Craft By Zen

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On Book Recommendations

This week, a friend asked me, “Will you find me a good but not crazy or preachy “learn to like yourself more” book please??” I gifted some books and followed up with a lengthy email for why I selected those books. I decided to blog about it and share my recommendations.

‘Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well’ - Douglas Stone

A group from the Harvard Business School came out over a decade ago with their seminal work about office relationships and communication called “Difficult Conversations” in which the team tried to understand what it is that makes us avoid having tough conversations with co-workers, family and friends. They turned that study into a book called “Difficult Conversations” on how to initiate these conversations. This book, “Thanks for the Feedback” explores the next step, which is someone has posed a difficult conversation to you, and explains how you should respond. You don’t have to read “Difficult Conversations” to understand this book at all, and it’s practical from the very beginning. I really wish I had read this when I did my senior project and had to manage a group of 5 people.

‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead’ - Brene Brown

This book is almost a must for anyone who feels shame, guilt and vulnerability, which is to say, everyone. The book chronicles how to deal with vulnerability and how to expose yourself to being vulnerable. This has been Mrs. Brown’s work for over a decade as she takes her qualitative research and distills it down to some simple principles that can relieve us of anxiety in the future. Her TED Talk is the most viewed talk on the TED website.

‘The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It’ - Kelly McGonigal Ph.D.

A week-by-week manual on how to improve your goals. This book is taken from Dr. McGonigal’s class at Stanford and goes through exercises to build habits. This was a sacrifice over “The Power of Habit”, which also details willpower, but I think this one is more practical and that you can use the moment you start reading. One of the things it taught me was a keystone habit, in which one habit may actually bring about multiple good habits.

‘The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom’ - Jonathan Haidt

You’ve read this guy’s other book, “The Righteous Mind”. Before he wrote that, he wrote this book about what advice the ancients had and how to find a way to live in modern life given those set of principles. From this, I learned the concept of proper balance, between removing oneself away from materialism versus being fully immersed in it. The author really tries to distill the decades of work he has found in old, philosophical texts as he’s a professor of Philosophy.

‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ - Susan Cain

This book was a struggle to keep on the list, but after thinking about the impact it had on me, I had to keep it on. Susan Cain talks about how one mode of thinking is not great across the entire spectrum of introverts / extroverts. In fact, most of the commonplace attitudes to think about how to collaborate, how to think, how to work are based off of the ideas of extroverts. What may work for you may not work for someone else who’s an introvert. Also, she details that most people lie on a spectrum, and not actual opposite ends. This is where I found out I’m actually an ambivert, someone who lies in the middle of the introvert / extrovert spectrum.

‘The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of Them Now’ - Meg Jay

My cousin shared her TED talk, and I ended up buying and reading her book. Dr. Jay is a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia who counsels students and patients in their 20’s and 30’s. Her hypothesis is the habits and foundations we build in our 20’s will help define and shape who we become for the rest of our life. This was a revelation to me because I was compromising too much of my life and deferring many important matters and questions to an indeterminate future date. In fact, after reading the book, I starting focusing on the things that I am most uncomfortable with, relationships, emotions and mental health, religion and spirituality, and my career. Many of her claims challenge conventional wisdom, like her claim about early cohabitation in a relationship, and how it harms relationships in the long run.

‘The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts’ - Gary D Chapman

A fairly short book about building relationships in the long run. This was recommended by my roommate and many people on the Internet. Most relationships break down because of communication, specifically each partner does not know how to speak or listen to each other’s love languages. When you learn about each one, you can start to notice your past relationships and see where things started to break down. Dr. Chapman has been in his field for over two decades counseling marriages when he wrote this book, and it’s a culmination of distilling into 5 simple points of how couples speak to each other. Ignore the fact he’s religious because there’s practical value here, and he tries to be fairly secular.

‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ - Carol Dweck

At a school development meeting at my job at the Prep School, this book was highly praised. Dr. Dweck is a researcher at Stanford who studied kids and success, and came up with the concepts of growth mindset and fixed mindset. I took two days to sit down and read this book, and came to thinking differently about my own learning and career. I learned to ask questions and not to put up walls when I find something difficult to do. Most of the claims Dr. Dweck makes is based on her studies she’s run for over two decades.

Here’s an additional list of books that I wanted to send to my friend, but I was over-budget.

‘The Art Of Asking’ By Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a musician, known for her work in the Dresden Dolls as well as her own solo work. She raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter for her latest album, which I’m a backer of, gave this excellent TED talk, and this book is a part memoir, part practical advice on asking for help. The audiobook, which I purchased, also contains songs between chapters.

‘A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy’ by William B. Irvine

I choose ‘The Happy Hypothesis’ over this book because this book only focuses on the stoic teachings, and not the entire spectrum of philosophy. However, that said, there’s plenty to learn about controlling emotion and minimalism from the stoics. If meditation doesn’t work and you must reason your way through stress, this book shows you exercises on how to cope.

‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ by Cal Newport

I’ve followed Mr. Newport’s blog for quite some time and read his other book, “How to Be a High School Superstar”, because I wanted to know if it was good to give my sister a few years back when she asked me what she should do in High School. To me, this is thecareer book. It begins by telling you that the pursuit to do something your passionate about is a myth. In fact, Mr. Newport claims that it’s the job and career that guides you to your passion. You have to build your own career up, and it’s going to have lots of twists and turns before you truly know what you’re going to do. I’ve gifted this to my cousin and she has taken this advice and went back to graduate school because she wants to build up the skill to do more in graphic communication. I didn’t consider this book to give to you because I thought about self-help before career advice, so maybe you should ask me nicely for your birthday next year (but in all seriousness, purchase this book if you can. It really is worth it).

‘Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps’ by Kelly Williams Brown

It was a toss-up between this book and the Dr. Meg Jay book. This is a very actionable book for twenty-somethings. It goes through a lot of different aspect of tuning up your life. I’ve only read sections of this, and I’ve found it useful for tips on what friends to keep, how to declutter, and how to maintain work relationships. It’s a rather fun book that was started as a blog.

‘Don’t Go Back To School’ by Kio Stark

Kio Stark is a professor at NYU’s ITP program (Interactive Telecommunications Program), a writer, and a graduate student dropout. Before I even heard of ITP, I heard about this project from Kickstarter. I was a week too late to back the project, but I really wanted to be included. I signed up on the mailing list to be told when this book is going to come out. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a book about a series of interviews with accomplished people who did not decide to go to graduate school and let their careers guide them through figuring out what they wanted to do. Mrs. Stark also talks about her own experiences, and then gives a great follow-up companion on how to start learning things on your own that don’t require graduate school. Definitely a good read if you’re thinking about going down the graduate school route.

Side Note: I went to New York last year to check out ITP because I was thinking about applying.

The Miracle of Mindfulness’ by Thich Nhat Hanh

This book is the entry book to practicing meditation without all of the spiritual fluff that’s usually included with most zen meditation practices. Perhaps anything else, this book taught me the importance of awareness and that meditation should be an extension of that awareness, not an escape from reality. Also recommended is “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki, which introduces the concept of proper meditation. Here is a great talk (or rather meditation session) he did @Google.

‘Stumbling on Happiness’ by Dr. Daniel Gilbert

Despite being a book about happiness, this isn’t a self-help book about how to become happy. It’s actually Dr. Gilbert’s research into perception and cognitive biases and how our imagination deceives us. The book is profound with it’s findings, but I didn’t think it has much value in immediate changes. You have to think about it for a while and be aware of how our mind deceives us. Obligatory TED Talk.

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Dr. Daniel Kahneman

I’ll call him the Godfather of modern pop psychology because he work brought about a slew of other psychologists you hear at the top of their field. This book cleared up the concept of loss aversion, anchoring, and our two modes of thinking. I find myself going back to this book again and again to clear up some very core concepts in rational and irrational thinking. In the appendix of the book is Kahneman and his collaborator’s (Amos Tversky) seminal paper on prospect theory that won them the nobel memorial prize in Economics.

‘My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey’ by Jill Bolte Taylor

This book was a lot shorter than I imagined. It’s about a scientist who studies strokes and finds herself having one early in life (in her mid-30’s). She talks about the journey into her mind as she’s having the stroke and the path to recovery. I watched her TED Talk before reading her book, and I must say I am amazed at how much I didn’t know about strokes, especially at the rates that it’s afflicted people. I could relate to stroke victims because that’s what killed my grandfather a few years ago.

‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg

As I mentioned, this was my second choice. I think this book is great in its research on habits and the author’s journey changing one of his habits that resulted in weight loss. But don’t take his weight loss story as motivation to read this book. It’s more about the power good habits can bring to your life and how bad habits are hard to unlearn. However, by the end of the book, Duhigg breaks down habit formation in easy steps and you can follow it too. There’s also this great infographic about the steps online.

Honorable Mentions

You’ll often find Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” on many people’s list of top self-help books. Published in the ’30s, Carnegie tells some simple ways to talk and interact with people. It tells you to be kind and listen to others. To me, it was a bunch of common sense, but at the same time, it’s worth a quick flip through. If you actually read the book, you’ll hear about Carnegie’s fascination with Lincoln and a ton of parables to back what he’s saying.

Also, Stephen Covey’s “7 Habit’s of Highly Effective People” is also rudimentary for common sense. It’s read widely by Cal Poly’s Business 101 course, and I pulled a few things out of that, like the basics of negotiation. Honestly, I don’t remember the fine points of this book, like the actual 7 points, after reading Covey was a Mormon. After I shook off the religious bit, I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying anymore, which sounds really shallow of me. I had the opposite reaction to Anne Lamott’s book, “Bird By Bird” after reading she was a Christian.