As a kid, a part of my New Year’s Day* ritual was to eat cake while poring over the “best-of” annual lists that come out, summarizing noteworthy events from the previous year. Growing old, I’ve rightly learnt to ditch the cake but I still look forward to the lists every year with the same enthusiasm I had back then, eager to know what stood out for people among the chaos of the year gone by. Along similar lines, here is the best of what I read in 2021, on the basis of the learnings they imparted in me, in no particular order.
The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth
Wisdom comes with life experiences, but if we rely only on personal experiences to gain wisdom, we might learn some lessons too late to make use of them. Reading this book acted as a fast simulation of the otherwise slow learning process; it almost felt like momentarily hitting the fast-forward button in life. Contrary to the depressing interpretation of Stoicism that we often hear today, I found the lessons in the book to be both pragmatic and quite relevant to current times. You might not agree with everything conveyed by Stoic philosophy but that is exactly what it teaches you — to not simply conform to the expectations of anything, including that of Stoicism itself. It rather acts as a framework to help you tame your mind through reason your own way. I find it difficult to do justice to all the lessons the book taught me in a short summary, but if I had to list just one lesson, it would be this — Life is a game of skill and chance. One of those two factors is in your control and the other isn’t. It is therefore wiser to place your stakes on playing well instead of on winning the game.
The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi & Fumitake Koga
Quite an underrated skill, the courage to be disliked is about cultivating the willingness to give up being liked, when it comes at the expense of losing your authenticity. Given the natural human tendency to gravitate towards seeking approval from others, it is very easy to forget that the only thing preventing you from being who you want to be, is you. Encouraging us to liberate ourselves into being our true selves, the author drives home a succinct point that, “Being disliked is proof that you are exercising your freedom, a sign that you are living in accordance with your own principles”. Structured in the form of a contrarian conversation between two people, the book lets you slowly digest the dense lessons, as the chasm between their thoughts gradually narrows through the course of the book.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
Imagine how ridiculous it would be to broadcast your bank account password to everyone. Considering how much effort we take to safeguard our money, why aren’t we as protective about something that is even more valuable to many of us than money — our time and attention. One of the biggest culprits behind attention robbery in today’s hyper-connected world is digital devices. This book discusses ideas and techniques to help us break free from the shackles of non-essential digital invasion and declutter our cognitive space. I adopted some of the ideas myself and I can say with utmost confidence that it not only helped me be more focussed but also significantly improved my mental well-being. One such effective technique was to turn off all notifications on my phone by default and consciously choose the ones I want turned on, instead of the other way around. It is now unequivocally clear to me that a smartphone is probably one of the dumbest things to have happened to our society; it has got to be renamed.
What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith
The crux of the book is about how we often fail to discern the qualities because of which we are here from the ones in spite of which we are here and how this simple oversight might prevent us from noticing our flaws that hold us back from where we want to go from here. Peppered with the right amount of humour and wit, the book manages to put a magnifying glass in front of our shortcomings in a way we would find agreeable. No matter what you do in life and where you are in your career, I guarantee that you will find something valuable to take away from this book. And just like what got you here may not get you there, what works for one may not work for another so don’t forget the pinch of salt, and as well said by the author, “Becoming a better person is a process, not an event”.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Based on the true story of a group of youngsters’ quest for gold at the Olympics, the book is as much about the contest of their unrelenting resilience and perseverance against an equally unyielding adversity and hardship that is thrown their way, as it is about their contest against the other teams. For some of them their Olympic journey was about glory, while for some it was about their very survival, but for all of them it was also about their true grit. As the book took me through their arduous journey in the form of a page-turning story, I think it also managed to etch in my subconscious mind that adversity is no reason to give up. Set during the Great Depression, the travails of their everyday life also acted as a stark reminder that nothing in life can be taken for granted.
*I actually never understood the concept of New Year’s Day, because revolution is a cyclic process and any arbitrary day of the year can be considered as the beginning of the cycle. But I got my cake so I learnt when not to question things 😉