repetition and confirmation bias exposure. It writes itself into the belief web, in the same way viruses incorporate themselves into DNA.

I’m using the example of a memetic virus, but I think this framework is equally applied to more benign examples. Scientists release findings in the form of pre-peer reviewed news releases, which gets amplified and distorted through the media, which is then amplified and distorted through information bubbles. See here for an example:

At each phase, part of the signal is lost or transformed, like a social media game of telephone. When one person in the chain misunderstands the data, that impacts how the idea gets replicated. Over time, it becomes the digital version of a cancerous mutation of the base information.

This is why it’s important that we take care of how information is communicated, because as soon as you print something like “the majority of people believe x,” or “studies showed a y% decrease in the effect,” without a proper context of what the data is saying (or its limitations), that gets incorporated into people’s webs of belief. If you are a part of the population that believes something and you read that information, it reinforces your prior beliefs and you continue on in replicating the idea.

And so I’m torn. On the one hand, I shouldn’t need to cite my sources when having a casual conversation (a la Sivers), and I shouldn’t be substituting original thoughts with the ideas of others (a la Varol), but at the same time, I want it to be the case that when I encounter something that it should be verifiable and scruitable. I don’t know what the solution to this is, other than to flag it and remind myself to be wary of absolutist language.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan