The Top 5 Books I Read in 2018

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.

The Top 5 Books I Read in 2018

In 2018, I read 55 books, slightly beating my goal of 52 books, but nowhere near the 100 books I read in 2017. 54 of the books I read in 2018 (98%) we’re non-fiction, and just 1, Fifty Shades of Grey, was fiction. (Yes, I read it, and even did a podcast about it) Although I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of these books, I only gave out five 5-Star ratings in 2018.

2018: Death, taxes, and humans behaving badly.

One of my interesting quirks is that my curiosity drags me through a never-ending series of “small obsessions.” Roughly every 6-24 months, some topic or idea grabs hold of my curiosity and ends up consuming a great deal of my time and energy. For most of 2017 & 2018, my “small obsession” was trying to understand why people, especially people in power, seem to reliably behave so badly. In the wake of scandals and social upheavals including The Trump-Russia investigation (and the President’s behavior in general), the #MeToo Movement, and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, I became intensely curious as to why people always seem to behave like assholes. The degree to which bad human behavior is “hardwired” into our brains (nature) versus shaped by our society, institutions, and culture (nurture) is incredibly important because it determines some of the most fundamental assumptions which we build our civilization on top of. This debate (in various forms) has raged among philosophers for literally thousands of years, and to this day, is one of the key ideological fault lines between modern day conservative and progressive ideologies. So getting some “answers” to these questions was one of my primary reading goals on 2018. Not surprisingly, four of the five books I rated 5 Stars this year are specifically about humans behaving badly. With that background, here are the Top 5 books I read in 2018:

#5 - The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

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Although Elephant in the Brain is one the most cynical books I’ve read in quite a while, it is also one of the most interesting and provocative. The core thesis of this book is that we humans are strategically blind to key aspects of our own motivations, namely self-interest, in-group interest, signalling social status, and that we (subconsciously and unconsciously) behave quite badly in the name of those interests. The authors suggest that many of our supposedly benign activities...art, laughter, charity, education, politics, and even religion...may actually be motivated by hidden selfish motives (status signalling, for example) that we consciously and subconsciously hide from people... and most importantly, even ourselves!

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself… and you are the easiest person to fool.” - Richard Feynman

The idea that our deeper motivations are much more Machiavellian than we realize, and that we might actually be designed to self-deceive ourselves is not a fun theory, but it does seem to map onto reality better than most other explanations for sub-optimal behavior.

Check out this podcast episode with co-author Robin Hanson and Sam Harris for more on these ideas.

#4 - Show your work!

by Austin Kleon

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A fun, inspirational little book that explores ways for creative folks to share their work without being “spammy.” This book inspired me to create this very website, and to be more willing to interact with interesting strangers on the internet via my podcast and Twitter.

Here were my key takeaways:
1. Generously share your cool ideas, projects, and knowledge online, in places where you will be easy for people to find you. (Write blogs, record podcasts, share creative work, etc).
2. Share something, even if it’s small, every single day. Eventually, your niche will find you and help spread your work. (Twitter, YouTube, and personal websites are very effective)
3. Be a connector. Help other people in your niche find each other. Interact and an engage your audience passionately.
4. Enjoy being part of a like minded community, building relationships, and seeing your fan-base grow.
5. If you want more followers, be someone worth following.

“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.”
― Austin Kleon

“It’s not enough to be good. In order to be found, you have to be findable.”
― Austin Kleon

#2 & #3 - The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now

both by Steven Pinker

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note: I also wrote a lengthy, chart-filled post about these two books which you can find HERE

These two, very long, deeply researched books may be looked back on as modern non-fiction classics. Better Angels argues that, contrary to popular belief, violence has declined over the course of human history. Enlightenment Now goes much further by arguing that, contrary to popular belief, almost EVERYTHING we care about (rates of violence, poverty, infant mortality, illiteracy, etc) has improved significantly and consistently over the last few decades and centuries. In short, Pinker argues that life has actually been getting much getting much better, for most of the people in the world. This, Pinker claims, is not Whig history, it’s authentic progress.

Pinker then argues, albeit a bit less convincingly, that the driving forces behind an improving world are rise of the nation-state (and its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence) and the rise of positive-sum trade/commerce as more profitable than zero-sum war and pillaging. Pinker also credits the rise of science and rationality over religion and superstition as also contributing to a rise in humanism and innovation.

"Faith, revelation, tradition, authority, charisma, mysticism, intuition, and the parsing of sacred texts... are all ways of being wrong." - Steven Pinker

While some may argue that Pinker’s work serves to simply justify the status quo - an oppressive system of Western imperialism and capitalism - I think that would be a gross oversimplification. Pinker’s alternative hypothesis to the “everything is awful” meme that dominates news and social media is certainly an interesting and important claim that should be taken seriously in our ongoing social discourse. Furthermore, a reminder that human society, while far from perfect, is actually on a trajectory towards a better world, may be the exact antidote we need in this era of increasing political polarization and rising extremism.

#1 - Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

by Robert Sapolsky

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Sometimes, exactly the right person comes into your life at exactly the right moment. For me in 2018, Robert Sapolsky was such a person. Sapolsky is a long haired, long bearded academic hero whose enthusiasm for science is utterly contagious. As a kid, he was already writing fan letters to primatologists. After watching some of his lectures, this is not surprising. Rarely do you encounter people so excited about their jobs. A professor of both biology and neuroscience, who also has spent decades studying primate behavior in Kenya, his lectures and writings are some of the best I’ve ever seen. This dude is my spirit animal.

I would highly recommend checking out some of his lectures HERE.

Sapolsky’s incredible knowledge combined with his passion for seeking truth in scientific inquiry (wherever it leads) makes him the ideal tour guide to take us on a journey to understand why humans behave badly. Behave is his 800 page magnum opus that sums of decades of research on the science of human behavior at its best and worst.

Although summing the 800 page monster into a few interesting bullet points is folly, I’ll give it a try anyway. Here were my key takeaways:

  • Nature vs nurture is a gross oversimplification. Different environments, experiences, and stress levels cause big, complex changes in how your genes and hormones function. The various nature-like and nurture-like drivers of behavior are hopelessly intertwined.

  • Unwanted stress is really, really bad for you. (No, like REALLY bad, man!) Use meditation, self-reflection, exercise, and gratitude to minimize bad stress.

  • In addition to all of the health disadvantages that come with poverty and lack of healthcare access, additional damage is caused by the psychological stress of ranking near the bottom of a social hierarchy, independent of the caused by the material disadvantages.

  • Fear, especially using fear as a tool of coercion, is incredibly fucking powerful. Humans will do almost anything (including harming others) to avoid social shunning, loss of social status, or threat of physical harm.

  • Oxytocin isn't the "love drug" it's the "Momma-bear drug." It actually only increases attachment to people you already love and actually makes you MORE aggressive towards strangers.

  • Counter-intuitively, people who rate highly on ethnocentrism tend to be kinder to their in-group members than those who are less ethnocentric are to their in-group members.

  • Human behavior can and does improve. Slavery, oppression of women and LGBT, indiscriminate killing of outsiders, etc have all gone from “perfectly natural and universal” <400 or so yrs ago to MUCH less accepted today. Slowly, but surely humans, are getting better.

“If we accept that there will always be sides, it’s a nontrivial to-do list item to always be on the side of angels. Distrust essentialism. Keep in mind that what seems like rationality is often just rationalization, playing catch-up with subterranean forces that we never suspect. Focus on the larger, shared goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate. Recall the historical lessons of how often the truly malignant Thems keep themselves hidden and make third parties the fall guy. And in the meantime, give the right-of-way to people driving cars with the “Mean people suck” bumper sticker, and remind everyone that we’re all in it together against Lord Voldemort and the House Slytherin.” - Robert Sapolsky

The Quantified Life: Days 0-60

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.

New Project: The Quantified Life

*Note: The Google Sheet link to John’s Quantified Life data can be found HERE.

In my last blog post, I described how I’ve designed my life around a few carefully chosen, interdependent goals. I also described, at a high level, my strategy and tactics for making progress towards those goals.

However, having inspiring goals is worthless if you don’t actually do the day-to-day hard work required to make real progress towards your goals. If last blog post was akin to “talking the talk”, this post is about actually “walking the walk.” After I wrote the True Goals vs Fuel Goals blog post, I realized that merely having goals was NOT going to be enough to ensure success. To continuously improve, I realized that I need constant monitoring and daily, objective feedback.

Legendary management consultant Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured, gets improved.” I largely agree with this statement and so, as of October 1, 2018, I have embarked a new project that I’m calling Quantified Life. The goal of Quantified Life is to collect data on my own personal Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) related to my goals, analyze the data, and use the insights to improve my rate of personal growth.

Richard Feynman said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” When it comes to making progress towards your goals, the best way to ensure that you’re not fooling yourself is to have good data on your own progress (or lack of progress). Knowledge really is power in this case, and today’s modern technology - namely smartphones and wearables - make collecting and analyzing your personal data something that anyone can do.

The Quantified Self movement

This project was directly inspired by the Quantified Self movement. You can think of Quantified Self as the marriage between personal data and self-improvement. Here’s the description from the Quantified Self Wiki page:

“Quantified self, also known as lifelogging, is a specific movement by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly from Wired magazine, which began in 2007 and tries to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person's daily life. People collect data in terms of food consumed, quality of surrounding air, mood, skin conductance as a proxy for arousal, pulse oximetry for blood oxygen level, and performance, whether mental or physical. Wolf has described quantified self as "self-knowledge through self-tracking with technology".[1]

My first step in this new project was to convert my goals into measurable data points and start tracking them daily. Below is a diagram from my last blog post that I created to visualize my goals. These are the essential goals/tasks that I’m trying to convert to measurable data points for this Quantified Life project.

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Here are some apps I’m using to collect/track this data: Fitbit, MyFitnessPal, Goodreads, Insight Timer, and Google Sheets.

The Key Metrics

What makes this project particularly interesting to me is trying to come up with ways to quantify goals that don’t typically lend themselves to easy quantification, especially personal relationships. As of right now, I’m currently tracking myself on over 30 metrics. This was my first attempt at converting my goals to quantifiable metrics and I’m certain that these goals will need to be tweaked over time. Most of the health goals are based on common health indicators and most of the non-health metrics are frequency-based. Below is a break down of many of those key metrics by goal type:

Great relationships

-Fatherhood: spend at least 60 minutes/day bonding/playing with our new baby boy

-Marriage: Have monthly date nights with my wife and do surprise “extra” chores (that she typically does) for my wife twice per week

-Son: Visit my parents every 2 weeks, on average

-Brother: Do 3 “sibling-only” meals per year with my brother and sister. No kids, spouses, or parents allowed.

-Others: Do 1 random act of kindness per week

-Network: Add 1 new, quality relationship to my network every month.

-Also, I am currently experimenting with 3 different personal CRM apps (Ryze, Cultivate, and Garden) which set up automatic, customized reminders for me to keep in touch (texting, calling, or in-person) with my family, friends, and other people in my network. Cultivate seems to be the best one so far.

Improving the World

-Donate annually to Effective Altruism-type charities. Currently, I am partial to de-worming and anti-malarial charities: Deworm the World, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and the Against Malaria foundation.

-Keep up with news/debates within the Effective Altruism community via the EA Facebook Group and EA community forums. (Not currently tracked)

Skills/Knowledge/Platform

-Read a book per week, on average.

-Release 1 podcast episode per month

-Publish 1 blog post per quarter

Wealth

-Maintain a specific personal savings rate %. (The rate itself is private, but I will include this as a monthly pass/fail goal as part of my Quantified Life)

-Achieve longer term salary/cash flow, investing returns, and net worth goals. (Private, and tracked outside of this project)

Physical & Mental Health

-Drink 1 gallon of water per day

-Meditate daily, for at least 10 minutes per day

-Do my 5 minute Journal daily

-Lose 40-50 ish pounds to achieve goal weight of 150lb

-Track a variety of diet metrics (net calories, net carbs, sugar, etc)

-Track running and fitness metrics (running, push ups, pull ups, etc)

-Track steps, heart rate, and blood pressure

Going Public With My Data

Am I crazy for making this data public? Maybe, but I actually don’t think so. All things considered, these data points I’m making public are pretty benign. I’m confident that the added benefits of making my commitment to improving these metrics public and of sharing that journey with all of you outweigh the risks of personal harm from making this data public. So, here you go internet…my Quantified Life database for the first 60 days. Enjoy!

Early Observations and Takeaways

After 60 days of tracking, here are some things I’ve learned:

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  1. Doing extra chores, meeting new people, and doing random acts of kindness are WAY harder than spending quality time with my family and friends. It’s not exactly surprising that I unperformed on those goals because I thoroughly enjoy spending quality time with my family & friends, but I find chores and meeting new peoples deeply unpleasant. However, it was nice to see the data confirm this weakness of mine. I will have to double down on my efforts on these particular goals.

  2. I was surprised how much sleep I’m actually getting with an infant to take care of (6.5 hours on avg). This probably means either our son is sleeping pretty well, or possibly that I’m not exactly doing my fair share of late-night baby duty.

  3. Although I’ve been very inconsistent on my diet, it was nice to see that I did lose about 7 pounds or so during the first 60 days. However, almost all of that weight loss occurred in the first few weeks, and I haven’t lost any weight in the past month or so. That is a trend I must break.

  4. My daily ritual of inputting new data points every morning and watching the graphs update really has a gamification effect that makes me much more motivated to keep striving than I otherwise would.

Goddart’s Law

One important concept that I’m a bit weary of is Goddart’s Law:

"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes”

While it is certainly true that linking rewards/punishments to any metric increases the risk of unintended consequences resulting from the incentive to meet that goal, I think the benefits of self-monitoring outweigh those concerns. I’ll have to be careful that I don’t cheat my own incentive system!

Future Updates

I plan on releasing an updated version of this data every 3 months or so and sharing whatever insights I gain through this blog. I expect this will be a fun project, that will reveal my own strengths and weaknesses, and help me on the path towards self-mastery.

“If you can master yourself, you will find yourself in control of a great empire.” - Publius Syrus

Thanks for reading,

John