I read a lot of non-fiction books. This page contains my recommendations and personal development book reviews.
Atomic Habits – James Clear
A standard claim of self-improvement books is that they are full of practical, actionable advice you can apply to your life for near-instantaneous results. Few deliver on that promise, and those that do are commonly packed with filler to drag them out to standard book length. Finding the value in them is a little like panning for gold in a muddy river – the nuggets are there, but there is a lot of slurry to wade through. Atomic Habits is different. It is more akin to a rock of 24-carat gold. Increasingly hyped since its 2018 release, the book’s premise is that “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” Repeated small actions add up to significant results over time.
The author is Clear by name and by nature. He wastes no time getting to the point and bringing value to the reader by building on credible science without dwelling on unnecessary details. The book focuses on simple, actionable steps you can take to encourage small behavioural tweaks and bring about positive change. The big takeaways for me were how small actions can have outsized impacts on your life, and how big a role your environment plays in shaping your behaviour. Create the right environmental cues, and positive habits soon become your default, explains Clear.
Atomic Habits is a quick read that makes it recommendations in a direct, engaging manner. It is hard to believe that anyone who reads it won’t come away with a handful of instantly implementable tactics they can use to rapidly improve their personal effectiveness and get closer to achieving their goals. (Personal development book reviews. Read January 2020)
Blink – Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell’s wheelhouse is challenging commonly held beliefs that oversimplify widespread ideas. He loves to deconstruct common wisdom about things that appear simple on the surface but have hidden layers of complexity to them. His third book, Blink, explores how our gut instinct, which is perceived to be the opposite of sophisticated, analytical thinking, is actually based on a lot more substance than most of us realise. That probably makes it the most meta of all his books, and you can tell he is in his element with it.
Here he postulates that our instincts, hunches and immediate reactions to things are unconsciously informed by our cumulative life experience. We might feel like they are snap decisions based on emotion or shallow thought, but they actually draw on a wealth of information without us being aware of it. As this process happens subconsciously, we tend to dismiss these gut instincts and go against them. When we second guess ourselves like this and rationalise away our instincts, Gladwell infers, we are often doing ourselves a disservice, and end up making worse decisions than if we followed our gut.
Blink covers similar ground to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, without the academic rigour. Like all Gladwell books, it explores a single idea in an accessible way, weaving together a tapestry of anecdotes to illustrate the argument being made. If you are interested in the topic of how we think and frame the world, how powerful and active our subconscious is, and how our brains can trip us up, read this book. If it leaves you wanting more, and you wish to go deeper still, follow up by reading Kahneman’s too. (Personal development book reviews. Read December 2019)
Range – David Epstein
In Range, David Epstein expands on Robert Heinlein’s “specialisation is for insects” quip to make a case for the virtues of a multidisciplinary approach to life. This central argument runs counter to the idea that to be excellent at something, you must dedicate your life to it from an early age.
His premise is that many disciplines evolve to develop a culture of self-reinforcing, insular thinking, which limits the potential for innovation and progress by its practitioners. Things that fall outside of the accepted wisdom get dismissed and ignored, and progress stalls.
Conversely, Epstein argues, when someone pivots from one field to another, they bring experience and knowledge from outside of the sector. Their seemingly unrelated expertise can be a source of fresh analogies that reframe problems in new ways and offer a different perspective.
Innovation, by definition, requires new insight and a novel approach. Stacking knowledge gained from different domains together in unique ways can unearth new solutions to old problems, resulting in breakthroughs and step-changes in progress. In an established field, that insight is often best sourced by people who come from outside of it. Their lack of familiarity can give them an advantage over seasoned practitioners and creates the potential for novel approaches and solutions to be found.
The book contains numerous examples and intriguing real-world stories that back up Epstein’s thesis, which makes for an entertaining, enlightening read. I recommend it for those who are looking for a breakthrough in their field, hiring managers who want to bring in fresh insight, and anyone contemplating a career change. (Personal development book reviews. Read November 2019)
Lessons of History – Will & Ariel Durant
First things first, don’t be misled by any assumptions; this is not a history book. It is a book about what can be learned by studying the past. “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes”, Mark Twain allegedly said. This book examines what insight we can take from those rhymes, presumably with the intent of applying it to the present to infer our future.
It is short, at only 100 pages, but that does not mean it is a quick read. The book distils the lessons gathered from the first ten volumes of the Durant brothers’ serialised epic, Story of Civilization. They have done an incredible job of condensing an enormous amount of information into an almost crystalline form. As such, despite its brevity, it is rather dense. Nearly every sentence must be pondered on to unpack what it is saying. While it is possible to whizz through this book, the reader will be rewarded by pausing for reflection at frequent intervals.
I got the sense that some views stated in the book were influenced by the author’s personal opinions, rather than genuinely objective. Regardless, whether or not this is 100% accurate or in some ways subjective, it is a fascinating read that offers plenty of wisdom about human nature, society, effective governance, and maintenance of power structures. Its enlightening assertions and suggestions make it a thought-provoking lens through which to view global affairs and their implications for where the world may be heading. (Read January 2019)
Principles – Ray Dalio
For a book about principles, this gets incredibly granular. Written by legendary Blackwater hedge fund manager, Ray Dalio, it is split into two parts. The first covers Dalio’s general life principles and the second part focuses on his work principles. The life principles are still fairly work-oriented but are broadly applicable as a useful framework to approach living a successful life.
The work principles section lays out Dalio’s management philosophy and how he implements it in a comprehensive, prescriptive fashion. He provides insight into the “idea meritocracy” culture he has embedded in his company, extolling the virtues of algorithmic thinking and removing human judgement from decision-making wherever possible. He gets deep into the weeds, with specific advice on how to plan for and navigate a multitude of workplace scenarios including resource management, staff development and succession of leadership, among others. The common threads that run throughout the book are clear critical thinking, testing and planning, open communication, and accountability.
Dalio thinks with an impressive level of detail that allows him to use considerable foresight and operate with unwavering standards. There is much to like about his approach, but it would be nigh on impossible to port Dalio’s “idea meritocracy” system as described in this book into any workplace other than one of his design. Still, it provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a unique, successful fund manager and what it takes to operate at the right end of the bell curve. If you dial back the detail level and adapt the principles outlined in the book, they are powerful tools that could be applied to great effect in most organisations. As such, it is a valuable read for business managers everywhere, especially those who are looking to improve decision-making and accountability in their company. (Personal development book reviews. Read January 2020)
Quiet – Susan Cain
This book sat unread on my shelf for a few years without me ever picking it up. Every time I saw it, I would tell myself that I must read it soon. Still, part of me would also think “how interesting can a book on introversion be?” and I’d pick a different book instead. Listening to Susan Cain when she guested on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, I was struck by how engaging a storyteller she was, which triggered me to finally pick her book off the shelf and start reading.
In Quiet, Cain makes a case for what she calls “the power of introverts”. Due to their quiet nature and tendency to avoid large social gatherings or prolonged social interaction, introverts are often wrongly perceived as being shy, distant or self-absorbed and disinterested in other people. Quiet unpicks these myths and explains that what makes introverts differ from extroverts is their threshold for dealing with sensory stimulation. Their increased sensitivity to external stimuli causes them to fatigue more quickly, hence their tendency to withdraw in social situations which offer little in the way of respite.
This propensity for over-stimulation is not limited to social situations; it is a far broader trait. Introverts are not loners or misanthropes; they are just comfortable operating in different environments to extroverts. Introversion is often seen as being an inferior disposition in the extroverted cultures of the West. This book does a fantastic job of countering that perception by shedding light on the positive aspects of introversion – such as deep thinking, analytical skills and attention to detail – that are often overlooked in extroverted cultures. It also highlights an interesting trend in that, while Western cultures tend to be extroverted, Asian cultures tend to be introverted. When the global population is considered as a whole, there is a fairly even split between people who are predominantly either introverted or extroverted. Introversion and extroversion are equals, Cain argues; they just operate with different value systems.
Quiet is essential reading for any introvert and will prove to be a rich source of validation and self-awareness. It is also valuable reading for extroverts who struggle to relate to introverts or understand what makes them tick. One of the top three books I read in 2019. (Personal development book reviews. Read June 2019)
A Little History of the World – E.H. Gombrich
Initially written for the author’s grand-children in their native German language back in 1935, this was intended as a children’s book. In this years since its original publication, it has come to be regarded as a classic with appeal for adults as well as children and was finally translated into English and published by Yale University Press in the 21st century.
Described as telling “the story of mankind from the stone-age to the atom bomb”, this is far from your typical history book. It is written in the style of a fairy tale or children’s bedtime story and does away with many of the dates and mundane minutiae that most educational history resources focus on. Instead, ALHOTW outlines the grand narrative of human history, which makes for a more immediate, engaging read than typical history chronicles.
The forty short chapters are each dedicated to a single topic such as Egypt, the Roman Empire, or the Enlightenment. The stories they contain are over-simplified and told from a Western-European perspective, so don’t expect academic depth or accuracy. Where the book excels is in making history accessible, easy to understand and engaging for everybody, adults and children alike. If the superficial fairytale-style writing touches (of which there are relatively few) were toned down or removed, this could easily be marketed as a crash course in history for adults who are prepared to put their snobbery aside. As such, for anybody wanting a fun, easy way into learning about history without getting bogged down in dry academic writing, this is a fantastic primer or refresher. (Read August 2019)
48 Laws of Power – Robert Greene
Marketed as “The book so powerful it was banned from prison.” Also fittingly described to me by a friend as like “being mentored by Lucifer”. This is an insightful book with lots of useful, ethically dubious information that can be applied to one’s own life. In it, Greene lays out 48 principles you can use to become a Machiavellian puppet master in control of those around you as well as your own destiny.
48 Laws is undoubtedly brilliant and provides a blueprint that can be used to devastating effect. If it has one weakness, it is its length. Each law has a dedicated chapter illustrated by multiple real-world historical anecdotes. While these are generally interesting in their own right, the point is usually well made before the end of each chapter, and the stories start to feel like filler after a while. This causes the book to drag through the cumulative effect of hundreds of anecdotes presented one after the other, which undermines the power of the laws that are the book’s central theme.
I found a similar trait in Mastery, another of Greene’s books. The acumen he displays is fascinating, but the points he makes become laboured through numerous supporting anecdotes. Despite this, the principles covered in 48 Laws can be ruthlessly effective when applied in your own life. My recommendation would be to read each chapter until you have got the point then jump to the next one if things start to drag. Upon completing the book, I wrote all of the laws down on a double-page journal spread, such is their usefulness. That way I have them in a handy format for reference without having to wade back through the book. (Personal development book reviews. Read March 2019)
Option B – Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant
Option B is a book about dealing with grief, building resilience, and moving forward with life after experiencing trauma. It focuses on Sandberg’s unexpected sudden loss of her husband, a life-changing event that forms the main narrative arc of the book. This arc is used to explore how we experience grief, how it affects us, and how we can develop strategies for coming to terms with setbacks and moving beyond them.
The authors explain how, when we are in the midst of grief, it feels all-encompassing and permanent. It’s hard to find a way out. But, while things can never go back to the way they were, it is possible to move past suffocating trauma and begin to breathe again. This book is about how to find that way out.
Using insights from psychologist Grant, it breaks down how grief and trauma affect us and gives the reader tools for dealing with them. As someone who has experienced my fair share of adversity, the book was familiar territory for me and echoed my own experience. As such, I can validate what is advocated in this book and think it is a useful read for everybody, whether they have experienced devastating setbacks or not. Crisis and hardship are unavoidable aspects of life, which makes being able to deal with them and support those around us who encounter them an essential – and often overlooked – life skill.
If you are currently trying to recover from a traumatic ordeal or severe hardship, this book may help you find a way back to some form of peace. And, if you are trying to support someone who is in the midst of grief, this book will give you some actionable pointers for how to do this effectively with empathy and compassion. As such, it is mandatory reading to prepare for dealing with the inevitable adversity that life sooner or later brings us all. (Personal development book reviews. Read March 2020)
Talking to Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell
Talking to Strangers is about a specific aspect of human nature. It investigates how and why we are so bad at detecting lies, what causes us to misread people, and how this can lead to disastrous consequences.
The book begins with an examination of a routine traffic stop that quickly escalates and results in a fatality. Gladwell uses this incident as a jumping-off point to examine a range of cases where someone’s misreading of another person led to tragedy. These include an undetected spy in The Pentagon, the wrongful conviction of Amanda Knox, Neville Chamberlain’s misreading of Hitler before the outbreak of war, and many more.
As is typical of Gladwell’s books, there is one simple premise. In this case, how our tendency to default to truth causes us to overlook lies and misunderstand people’s true intentions. This characteristic leads to miscommunication with people we don’t know well. In short, we don’t know how to talk to strangers, even when we think we do.
Some of the cases in the book examine this tendency in personal interactions, while others make a broader point about how different communities relate to one another — for better or for worse — which adds a cultural dimension to the issue.
This book is a little thinner in subject-matter than Gladwell’s other books. There is less to sink your teeth into ideas-wise, and it relies heavily on the case examples to carry the thrust of the argument. Its central point could have been made just as well in essay form rather than a book-length treatment; such is its simplicity.
Gladwell has said that this book was conceived and designed as an audiobook first, which perhaps explains why the case evidence forms the bulk of the narrative structure. The audio version features interviews and recorded testimonies from key players in the cases, giving it a similar presentation style to a long-form podcast. These first-hand accounts create an engaging audio presentation, which makes it easier to get past the book’s thin premise.
Talking to Strangers has had a lukewarm reception compared to many of the author’s other books. I suspect the negative reviews have come from people who read the printed edition, for which the content structure may not work so well. Fans of Gladwell’s books may be disappointed, but listeners of his Revisionist History podcast will be in familiar territory with the audiobook, which uses an almost identical presentation style.
This book is worth your time if you’re interested in aspects of human nature related to communication, deceit, personal interaction, and stereotyping. Skip the printed version; go for the audiobook and don’t expect scholarly depth, and you should fair okay. (Read April 2020)