Last year I began reading a lot, as I used to do at the time of high school. I had this feeling of a need for deep insights, while taking my time. Too often, our life goes too fast. With a hectic lifestyle, it’s good to do some slow-paced activities. And nothing is better than a good book to slow down. Reading stimulates our imagination and rewires our knowledge.
Having this in mind, I made a list of thirty books I wanted to explore, but I managed to get through about ten. When I decided to share the 5 best ones I read, I found it hard. So I opted for those that changed me for better in the everyday life in practical ways. (You can find my 2020 top-5 book list here).
A good book has more than knowledge to share. With the right mindset we can access wisdom.
Anyways: were you looking for some new reading suggestions? Then, this is the right place for you! I have just made a list of the best 5 books I read this year. For each of them I consolidated a short description, the reason I chose to engage them, and few main learning points.
#5 Deep Work – Cal Newport
This could be considered the gospel of focused work. Indeed, it almost shared the place with another book I read this year: Flow, by Csikszentmihalyi. What do successful scholars, great athletes, inventors and visionaries have in common? These pages answer to that question by discerning great (deep) work from hard work. At first, one might think that it is a classic struggle between quality and quantity. The author arguments how you can achieve both quantity and quality. That is possible by honing your attention and focus, timeboxing and using breaks from an activity to dive into another one – all while preventing multitasking.
I approached this book to better understand the way a person masters a field, skills and abilities. The book indeed has much to do with meta-learning and with the concept of Flow – with which this this book contended the place in the top-5 chart. So, what did I learn from this reading?
- Hard work means to do a lot and not necessarily brings you great achievements. Most of it can be considered “shallow work”, the one that has primarily and has an end in itself. To achieve time for deep work, we must reduce shallow task to a minimal; if possible, to avoid them for a certain period. Examples can be by answering all emails, participating to all meetings in the agenda, or chitchatting.
- Deep work is energy consuming… So it is hard work; but in which one would you invest? The concepts written in this book helped me to give my focus at work a meaning. I am about to publish my first book. I went further my Python learning to deliver MVPs at work. And finally, I learned to take breaks and go back to an activity with fresh mind.
- A point I further elaborated is not treated in the book, but it comes as a consequence. To dedicate ourselves in deep work we must reduce distractions. Some of them are avoidable and some are not. We can put aside our mobile phones for couple of hours, but we can’t do the same with a colleague who need help. As consequence, we can invest time in empowering them, and let them fail when they resist to it. Assertiveness to any kind of distraction is indispensable.
About the Author: Cal Newport is a professor of computer science, a best selling author, and a regular contributor to The New York Times.
#4 The Monographs – Ben Cardall
Still in the area of focus, we now move to this Sherlockian handbook of observation skills. The ability to observe and deduce is peculiar to mankind; yet we can find out how small attention we really pay to the world around us. If you have an analytical mindset, you have a thing for non-verbal communication or you are just a Sherlock Holmes fan, this is the book for you. As the title suggests, each chapter is a monograph: a practical manual for observation in everyday life. It is well-packed with information, and would go well together in your library with Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind and Joe Navarro’s What every BODY is saying.
I bought this book as a gift to myself and I read it slowly, spreading it during all the year. I wanted to learn more about practical observation and learn to see the world in a different way that we mindlessly use to do. This is quite a strategical book, regardless that you want to become a private detective or surprise your friends. In my case, the implications on how to read people can bring coaching conversations to another level – something I already experienced by reading The Dictionary of Body Language.
Difficult to state key learning points for this manual. However, here are the first three that jump to my mind:
- Para-verbal communication and body language are overwhelmingly underrated. We can learn so much to better handle difficult situations at work and in life once we are able to “read the signs”.
- Memory is amazing and is also necessary if you want to practice all is written in this book. You can’t simply learn it by heart: you must practice, practice, practice. Going for a walk, sitting on the bus… Anywhere, anytime. The more you practice, the more you remember. The more you remember, the faster you read the signs. It becomes a second nature – alas one I haven’t yet achieved.
- At the beginning, it is hard to observe and keep in mind so much information. First, we must learn how to observe; then, how to interpret what we observe, based on the context. In all this, we must observe without staring and that is very difficult, because it gives us a very limited time to gather “intel” and reason upon it. A good integration to this book are the early vlogs of Observe on YouTube, by Logan Portenier.
About the Author: Ben Cardall is a deductionist and a mentalist who started approaching this matter because of his obsession with Sherlock Holmes and honed his skills performing mentalism shows.
#3 Emotional Intelligence – Daniel Goleman
What does make us angry and sad, and why? How can we control our irrational impulses and avoid doing something we may regret? When in life we begin to develop fears, paranoias, obsessions? This book answers these and more questions about the role of emotions in our life; the way they improve our living when understood and controlled, and how they ruin it if left on their own. This is a beautiful work, because it fights against the preconception that emotions make us weak and stupid. In turn, it suggests that being part of us, they need to be cultivated, so we become smarter, happier, and more productive. This should be a book that every teenager and every parent should read once in their life; and one that should be made mandatory for any leadership role in our society.
It would be more correct to say that I re-read this book. Just this time, I literally studied it, to the point of building mind maps about the topics treated. There are two reasons: the first, is for me to become a better human being; the second, to do a better job when conflicts emerge. This book helped me to meaningfully work on myself and, once again, see life differently. Here’s what I’ve learnt:
- The way we manage and live our emotions depends on the way we grow up and the culture we live in. Since society and culture continuously transform, so it is the way we are taught to behave. Albeit not every time, we can work around the way we manage and express emotions.
- Social rules bind us to repress emotions (a given example is Japan), or to exceed in their expression (like in Italy). That is why some behaviours are socially unacceptable, whether they are fine or not. This also explains how sociopathy and dysfunctional relationships are born.
- Cognitive and Emotional intelligence are two faces of the same coin. People with a high Emotional Quotient (EQ) can do much better than people with high IQ, but low EQ. This book also discusses how cognitively intelligent people with poor emotional management, and low or no empathy, have more chances to fail in life than others. And finally, how people who learn to wait for their rewards develop a sense of self-discipline that makes them successful.
About the Author: Daniel Goleman does not need presentations, being among the fathers of theories about emotional intelligence. Dr. Goleman is a psychologist and science journalist, author of a plethora of books about this very topic; and performs with his son on the podcast First Person Plural: EI & Beyond.
#2 The Socratic Method – Ward Farnsworth
Millennia ago, the whole idea of “wisdom” was put to the test by one man and his disciples. He lived in a world where who better articulated his thoughts in a discussion was said to have reasons. Nothing changed since then, except he left us a treasure: a way to fight human’s lack of critical thinking, beginning from ours. This book analyses what are the elements of the Socratic Method, also said Maieutic, of which we know mostly because of the work of Plato. Using the Dialogues and their review by John Stuart Mill, the author discusses their usefulness in developing consistent critical thinking, reminding us of our contradictions and bias.
It is a book that tackles ancient philosophy for modern application. This is also the last one that I read this year (so far). I approached it because of a firm belief: that coaching is the most modern incarnation of a Socratic dialogue, for being a moment where two people look forward to finding some wisdom. My main takeaway is the pursue of a better life by humbling ourselves with reality checks, while acting with decision upon what we learnt. And here’s why:
- We think we know much about the world and ourselves, but most of such knowledge is blurred by our biases. It is also good to say that we forget that what we know is usually based on one or limited perspectives, yet we fall into generalizations.
- Questioning ourselves and the others can be tiresome and painful but rewarding. We can see the Socratic method as a way of life that is not suited for everyone, because it means to accept our own ignorance and flaws, and yet seeking remedy to it: continuous improvement.
- What’s the “truth” anyways? This book is a reminder that we can reason upon events and facts, but reality’s facets are too many, so what’s right in a situation may be not in another. This book teaches us that content is king, but context is god.
About the Author: Ward Farnsworth is Dean at University of Texas School of Law, author of many books of philosophy and rhetoric. By his own account, he is also a Socratic practitioner.
#1 The Three Questions – Don Miguel Ruiz and Barbara Emrys
Who am I? What is Real? How do I express love? This piece of spiritual philosophy investigates the work of the Self and I, separating mental constructions with happenings and feelings. It makes us reflect about the power of our mind against its traps; the way we intoxicate our life and relationships because of our need of control and self-deceiving behaviours. It suggests us to detach from the stories we tell about ourselves and the others.
Why did I read this book? In the first place, it was a dear gift and warmly recommended by my fiancée. Second, I can see how it well connects with everything else I read this year. In the perspective of critical reflection: how to overcome our assumptions to break down the wall of faked reality. Thinking of emotional control: how to accept our emotions so we don’t become their victims. To observe the world without prejudices and to fulfil our goals by taming our desires. The main points of this books are the following:
- We are physical, our brain included and the Self, our inner voice, is a mental construct. Self is there to protect us; but unchecked it imposes us too many conditions. Doing so, it makes more harm than good.
- We see events in a way and so when retelling them, we are for the most telling a story. It is in part real because based on facts; but it is for the most invented, altered by our point of view. What we see is not necessarily real, and thus we should fight less to make our reasons prevail and listen more.
- Love is more than emotion, it’s energy. And so, before all, we must learn to respect ourselves, abandoning any form of physical and mental self-punishment. When we hate ourselves (rather: when our Self tells us to do it), we cannot love. This is a story as old as the world: but this retelling is worth reading.
About the Author: Don Miguel Ruiz, the famous spiritual teacher, is the main author of this book. His ideas are for the most based on Toltec culture, with a focus on personal freedom.
If you made it all here to the bottom, congratulations: I hope I shared with you something valuable. And that I made you curious enough to approach any of the books in this list!
I did the same last year and you can find my previous suggestions here.
I’d like to write more about the books in this list and maybe I’ll come back with some in-depth about these readings. In case you aren’t convinced yet, stop by in couple of months to find out more!
I am also curious to get back from you some suggestions for 2022. What did you read this year, and what did you learn from this experience? I’d like to read your suggestions in the comments section below.
For now, I wish you a nice conclusion of 2021… And lot of readings.