Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Western society tends to favor extroverted personality traits to introverted ones. A result is that many of our most important decisions (when to go to war, how to invest our retirement funds, etc.) are made by the extroverts who occupy the top positions of companies and governments.

Although relatively new (about the last 150 years), society’s bias toward extroverted talent permeates almost every aspect of professional life, including office layouts. With the laudable goal of improving teamwork and collaboration, open office floor plans have left those of us who require more solo cerebral focus with few places to “be,” which has taken a significant toll on our effectiveness.

Cain, a self-described introvert, lays out several solutions that leaders in business and government might adopt to improve the productivity and well-being of all of their team members—extroverts and introverts alike. Her discussions about finding and facilitating each individual’s ideal balance of group and solo (or one-on-one) activities were specially helpful. Most introverts can pretend to be extroverts for some portion of the day (and should be to some extent). But too much feigned extroversion will result in unhealthy stress and burn-out, which are avoidable if we’re just free to find and achieve the right activity balance.

I’m an introvert in a lot of ways, but not in every way. “Quiet” has helped me to acknowledge and want to foster some of my introvert qualities that I might otherwise try to mask. It has also helped me to be more cognizant of the valuable qualities of others that might otherwise go unappreciated when juxtaposed with certain unmissable talents of the many extroverts (about 2/3 of the population) around us.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

Educated: A Memoir

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Westover’s story is as gripping as her prose is moving. There is a lot for the reader to process from her memoir. The following are my top three takeaways: (1) once objective reality and knowable facts become dismissible, the physically strong will be left to make and justify the rules based on fabricated conspiracies, elastic theologies, and magical thinking; (2) to become educated is a choice and does not happen passively; (3) number 2 is the remedy to number 1.

Also, can somebody make this a movie already?

This review also appears in Goodreads.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human NatureThe Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This book is for people who wonder where the taboo against human nature came from and who are willing to explore whether the challenges to the taboo are truly dangerous or just unfamiliar.”

Pinker wrote those words in 2002, but the taboo of acknowledging human nature unfortunately continues today, making The Blank Slate as necessary as ever.

Pinker is always fun to read—informative, witty, and thorough. The Blank Slate is no exception. The Blank Slate is an invaluable resource for those looking to understand (and defend) the reality and far-reaching effects of human nature. Minds are not merely blank slates upon which lived experiences mold our traits; people are not born as "noble savages" only to become corrupted by societies; and we are not merely bags of meat controlled by a “ghost inside the machine.” Instead, our minds come pre-wired with features that largely define our individual personalities, desires, character traits, etc. It’s our genes that do almost all of the legwork in making us who we are.

The motivations behind those who would like to treat human minds as blank slates are understandable. A blank-slate mind, the proponents surmise, means we can have a truly even playing field, and that to the extent that the field is uneven it is because of factors that can be remedied by the right public policies. A blank-slate theory of the mind (i.e., a denial of human nature) makes us feel in control (as leaders, parents, and members of society). But, as Pinker lays out, a blank slate is a very bad metaphor to use for the mind.

Proponents of the blank-slate position fight hard against findings that show the innateness of human nature in molding individual behavior. Their aversion to human nature is based on a misguided notion that states that if differences among individuals are due to genetically inherited traits, then this fact could be weaponized by racists and other bigots to justify discriminatory practices and perpetuate policies that they see as causing systemic inequality.

The truth, however, is almost completely the opposite. Denial of human nature is not only unnecessary to avoid discriminatory policies and behaviors, but actually serves to promote certain types of unwanted discrimination. For example, blank-slate proponents equivocate when confronted with science about heritable traits that bolsters progressive policies, like findings showing the innateness of homosexuality. I.e., they seem to say that it’s fine to say his gayness is an inborn trait, but not his intelligence or temperament. Pinker satisfyingly eviscerates these contradictory notions and others like them, explaining how a theory of mind that fully embraces human nature is best equipped to promote equality—creating a default where we treat each individual as an individual.

For me, the most readily “usable” content is Pinker’s chapter on children. Pinker describes a particularly negative and lasting effect of the blank-slate position as follows: “The theory that parents can mold their children like clay has inflicted childrearing regimes on parents that are unnatural and sometimes cruel. It has distorted the choices faced by mothers as they try to balance their lives, and multiplied the anguish of parents whose children haven’t turned out the way they hoped.”

While motivated largely by laudable goals (e.g., fairness, equality), the denial of human nature is, and always has been, bad science. And it turns out that pretending that our minds are blank slates doesn’t actually help achieve those goals anyway.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well

The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live WellThe Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a quick, pleasant read. But its message is too banal to be worth recommending. Here’s the whole book: (1) keep your living space cozy (preferably with designer lamps, colorful accents, and lots of candles); (2) keep your workday short (like, leave by 4:00 PM if you have kids short); (3) layer your clothing with several cozy, functional items (think sweaters, scarves, and elbow-patched blazers); (4) increase your consumption of alcohol, sweets, and comfort foods; and (5) maximize time with small groups of friends (4-6 is ideal).

This review also appears in Goodreads.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical TalesThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully written and memorable. Sacks brings his readers into the rooms of his patients in a way that feels almost too familiar. But even when things get especially weird, Sacks always steers the narrative with great care and tact. Sacks clearly adored his work and his patients.

Brains are such funny things. We’re all just a few chemicals or altered connections away from being almost entirely different versions of ourselves. And some of these changes make for really good writing.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

Grant

GrantGrant by Ron Chernow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a world rife with sarcasm (this reader is guilty) and pessimism (also guilty), we could use a few more earnest men like Grant. Chernow paints a portrait of a man whose character was conspicuously free of pretense, guile, or hubris. Despite a demonstrated brilliance in military affairs and civic leadership, Grant’s exceptional character blinded him time and time again to the deceit of others. So much was Grant without guile, Chernow says, that he seemed incapable of imagining that his counterparts could have a mind to do anything other than what they’d promised. Related to this was Grant’s unbounded empathy. He never gloated in victory and couldn’t countenance the suffering of another being, human or otherwise.

A natural result of Grant’s character was a life repeatedly defaced by fraudsters and double crossers. But it was that same character that catapulted Grant into the highest echelons of government (as well as the highest esteem of the vast majority of Americans).

Grant had faults, to be sure (e.g., favoritism, misguided tenacity, intermittent alcoholism, etc.), but these were on par with those vices that we all battle within ourselves, and a far cry from the darker blemishes that we all-but-automatically overlook for lesser presidents.

Every now and again, a decent, unassuming, but remarkably capable person comes along who happens to be recognized by the powers that be (Lincoln, in this case) as the right man or woman for a critical job. America could have done a lot worse than General Grant. Grant’s contributions to the preservation and strength of the American experiment are immeasurable and, thanks in part to Chernow’s book, will continue to point us all in the direction of greater unity.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom

MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial FreedomMONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom by Anthony Robbins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of good advice in here, but not nearly enough to fill its 662 pages (it’s perhaps the most repetitive book I’ve ever read). My advice would be to just read chapter six, which contains summarized transcripts of Tony’s interviews with some of the greatest financial minds of our time (Icahn, Swensen, Bogle, Buffett, Dalio, etc.).

This review also appears in Goodreads.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HistoryFantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fantasyland was a fun read for at least two reasons: (1) each of the underlying themes seemed custom-made to validate my preconceived notions about why people (Americans, particularly) are quick to believe unsubstantiated claims, and (2) Andersen’s style is smart, conversational, and funny.

I really wanted to give Fantasyland five stars, but it was frustrating in one pronounced way: Andersen waits until the second half of the final chapter to do most of the work of tying together the themes and ideas of the previous 45 chapters. It makes for a satisfying finish (a method that probably serves Andersen’s fiction readers well), but this approach leaves the reader with long stretches of what begins to feel like recitations of “oh, and look at this other weird thing people believe.”

Also, I know it wasn’t Andersen’s purpose, but I wish he’d given the reader just a little more by way of suggested remedies, more how-to advice on making America reality-based again. Perhaps a companion volume is forthcoming?

All that said, this book deserves a wide audience and to be added to civics syllabi everywhere. It won’t turn everyone into rational empiricists overnight. But a basic understanding of the historical and developing reasons why facts and reality have taken a backseat to relativism and magical thinking for so many Americans (on the left and the right) is a good starting point, and Fantasyland delivers just that.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and BusinessSmarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Duhigg is a compelling storyteller. Here he uses memorable stories to teach useful lessons on how to increase personal productivity. That said, he could have done more to convince the reader of the universality of the principles that he extrapolates from these stories.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

Choose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream

Choose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the DreamChoose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream by James Altucher
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The whole book should be one or two blog posts. Basically, he wants you to know that if the gatekeepers of modern success don’t let you in their club, you can instead join the ever-growing club of self-selected creatives / entrepreneurs. The thing about this approach, though, is that most people who try it will still find out that their book / TV show / business idea sucks; it will just be at the expense of a lot more of their own time and money.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our MindsThe Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This could have been another one of the dozens of pop-science books that merely restate the work of Kahneman and Tversky. It’s not. Instead, Lewis opens a window into the lives, characters, and stories attached to these extraordinary minds, making their work all the more memorable and enjoyable to lay readers like me.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens  By: Benedict Carey

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

By: Benedict Carey

There are some good tips in here. But even for a short book, it's a little too long. Subtract the fluff and you have a handy pamphlet of advice that looks something like the following:

Information Retention and Retrieval

1. It can be useful to temporarily forget what we learn. The act of later trying to remember information thought to be forgotten is a "desirable difficulty" that ultimately works to hardwire that information more permanently in our memories and make it easier to recall. Forgetting also helps the mind filter out the irrelevant parts of the information. 

2. Retention of information is significantly greater when we force ourselves to try to remember what we've learned rather than just reviewing the information itself. 

3. Writing down what we've learned from memory, even if it's not perfectly accurate at the moment, before immediately referring to our past notes or the material itself is significantly more effective in terms of retention and future retrievability than just reviewing. For example. highlighting text, reviewing those highlights and reviewing previously prepared outlines are only somewhat effective (these are very passive approaches) compared to forcing ourselves to actually reproduce / write down what we know.

4. We recall information better when the contextual cues are the same as those when we learned the information. E.g., students test better when listening to the same music as when they studied that information. Contextual cues act as a sort of hint toward the right information. 

5. We should very the times and places that we study. One reason this may help is that our minds will associate more contextual cues with the information studied.

6. Breaking up study time into short sessions over several days, weeks and months, produces long-term retention levels significantly greater than studying the content for the same amount of time over one or two long study sessions. 

7. For certain subject matters, taking a test before learning any of the content significantly aids comprehension and retention of that information after studying it. Recognizing in advance what we don't know helps us to hold onto that information once we learn it.

Problem Solving

1. "Incubation" time is important. Time away from the puzzle while it lingers in the back of the mind helps us see connections and possibilities that aren’t apparent in the moment of focusing on the problem.

2. Puzzles that require multiple attempts before achieving an a-ha moment (especially spatial relationship problems) are best solved by taking a break away from thinking about them after the first few unsuccessful attempts. 

3. It's actually beneficial to be interrupted in the middle of trying to solve a problem. The brain will keep the problem in memory and be more prone to find solutions in day-to-day experiences. The details of a solution to a problem already solved are much more easily forgotten than the working details of a solution to a problem not yet solved.

4. Varied practice (applying several different applications/approaches of a skill) is more beneficial than focused practice. E.g., practicing different kinds of shots versus just free-throws makes you shoot better free throws over the long run (but not necessarily or the short term). 

Subconscious Learning

1. Chunking pieces of information into meaningful groups increases understanding. E.g., a good eye in sports, the ability for a chess master to memorize the board after a glance, or linking squiggles to letters to words to paragraphs to ideas, etc. Benefiting from this type of grouping of information comes after a lot of experience with that type of information. 

2. Sleep, particularly REM sleep, is how the brain organizes and categorizes useful information obtained while conscious, and filters out less relevant information. Failing to get enough REM sleep significantly decreases one's ability to retain and retrieve information and solve complex problems.

Overall rating: 3/5

This review also appears in Goodreads