Reading books has become such an important part of my life. Funny, because I used to hate reading, now I can’t imagine going through a day without reading for at least 30 minutes.
Similarly to last year’s favourite books of 2018, I wanted to write a quick blog post about some of my favourite books in 2019, here are my top 5. Keep in mind these are books, not necessarily released in 2019 and they’re not sorted in any particular order.
Utopia for realists
I received this book as a Christmas gift. It had been on my to-read list for a while but to be honest, the thing that attracted me the most about it was its cover. I know we shouldn’t judge books by their covers but I feel that as a designer, I’m even more susceptible to this. If I see a book with cool typography on its cover, I’ll check it out. That’s how this book got into my to-read list in the first place. I liked the cover, checked what it was about, found it interesting and added it.
What’s so good about it?
I usually don’t like to talk or write about politics. I find it very divisive. But every now and then, I do enjoy a book about it. This was one of them. I think my perception of this book was affected by The Rational Optimist which I had read just one month earlier. Rutger Bregman, the author, argues that despite the stupendous progress in the last two centuries (measured by life expectancy and per capita income) there hasn’t been a change in the quality of life accompanying it. In fact, poverty is still a huge problem, so is our work-life balance. We work more to be able to afford less compared to the generations before ours. We were promised advent of robots would eliminate boring and repetitive jobs, reduce our weekly working hours and enable us to live fuller and happier lives. Instead, the opposite is true.
Rutger, also explores relatively radical ideas like giving free money to everyone, reduce our working hours to 15-a-week and introduce basic income. His case is compelling as he provides research backing these ideas.
It seems we take the world around us for granted. Get up, commute to work, spend 8–10 hours in an uninspiring working environment, doing dull and boring work, only to spend another hour commuting back home, completely exhausted. I lived that life back in London and I did something about it. I think it’s time we start doing something about it collectively. Irrational exhaustion of human resources needs to stop and there are many ways to go about it (remote work which eliminates the need for commuting for example). But it seems we’re not ready yet:
“Discontent”, said Oscar Wilde, “is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation”.
— Rutger Bregman
I was discontent about my life when it was what everyone would regard as normal. Going back to working remotely improved it drastically for me. But that may not be an option for everyone. And as long as the masses of workers don’t feel discontent about it, our qualities of life won’t improve on the nation level.
This was one of the many books that I read about how our brains work in the decision-making process, Thinking Fast and Slow and How We Decide are two more. I think it must be the balance between the length of the content, the language used and the slick storytelling — something that the other two failed at. How We Decide was very well told and articulated through stories, while Thinking Fast and Slow was very condensed, with long chapters and sometimes seemingly unnecessary details.
What’s so good about it?
All three tell a similar story: we make decisions that are based on rationality or our emotions. We like to think that we’re in control of our decisions but we’re not. Completely different parts of our brains activate when taking a different kind of decisions. The emotional part is the fast-thinking and the rational is the slower. But the tricky part is that we need both: emotional fast-thinking based on past experiences and urges keeps us alive in unexpected situations, the rational slow-thinking part allows us to solve complex problems. Influence is based on numerous psychological research and gives concrete, real-life examples of how to make better decisions and how certain entities (corporations) abuse this knowledge and trick us into buying the more expensive product or buy even what we don’t really need because there are only x items left.
We’re not the rational beings we assume we are, and we’re easily tricked into doing things against our benefits on a daily basis.
This book was also on my to-read list for a while. I believe I added because someone recommended it but I never took the time to take a closer look and see what exactly it’s about. In April last year, I moved from London to Edinburgh and started working remotely for GitLab. I had worked remotely before but it was never a full-time position with a remote-only company. I didn’t know what exactly to expect but I knew I wanted to organise my working days better. Especially compared to my days back in London. I remembered of this book and decided to read it. I have been recommending it to all my remotely-working colleagues ever since.
What’s so good about it?
This will depend on the type of person you are: you either like flexible working hours and work whenever you have time and “feel like it” or you need somewhat rigid frames to be productive. I’m the latter. If I don’t have structure, I waste time. I procrastinate, keep putting work off until it’s urgent. The worst thing is that in the end, I feel really bad about not being productive.
It turns out there’s shallow work and then there’s deep work. Shallow work is when we’re busy working but keep switching between tasks, emails, Slack chat etc. We’re working, but we’re not productive. Deep work is the opposite. When we work deeply, we focus on one task, eliminate distractions and concentrate. Deep work is essential for any type of work creatives or technical people do (designers and developers). It’s really important to block out hours of time for deep work. Intervals of 2–3 hours work best. After reading this book, I reorganised my working days and also wrote Eliminating distractions and getting things done to document my process and help others do the same.
Blocking out time, reserved for focus is essential for deep work. And deep work is the most productive and effective way to solve complex problems or produce slick solutions. Take a look at how you spend your time. Track it for a couple of days if necessary. This will give you a great overview and you’ll be able to find room for improvement.
Funny thing. I don’t think I would ever read this book if it wasn’t on sale on Amazon for £0.95 and didn’t have a cool cover that attracted me immediately. I had no idea what to expect, I first thought it was a book about startups and how they disrupt markets with innovative products. It’s not. It’s about a journalist who loses his job as an editor of a popular magazine/website and joins a local startup. Reading this book felt like reading his journal about his experiences while working for this startup.
What’s so good about it?
If you ever worked for a startup with a “strong culture” and felt a bit weird or unfitting, you’ll identify with a lot of what Dan Lyons, the author, went through. He writes about typical startup bullshit: big promises that lead to disappointments, social pressures to fit in with “the culture” (or what I sometimes describe as “the cult”), the internal politics and about the coming to a realisation of what most of these startups are — money making machines fuelled by hype. The more hype they manage to produce, the more millions the founders make. For most of these companies it’s not even about creating a useful product for the users, but more about “cashing in”. I went through similar experiences of trying to fit in with a “startup cult” and connected with the author on several points. A hilarious and amusing read if you ever worked for a startup.
Startup jobs are exciting. The possibility of joining a small but growing company with great potential is very tempting. The problem is that most of these startups turn into something resembling cults. You either fit in or not. And this will be the biggest factor in how successful your time with that company will be.
The Daily stoic
It’s a book with 366 meditations and the reader is supposed to read one each day. Some go on and read more but I believe they miss the point of the book. The point is to adopt the stoic mentality one step at a time. It works really well if you establish a routine of reading the daily thought regularly.
What’s so good about it?
I think that each book I read changes me. It changes me the way I think as well as how I see the world and my role in it. Sometimes reading a book is merely about learning something new. I think that this book has changed me most profoundly from all the books that I read. It helped me understand the anger that I used to have about pretty much everything. By understanding it and where it came from, I was able to address it.
Most of the thoughts in the book are from the writings by Seneca — a Roman stoic philosopher — and Marcus Aurelius — the Roman emperor. The main point of stoicism is to not worry about things that are outside of your control and focus on the things that you can control. This book has helped me make decisions that I would never be able to make without realising that. I keep reading the meditations every day even though I already read the whole book. I think I’ll keep reading them for a long time.
Key take away
Unhappiness in our lives is often triggered by the things outside of our control. This is especially true in our world driven by capitalism where we’re constantly pushed to be better than others, have more of everything and be perceived by everyone else as great and our lives as worthy of envy. If we’re content with what we have and not always yearn for more, we can actually achieve happiness. Unlike most things, our desires are under our control.
Control your perceptions.
Direct your actions properly.
Willingly accept what’s outside your control.
That’s all we need to do.
Sounds simple, but it takes conscious effort every day to achieve it.
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