My favourite books of 2016

Ok, so this is a bit late - but here are three books that really stood out for me last year. Part of the reason I've delayed this post is I wanted to write in more detail about each of these books, but since I haven't gotten round to that, I at least wanted to briefly share these:

1. Impro -- Keith Johnstone

A book about theatre and improvisation that's about so much more than theatre and improvisation - a book about social interaction and identity, how we perceive ourselves and others, and the things that constrain us. I found this incredibly dense with insights and wisdom - I'm not sure I've ever highlighted/commented in a book so much, or so strongly felt I needed to read a book multiple times to even begin to make the most of it. Keith Johnstone's TED talk is also excellent - definitely my favourite TED talk ever.

I don't even really know where to begin explaining what I got from this book , and I hope to write more about it at some point. I think the biggest thing for me was just realising how much I'm holding back all the time out of fear of being judged, how afraid I am to express myself, of doing the wrong thing, of allowing myself to look silly.

Thanks to Uri Bram for buying this book for me years ago, and somehow knowing it was exactly what I needed well before I was able to see it myself. I somehow couldn't get into it until this year - I think I just wasn't quite in the right place. 

2. I Am A Strange Loop -- Douglas Hofstadter

This is the book Hofstadter wrote years after Godel, Escher, Bach - in response to the fact he felt no-one really got what he was trying to say with GEB (despite the fact it was so popular.) I'm actually only reading GEB now, after having read this - I figured that if Strange Loop was supposed to be a clearer exposition of Hofstadter's ideas, it made sense to read it first. I feel like this was a good decision - I enjoyed it even more than I expected to, and I think I'm finding GEB easier to get into now - I tried reading it a few years ago and it somehow just didn't grab me enough.

I think part of the reason I liked this book so much is it really pushes all my nerd buttons. I've always been fascinated by philosophical questions of consciousness and identity, as well as really enjoying mathematical logic and weird semantic paradoxes and self-reference. These had always seemed quite separate to me - so someone coming along and proposing to link them together, to explain consciousness using logic and self-reference, feels so satisfying to me. Hofstadter is also just an excellent, engaging writer - I think he uses stories and analogies in a really skilful way to make tricky concepts accessible and engaging.

I don't necessarily think Hofstadter manages to crack consciousness completely - but he certainly gave me a different way of thinking about it that I find really useful. Again, hope to write more about this at some point...

3. The Center Cannot Hold -- Elyn Saks

I got really into reading autobiographies this year - particularly memoirs of mental illness. This was my favourite: an autobiography of a woman with schizophrenia. Something I really enjoy when reading is feeling like I'm getting to understand a totally different perspective (which I think is why I've enjoyed autobiographies so much.) I particularly enjoy memoirs of mental illness just because they give me insight into the different ways that people struggle - it's not even that they're about mental illness per se, but just some ways in which the author has found life difficult. I like the honesty and openness that comes with this kind of writing, and I find it helpful to hear others acknowledge just how difficult it is to be human sometimes.

I particularly loved this book, I think, because (a) I knew very little about schizophrenia before, so it was really interesting to learn about, and (b) I was surprised just how... identifiable a lot of the author's experiences sounded, despite the fact I've never experienced anything close to psychotic symptoms. Hearing someone describe how they ended up sitting on a floor in a mental hospital just rocking back and forth moaning for days on end, and thinking, I can totally see how she ended up there, made me extra-aware of just how grey the line between "mentally healthy" and "mentally ill" really is. It made me more aware of how fragile the mind is and how fragile our grip on reality can be. Our brains are generally very good at making sense of the world, of filtering out nonsense, of organising our experiences in a coherent way. I think we take for granted how much hard work is going on here, and it's just not that surprising to me that sometimes these things can break down. So much of what Saks describes just sounds to me like these basic abilities failing in small ways - her brain struggling to filter out what's irrelevant, to zone out silly thoughts that make sense, to organise reality in a neat way. And it just doesn't seem that weird or surprising to me that this could happen - which in turn I think makes 'madness' look much less mad.

Thanks to Kate Donovan for the recommendation!

(I'm conscious of not wanting to sound like I'm oversimplifying schizophrenia - I'm aware I still really have no idea what causes psychosis or what it feels like - but this is just the impression I took from this book.)

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I've also found it interesting to notice myself drawing connections between these three books, despite the fact they seem really different on the surface. On some level, they're all about how we organise and make sense of the world, and particularly how we conceptualise ourselves. Strange Loop is about where our sense of identity comes from - how this arises from our ability to abstract away from the basic elements of reality, forming higher-level concepts including a concept of ourselves - and how the weird feedback loop this creates (my perception of myself feeds back into the things that I think and do which then feed back into my perception of myself...) may help explain what gives rise to conscious experience.

A lot of what I took from Impro had to do with how this ability to perceive ourselves, and think about how others might perceive us, can constrain us. A lot of what improvisation is aiming to do seems to be teaching people to 'let go' of a maintaining a certain self-image, or the need to organise reality in certain neat ways. 

The image of schizophrenia I took from The Center Cannot Hold seems to say something about what happens when the brain's basic abilities to organise and make sense of the world aren't able to function properly: when the brain struggles to organise everything in a coherent manner, when it struggles to maintain a stable self-image, when it can't quite filter out what's relevant from what isn't. All of this just makes me aware of how crucial and yet fragile these abilities are, and how much we take them for granted.

Enough

When I go for a long run, often I find the latter parts much easier than the beginning. This seems strange in a way: you'd think that as my body got more tired, it would become more of a struggle. But it's not really about how my body feels at all - my mindset is much more important. When I've been running for half an hour or so, my mindset shifts. I feel like what I've already done is enough, that I could stop right now and still feel I'd done a decent run. Strangely, this makes it much easier to continue, because anything I do beyond this point is a bonus. With the feeling of having done enough, a lot of pressure and anxiety I didn't even acknowledge I was putting on myself is lifted. I'm no longer worrying that I might get too tired: I'm already tired, but it's ok. I'm not counting the minutes until I can say I've reached a reasonable time. I just run, one stride at a time, and start to enjoy the rhythm of it. 

I think this tendency is pervasive in other areas of my life too, especially work: a feeling of anxiety about whether I'm doing "enough" gets in the way of my natural motivation to do things. It's common for me to worry about whether I'm being productive enough, working enough hours, getting through enough tasks. I'll often have a specific goal in mind I feel I need to meet in order to be satisfied, and until I reach that point, my motivation is coming primarily from a place of anxiety. Fear that if I don't keep going and reach a certain point I'll feel a failure, my day wasted. But once I get to the point of "enough", I can let go - and ironically, it's often then that I do my best work. It's often then that I really enjoy what I'm doing, and feel better able to identify and focus on what's important. 

It’s when I’ve already met all my goals for the day that I feel like I want to get ahead for tomorrow. It’s when I’ve already written a blog post for the day that all these other ideas I want to write about start streaming in. It’s when I’ve already been to the gym in the morning and ticked off my “exercise” goal for the day that I really feel like going for a swim in the evening.

It’s like all of this anxiety about whether I can meet a given standard is getting in the way of my intrinsic motivation to do things. I’ve realised recently how even things I genuinely want to do can end up feeling aversive, like a burden on me – because my brain quickly and naturally develops a feeling of “should” around any goal I set myself. It feels like this stems from a deep, vague, fear that I’m somehow not good enough – not until I’ve worked enough hours, run far enough, achieved enough.

I wonder what it would feel like not to have this – to simply wake up and feel like I’ve already met this standard of ‘enough’, to always feel free to do things because I want to, because they feel important – not because I should

It’s interesting to ask where this bar for what’s “enough” comes from, and what might shift it. I think it's partly influenced by societal norms and culture. When I was working an office job, for example, I started to internalise the idea that as long as I sat at my desk doing vaguely productive work from 9 til 6ish, I was doing enough. That’s what others around me were doing, and what they thought was enough, after all. Doing a PhD, there’s risk that it never feels like I'm doing enough – there’s always something else that needs doing, my incomplete thesis looming in my mind. And the more I spend time around super ambitious and hardworking people, the higher my standards for what’s 'enough' get. I find myself frequently asking: what do I imagine [absurdly-competent-and-productive-person] would do in this situation, how high would their bar be?

My standards also shift as my expectations for myself change, based on what seems 'good' for me at the moment. Having struggled with motivation a bit recently, I got to the point where even managing a couple of good productive hours a day felt ‘enough’ – because that was the best I’d been achieving recently. But as soon as I had a few good days, my standards started to rise – and suddenly what had been good enough a few days ago no longer was. In a sense, the fact that my concept of what’s enough shifts so easily, and is so relative, should be enough to convince me that it’s not really rooted in anything real – nothing beyond my own self-judgement.

I so badly want to live more of my life in a state of ‘enoughness’, where my motivation comes  from things I genuinely care about and want to do, not fear of failing to live up to some standard. The anxiety I feel when I’m scared I might not do enough is what so often gets in the way of achieving more. The anxiety that I might get tired before I’ve run enough is most of what makes the running unpleasant and hard, which is what makes me want to stop. The anxiety that I might not be able to finish a project to a good enough standard, or fast enough, is what makes me procrastinate. I've sometimes said to friends that I know I could achieve so much more if I wasn't doubting myself all the time.

I don’t really know yet how to deal with this, to be honest. The short-term solution is to try and set low standards for what’s ‘enough’, and find ways to make sure I can meet them. For example, I’ve recently been starting work earlier in the day before doing other things, so that I end up feeling like I’ve done ‘enough’ earlier in the day – and sooner get to a place where I’m free from that pressure.

But this really feels like just a bandaid: working effectively within the constraints of feeling not good enough, while continuing to feed the feeling. Maybe it's naive, but I do believe that I could free myself from these constraints entirely: completely lose the anxiety, the self-judgement, the feeling that I’m not good enough until I’ve achieved enough. I don't like waking up every day thinking I need to prove myself. Perhaps the biggest barrier is the fact that part of me is still afraid: afraid that if I let go of the anxiety and pressure, I might just not achieve anything. I'm scared that if I find some way to feel good enough without achieving anything, then, well - I might not amount to anything. And maybe that wouldn't be enough.

Asking for advice

Often when asking for 'advice', we think what we want is someone else's opinion on a matter. But often this isn't that useful - because we don't know what assumptions and thought processes led to that judgement. In particular, it can make things tricky if you get very different opinions from different people. Instead, I think it's more helpful to explicitly ask people for help with structuring a decision/problem, or to point out useful considerations or pieces of information that you might be missing.

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My favourite books of 2015

In no particular order - some of the books I most enjoyed reading, and learned the most from, in 2015. I've linked to notes I made on some of these books where I have them (some may be clearer and more concise than others!) 

I'm looking for book recommendations for 2016, so would love to hear what others' favourite books of 2015 were!

  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind -- Yuval Harari (notes)
    For me reading this book was so densely packed with "oh, that's a really interesting idea/hypothesis/explanation, I should think about that more" moments, more so than any other book I’ve read in a long time. Some of the ideas feel a bit speculative, but are incredibly thought-provoking all the same. I feel like I need to reread it at least another 5 times to even begin to get the most out of it. 

  2. The Power of Less -- Leo Babauta (notes)
    A very clear and concise guide to simplifying your life and your commitments, with lots of actionable advice, by the author of the Zen Habits blog. I ended up using a lot of this and finding it incredibly helpful when I was trying to cut down and simplify things in my life this time next year, and I look back at my notes on it every time I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed or overcommitted.

  3. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything -- Joshua Foer  (notes)
    Written by a journalist who took on the challenge of becoming a memory grandmaster in just a year. This book really convinced me that improving your memory isn’t about just being able to memorise obscure facts - it actually has the potential to improve your life in very profound ways - making the things you’ve learned and experienced more easily accessible and easier to draw connections between. (This was also one of those books I found got the perfect balance between telling me facts/making its point clear, and using good stories and analogies to illustrate these points. I think this is one of the biggest challenges for good nonfiction writing - often I feel like stories and analogies are just there as padding, and I want to skip them and get to the point - but a few really skillful writers, like Foer, manage to use these illustrations to much more clearly drill in the point they’re making.)

  4. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking -- Oliver Burkeman
    I really enjoy Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column - he seems to manage to do popular psychology in a way that’s engaging without being overly sensationalised, which isn't always easy. This book - about embracing negative emotions, failure, uncertainty, and even death - solidified for me a lot of ideas I’d been thinking about previously about happiness. I got that satisfying feeling reading it of someone else expressing my own thoughts more clearly than I could have done myself.

  5. On The Move: A Life -- Oliver Sacks
    I was incredibly sad and moved when I read the famous neurologist and author’s NYT column earlier in the year, sharing that he’d been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. I’ve really enjoyed some of his other writings - a unique combination of sharing scientific insights through personal stories and case studies - and found this memoir engagingly written, thought-provoking and inspiring. 

  6. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery -- Henry Marsh
    An incredibly compelling account of what it’s like to be a brain surgeon. Probably the most “un-put-down-able” book I read this year. It’s difficult to read at times, but in a good way - I felt like I really got some, albeit small, insight into the extreme pressure, stresses, and emotions involved in neurosurgery. Thanks Killian Czuba for this recommendation, I loved this book, but probably would have never found it or picked it up myself.

  7. Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End -- Atul Gawande
    A really great, if somewhat depressing, discussion of the problematic way in which the medical profession tends to deal with old age - so obsessed with ‘treatment’ and extending life without enough focus on how to maximise quality of life in the final years.

  8. How to Think About Exercise -- Damon Young
    As someone who spends most of her time in “thinking” mode, but who also gets a lot of pleasure out of exercise, I really enjoyed this discussion of the ways in which exercise relates to various intellectual ‘virtues’. In parts I felt the book went into more discussion of specific historical philosophers than I personally cared for, but the overriding themes and insights helped me to think more about why I exercise and how I can use exercise to become a better person, beyond simply staying in shape.

  9. The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code Breaking -- Simon Singh
    I read Simon Singh’s book Fermat’s Last Theorem years ago - before I started university - and absolutely loved it. I’d been meaning to read this - another very popular book of his about cryptography - for years, and finally got round to it this year. I found it similarly fascinating, though I much preferred the later chapters of the book, which get into explaining some of the more recent and complex cryptography methods like public key encryption and quantum cryptography (the chapter on the latter inspired a brief fascination with quantum physics - but even after reading a couple of popular books on the topic I admit I’m still basically clueless.)

  10. The Obstacle is The Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage -- Ryan Holiday
    I was unsure whether to include this book in my 'favourites' list, because I didn’t actually finish it - I felt it got a bit repetitive after a while, and I’d sort of got most of what I needed out of it after a few chapters. But I found the core message - the Stoic idea that inside every difficult emotion and challenging situation there is an amazing opportunity to learn and improve - so useful to internalise, I still felt I wanted to recommend this book. Reminding myself of this idea is the single thing that most consistently helps me deal with tough situations and emotions.

Some new year's reflections

  • I really like taking some time around the new year to do step back and review: to reflect on the past year and what I’d like to improve. I highly recommend taking the time to do this if you can - not just setting resolutions, but reflecting more systematically on how different areas of your life are going, what you’ve achieved and learned over the past year, and what you might do differently. I’ve shared it before, but again, Alex Vermeer has a really great guide to doing this here.

  • Thinking about all the ways in which I could improve my life, though, I have to constantly remind myself to prioritise and take one thing at a time. When I do these reviews, I start out really excited about all the things I could change or improve in my life, but then begin to feel overwhelmed with all the possibilities, which can quickly turn into me feeling unmotivated by all the areas of my life I’m not fixing right now. There are too many things I could be doing, and I don’t know where to start - so I end up doing none of them. The solution is sort of obvious - when overwhelmed with possibilities, prioritise - but I find it really hard to do, because it means letting go of things I really want to do but aren't highest-priority-right-now. Really internalising this was perhaps the single thing that resulted in me making way more improvements to my life last year than I’d ever done in previous years. Each month, I chose a single area of my life - e.g. exercise, diet, social life - or one specific goal - e.g. simplify my life and get rid of unnecessary commitments - and focused on just doing that one thing really well. And ironically, the sense of self-efficacy I got from seeing concrete improvements in one area of my life actually meant I often ended up making more other improvements than I’d planned.

  • If you are setting new year’s resolutions, here’s something I wrote last year with some psychology-based tips on how to set resolutions you’ll actually keep. In short: only choose goals you actually care about and genuinely believe you can achieve, use “implementation intentions” to help behaviours occur more automatically, change your environment to make a behaviour easier, think in advance about possible failure modes and how to avoid them, and set a time later to check in on your progress. The main thing I’d add to this now is to set a couple of really important goals rather than lots and lots of smaller ones (see second bullet!), and to be aware that ‘failure’, at least to a certain extent, is inevitable and an important part of the process of improving

  • My favourite insight of 2016 so fardon’t ask yourself what you want out of life, but what you’re willing to struggle for/what struggles you’re willing to undergo. Another way of putting this is that, for anything you think you want in life, it’s important to make sure you actually want to undergo the process involved in achieving that thing - including the costs and struggles. From the linked article: "If you want the beach body, you have to want the sweat, the soreness, the early mornings, and the hunger pangs. If you want the yacht, you have to also want the late nights, the risky business moves, and the possibility of pissing off a person or ten thousand."

  • A question I've found amazingly useful to ask myself: “What would the best version of myself do right now?” I'm always surprised how much this helps me clarify what I should do at any given time, and helps me to live more in line with what I most care about. “What would make me most proud of myself?” has a similar effect. It's surprising to me because it's often immediately obvious what the "best" version of myself would do - but that's often not the thing I would do if just acting based on my immediate inclinations. I think this is related to why it can be easier to give others advice than ourselves - sometimes we just need to step back from the situation and whatever we're feeling in the immediate moment to get some perspective. (Inspiration from Brian Johnson's notion of "the integrity gap")

  • I think I’ve underestimated just how important it is to get the really ‘essential’ elements of my life really sorted, before tackling other challenges. For me, this means getting enough good quality sleep, and getting enough exercise. I think I haven’t prioritised these enough in the past, despite knowing that sleep and exercise are clearly the things that account for most of the variance in my happiness. Asking yourself what those areas are for you that make a big difference to everything else, and making sure you’re doing everything you can in those areas, is one of those pieces of advice that sounds so obvious but very few people actually follow.

  • People spend a lot of time trying to find ways to extend their lives - eating certain kinds of food, taking certain supplements, exercising in ways that are suggested might make you live longer. I'm all for doing these things, but I think it's also worth thinking about ways you can make your subjective experience of your life longer: key things like living more mindfully and deliberately, building more variety into your days, and finding ways to make your experiences more memorable. Though these things won't technically "extend" the amount of time you live for, in my experience focusing on them makes me feel like my life passes more slowly (in a good way!) and that, in retrospect, I've been living it more fully. And in many ways, I think this might be worth more than an extra year of life that passes by in a blur

  • If I’m going to publicly commit to one new year’s resolution, it’s that I want to write more - and not write to get my name in publications, but write to explore ideas, and share those ideas with others who may have other insights. The biggest barrier for me to doing that more is being less perfectionist with my writing, and being willing to leave questions unanswered. Each of the bullets here could have been it’s own blog post, and it’s taking a lot of self-restraint for me to post this without going into more depth and answering more questions - but I know realistically the alternative is me publishing nothing. So watch this space for more imperfect blog posts...

The problem with compliments

In general, I think giving people compliments is great, and most of us don’t do anywhere near enough of it. It’s easy to assume that other people know what their strengths are, or that they know that we like them, and think it’d be weird to tell them explicitly why we think they’re great. But most of us are less sure of these things than we tend to admit, and giving someone a piece of genuine, positive feedback can really make their day (as well as making them like you more!) This said, I think there are also risks involved in giving people positive feedback, and each of us should be careful about the kindof compliments we give other people.

Getting complimented on something can feel very rewarding, which is great – but like any reward, it’s likely to reinforce the behaviour that led to that reward. This isn’t a revolutionary idea – it’s psychology 101 – but I feel like most of us don’t think enough about how this applies to our interactions with other people. Getting complimented on any aspect of how you come across – whether it’s your hair, your sharp wit, or your writing skills – incentivises you to do the things that are likely to lead you to get more compliments on that thing – like spend more time doing your hair in the morning, constantly cracking jokes, or spend more time writing. The better the compliment makes you feel, the more motivated you’re going to be to seek more compliments like it. This can create a feedback loop: you get compliments on your hair, so you spend more time styling it, thus get more compliments on it… and before you know it, you’re spending three hours a day in front of a mirror.

I think this means that we should be very careful not to compliment people too much on traits that we don’t think are valuable in themselves, or that might encourage behaviours that aren’t actually good for that person. The classic example of this is complimenting people on their appearance. It’s always nice to hear someone thinks you look good – but the downside is that it may incentivise you to spend more time and effort on your appearance, and to care more about how people think you look than other things, which for many people can be harmful. I’m obviously not suggesting we should never tell people they look attractive, but it seems important to be aware that doing so too much (especially in the absence of compliments on other things), is likely to increase the extent to which that person’s self-esteem is tied to their appearance.

The upside of this, of course, is that complimenting people on things we think are valuable in themselves, or we think they’d really benefit from spending more time and effort on, can be beneficial – since it helps motivate people to improve in those ways.  The extent to which your positive feedback affects someone is obviously going to depend on a lot of different factors: how sensitive that person is to social feedback/pressures in general, how much they care about your feedback, and the way you give it. So the more sensitive to social approval you think someone is, and the more you think they care about your opinion, the more careful you should be about the kind of compliments you give.

It also means that we should be careful about the kinds of compliments we seek from others, and try to be aware of how positive feedback might be affecting our behaviour. Most of us don’t actively seek compliments by asking for them often, but we are often doing so in a more passive way. No matter what they say, basically everyone cares at least somewhat about what other people think or them. So even if you don’t realise it, you’re going to be motivated to act in ways you think the people around you are likely to respond positively to. It’s really useful, therefore, to notice and stop ourselves if we find ourselves seeking approval from others in ways that don’t actually fit with the kind of person we want to be – if you find yourself trying to impress someone by being loud and funny in a way that you don’t actually like, for example.

I think I’m particularly interested in this because I’m personally very sensitive to social feedback. I think this has advantages and disadvantages – it can give me a lot of motivation to improve in useful ways. But ideally, I want my behaviour to be guided by reflective thought about the kind of person I want to be, which feels much more robust and likely to track what I actually care about than being overly responsive to the feedback of others. Realistically, I’m not going to just stop caring what people think about me. But I can at least make sure I surround myself with people who value the things I also reflectively think are valuable. I can check that social pressures are pushing me in directions Iactually want to go in, and I can make sure I’m still spending at least some time evaluating myself by my own standards. Getting positive feedback from others can be great, but it can also be a bit like a drug: the more you get of it, the more you want – and seeking it might not always be good for you.

Is there a tension between improvement and contentment?

It seems like there's naturally a tension between improvement and contentment: the more you want to improve, the harder it is to be happy with things as they are, and the more content you are, the less drive you will have to improve. I don't think this tension is irresolvable - it's possible to be constantly improving without feeling dissatisfied, though doing so in practice may not be totally straightforward.

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