“Best Book” Lists of 2016

I have not yet compiled my list of favorite reads of 2016.  I have been busy, however, perusing some great lists of book recommendations from individuals I trust to steer me to good material.  Keep in mind that these lists are not all of books published in 2016; rather, they are lists of great books discovered, read, and sometimes published, in 2016.  The distinction is not a meaningful difference.

Farnam Street’s “Best Books of 2016” – Farnam Street is a treasure trove for readers, especially readers who take pleasure in a greater understanding of the world.  This is a great list of nonfiction and fiction alike.

Bil Gates’s list of “Favorite Books of 2016” – Gates releases a list of great reads every year, sharing that “Never before have I felt so empowered to learn as I do today.”

Ryan Holiday’s list of the “(Very) Best Books of 2016” – Ryan Holiday is a great resource on reading, how to read more effectively, and what to read.

Bonus: Shane Parrish, curator of Farnam Street, has released his list of all books he read in 2016.  Not a “best of” list, it’s still well worth a look.


Forging the Heart Through Jiu-Jitsu

I began training Brazilian jiu-jitsu this summer at the age of 40. I started training jiu-jitsu for reasons including fitness and the pursuit of a new challenge. More than anything, however, I wanted to experience the struggle and stress of a physical battle with another human, fail in that struggle, and then ultimately learn how to survive and succeed in that struggle.  I certainly found struggle, but also unexpected lessons of deep and personal meaning, which will keep me connected to jiu-jitsu for as long as I’m able to do it.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ for short, is a combat sport system that focuses on grappling and ground fighting.  There is no striking.  Each grappler uses his or her whole body to implement a system of clinches, grips, and holds.  Focusing on leverage and precise technique, a properly trained grappler can manipulate even a larger opponent into submission by choke or joint lock. BJJ is astounding in its complexity, and often is described as “human chess.”

I had no prior martial arts experience.  I first heard of BJJ about twenty years ago in college. A close friend was a fan of the then new Ultimate Fighting Championship , and he enthusiastically described BJJ expert Royce Gracie’s dramatic victories over larger wrestlers, boxers, and martial artists.  That was in the early 1990s, and those first UFC fights — designed to test the superiority of different martial arts systems — were an interesting curiosity but didn’t capture much of my interest at the time.

I didn’t encounter BJJ again until a year or two ago, listening to Tim Ferriss’s podcast.  A number of Ferriss’s guests, including chess master Josh Waitzkin,  neuroscientist Sam Harris, and former U.S. Navy SEAL and writer Jocko Willink, all described their practice of BJJ, their obsession over its complexity and beauty, and the personal benefits they had each experienced from practicing the art.  And so, last summer, I found myself at the age of 40 walking into a BJJ academy for an introductory one-on-one lesson.  Over the course of an hour, the instructor introduced me to some basic principles of BJJ – how to use a basic escape from being flat on your back with an attacker sitting on your chest, how to submit an opponent with an armlock, and how to apply the unbelievably effective rear naked choke, which can render a powerful man unconscious within seconds  by cutting off all blood flow to the brain.  These techniques – simple but awesome in their power – were taught in a smooth, calm, respectful manner, with a conscious awareness of their utility and the responsibility required to employ them effectively.

I was sold and signed up.  And the next day, I found myself the newest student in the academy.  Imagine standing in a new, crisp white gi on a mat with two dozen other grapplers.  You don’t know exactly how much experience each of them has, but you know every one of them is more trained than you. You pay attention to the warm up and the lesson, working slowly through the technique with a polite but unfamiliar partner.

Now imagine the “live” sparring session that follows, where you square off with that partner, who has a great deal more experience (probably years) than you.  You slap hands, bump fists, and you are then left to defend yourself against an onslaught of attacks with nothing more than your untrained instincts.  The experience is overwhelming, much like being caught in a large wave, picked up and tumbling blindly through powerful waters, desperately hoping for the moment when the surge slows and you can begin to try to reorient yourself and recover.  You try to resist, only to find that your efforts to use brute strength are no match for the superiority of technique.  Your partner captures your arm in an awkward angle and you find yourself submitting to a shoulder lock.  You start again, avoiding that last trap, only to find your arm and head caught in your partner’s encircling legs in a move called a triangle choke.  Then you fail again, and again, and again.  Class after class, you fail.

I now train BJJ two or three times each week. Each class follows the same formula.  After a brief warmup of squats, pushups, and stretches, three techniques are taught.  The first typically is a self-defense technique, and second and third are BJJ grappling techniques.  Each technique is demonstrated, and then the students pair off and drill the technique.  The final ten minutes are spent in a “live” drill, where students engage in live sparring and try to refine and use the techniques learned in classes over time.  As students progress in their learning they spend more time sparring in unscripted live training sessions.

One of the things that makes BJJ unique among martial arts is that you can train at full intensity without the same risk of injury that is present in other martial arts.  In any striking discipline, be it boxing, kickboxing, tae kwon do, or mixed martial arts, the trauma caused by kicks and punches requires participants to spar at less intensity than they would employ in a real fight.  In practicing grappling, however, the risk of blunt force trauma is not present, as no striking is permitted.  This means that two grappling students can move at full speed, with full intensity, for long sparring sessions.  This intensity allows students to test the effectiveness of attacks and defense in an environment very similar to a real-world struggle.

Of course, that intensity and the inherent complexity of BJJ makes for a formidable physical and mental challenge, especially for a beginner.  And in that challenge, which often leads to failure, I found lessons even greater than the techniques themselves:

The Importance of Humility

BJJ makes you humble.  Or, perhaps more precisely, it requires you to be humble.  Because if you cannot summon humility, and lots of it, your ego will never allow you to return to class again.  In BJJ, your opponent wins by submission – by submitting you.  “Submit” derives from Latin, literally meaning “to put under.”  And in BJJ, your opponent only wins by submission when you tap out, when you admit that you’ve been beaten, when you admit that your opponent has submitted you.  In tapping, you literally  are admitting that your opponent has put you under him or herself, that your technique was inferior to theirs.

There is no room for ego here.  If you study BJJ for any period of time, you will tap out and submit hundreds, eventually thousands of times.  If you give in to ego, give your ego too much power, you will never experience anything other than embarrassment or frustration in failure.  In contrast, approaching these moments with humility allows you to self-reflect, ask questions, accept advice, and most importantly – improve your game.

This principle is applicable in many phases of life.  Ego is dangerous. If we think we are too good to fail, or underestimate our opponents, we become vulnerable to surprise and we risk falling short of our goals.  On the other hand, if we are open and accepting of our mistakes, our weaknesses, our challenges, we can learn from past experience, adjust accordingly, and remain focused on our goals.  If your goal is improvement, be humble.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

How often to you seek out discomfort?  When you’re uncomfortable, what are you focused on?  Are you fighting to end the discomfort?  Or can you dig deep and remain focused on the goal, even if it means working through an uncomfortable moment and enduring, while you watch things develop?  I believe that we collectively have lost our ability to be comfortable with discomfort, and that as a result, we’ve lost opportunities to find betterment through pain.

In BJJ, there is an offensive move called a stack pass.  A stack pass is an attack where a grappler hooks both arms under your legs while you are on your back, and then drives forward until your knees are essentially buried in your eyeballs, if not behind your ears. He then slides around sideways until he can drop his weight on your torso and take control of your upper body.  It hurts.  It bends your spine into a painfully compressed curve, it stretches your hamstrings into lengths they’ve never known, and it smashes your eight inch neck into a three inch space between your flattened shoulders and the mat.  And it takes a long time.

Faced with this predicament, in the middle of a stack pass, you essentially have two options.  One, you can quit.  Quitting can mean rolling over, giving your back to a choke, flailing without purpose and exhausting yourself, or just lying there like a limp noodle with no plan.  Two, you can endure the discomfort patiently, but with focus, until a new opportunity presents itself.  Obviously, the latter choice is the right one.  The secret is that it’s not as hard as it seems.  But it requires comfort with discomfort.

We deal with hard times all the time.  We can’t control the circumstances of these moments, and we often cannot control the outcome.  But we can control the attitude we face challenges with.  In fact, our response to challenge is the one thing that no one can ever take away from us.  But we can never seize that power unless we take a deep breath, prepare to endure, and then get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The Long Road

Jiu-jitsu is a long road.  Some people say that the path to a black belt is ten years, although there are many students who have experienced longer roads than that.  It is impossible to walk such a long road if you find motivation only in ego or short-term satisfaction.  One can walk this path to satisfaction only if he or she has committed to process, to routine, to small gains.  I feel as though I have not walked far enough to even see the beginning of the path over the horizon, but I am heading towards the trailhead.

Winston Churchill said, ““Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And that is what is most apparent to me in my very, very short exposure to BJJ.  Betterment lies in the willingness to do the hard thing, to do the difficult thing.  Betterment lies in the willingness to expose yourself to trial and fire and pain and humiliation.  Betterment lies in becoming comfortable with mistakes and failure and weakness, because if we are blind to these things, we will never see the path to conquering them.

I intend to keep walking the path.  I expect it to hurt.  I expect it to be hard.  I’m comfortable with that.  Greater things lie past the pain.


Stay tuned…

I’ve been taking a month off of writing as I recalibrate some of the ideas here and formulate the best method to share them.  My quarterly review for first quarter of 2016 revealed that I needed to define some goals more precisely and I’m working on that at present.


Be a Fox, Not a Hedgehog

“The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

-Greek philosopher Archilochus, 7th Century B.C.E.

The hedgehog and the fox are both great survivors, but for very different reasons. Foxes use a bag of cunning tricks that allow them to catch prey and evade predators. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, survive with just one trick (rolling up in a ball), and doing it very, very well.

The Fox and Hedgehog Metaphor

This difference in survival techniques is a pointed metaphor for people and life approaches. Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” is the most popular explanation of the metaphor, and defines fox and hedgehog archetypes to define models of decision-makers.

  •  Hedgehogs see everything through a single vision and a universal, organizing principle. The world is simple to a Hedgehog.
  • The Fox sees everything through contradictory ideas and multiple organizing principles. To a Fox, the world is complex and lacks simple truths.

The Superiority of the Fox

The hedgehog has an advantage in a fixed environment.  For example, when pursued by a dog, rolling into a ball will work for the hedgehog every time.  In contrast, the fox’s choice to run away, climb a tree, or dig a hole will work most of the time, but allow the dog to catch it at least some of the time.  In this fixed world, the hedgehog will always succeed and the fox will fail sometimes.

But life isn’t fixed.  If a new predator comes along – a human for example – the hedgehog is in trouble and will fail every time.  On the other hand, the fox’s adaptable strategy will continue to be successful most of the time.  In a changing world, the hedgehog fails to survive, while the fox thrives.

This model can be used to explain success and failure of humans as well.  In competitive business environments, some people stick to one single strategy and focus on doing one thing very well. They succeed when they are in a fixed environment that blends with their strategy.  But if the environment changes, they fail extremely quickly. Foxes may lose a battle or two with a hedgehog in particular arenas.  In a changing environment, however, they can adapt quickly and succeed.

How do you build the mind of a fox?  Expand your mental models so that you are not filtering out data critical to good decision-making.

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Finding Mindfulness in the Kitchen

I love to cook.  I’m self-taught, I have no professional experience, and I doubt that I have the chops to survive in a restaurant environment.  But I love it all the same.  My interests and heartstrings are tugged in a lot of different directions when I cook, but the most consistent sentiment I experience is a connection to life: to the Earth, to farmers and purveyors, to past generations, to my current community, to family.

Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany) is the fantastic memoir of Bill Buford, who left his job as an editor at The New Yorker to dive into the world of professional kitchens, pasta making, and ultimately, to learn the craft of butchery in Tuscany.  It is a beautiful tribute to those cooks in the world who choose to master craft, and by mastering craft, develop a deeper love for life around them.

The book follows Buford through kitchens of different locations, sizes, and intensity.  At every turn, though, Buford focuses his attention on what he can learn from the moment and from his teachers.  The unifying thread he stitches through these vignettes is a mindful attention to the emotional and human experience of cooking.

Lessons of Mindfulness in the Kitchen

On developing mindfulness in the kitchen:

I once asked Mario [Batali] what I could expect to learn in his kitchen….

He thought for a moment. “You also develop an expanded kitchen awareness.  You’ll discover how to use your senses.  You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says.  You’ll hear when something is cooked.  You’ll smell degrees of doneness.”

On the simple pleasure of making good food:

The satisfactions of making a good plate of food are surprisingly varied, and only one, and the least important of them, involves eating what you’ve made.  In addition to the endless riffing about cooking-with-love, chefs also talk about the happiness of making food: not preparing or cooking food but making it…. The simple good feeling …might be akin to what you’d experience making a toy or a piece of furniture or maybe even a work of art – except that this particular handmade thing was also made to be eaten.  I found, cooking on the line, that I got a quiet buzz every time I made a plate of food that looked exactly and aesthetically correct and then handed it over the pass to Andy….

These are not profound experiences – the amount of reflection is exactly zero – but they were genuine enough, and I can’t think of many other activities in a modern urban life that give as much simple pleasure.

On the melancholy ways that food ties us to each other, ancestors, and mortality:

Betta’s tortellini are now in my head and my hands. I follow her formula for the dough—an egg for every etto of flour, sneaking in an extra yolk if the mix doesn’t look wet enough. I’ve learned to roll out a sheet until I see the grain of the wood underneath. I let it dry if I’m making tagliatelle; I keep it damp if I’m making tortellini. I make a small batch, roll out a sheet, then another, the rhythm of pasta, each movement like the last one. My mind empties. I think only of the task. Is the dough too sticky? Will it tear? Does the sheet, held between my fingers, feel right?

But often I wonder what Betta would think, and, like that, I’m back in that valley with its broken-combed mountain tops and the wolves at night and the ever-present feeling that the world is so much bigger than you, and my mind becomes a jumble of associations, of aunts and a round table and laughter you can’t hear anymore, and I am overcome by a feeling of loss. It is, I concluded, a side effect of this kind of food, one that’s handed down from one generation to another, often in conditions of adversity, that you end up thinking of the dead, that the very stuff that sustains you tastes somehow of mortality.

Laying Out the Pasta at Our Albergo in Tripoli, by Edward Ardizzoni

On reaching higher planes of achievement through mastery and listening to your own voice:

This, it told me, is what you have to do to learn this craft: you keep having to be a slave – to not one master but several, one after another, until you arrive at a proficiency (whatever that might be) or your own style (however long it takes) or else conclude that, finally, you just know a lot more than anyone else.

On the connection of the kitchen to the natural cycle of planting, growing, harvesting:

The evening was interminable and I remember little about it, except for a brief exchange with Enrico about his olive oil.  I wanted to know why it was so good.

“There are two reasons,” Enrico said.   “When I pick and what I pick.  Nothing else matters.”

Heat is an important reminder to us to slow down, pay attention, and experience the feeling of what we’re doing.  Pair with Thoreau’s advice on escaping busyness through walking and my post on protecting your time for important work.

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Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook

I keep notes in a lot of places.  I have Moleskine notebooks with thoughts, sketches, business notes, to do lists, and snippets of prose in my briefcase everyday.  I have older notebooks that are full and aging on bookshelves in different rooms.  I have a box of note cards with quotes from books I’ve read that make up my commonplace book.  I have an electronic archive of articles and photos I’ve clipped from the web in an Evernote file.  As a keeper of notes, I do puzzle over the source of the compulsion to record the instant moment, our impressions of the past, the hopes for the future.  Why do we write things down?

Why Do We Write Things Down?

I found simple and wonderful insights into this question in Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” part of her 1968 anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem.  The essay was written nearly fifty years ago, but feels perfectly modern, arguing that a notebook allows us to return to our former selves and visit, if just for a little while.

joan didion on keeping a notebook
Joan Didion, 1970

Didion begins by describing the moment when she found a random story scribbled into a notebook.  She asks herself why she wrote it in the first place:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Keeping a Notebook Lets Us Remember How We Felt

Didion supposes that her instinct to record is not shared by all, and that her compulsion is borne of some underlying anxiety.

I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Didion begins to peel back psychological layers when she admits that “the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.”  Instead, she says that her recordings were about “how it felt to me.”

I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.

The Beauty of Visiting Our Own Histories

Didion ultimately admits that the practice of keeping a notebook is inward-facing.  While she imagined that “the notebook is about other people,” she admits that the point was always to “remember what it was to be me.”

Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”

Didion’s best advice to us is to never overlook the value in “remembering what it was to be ourselves.”  As she says, “It all comes back.”

Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice.

Intuitively, I’ve always felt that my notebooks were about remembering ideas so that I could return to the facts of times past.  Didion convinced me in this short essay that I was completely missing the point.  I returned to some old notebooks this week and realized that in reading the entries, I can’t recall the factual details of events or entries.  But the feeling of who I was, what was important, why I was writing was as clear as the day I wrote them.

Didion ultimately reminds us that, “it is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about.”

The entire collection of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is full of similar insight and wit, touching on self-respect, morality, and marriage.