I a spend considerable amount of time commuting from Oakland to my job in Sunnyvale. Though my job does provide the ability to use the company shuttle to get to and from work, I have learned to appreciate those quiet hours in the morning, contemplating the day ahead and getting mentally prepared listening to my favorite motivational speakers.

Every afternoon however, for the last 6 months on and off, I have made it a ritual to listen to an audiobook or podcast that will help me sharpen the saw and become a better employee, husband and overall better person.

Below, I will attempt to keep a list of the books I listen to or read for all of 2019, with a brief summary of what key insights I learned from it.

Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science  of Contentment, Calm and  Confidence by Rick Hanson

Overall I found this book quite shallow. Granted this book was written six years ago, the "H.E.A.L." methodology used by Dr. Hanson was not actually as intuitive as it appears on first pass.  It is effectively a mixture of mindfulness practices and guided meditation. The basic premise is based on the fact that our brains are naturally programmed to identify negative events, and that this can this natural negativity bias can be overcome by linking positive emotions and feelings to known worries, self-doubts and thoughts a few seconds at a time.

You can save your self a lot of time listening to the explanation of the four steps of "taking in the good" directly from Dr Hanson himself on his website. Or watching the short TEDx talk below:

Hardwiring Happiness with the H.E.A.L method

The End of Procrastination: How to Stop Procrastinating and live a Fulfilled Life by Petr Ludwig

Elephants and hamsters. This short book provided a couple practical tips on how to avoid procrastination, but overall felt as though it was shaming a whole swath of people who may not be able to to just stop procrastinating. Petr opens the book with his near-death experience an how this gave him a new lease on life and the needed motivation to be able to take on challenges he would have otherwise left for tomorrow or the day after that.

Petr draws inspiration from NYU Psychologist Jonathan Haidt's work which personifies the intangible concepts of the rational and emotional processes in the brain as an rider, and an elephant respectively. It follows that in order to be able to defeat procrastination, one must make a path for the elephant to make progress, and carefully direct it by means of carefully thought out achieveable milestones.

Later in the book, a person's learned helplessness is personified as having a "hamster". Referred as such based on another scientific experiment where a hamster was placed in an enclosure with a clear lid, after several days of trying to leave the enclosure and failing, the hamster stopped trying to leave the enclosure, assuming it was impossible, even after researchers removed the barrier. Petr argues that similarly, we too have learned helplessness due to having experienced failure before.

All in all, in my view, the most practical advice from this book is to avoid taking too much at once. Break down your tasks into bite-sized actionable steps. If you have to plan an event three months from today, perhaps a good place to start would be to research at least one venue. Breaking down tasks into actionable steps will yield a higher degree of overall success in the long run.


Power Moves: Lessons from Davos by Adam Grant

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this audio book. Not only does it offer practical, advice in different areas, it is filled to the brim with interesting anecdotes and interviews with various leaders from around the world.

In a nutshell, this book touches on the changing dynamics of power. Who wields it? How is it used? There is no doubt the power dynamics are changing around the world. The prevalence of the internet has empowered far more people with more information as well as given people a larger platform. It is now quite common to find a 20-something-year-old living with his parents to have a much larger and influential reach than the SVP of Communications at a company like Microsoft.

The book is divided into the following sections:

  • In the Arena -- Changing power dynamics at Davos, influencer vs hierarchical power
  • Power Reveals -- Power reveals a person's innermost desires, analysis of presidential speeches (including Nixon, Clinton, Bush Jr, Obama and Trump)
  • Powerful Women -- How does acquiring power differ for women as opposed for men?
  • Team Power -- How have the roles of employers and employees changed? How can teams be empowered?
  • Culture Change -- How power can be used to create cultural change in institutions?
  • Robot Power -- If the future is AI and ML, what type of new power will the technological advances bring?
  • Power to Truth -- How do we help those without power? How can we foment cultural and emotional power?

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown

Brené Brown challenges the notion that  leaders should be unflawed and unflinching, by inviting them to be vulnerable. Not in the extent of oversharing or with the intent to be manipulate other's emotions, but rather by having the courage to manage uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It leads us to do the soul-searching needed to stay in the hard conversations, tell the truth and be willing to give and ask for feedback when it is hard.

She comes across as an authentic and caring leader. Not only does she open up her book by retelling an anecdote of a incredibly humbling experience speaking to a room full of C-Level business people (not sea-level), but also issues the reminder that people are just people.

We all have our own faults and despite them, we are in one way or another called to be leaders. Wether it is for work, or at home, at any point in time each one of us will have to be the beacon which others follow. In Brown's refreshing take on leadership as an empathic journey, she provides a wealth of wisdom that applies in all facets of life.

Her approach sounds simple on the surface, but requires deep introspection at times. Brown provides language not only to do the deep work required to evaluate and identify our own values, but also a common language to build a common understanding amongst teams.

Of the biggest take aways, is the concept that "clear is kind, unclear is unkind." In my interpretation, it is always far better to be upfront about how we're feeling and what we expect from others. This concept alone melts away so much misunderstanding and trust that can often corrode relationships and lead to anxiety and burnout. As an example, if a person asks if you can take on an additional project, the kind thing to do would be to explain exactly the reason why you are not able to take it on instead of begrudgingly saying yes, or coming up with an excuse.


Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People by Vanessa Van Edwards

In this book, Vanessa Van Edwards teaches us how to hack social interactions. How to create a good impression on the first five minutes, how to decode other's inner motivations and values in the first 5 hours, and how to build lasting relationships in the first 5 days.  

The best part, is that everything she teaches is based on solid neuro-science and behavioral studies he has reproduced or conducted herself as lead investigator at scienceofpeople.com.

One of the most memorable parts of the book for me was when she explained the concept of big talk. We are all familiar with the concept of small talk, and well, small talk leads to little more than passing the time until it is time to go and do something else. Instead, the concept of big talk is like getting on Space Mountain at Disneyland. It is thrilling and exciting, it generates memorable conversations that will lead others to not only remember you but like you more for it!

The premise is that instead of engaging in boring small talk with questions like "do you live around here?", try a more engaging "are you planning to travel anywhere any time soon?" conversation sparker. Van Edwards selflessly shares her favorite conversation sparkers and dopamine generating conversation starters on her site.

There is much to learn from Captivate and is definitely worth multiple reads. I look forward to read it again in the near future.


Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James  Clear

From losing weight to building a billion dollar company, Atomic Habits posits that it is not enough to set ambitious goals. It is only through the power of habits that the highest performers are able to accomplish what may seem impossible to mere mortals.

As it turns out, it is really difficult to start new habits, and nearly impossible to get rid of bad habits. Of course, this is only true if you are not familiar with how habits are formed in the first place. Following up from the groundwork laid out by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Clear outlines his own framework for establishing new habits and breaking bad habits.

In a nutshell, we are constantly scanning our surroundings and behaving accordingly to the triggers around us. Each visual input can unleash a chain of involuntary actions into motion that we execute flawlessly and often times without thinking about it. Putting it into perspective, if we paid closer attention to our automatic behaviors and decided to make improvements in different areas of our lives by even 1%, the compounded benefits of those small incremental actions would yield enormous dividends in the future. As Clear defines it, these atomic habits (in the scale of atoms), can lead to atomic results (in the scale of an atomic bomb).

When it comes to habits, a common figure thrown around is that it takes 21 days to make a new habit, however, Clear refutes that by stating that a habit is formed once it has been repeated enough times to become automatic. Each habit begins with a cue, which triggers a craving, which in turn causes us to follow through with a response (wether in thought or action), which leads to a reward, and the cycle starts all over again.

The habit loop

As an example, think about walking into a dark room in an unfamiliar home. Almost instinctively, we will reach out our hand to either side of the wall, palpating for a small plastic lever, dial or knob in search for a light switch, because that is what one must do as soon as we enter a dark room, turn on the lights.

Clear provides detailed insights and researched strategies to internalize each of his four laws in order to build new habits and eliminate bad ones. His four laws for creating a new habit are:

  • Law 1 (Cue): Make it obvious
  • Law 2 (Craving): Make it attractive
  • Law 3 (Response): Make it easy
  • Law 4 (Reward): Make it satisfying

In order to stop a bad habit, invert the 4 laws mentioned above:

  • Inversion of Law 1 (Cue): Make it invisible
  • Inversion of Law 2 (Craving): Make it unattractive
  • Inversion of Law 3 (Response): Make it difficult
  • Inversion of Law 4 (Reward): Make it unsatisfying

You can watch Clear explain the four laws below:

All in all, if I had to summarize Atomic Habits succinctly, it would be this: Our habits are a reflection of who we are, we must then do the things that reinforce the identity we wish to embody. Each habit we perform then, is a vote for the person we wish to become.


Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

This book will make you cry. I cried. As COO of Facebook, Sandberg sparked a movement that started shortly after her wildly successful TED talk about why we have too few women leaders and only gained momentum after she published her follow-up book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. This courageous glimpse of vulnerability has lead to the creation of thousands of lean in circles where women can find the support and tools to rise up to the challenge of having the difficult dialogue needed to allow more women to excel in their fields.

Sandberg opens her book with the heartbreaking story of how she came to find the listless body of her beloved husband next to an exercise machine while vacationing in Mexico. The grief of losing her husband lead her to a long path to being able to live a "normal" life again. It took her over a year after her husband's passing before she was able to talk about it in public. You can watch her address the UC Berkeley graduating class of 2016 about the lessons she learned in death.

Sheryl Sandberg addresses the UCB class of 2016

For me, the most powerful message from her book is that even when we plan everything to the last detail, things are bound to go wrong, and often times, catastrophically. It is not about avoiding grief, but rather how to confront the reality that the world will move on with or without us, and it is to our benefit to carry on. Sometimes option A will no longer be a viable option, and we will have to carry onward with option B, and maybe option C and D.

Of all the advice shared throughout the book the one piece that resonated the most with me was learning about the work of psychologist Martin Seligman with regards to the three P's:

  • Personalization - We disproportionately allocate the blame on to ourselves for our current situation. The reality is that even if it we are partially responsible, it is naive to think that everything that happens to us happens because of us.
  • Pervasiveness - We incorrectly believe that the bad situation we may be facing permeates like a sticky substance across our entire lives. In truth, there may very well be areas of our lives that is not impacted by the bad situation, all we have to do is look towards all the good in our lives despite the bad times.
  • Permanence -  We believe that the bad times will never end, and that we will be stuck in the darkness for eternity. In reality, if we can see how our circumstances are only temporary, we can imagine and then build a better future for ourselves.

Overall, I can say I learned two things after reading this book:

  1. As humans, we are stronger than we give ourselves credit for, and resiliency is one of the most human traits we possess. We are able to get hurt, beat and tossed around by the cruelty of life, yet we get back up time after time and find the strength within to live another day. This is not a book I'd want anyone to read while they are going through grief, but rather one that should be read as a way to prepare for the winter days, the times where we feel the will to live wane, and be better prepared for adversity before it comes knocking at our doors.
  2. Everyone has hidden scars, wether they are still healing or they have been there for a long time. It is our responsibility as human beings to care for one another. Being sympathetic to someone's grief is not enough. We must be empathetic, and genuinely be there for one another, even if we do not have the right words to say.

Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity by Charles Duhigg

The ONE Thing

This is Day One

The Power of Habit

Measure What Matters

Supermarket

How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t

The 12 Week Year

The Obstacle is the Way

Human Errors