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

 

 

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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

What I Read in 2017

Another year of reading has finished, so it’s time to take stock of how I did for 2017.  While I’m not an advocate of reading purely for the sake of speed or volume, I do challenge myself to see how many books I can get through during the year, if for nothing else than to ensure I’m carving out time to read.  For my 2016 results, check back to my post on What I read in 2016.

This year, I managed to get through 44 books and almost 14,000 pages, which is on par with my results from last year.  I posted my top list of books I read this year a few posts back, if you want to check it out.

I would say a little more than half of these books are audio books, as I decided to get an Audible subscription, and a friend has been kind enough to supply me with Terry Prachett books.  I have significantly picked up on the amount of fiction I’m reading, which was a deliberate choice since I noticed I consumed a lot of business and self-help books last year.

Title Author Pages
1 Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less Greg McKeown 272
2 The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck Mark Manson 224
3 Leaders Eat Last Simon Sinek 368
4 Awaken the Giant Within Tony Robbins 544
5 $100 Startup Chris Guillebeau 304
6 Tools of Titans Tim Ferriss 736
7 American Gods Neil Gaiman 558
8 The View from the Cheap Seats Neil Gaiman 544
9 The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton 272
10 Catching the Big Fish David Lynch 208
11 The Colour of Magic Terry Pratchett 288
12 The Path to Purpose William Damon 240
13 The Light Fantastic Terry Pratchett 288
14 The 80/20 Pinciple Richard Koch 288
15 The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen 256
16 How Proust Can Change Your Life Alain de Botton 208
17 Equal Rites Terry Pratchett 282
18 No Fears, No Excuses Larry Smith 272
19 Mort Terry Pratchett 272
20 The Death of Expertise Tom Nichols 240
21 Never Split the Difference Chris Voss 288
22 Sourcery Terry Pratchett 336
23 On Writing Stephen King 288
24 The Happiness Project Gretchen Rubin 368
25 Reading the Humanities John Greenwood 156
26 Spark John J. Ratey 304
27 Wyrd Sisters Terry Pratchett 336
28 Managing Oneself Peter F. Drucker 72
29 Pyramids Terry Pratchett 308
30 The Checklist Manifesto Atul Gawande 240
31 Total Recall Arnold Schwarzenegger 656
32 Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual Jocko Willink 208
33 I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had Tony Danza 272
34 Guards! Guards! Terry Pratchett 416
35 Eric Terry Pratchett 160
36 Side Hustle Chris Guillebeau 272
37 The Productivity Project Chris Bailey 304
38 Moving Pictures Terry Pratchett 400
39 Mating in Captivity Esther Perel 272
40 Finding Ultra Rich Roll 400
41 Reaper Man Terry Pratchett 288
42 The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin 288
43 Machine Man Max Barry 288
44 The Road to Character David Brooks 320
Total: 13904

All in all, I am very happy with the results, and I am looking forward to tackling the growing stack of books I have in my office for 2018.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Top books of 2017

On the internet, December marks the time of year where everyone releases lists of their top favourite things from the past year.  It’s my turn to add to that mighty tradition and announce my top books that I read in 2017.  I will post my total list of books read in 2017 in January.  For those curious, here are the 44 books I read in 2016.

Here are my top books that I read in 2017.

List Criteria:

For this post, I have three criteria notes.

  1. The book didn’t need to be published in 2017.  I’m nowhere near able to keep up with the new material getting pumped out every year, so for my list, I will include anything that I happened to read and complete in 2017.
  2. Having said that, I will only count books that I read for the first time in 2017.  You’ll see in my overall list of books for the year, there were a few books I revisited that I read in 2016.
  3. Finally, the biggest criteria for “best” is books that stuck with me – they gave me knowledge or wisdom that I use, or that has lasting mental/emotional impact.  This is admittedly a wishy-washy criteria, so to summarize, these are books that I found valuable to have read and I will likely re-read in the future.

 

Honourable Mention

The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin

This book goes on the honourable mention list because I haven’t finished reading it as of posting.  It’s really good, though, and would have made the list had I finished it in time.  Waitzkin is a bit of a wunderkind, having won chess championships as a child, then becoming a national push-hands championship, and now (post-book publication) has become a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  I mention this because it gives credit to the idea that he’s given a lot of thought to the learning process, and his book provides many insights that I will use both as a student and as a teacher.

 

Top 5 Books (in no particular order)

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

I read relatively few works of fiction this year, but American Gods stuck out for me.  It’s been a while since I felt engrossed in a work of fiction the way I was for American Gods.  It was my first introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work, and it certainly won’t be my last.  I’m looking forward to checking out the television series.

The 80/20 Principle – Richard Koch

This is a book that I implemented at work with my role in program updating and renewals.  I took the 80/20 principle and started thinking about the relatively few problems that lead to massive delays in the program review process in order to find solutions to the workflow.  I didn’t get a chance to implement many changes before the Ontario College Strike put things on hold, but I’m looking forward to continuing the process when things even out a bit.

Never Split the Difference – Chris Voss

I wish I could say that I implemented the lessons from this book, but truthfully, I found it hard to absorb all the fine details from my first pass in the audiobook.  This book will be a prime candidate for a re-read in the near future, as I will be able to take my time and work through the material to assimilate the useful information in my work.

Discipline Equals Freedom – Jocko Willink

I think this one will end up being one of those books I pick up and thumb to a random page for an aspirational kick in the pants.  Jocko’s main lesson is that, paradoxically, if you want more freedom, you must get more disciplined.  That means doing what you need to do when you need to do it.  As he says, if you want more money, you need more financial discipline.  If you want a body that doesn’t let you down, you need to have discipline in diet and exercise.  As a former US Navy Seal, having this guy telling you to get on it, and why I have no excuses to stop is pretty powerful, even from the written word.

Tie: Mort and Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

This might be a cheat, but I simply couldn’t pick a favourite between these two.  Both have compelling stories, both have memorable characters, and both are awesome.  Mort is a story where Death looks for an apprentice, and Pyramids tells the story of a prince-turned-assassin who is recalled to rule when his father dies in a land resembling ancient Egypt.  Fantastical stories full of charm, and I laughed out loud while listening to them both.  Therefore, they make the list in a shared spot.

Keep an eye out for my complete 2017 list in January.  In the meantime, I really need to get on my Christmas shopping!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I’ve Been Reading (As of November 20th)

I haven’t updated this series since August, so I thought it would be a good time to check-in on what I’ve been reading as of late.

Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett

This book came as a recommendation from Jujimufu (aka. Jon Call) on YouTube.  In addition to putting a greater focus on fitness and health, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of the physical state of my body.  I know that carrying around a lot of extra weight is hard on the joints, but I do a lot of stuff that is also bad for my body, such as poor lifting mechanics, sitting and slouching in my chair at work all day, poor mobility and stretching habits, and not addressing niggling pains in my knees.  I picked this book up to help me be more mindful of good body mechanics, improve both my flexibility and mobility, and to address common pain I feel in my joints.

Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

I first stumbled across Esther Perel through a TedTalk she gave a few years back, and again through the Audible Original mini-series released about her couples therapy experience.  I heard she recently released a book on infidelity, which got me looking at her other books.  I decided to pick up Mating in Captivity since I am getting married next year and it seemed relevant to future-me (the idea of sustaining passion in a relationship over the long term).  Are there problems with my love life?  No, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn something from an expert to ensure I’m mindful of my relationship moving forward.  If I want to be the best partner that I can be, then it means I should pick up good practices and insights wherever I go.  Long-term relationships are subjected to a lot of life changes (career, family, children, age, economy, etc.), and I’d rather be aware and exposed to things that threaten to cool the passion over time to better handle them down the road.

The Bookshop on the Corner (A Novel) by Jenny Colgan

This was a splurge purchase through the Bookbub mailing list I joined (they send daily lists of discounted Kindle ebooks on Amazon’s website).  The story is about an ex-librarian who decides to take a chance and buy a large cargo-truck to turn into a mobile bookshop.  I’m about a third of the way through the book and am enjoying the story so far.  It partially takes place in Scotland, which was a happy coincidence for me (I traveled to Scotland in July of 2016).  Truthfully, one fantasy I have is to retire and own a bookstore.  While this might not be an accurate picture of my future, I can still dream, can’t I?

Find Your Why by Simon Sinek, David Mead, and Peter Docker

A burning question for me concerns itself with purpose.  In a broad sense, I’ve been reflecting on purposeful living and articulating my values, but in a narrow sense, I’ve been exploring what gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment at work.  Because I lack that definitive feeling of purpose at work (that I’m working on what I’m meant to do, whatever that means), I’ve been doing some soul searching, working with a career adviser, and reading this book.  I’m not very far into the book, so I can’t provide a lot of comments from it, but I liked Simon Sinek’s previous books, and so I’m looking forward to working may way through this one.

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

This list wouldn’t be complete with an update on which Pratchett Discworld book I’m on.  I just finished Moving Pictures last week, so I’ve just now moved on to Reaper Man.  Death has been a favourite character of mine, so it was nice to return to a Death-centred story.

These aren’t all the books I’ve got on the go (shamefully, there are books on my previous lists that I’m still plugging away at), but it does give a good snapshot of what you’d likely see in my hands.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading (as of August 21st)

I enjoyed writing my last reading update from back in June, so I thought I’d give an updated list.  In full disclosure, I have only completed three of the five books I mentioned (the two outstanding books are Brooks’s Character and the biography of Cato), so I won’t include those on this list.

Here are five more books I’m reading at present.

Montaigne: A Life by Philippe Desan 

Considered the father of the modern essay, Montaigne has popped up in various references during my reading, from stoicism to observational commentary and timeless meditations.  I’m a sucker for biographies, and this book was recently released in English as a fairly authoritative account of Montaigne’s life, not as an extraction from his essays, but as a picture of the historical figure.

William Tecumseh Sherman: In Service of My Country: A Life by James Lee McDonough

Did I mention I’m a sucker for biographies?  This was a birthday present to myself last year, but I’ve only started digging into it.  Sherman is held up as an exemplar of restrained greatness.  He’s considered great in equal parts from talent, study, and luck (though often it was luck that helped him out).  But the reason why I picked this up was how he is often held up as a contrast to Ulysses S. Grant, another U.S. Northern Civil War General, who mismanaged his life and the U.S. Presidency after the war, whereas Sherman quietly continued his duties in the army until retirement and didn’t seek political office (or so I’ve heard, I haven’t read very far into the book).  Like Washington before him who declined to be the first king of the United States, I like reading about figures who manage to avoid the hard fall from grace after they acquire fame, power, or authority.  Also like Washington, I think it’s important to understand a full picture of history, warts and all.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

I don’t actually own this book.  It was laying around my fiancee’s office for about a year, so I decided to start reading it one day and take it home.  I don’t expect a lot of insight from this book, but I do like reading anecdotes of how other people manage their time so that I can glean possible tips and tricks to apply to my own life.  In the last year or so, I’ve started being more mindful of my time, hence why my reading lists include a disproportionate amount of productivity and personal development books.

80,000 Hours: Finding a Fulfilling Career That Does Good by Benjamin J Todd

I’ve also been more mindful of my career recently.  With losing out on a few jobs recently (before and after interviewing), I’ve been considering my options for improving my career prospects through opening up opportunities, strategic skill acquisition, and relationship building.  While the content of this book is entirely online for free through the 80,000 Hours website, I purchased the book anyway to have all the information in one place.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

This book is brand new to the list as I only grabbed it from the library this past weekend.  I read about George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) in Brooks’s Character book (from the last list) and I was struck by her lauding of the average person in her fiction.  I, like many others, have found myself buying-in to the aspiration to greatness narrative – that to have a good life also means to be great, have impact, and cement yourself in history.  Middlemarch, and many other books by Eliot/Evans, chooses to laud the quiet efforts of the average person, who does their part and is praiseworthy in their steadfastness.  Brooks quoted the closing lines of Middlemarch in Road to Character that celebrated humble lives,

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who life faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan