Year end is a good time for reflection. One thing I reflect upon every year is what I learnt from what I read that year. Keeping up with that tradition, here is the best of what I read in 2022, based on what I learnt from them (in no particular order).
Chatter by Ethan Kross
Whether or not we realize, we are usually quite picky about the kind of conversations we get into, because a conversation is not just a means to communicate; it is also a very powerful tool that can radically change how one feels, thinks, and ultimately how one acts. The one person we have the most conversations with during our lifetime, and the one person we cannot choose to not have a conversation with, is our self*. However, we have complete control over how this conversation goes and therefore it is possible to harness it to work in our favor. This book explains and equips us with techniques to control the conversations we have with ourselves to avoid negative thought spirals and to start thinking constructively. It provides a wide range of practical techniques — from ones that you can start using immediately, to ones that take time and practice to incorporate; from ones that you can implement on your own, to ones that leverage the people and environment around you. Have you noticed how Rafael Nadal follows a set of bizarre rituals during his games, such as arranging his water bottles exactly in same positions diagonally aimed at the court, every single time. Turns out that those rituals help him tame his biggest opponent on the court — his inner voice.
Upstream by Dan Heath
The best time to solve a problem is before it happens and the best solution to a problem is the one that does not merely solve the problem, but uproots the problem. This book explores some of the common barriers and pitfalls of upstream thinking and offers techniques to deal with them. Upstream solutions are often laborious and require a long time to take effect after being set in motion. In a world fueled by instant-gratification, it is very easy to get stuck in a tunnel solving problems one after the other as they come, because it makes us feel good, useful and sometimes even heroic. The author makes a valid case that “the need for heroism is usually evidence of systems failure”. But the feeling of heroism is quite addictive; therein lies the problem. This book motivates us to get out of our metaphorical tunnels by walking us through some interesting real-life stories of how upstream thinking brought about lasting changes.
Think Again by Adam Grant
Questioning and rethinking what we already know is not a sign of under-confidence, it is a sign of humility — a humility to accept that we could be wrong. Changing our mind about something we were confident about earlier is not a sign of falsity, it is a sign of integrity — an integrity to keep truth-seeking at the forefront of everything else. In this book, the author explains the value of rethinking in individual, interpersonal and collective contexts and backs it up with fascinating real-life stories. It is easy to understand why rethinking might not come to us naturally — conviction comes with comfort, whereas doubt comes with anxiety; accepting what we know requires zero additional effort, whereas questioning what we know requires hard work. It is therefore not surprising that we tend to take the path of least resistance, which however may not be the path leading us to the truth. In this book the author explains our problem solving style via four different thinking modes we adopt when we approach problems —that of a preacher, a prosecutor, a politician, and a scientist, and nudges us to put on our scientist hats, “to lead with questions and puzzles, to dare to disagree with our own arguments”, and to discover the joy of being wrong.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Defeating death is not about extending life, it is about transcending life. In his memoir, author Paul Kalanithi shows us how to do that, as he pens down his life-shattering experience of dealing with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Being a neurosurgeon himself, the diagnosis causes him to transition from a doctor with grand ambitions to a patient with an uncertain existence as his “future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattened out into a perpetual present”. The epiphanies he has about life while confronting his own mortality reminded me not to let “the sum of gathered experiences be worn down by the details of living”. More importantly, this book also taught me that there is no dichotomy between vulnerability and invincibility. Reading through the author’s memoir left me contemplating how he could be vulnerable, by giving in to the harsh reality of a mortal life and be invincible at the same time, as he fought his chances to make a difference before he left. I wonder if he could be invincible only because he was vulnerable.
Grand Transitions by Vaclav Smil
This book is an enlightening dissection of four major epochal transitions the world has gone through in population, agriculture, energy, and economics, and how these transitions have shaped the world to its current form. By deconstructing these four transitions, the author also manages to unravel the complex interplay between the transitions and their national idiosyncrasies that have led to a widely uneven world — where we have, on the one hand, a plentiful America where the daily food supply is 3600 kcal/capita that far exceeds the average requirement by more than 50% and on the other hand, the sub-Saharan Africa which is under the threat of recurrent famines. As the world continues to grapple with its fifth transition — environment, this book reminds us of the challenges lying ahead of us and the moral imperatives to dealing with the challenges. As I read the book, I realized that despite our self-assumed intellectual capabilities, all major transitions the world has gone through were chance occurrences that we had not anticipated before they occurred and had caused practically irreversible impact.
*If you are interested in fun social experiments— studies have shown that silencing our inner voice can cause our brains to function like that of monkeys. Try it at your own risk.