books ideas

Books read in 2018

I write down brief summaries of books read as a way to help retain my learnings and reflections from them, as well as to help improve my recommendations to others. For more reviews, check out the list from 2017 and 2016.


How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan
This was absolutely the best book I read in 2018. I described my main takeaways here.

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World – Niall Ferguson
This is a super fascinating read on the history of money. It belongs to that thick, epoch-defining class of books like Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens. Definitely worth reading, especially for those interested in gaining a wider perspective on financial history before cryptocurrencies.

The Order of TimeCarlo Rovelli
I read this in an attempt to get a little more educated about wtf is happening in reality. It was pretty mind-blowing (non-subjective time doesn’t really exist??) and I’d like to revisit it again because I didn’t fully integrate its concepts into my everyday perception of life.

Quiet – Susan Cain
If you’re an introvert or love one, this book is worth a read. I wrote my reflections on it in a separate post.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – Jordan B. Peterson
Peterson is the father figure who yells at you to stand up straight and give a shit. Forget about fixing the world: first fix your own life. Start by making your bed. Then tidy your kitchen. Then fix your relationships. Then help your neighbor. Do the right thing even when it doesn’t appear to make a difference, as it does matter: it makes you the person who did the right thing.

When everything is fucked, when you cannot find a friend even in yourself, sometimes your only move is some trivially small positive act. So just do that, and keep doing those tiny good deeds as best you can. Maybe it’s telling a partial truth when you might before have told a full lie. Maybe it’s just making the effort to wish someone well even when you want to feel resentful. Maybe it’s doing soul-crushing work for pennies but doing it with reverence and completeness, giving it every ounce of your capacity because this is the thing that’s in front of you, and you’re becoming the person who does their best regardless of the situation. Whatever you find that is positive and constructive to do, keep doing it. Close your eyes and don’t keep score. Trust that at some point, someday, all these constructive actions will one day bring you through this period of suffering darkness.

While this type of advice is my main recollection from this book, 12 Rules covers a wide range of subjects. This includes some interesting evolutionary psychology and heaps and heaps of Biblical interpretation. If you’re not keen on some parts, just skip through and find what does speak to you. It’s easy to hate 12 Rules, but the more difficult and courageous thing to do is to find something in it that speaks to you.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now – Jaron Lanier
Very short book that’s well worth reading if you engage in social media. Sadly his arguments didn’t convince me to delete my social media accounts, I’m sure to my detriment.

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality – Max Tegmark
I read this because it doesn’t strike me as unplausible that reality could be a mathematical structure. Not much stuck with me a year after reading this book, probably because I don’t have much foundational knowledge on astrophysics and quantum theory on which to attach Tegmark’s perspective.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – Steven Pinker
Enlightenment Now puts into perspective all the technological and medical progress that amounts to this amazing time we live. However, I drastically disagree with him in his assessment that things only getting better. His perspective is entirely human-centric, but let’s think about all the lives of other species who have gotten worse and worse as the average human life has gotten better and better. I also can’t see how he remains optimistic despite the fact that we are living in an ecological crisis that will snowball into greater and greater peril for humanity.

Out of Your Mind – Alan Watts
In the fall I went on an Alan Watts binge. I resonate with his perspective on the nature of reality (briefly encapsulated in this quote), and I find listening to his work both comforting and helpful in broadening my perspective from my day-to-day concerns.

Radical Markets – Eric Posner and Glen Weyl
There were some cool ideas in this book, though I’m not sure I’d want to live in the world they prescribe. I was most taken by the idea that just like having open trade makes economical sense, opening talent trade—letting anyone work in any country—is likewise a good economical move.

Running Down a DreamTim Grahl
I picked up this book on overcoming creative blocks after seeing it on Ryan Holiday’s mailing list. It’s really short—I listened to the audiobook in a Saturday afternoon walking around doing errands. Objectively, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield’s book on the same topic, is a superior book, but I enjoyed the approachability of “Running Down a Dream.” There’s something about how up front Grahl is with his flaws that made me think, “Well, this guy’s obviously like me.” The book made me feel like: maybe there is some worth to my creative works even if they are not masterpieces, maybe there’s worth in my churning out work to get to the work that’s not shit. However, I didn’t seem to stick to his advice too well. When I published “kinda done” blog entries, I quickly became embarrassed and unpublished them. But that experiment helped me understand what “done” felt like and helped me get over a little of the vulnerability of putting out work.

The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money – Carl Richards
I tend to read lots of books on the same subjects: meditation, personal finance, health and fitness, productivity, and creativity. A lot of these books have similar content and while I’m always looking for new insight, I’m also just looking to get in the right mindset and renew my inspiration for my goals. Not much to say about this book except that it inspired me to recommit to my savings goals.

Girl, Wash Your Face – Rachel Hollis
I balked when this repeatedly showed up on my book recommendation list: “Recommendation algorithm, sorry but you’re confusing me with some basic bitch,” I thought. Or… maybe not. I picked up the book one day when I was feeling low. It’s a collection of “you can do it!” inspirational stories through a particularly American-millennial-mom lens. Hollis’s open candidness about her life is endearing, and I can see how she’s come to amass a legion of fans. It’s a fun, heartfelt read and I enjoyed the three days I spent listening to it.

Wherever You Go There You AreJon Kabat-Zinn
I was trying to find some inspiration for meditation and picked this up. It’s an intro book to mindfulness and for whatever reason it didn’t speak to me.


I learned a few things from this year’s fiction adventure: online reviews of fiction books tend to be less reliable than those of nonfiction books. I also learned to be cautious of young adult fiction if I’m interested in good writing.

SiddarthaHerman Hesse
I loved this book! It perfectly encapsulates the undulating pull from worldly desires to spiritual devotion.

Off to Be the Wizard – Scott Meyer
Fun fiction read about a guy who programs magical powers. Cute but not especially compelling.

City of Bones series Cassandra Clare
This was where I started my hunt for a good fantasy book with a female lead. Albeit trashy young adult fiction and not recommended, this series was a fun escape during the dark winter months.

Throne of Glass seriesSarah J. Maas
Another attempt to find a good fantasy book with a female lead. I got frustrated by the crappy writing (how many times can you have your characters “huff”? Maas’s answer: let’s find out!). The characters are either evil or possess the same guilt-martyr complex. But the series is a page-turner and my inner thirteen-year-old is a sucker for fae fantasies and love triangles, so I stuck with the series for most of the way through.

books ideas psychedelics

How to Change Your Mind

Despite the rave reviews, I initially skipped reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. Having already read a fair deal on psychedelics, I figured I knew enough on the subject. But the author’s interview with Tim Ferris intrigued me, so I gave the audiobook a try. And I’m glad I did. It was definitely the best book I read in all of 2018, and there’s been takeaways that have stuck with me now more than a year later.

Psychedelics is a subject loaded with mania, fear, and political baggage, and Pollan handles the subject with what feels like the right mindset: skeptical curiosity and cautious reverence. Regardless of how it handles its taboo subject, How to Change Your Mind is a good book in its own right; I found it difficult to put down. Michael Pollan is an exquisite writer, and his beautiful narration in the audiobook only adds to the book’s richly felt, considered prose. I recommended the book to a few friends (including one not previously sold on psychedelics’ merits), and they loved it.

What stuck with me most was Pollan’s description of how psychedelics forge new neural connections. He likens this phenomenon to tracks in snow:

On ground covered by fresh snow, you chart your path freely. But as the snow becomes more and more well-traveled, trenches of tracks appear that you’re likely to follow. As the snow rises and tracks become deeper, it becomes quite difficult to veer from the well-worn paths.

Similarly, your thoughts and actions tend to follow the same neural pathways over and over. For example, you experience an unpleasant situation and immediately light up a cigarette. Your well-trodden neural path goes from the awareness of anxiety to the impulse to fumble for matches. You could do something else, but the path is so well-worn that it takes heroic effort to forge an alternate route.

Interestingly enough, one study showed that a psilocybin session was more effective than other treatments for smoking cessation. One participant in that study said she stopped smoking because in the session she realized: “My lungs are precious” (such seemingly stupid platitudes are common takeaways from psychedelic experiences). Finding a fresh perspective could make sense in light of the idea that psychedelics form new neural connections deep in the brain, and a new neural connection could give you the sense of a new understanding or new way of looking at things.

The other thing that stuck with me was Pollan’s description of what type of dispositions psychedelics are most helpful for. The human psyche ranges from overly open to rigid. Schizophrenia falls on the open side, anxiety and depression are on the rigid. From the current research, psychedelics appear to be most immediately helpful for issues on the rigid side of the spectrum. Perhaps this is related to how psychedelics may cease activity in the part of the brain associated with identity.

Before Michael Pollan tackled the subject, it seemed like the conversations around psychedelics were either, “Everyone should take psychedelics! Put them in the water! Utopia is nigh!” or “Psychedelics make you crazy! Ban them and investigate these evil-making drugs no further!” But psychedelics are a whole realm of nuance, and the correct approach is likely somewhere in between. Since this book came out to high acclaim, it’s felt like the conversations around psychedelics are evolving past that black-and-white thinking. As so many members of our society have mental and emotional problems that aren’t successfully addressed with currently available treatments, it seems worthwhile to explore what solutions psychedelics could provide.

books ideas

On “Quiet” and befriending your introvert self

I originally resisted reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking because it sounded like a pop psychology book, an ideal publication that could be touted to the majority of the book-buying population. “Of course introversion has strengths and weaknesses, duh!” I thought, rolling my eyes at the cover. But I’m glad I read it. Instead of a fluffy read, I found Quiet to be a well-researched and carefully considered tome describing introversion and extroversion in nuance I hadn’t previously considered.

My main takeaway from Quiet was that studies show introverts actually experience life differently than extroverts: introverts physiologically receive more stimulus from sensations than extroverts. So being alone in a quiet room may be the perfect level of stimulus for an introvert, whereas an extrovert probably finds that same situation under-stimulating. Likewise, a rowdy party or a buzzing open-floorplan office might be engaging to an extrovert, while the same environment could quickly exhaust an introvert.

This notion that I might be more sensitive to stimulus has been a useful mental model for me. I’ve started taking notice when I feel overwhelmed and act to remove stimulus from my environment. This can be anything from closing open browser tabs, changing to a quieter environment, or switching music to a track on repeat to make my environment feel more monotonous. If I’m not able to change anything in my environment (say, I’m stuck at a social event), then I find taking some deep breaths and mentally scanning my body can create space and ease the overstimulation.

At first I found it embarrassing that my threshold for overstimulation is so low, but I’ve come to view the situation as impersonal: I’ve simply been given an instrument that’s a bit hypersensitive, and it requires a little bit of extra care. This care includes not expecting it to perform optimally in situations with lots of competing input.

Managing expectations of introverts is a running theme in Quiet; Cain writes that one of the primary motivators for her to write the book was to help extroverted parents understand their introvert children. Indeed I can see how better understanding my nature would have allowed me to better guide myself earlier in life. When I was fresh out of college, I moved to Brooklyn and attempted to waitress in order to make ends meet. But my social reflexes were impossibly slow, especially compared to my extraverted colleagues who cheerfully winked, “I’ll be right with you!” at expectant diners as they took orders from three other tables. After a particularly chaotic Saturday shift, with one trying situation after another without any time to process, I melted down. Why am I so bad at this? What is wrong with me? I quit.

After that I found a temp data entry job at a law office. It was exceedingly boring work, or at least it was for the other temps. But I was in heaven. The office was so quiet and… they left me alone all day! While my extroverted colleagues gathered to laugh at internet memes, I kept quietly entertained by competing with myself for how quickly I could produce rows on a spreadsheet.

But Cain argues that introverts’ virtues extend beyond data entry(!): by hearing their internal voices louder, introverts may find it easier to tune into their internal compass of truth. Cain’s exemplary of this is Rosa Parks, an introvert who acted on her inner authority of right and wrong and changed the world from that conviction.

While the book is mostly dedicated to defending introverts, I closed it appreciating both extroverts and introverts more. I thought fondly of my extrovert friends who dragged me out to lively happenings and my sister whose abundant social network I depended on for years. I thought of my extrovert colleagues who engage a whole group of people to accomplish something far greater than would be completed had they only thought to go at it alone.

But my favorite takeaway from Cain was a notion that a life spent reading by a fireplace can be every bit as satisfying as one spent hobnobbing the world over. It feels unglamorous to eschew nights out in order to wake up early and unravel inner thought processes, but it’s these periods of quiet thought that give me the most joy. And Cain says that that’s ok.

books contemplation habits ideas the truth about life

On forming Forever Habits

Several years ago, I found myself in the predicament of being unable to read nonfiction books. I could, of course, read the words just fine, but the act of sitting and reading one page after another stirred an overwhelming anxiety: I knew so little and learning took so long. Each sentence I read was a tiny drop in a bucket the size of a rapidly expanding universe (a metaphor which reminded me of astrophysics, another subject I’d like to learn, but how long would that take???). Turning each page felt like confronting the utter meaninglessness and pointlessness of my small, stupid existence.

So I’d shut the book and walk away.

When I realized I was stuck in a self-reinforcing cage of ignorance, I became motivated to overcome it. I decided that, no matter what, I would read for 30 minutes every day for a month. As a visual reminder of my commitment, I got a calendar and crossed a big X through each day after completing the reading.

And even though reading was still uncomfortable for the first few times, I got through my resistance pretty quickly. I stopped paying attention to my universe of ignorance and instead started paying attention to all the exciting new ideas rushing into my awareness.

The first book I read during this month was The Power of Habit. In it, Charles Duhigg argues that we have limited conscious attention and willpower to make decisions, thus the majority of what we do every day happens out of habit. He concludes that if we use our limited willpower to create our habits, we can effectively program our lives.

I was sold.

The author suggested you could form a habit in 30 days, so I got a big calendar that showed all 12 months at once. I made a list of 12 habits I’d like to adopt and chose one new habit for each month. And then I sat back to install 12 new habits, easy as crossing one day off after the next.

But… it didn’t work like that. Meditation didn’t stick around long once the 30 days were up. Journaling, gratitude, avoiding sugar… these too quickly evaporated from my life once I moved onto my next pet habit.

In fact, the only habit that stuck around from that year was my first habit: reading. But… that’s ok, reading has been a pretty great habit. Heck, if I could adopt one new habit every year as helpful as reading, I’d be thrilled.

But still, what happened with those other habits—why didn’t they stick?

The Power of Habit prescribes a cue, habit, reward formula. Cue is what reminds you to perform the habit. Then, after performing the habit, you’re supposed to get some reward to incentivize you to repeat the habit again. Y’know, like training dogs.

I peered into how that model was at play in my successful reading habit:

In my month of 30 minutes of reading per day, I had been quick to find a hack: audiobooks. If I just put audiobooks on while driving, I didn’t have to change anything else in my life to meet my reading time quota. Were audiobooks as nerd-sexy as the physical variety? Definitely not. But, whatever worked.

And worked it did. Quickly I found myself listening anytime I feasibly could—walking, driving, cooking, eating meals, cleaning.

So the cue for my reading habit was being a situation where my body was occupied with a task but my attention was free.

I didn’t need to ladle out treats after each reading session—the reward was intrinsic in the reading itself. Every time I read I would be rewarded by shiny, new fun ideas in my head. (This echoes Naval’s advice that, to build the habit of reading, you should read whatever you are most interested in, even if that means beginning by reading trashy novels. He advises to build up a sense of enjoyment of reading, so skip anything boring or tedious, and never feel compelled to finish anything.)

In the charmingly anecdotal Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin argues that you should never use extrinsic rewards to reinforce habits. From my own experience, I have found this to be very true:

One evening in high school, after reading something about using rewards to get yourself to do something, I ate a bowl of ice cream to prod myself into cramming for a pre-calc exam. Fast forward 15 years and I’m still unravelling the compulsion to pair the endorphin rush of a sugar high with tackling tough work. Looking back, I wish I would have instead committed to just 20 minutes of study (“it’s just 20 minutes, after that I can take a break”), set a timer, and afterwards reward myself by reflecting on how good it feels having faced a challenge head-on.

So when I was recently building a habit of regularly hitting the gym, I looked at how to build in a reward that would keep me hooked on the habit. I knew I didn’t want an extrinsic reward of, say, a smoothie at the end. So instead, when I was leaving the gym I would consciously think positive and affirming things. Like, “Wow, look how on top of things I am. Most of my life I’ve struggled to regularly work out, but here I am. Things must be going well.” So the reward became my feeling positive about my ability to achieve my hopes for my life, which was far more motivating than any treat. This reward also helped motivate me to go to the gym when I was tired or grumpy: I knew I would feel better after going.

The other thing that helped me form a gym habit was not making it too hard. Previously I tried to start an exercise habit by jumping into high-intensity programs that I would participate in with maximum enthusiasm until I overexerted myself and had to drop out due to injury or just having run out of enthusiasm for intense unpleasant experiences.

So this time I instead decided that I was forming a habit of going to the gym for the rest of my life. Because it was a lifetime habit, the intensity of any one workout didn’t really matter—what mattered was that I enjoyed going to the gym and that I worked out in a sustainable fashion. The goal became not to have a great workout but to just show up. My workouts weren’t efficient, I wasn’t getting ripped, but I was enjoying myself and coming back. And 20 years of consistent easy workouts will do me better than 20 years of occasional intense exercise. And so working out became less about the workout and more about the habit of arriving at the gym even if I didn’t feel like it.

This focus on the long view made me realize: I don’t want to focus on short-term behavioral change. I don’t want to do a Whole 30 or a sober October. I don’t want to prepare for a marathon or lose 10 pounds for a wedding. I don’t want to do anything where I use short-term enthusiasm for a short-term result. I want to use every ounce of my enthusiasm for better behavior to build permanent automatic daily actions.

Like with building the habit of meditation:

The day after completing my first 10-day Vipassana retreat, I committed to sitting for 45 minutes each morning and evening. I sat silent and virtuous, confident that my devoted meditation practice would become the calm groundedness I would build a meaningful life upon.

This routine lasted for a whole (very lovely) 1.5 days.

So when I took up meditation again, I took it up with the view of making it a forever habit. I decided that I meditate because I always meditate. If I stopped the habit, I would just start it back up again as soon as I noticed, just like how in meditation you come back to the object of meditation whenever you find yourself lost in thought. And instead of 45 minutes, I aimed for just 5 minutes. After all, unlike 45 minutes, I really can’t argue that I don’t have 5 minutes.

Interestingly, with the attitude of lifelong commitment, I finally started seeing benefits from my meditation practice. I started “waking up” in my everyday life. I would find myself standing in the kitchen drying my hands and I would just start watching, quietly observing. Or I would find myself in a surge of emotion and step back and watch my breath, waiting for the storm to pass. And one morning I felt an overwhelming sense of peace wash over me. I could see how one could remain calm and peaceful even as the world goes to hell. This was the peace described in all those books on meditation I had read in lieu of actually meditating.

I see habits now as a lifelong practice: Pick the habits you want to cultivate and do your best to water them every day. If you stray from your habits, come back and begin at them again, because they reflect your values and your values are always there, an endless source of enthusiasm for the activities that best reflect your authentic self.

books contemplation the truth about life

On failing to be the change you wish to see in the world

Chris Jordan, Midway

Several years ago after watching a video, I deliberately erected a bubble of ignorance around environmental issues. This video, not four minutes long, showed that birds on a tiny remote island were dying. Their corpses decayed to reveal a skeleton stuffed with an assortment of colorful plastic rings and caps and doo-dads.

I was depressed for months after watching it. I didn’t want to be in a species so careless and cruel. These birds… just following instincts to eat. And this plastic… used so flippantly, each piece just one thoughtless moment in one person’s life.

I resolved to stop consuming single-use plastic. I was determined. I would do it! And yet all that determination dissolved a mere 48 hours later, buckled by a mundane desire for some food dressed in plastic wrap.

But what was worse than my personal plastic consumption was my livelihood: my job was literally to sell (more and more!) glass bottles with little black plastic caps. Black plastic caps that would exist for thousands of years as false food for undiscerning mouths.

Here I was, the person stuffing an increasing quantity of plastic caps into these birds stomachs.

Hello, I am the problem. 👋


I didn’t know how to deal with discovering I was the villain. I didn’t mean to be the villain—I had obtained that job from the sincerest desire to find a way to make a living doing something good in the world. The bottles I was selling were from a company trying to protect endangered plant species by supporting their sustainable agriculture. “People, planet, profit”—I thought it was possible. This job was supposed to be my way of making a difference.

With the new information about the problem with plastics, I should have dropped everything and devoted my life to pursuing better eco-plastic solutions and their adoption. But I was tired and busy and stressed, and honestly more than a little worried about money. The hard thing to do was figure out a way to help. The easy thing to do was to just shut my eyes.

I followed the path of least resistance. I made my eyes blur over environmental headlines. I found a few organizations working on solutions and sent money to those better, stronger people who were capable of keeping their eyes and minds open when looking at a problem.

And that’s how I lived with myself without changing much.

I told myself: things aren’t black and white, good and bad. It’s a complicated world in shades of gray.

I told myself: humans are just one step in the process of evolution, and we’re making all this plastic for a new type of microbe that will eat all the plastic and evolve into some new line of plastic-based life form. After all, we’re literally taking all the remains from species past and creating plastic with it. We are nature itself in the process of self-transformation. Yes, it looks like death and destruction, but this is how nature is. And the sun will eat the earth one day, anyway.

I told myself: everything will die and nothing lasts—why not sell some plastic bottle caps before the heat death of the universe?

These stories helped me hide from my disappointment that I was not a better person who would drop everything and spend my life fighting plastics in the ocean. I was no person of virtue; I actually did not really care; I was too weak to overcome the inertia of my selfishness, apathy, and averageness. And even this bitter news wouldn’t motivate me to change my behavior. I would suffer only the mildest of inconveniences to care for the earth and its beings.

I told myself: Only rare humans succeed in spending their lives doing something other than following their evolutionary impulses. My averageness really does make sense, statistically.


Several years later, I had made a nice life on this foundation of stories. It wasn’t perfect, but it was… good. I had puzzled out something of a career. I had discovered the lively and livable Berlin, escaping the US and the constant reminder of Trump’s election. I had even at last tracked down a shampoo that spun my frizz into ringlets 2/3 washings.

I was one of the billions whose life seemed to promise getting better. I turned the pages of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, grinning at how lucky I was to be born at the feet of unrelenting progress. I drifted to sleep dreaming of how I would one day improve the conditions of factory-farmed animals, own an apartment, and cross Tokyo off my must-see list. The future was bright.

It was in this phase of optimism that I decided it was stupid to willfully keep myself ignorant of environmental issues. I was stronger now. I could handle the truth.

But, as I turned the pages of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, a book that translates the science of climate change into its likely consequences, I learned that while I had been getting stronger, the truth had been getting more unbearable.

Re-envisioning my future as a future with climate change felt a bit like a mother being informed she would miscarry. An expecting mother, excited for a beautiful next chapter in her life, receives news that there are… problems. That future she was so sure was right around the corner was… a dream. And while reorienting herself to this new bleak reality, it dawns on her that she still has to go through the motions of delivering a baby anyhow.

Likewise, the happy life I was looking forward to was in a world that would not exist. The world that would exist was one with increasing millions of displaced people, food and water shortages, and regular catastrophic weather events—all of these forces making peace and prosperity that much more difficult.

The world was fucked, and like how the mother of a dead baby had to deliver it all the same, I had to keep up the act of paying rent in an unfolding tragedy.

I had not taken action years ago, I had not helped humanity find a way to reconcile endless economic growth with a finite environment. And now we—everyone busy and stressed and tired and worried about money—are on a fast track to a really shitty reality.

And my life, if my previous actions are a reliable predictor, won’t help a thing.

Afterword: This post was written as an exercise to examine my frustrations and hopefully see beyond my blinding feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Writing it helped me to start letting go of my anger about my past inaction and renewed my commitment to help protect the environment. Instead of feeling like I have to do everything to help, I am focusing on what I can do right now. So for now my focus is on avoiding animal products, avoiding flying whenever possible, hosting clothing swaps to promote reuse, and donating a % of my income to organizations who are making meaningful change.

If you’re interested in these topics, here’s some things to check out:

5Gyres is an organization that helps spread awareness on the issues of plastic.

Cool Earth halts rainforest deforestation and thus climate change.

Giving What We Can is an organization that promotes donating 10% of your income as a way to create positive change. Giving What We Can was eye-opening to me because I realized that without changing much in my life now, I can work to empower others to make a difference.

The Uninhabitable Earth is a great article that covers the 101 of why to care about climate change. If you want to dig more into the details, the book under the same name is likewise stellar (and beautifully written).

books contemplation ideas

Digital Minimalism

Cal Newport is probably the current “thought leader” whose convictions I am most sold on, but despite numerous rereadings of Deep Work, I’ve failed to live up to the practices he prescribes. In Digital Minimalism, Newport attempts to help people like me close the gap, providing mindsets and strategies for fighting back against the digital empires making a killing off our time and attention.

Instead of arguing for a black-and-white “just quit social media,” like he does in Deep Work, in Digital Minimalism Newport takes a more nuanced approach and provides convincing arguments to help you rethink your time on social media and the internet and evaluate how your online habits can best serve you.

What value does social media bring to your life and at what cost? If you are looking for social connections, you are much more likely to be satisfied by having real real-life face-to-face interactions. In fact, your brain has evolved to do such a thing. As Newport illustrates—going to see a new mother will do more to bring you closer to her than a hundred “so sweet!” comments on her Instagram photos. Newport recommends a zero-sum game: use social media for what singular benefits it provides, and don’t use it one second longer. Instead, spend your life on activities that serve your values best.

Newport argues that a lot of the reasons why we pour our time into activities like social media, online streaming, and video games is because we have failed to cultivate our leisure lives and we’re just defaulting to whatever requires the least amount of thinking.

I was always of the mind that, especially as an introvert, I needed a lot of unstructured downtime in order to rest and recharge. But with Newport’s insights, I’ve become aware of how, although I do feel rested after a weekend spent mindlessly browsing blogs and tweets, I don’t feel especially satisfied. While it feels nice to let my attention scamper freely, it feels draining to put so much precious free time into activities of such little consequence. (“What am I doing with my life? Why do my goals always feel reserved for ‘someday‘?”) The weekends that feel most satisfying are those where I do something new that’s a bit outside my comfort zone, make a significant contribution to a personal project, or actually do something to contribute to someone else’s day. Often the route to such satisfying activities is paved with thoughts like, “Oh, I wish I could just stay home,” and “maybe I can abandon this for Netflix.” So I’ve started putting conscious attention into figuring out what it is that I want to spend my free time on, being aware that I might need to overcome some internal resistance to make new activities happen.

Newport says doing “high-def” activities that use your body in 3-D space and/or in-person social activities are usually the most rewarding. (He recommends taking up fixing things yourself… I promptly ignored that recommendation.) For my first go at filling my schedule with high-quality leisure time that reflects my values, I decided to try the following:

  • attend a public speaking meetup twice per month (social and dedicates a few evenings to my goal of speaking publicly sans panic attack).
  • review other upcoming meetups each week. Attend one once per week (pursues my goal of learning and meeting new people).
  • replace Netflix with high-quality videos, podcasts, or board games several nights per week (pursues my goal of learning and spending quality time).
  • attend two writing meetups on the weekend (gives me the satisfaction of making progress on my writing projects, definitely one of my values).
  • use Duolingo on the tram (gives the feeling of a fun game while making progress on my goal to learn German. Deciding on just one activity for the tram saves me from the irritating habit of switching from reading to chat to email while I wonder what to do with my commute time).
  • replace idle evening and weekend blog and Twitter time with learning Python (harvesting wasted hours into pursuing a goal).

Newport also discusses the importance of solitude. Not physically being alone, but being alone with your thoughts—no podcast on your headphones, no blog in your face, no checking your phone (not even to find the next perfect track on Spotify!). Newport goes as far as suggesting taking long walks without your phone (the horrors!). I tried this and discovered that, while I usually dedicate my walking time to becoming more informed by listening to podcasts or audiobooks, without any input I would start to coming to my own answers and unearth my own wisdom. It was like the process of solitude was a way to find the backbone of my mind—the convictions of my own being.

While I really wish Newport had commented on workplace chat (e.g., Slack), he did give me an insight that I found useful. Ever since reading Deep Work I’ve been struggling to get myself to stop checking work chat frequently. My cycle of constantly interrupting my work by checking chat destroys the periods of deep focus that I crave. Even with all notifications off, I find checking work chat really difficult to resist. Newport’s insight is that our brain is wired that when we receive a message from someone online, our brains interpret that as a tribe member at the campfire saying something to you. It would be rude—and risky to your survival—to not immediately answer that person. And I realize that this is how I feel. When I close chat with the aim to do a good chunk of uninterrupted focused time, even though I’m doing it to better complete the work I was hired to do, I can’t help but worry that there’s something urgent going on and people will think I’m not working or don’t care if I don’t answer them right away. I hope that having this understanding of why my brain is reluctant to being away from chat will help me be okay with keeping chat to predetermined time windows and protect the remainder of my work hours for concentrating deeply on one single task at a time.

Besides work chat, the other digital activity whose addictive nature negatively impacts my goals is Twitter. The problem with Twitter is that the barrier to entry is so trivial, and yet there’s some illusion that the witty comment that it took you almost no time to think up will get you ahead. Ahead of what, exactly? Sure Twitter can be helpful in getting a job or a book deal or influencing people, but you know what’s way more helpful for that? Spending that time, unfractured, doing hard work that cannot be replaced by any number of witty hot takes. If you want to actually be socially influential, take the time you would spend on Twitter and use that instead on actually developing relationships with people, learning what they’re working on, and helping them.

Despite my convictions on this, I’m still figuring out how to overcome my Twitter addiction. It would be easiest if I could just leave Twitter and never look at it again, but my job entails being on the social media platform, and having a personal account is helpful to promote tweets or interact with someone’s comments. (Also, like I said: I’m addicted.) Attempts to make my personal account for only work-necessary conversations quickly spins out and I find my time being edged in by Twitter’s endless stream of D-grade content. For now I’m hoping that filling my schedule with high-quality leisure activities will help me adopt new habits and edge out the Twitter grind, but I probably need to think of better techniques to prevent my time from being sucked up by the platform. If you have any suggestions for how to take advantage of Twitter’s benefits while mitigating its strong negatives, email me at alex at [this domain].

Anyway, those are my takeaways from the book. I highly recommend you read Digital Minimalism as well as Deep Work. They both have good audiobook versions, are well-written, and imho contain some of the most important ideas for anyone trying to do anything of consequence in our current digital age.