What I’ve Been Reading (As of September 24th)

I haven’t posted a reading update since the summer, so now seems like a good time to check in on what’s playing out of my speakers or sitting on my nightstand.

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

This list must have the mandatory update on where I am in Pratchett’s Discworld books.  I’m only a little ways in, so not a huge update here.  Thus far, it’s a Witches story, sans Granny Weatherwax and involves vampires appearing to try and usurp a kingdom.  In other words, awesome.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I’ve drifted more towards memoirs as of late, choosing to distance myself a bit from the animated bibliography and instead listen to the stories by people reflecting on their life and either providing insight in retrospect or attempting to provide an explanation for why things unfolded (also see Catmull’s book below and my recent completion of Knight’s Shoe Dog).  As with many of us here in North America, I watched the US elections in 2016 with interest, and was disappointed in the results.  I was interested to hear Hillary’s story of what happened and am not disappointment by what I’ve heard so far.

Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Another memoir, this book is from one of the founders and heads of Pixar.  What I love most about this book is that he’s discussing the behind-the-scenes decisions and goings-on of creating the films that I grew up on, which adds a new layer of awesome to my childhood memories.  The values and lessons he learned from their failures and successes are incredibly interesting, and I find the book captivating.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Junger starts with an interesting observation from the American Frontier: if “advanced civilization” is so wonderful, why did so many white American settlers abandon their communities to join and live among the indigenous peoples that were so backwards and savage to them?  Junger’s speculation is that it comes down to how people feel accepted within their communities.  To Junger, this is an example of how “civilization” and technology can be so alienating to a person, which diminishes their sense of worth and place.  I’m not very far into the book, but it’s quite a good read so far.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I’ve been watching the Outlander series on Netflix with my wife and have been loving the story so far.  It didn’t hurt that the first season took place in Scotland, which reminded me of my trip there in 2016.  Fun fact, the scenes of Inverness in the series were actually filmed in a small town called Falkland, which I visited on my travels, long before we had started watching the show.  The book is huge (over a 800 pages!) so it’ll be a long read.

 

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If you watch the first episode, this is the town square of “Inverness” where Frank encounters the ghostly Scotsman.

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Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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The Animated Bibliography

*Update: I’ve added bullet points to the bottom since the time of original publication.  New points are identified as “New.”

I’ve made references to the concept of the “animated bibliography” in a few recent instagram posts.  I first started conceiving of the idea when I wrote a short self-reflective critique of my habit of reading self-help books.

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-/16 The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth. The concept of design thinking and Stanford's "D School" has been on my radar for a few months. The book was listed in an article I read so I checked it out. Given what I've read over the last year, it's pretty par for the course. It was refreshing that it wasn't an animated bibliography of research like other books I've read in the genre. Instead, it is written with a lot of anecdotes from the author's life as a mechanical engineer and professor, which I found quite enjoyable and a nice change. To be honest, the thing I was more excited about was that I listened to this for free on the #Libby app using my @kitchenerlibrary membership. While I like my Audible subscription, I love my library more and am glad they offer this for audiobooks. #books #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #productivity #habits #learning #audiobook

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I doubt I’m the first person to notice this trend in publishing, and I’m not entirely confident that this is a new trend at all.  The more likely explanation is that this is something that has gone on for a while and I’m just too stuck in reading the same books listed on every “must read” list to see the broader context.  Were I to read books that were published earlier than the last decade, perhaps I would see that book have always used this strategy to convey information.

Nevertheless, it would be fun to take on a bit of a research project to see whether this trend has proliferated from a certain point in time, who the early adopters were, and how quickly it’s accelerating.

For the moment, here are my early observations:

  • The animated bibliography is a style of nonfiction where the author uses a micro expression of some authority to explain or contextualize some broader universal “truth.”
  • The authority is either scientific studies or biographical case studies.  Biographical case studies are not always literal examples, but can also be mythical or metaphorical examples.
  • The material is rarely discussed from the negative; that is, the material is presented as a causal relationship to explain a phenomenon, but less commonly are counter-examples, counterfactuals, or false-positives discussed.
  • The author is usually repackaging the work of someone else, rather than the original author of the micro expression.  For example, there is a difference between Daniel Kahneman writing a book reflecting on behavioural economics and his original studies, and someone invoking a study published by Daniel Kahneman to explain an phenomenon.  The animated bibliography would be the latter, but not the former.  The animated bibliography is a presentation of the things the author has learned.
  • The animated bibliography has parallels to how research papers are written at the undergraduate level.
  • The animated bibliography can be thought of as a narrative stitched together.  A series of vignettes (chapters) that bring stories together under a broader meta-narrative that provides a unified theory.
  • The animated bibliography is a method of delivering nonfiction, but it is not necessarily meant to be a moral lesson.  It is protreptic in aim – it attempts to be explanatory, if not educative.
  • The animated bibliography typically falls under a few key genres of nonfiction: business, productivity, leadership, personal development or self-improvement.
  • In isolation, the animated bibliography is merely a geneology of ideas, but taken as a genre it becomes self-referential.  The same studies and case studies start popping up over and over.  These, in turn, get meta-referenced by popular authors who write about them.  For instance, a reference could take the form of a book referencing another author’s book about a series of published studies.
  • Hypothesis: this phenomenon (if it is a new phenomenon) is an emergence from the overlapping worlds of start-ups and founder idolization, social media-fed ennui, high technology, scientism, and people’s inability to move from idea to action.  The books are proliferated as instructionals and how-to’s to solve a behavioural problems.  They paint an ideal way forward, but the fact that they keep getting published, and that a market still exists, means that no one book can actually be held up as the definitive voice.  The plurality exists because they singly do not provide broad answers.
  • The market creates a series of urtexts that spawn and inspire secondary and tertiary levels of reference.
  • *New* The author takes on an authoritative tone in the books, but uses the references to others as the source of their authority.
  • *New* Rarely is the book the result of a lengthy period of research or work in the field as a practitioner.  Instead, the book is the product of some period of immersion or research in the topic at hand (e.g. the author spent a year working on the topic and is writing a book about it).

I’ve deliberately kept things vague in terms of which authors and books I have in mind when I make the observations above.  Perhaps in time, I’ll have more courage and name names of those I find to be the biggest offenders of the genre.  For now, though, I choose to remain silent.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

The Joy of Unboxing

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This weekend, I finally unpacked all of our boxes of books.  We were having some people over and thought it would be good to ensure the entire main floor was settled, which meant hauling all the books up from the basement and setting the office up.  I didn’t have the foresight to count them, but I estimate there were 20-30 big boxes of books that have been tucked away since the move last month.

Even before the move, we had boxed up a few bookcases in order to stage the house for sale, so some books have been in boxes and storage for almost three months.  As you can see, we have a lot of books – the natural result of the union of an English major and a Philosophy major.

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Humorously, when I started unpacking, I noticed several extra copies of Harry Potter books floating around.  After collecting them together in one spot and sorting them, I discovered a lot of duplicates.  We had *five* copies of the last two books in the series alone!

One side benefit I noticed in unpacking my books is that seeing the shelves full was making me happier as I went along.  When I started packing the books up a few months back, I noticed that not having my library on hand was affecting me.  I wouldn’t say it made me sad, but not seeing the books while in the office brought the mood down a bit.  It’s a hard feeling to articulate.  On the one hand, I don’t use the books everyday, so it didn’t impact my day-to-day life.  However, having my life and possessions stored away in boxes brought my mood down a bit, and I’ve been feeling it all through the moving experience.  Now that we are unpacking and setting up a new life in the new house, I’ve found myself feeling more optimistic, and my outlook feels a little brighter.

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Now that the books are all out, the only thing left is to start arranging them on the shelves and pick a theme for sorting.  It’s the little things that make me happy.

Stay Awesome,

~Ryan

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What I’ve Been Reading (As of July 2nd)

Happy long weekend!

I haven’t posted a reading update since back in February, and since I’m away on vacation for the weekend (with my nose hopefully buried in a book), I thought it would be appropriate to list some of the books I have on the go.

HVAC Handbook by Robert Rosaler

This is undoubtedly an odd one on the list.  A few weeks back, our AC unit froze and we decided to replace both of our 30+ year old AC unit and slightly newer furnace in the house.  I am not a handy guy by any stretch of the imagination, but I wanted to learn more about how a house’s HVAC system helps to control the indoor environment.  I renewed my library card and checked this book out.  I have no illusions that I can or should be performing my own repairs, but at least I can appreciate the engineering and design (or sometimes lack of) goes into my house’s climate control.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

This list wouldn’t be complete without a Terry Pratchett book.  This book finally brings us back in touch with the Wizzard Rincewind, whom we last saw in Sourcery and was blown away to another dimension.  Set in the Counterweight Continent and the Agetean Empire, Rincewind, The Luggage, Twoflower, and Cohen reunite and get thrown in the middle of a peasant rebellion against the oppressive rule of the elite and a plot to murder the Emperor.  These are interesting times!

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

I quite enjoyed Jocko’s later book, Discipline Equals Freedom, so I thought I’d go back to check out his earlier book  that is largely the reason why he’s known now.  He and Babin are retired Navy SEALS who started a leadership consulting company after they retired from the forces.  The book is a distillation of their experiences and the lessons they learned about leadership that they have brought with them to their civilian careers.  It’s written, in part, as a no nonsense memoir, and I don’t get the impression that they are trying to waive any patriotic flags about being pro-military or pro-combat.

Madison’s Gift by David O. Stewart

Here’s another audiobook I grabbed from the library thanks to the Hoopla service.  While I should probably start reading biographies about figures other than American presidents, this one intrigued me since it’s about James Madison’s partnerships with key people who helped him with his achievements.  Rather than celebrating him as a visionary genius, it plays up the fact that he was fairly ordinary and unimpressive (the book’s description of him is “short, plain, balding, neither soldier nor orator, low on charisma and high on intelligence.”  Something about the description spoke to me, and I thought I’d check it out.

The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester

I blame the fact that I work in the School of Engineering that I decided to check this book out.  The Perfectionists covers the history of precision engineering after the industrial revolution.  While the book covers things relatively chronologically, it’s thematically grouped into various stories related to tolerance in measurements.  I’m only midway through the book, but the history of engineering design is incredible.  The creativity and patience shown by the various craftsmen in areas such as machining by hand, horology, and even lock-picking, is fascinating to learn about, and gives me a greater appreciation for good design (see HVAC above…)

If this was a long weekend for you, I hope you had a great and safe weekend!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Gap Between Reading and Doing

 

“For studying courage in textbooks doesn’t make you any more courageous than eating cow meat makes you bovine. By some mysterious mental mechanism, people fail to realize that the principal thing you can learn from a professor is how to be a professor — and the chief thing you can learn from, say, a life coach or inspirational speaker is how to become a life coach or inspirational speaker. So remember that the heroes of history were not classicists and library rats, those people who live vicariously in their texts. They were people of deeds and had to be endowed with the spirit of risk taking.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Skin in the Game

One of my big personal shortcomings is my inability to turn knowledge into action.  A few weeks back, I talked about how I tend to read a lot in the area of personal development, to the point of feeling over-saturated in the field.  However, for all the books I’ve read in the past two years in this area, I can’t really point to a lot of areas where I’ve successfully translated what I read into meaningful action.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t personally developed myself since 2016; I would say I’ve come a long way in two years to improving my life and myself.  Yet, in a pure comparison of books to identifiable changes, I can’t really say that a lot of specific changes have been made.  This seems somewhat at odds with the nature of the “advice” these books give, where you can deploy specific hacks, tips, and protocols, and everything will be better.

I don’t have a good explanation for why this is the case.  I feel it goes beyond just being lazy (though I am quite a lazy person).  I think the closest explanation that I can offer is something akin to a lack of confidence meeting decision paralysis.  I lack confidence in my ability to make decisions, so I research and read to see what others have done.  But there comes a point where I have too many options available, and I fail to cross the threshold from knowing to doing.  Rationally, I know that seeking more knowledge does not necessarily mean I’ll be more likely to act (there’s a quip that if knowing more was the solution, no one would need to diet and everyone would be healthy).  The gap between knowledge and action, where the will lies, stubbornly refuses to shrink for me.  This could be my fixed reality, but I’d like to think that I haven’t found the right combination of motivations yet that would bring me to where I want to go (setting aside the problems with the notion that I have to wait around for a muse to motivate me).

This could also be a problem because I have too many things on the go (the old “I’m too busy” rebuke).  With too many balls in the air, I’m worn down with just managing how things are going in the present, and I have little cognitive bandwidth left to steer me in a direction I want to go for the future.  This, too, is a personal shortcoming for me, but I think it’s a separate concern from the action-gap.

Truthfully, I don’t have a meaningful, satisfying way to close off this post.  I don’t have a magic bullet that will fix the problem for me.  I can’t say that I’ve found a solution to the problem, and that this post is building towards a resolution.  It’s an ongoing problem for me, and I hope that by bringing it to the surface, I can at least be aware of the problem and try to work around it until the gap can be plugged.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Reflections on Self-Help and Diminishing Returns

If you were to ask my fiancee, she’d tell you I have a book-buying problem.  I buy books faster than I can read them, and I have a small collection weighing down my shelves at home.  In a month’s time, we will be moving houses and part of the burden is to box the books and be mindful just how heavy books in boxes can actually be.  I prefer printed books, but I also have a steadily growing Kindle library and now an Audible library.

For 2018, the pace of my reading has slowed down significantly since 2016 and 2017.  At present, I have only completed 10 books for the year (with many half-read books strewn around the house).

If you go through the books I’ve read since my first reading list in 2016, you will notice a large proportion of my books fall under the self-help and personal development banners.  While I acknowledge that these books have been helpful in kicking off my attempts to make positive changes at work and in my life, I’m noticing a trend – I’m not really getting as much out of the books as I used to.  I seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns.  I started noticing it in the books I was reading, but it’s also spilled over into the daily lists of articles I get from Quora, Pocket, Medium, etc.

There is an over-saturation of the same studies being cited and a dearth of tips, tricks, tactics, protocols, hacks, systems, routines, mental models, and insights that tend to recycle similar themes.  Especially mental models – those seem to be in vogue right now with the online think-pieces and people creating courses for you to enroll in.

I also noticed that the further out from primary sources you get, the more recycling you find.  There tends to be four broad classes of folks who populate this domain:

  1. the innovators who write reflectively about what they did or the systems they created (the Ramit’s, the Dalio’s, the Covey’s, etc.);
  2. the populizers who interview, report, and connect ideas from the innovators (the Gladwell’s, the Duhigg’s, the Ferriss’s, etc.) ;
  3. the repeaters who recycle from columns one and two (this is typically the people writing Medium and Quora posts and asking you to sign-up for their email lists); and
  4. the folks who spend a year doing a thing then write a book about it, which pairs something they experienced with a study/book/system that is supposed to give insight or explain what happened in case study format (I won’t name names here, but the books are usually structured like those in group 3 above).

I wish the insight above was mine, but in full disclosure I had read this idea from someone and for the life of me I can’t remember where (the irony is not lost on me).  I suppose the only thing I’ve added to the above is item four.

I know it’s not fair to pigeon-hole people into only these four categories.  Some people in the second group produce novel insights that place them in group one, and some who write in group one are also guilty of slipping into group two from time to time.  The point is not to dismiss the books that are coming out, but rather to try and objectively draw circles around them in meaningful categories.

I think the diminishing returns I’m seeing is a result of my desire to find a magic bullet to fix whatever problem is “holding me back” from being in a place I want to be, mixed with one of my greatest flaws – I will read, and read, and read, and never make behavioural changes to take action.  Instead of making progress towards my goals in a meaningful way, I instead stay “productive” by reading.

Will this stop me from reading these kinds of books?  Probably not. Let’s be honest, these books are designed to be appealing.  They are a mix of relatable narratives and the promise of a better tomorrow.  They are my harlequin romance novels, my pulp reads.  They are easy to digest because someone else has done the thinking for you.  It’s my own kind of soma that keeps me peaceful and happy.  I know it’s not really that nutritious, but I enjoy it as a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I’ve Been Reading (As of February 25th)

It’s been a while since I have posted a reading update, so let’s fix that and post the first one of 2018.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

This book came as a recommendation from a work colleague.  He’s the one who has gotten me into Terry Prachett, and recently he suggested I would enjoy this book.  I’m only a little ways in, so I can’t comment too deeply, but I’m enjoying the neurological look at what happens when we read that this book provides.  I’m also enjoying the case being made for reading as a tool to grow our cognitive faculties.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos by Jordan Peterson

I am going to get some flack about this from some of my friends.  Jordan Peterson is a divisive figure in Canadian discourse.  While I don’t align with him on some of his political views, I first came across him through his taped YouTube lectures.  It was because of him that I started reading Carl Jung’s work and took an interest in the notion of stories being an important route to deriving meaning in life.  I’ve also enjoyed Peterson’s visits to some of the podcasts I’ve listened to, so it seemed only natural to check out his book.  I’ve been enjoying the book, and I personally feel like I’m getting something out of it.  I don’t think this book is going to be for everyone, but it speaks to me on a level that I find compelling.

Principles by Ray Dalio

Much like the book above and the next entry, Principles is making the rounds through the self-help/business/personal development spheres.  It’s been a bit of a slower read because I need to take time to digest his ideas and insights.  Nevertheless, I’m finding his book interesting and useful as it provides a framework for decision making and business.  I try to be wary of advice dispensed by the rich and successful since it tends to not be very applicable outside of the lucky breaks the author found themselves in, but I find this book to be fairly objective and refreshingly introspective.  I think Dalio’s principles make sense and are a good guide to follow.

Tribe of Mentors by Timothy Ferriss

What can I say?  I enjoyed all of his books so far (including last year’s Tools of Titans), so I naturally pre-ordered this one when it was announced.  Much like how Tools of Titans was a book that piggy-backed off of his podcast guest’s work, Tribe of Mentors follows a similar route by running the same set of questions through various big names in different fields to a.) see what their answers are; and b.) to find what commonalities are found in aggregate.  One side of me rolls my eyes at how simple the idea is (and how little relative effort it would take to make the book), and yet the other side of me appreciates what Ferriss has done in creating the book.  His book intends to give you access to some of the best mentors in the world, and he delivers it in full.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age by David Schwartz

I knew relatively little about Fermi before I started this book.  I knew that he was a physicists, that he was attached to the Manhattan project, that there is a paradox named after him, and that he’s known for a particular kind of method for problem-solving and estimating.  However it was the last tidbit (the Fermi problem) that nudged me to buying this book.  I’m only about a third of my way through the book, but it’s been a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius who, when you broke things down, was necessarily all that smarter than everyone else.  Much like Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi had discovered ways of learning more effectively, which made him able to tackle interacted problems from the first principles of a field.   He worked to understand the rules of the system, which in turn allowed him to combine them in new and insightful ways.  I really enjoy reading biographies, and I’m glad I picked this one up.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan