12 lessons from books I read in 2017

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Photo by freddie marriage


You’ve probably either directly or indirectly heard about Anders Ericcson’s research, which formed the basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule in Outliers.

But in , Ericcson gets in a nerd fight with Gladwell. He claims Gladwell misinterpreted his research and that 10,000 hours isn’t a magic bullet.

To become elite at any skill, Ericcson argues, you do have to practice long and hard. But he distinguishes regular sloppy practice from “deliberate practice.”

The latter is about practicing under guided expert coaches so you gain the most from your hours of practice, rather than accumulating hours of haphazard practice.

The literary nerd fight over 10,000 hours is what made headlines. Controversy sells. But I think there was a more important takeaway from this book:

Skill > knowledge.

Ericcson argues that we put too much faith in knowledge in our culture, including our education system and business training. It’s easy to organize and passively listen to a lecture. It’s not so easy to deliberately practice a difficult skill, over and over and over again.

So if you take this message to heart, find yourself a coach, trainer or tutor, and start your deliberate practice.

Falling Upward

Jess Cigelske thinks I’m having a midlife crisis because I checked out a ton of books on life and spirituality from the library. I told her in terms of a midlife crisis, I could probably do a lot worse than checking out a bunch of spirituality books from the library. I’m currently reading lessons from Richard Rohr, a 74-year-old Franciscan monk and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. Here’s a section from his Falling Upward to think about:

The Alchemist

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It’s the kind of book where you want to write down every passage to remember later. Here’s one: “There was a language in the world that everyone understood, a language the boy had used throughout the time that he was trying to improve things at the shop. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

All the President’s Men

I wanted to revisit the story that helped shape me as I teach a new generation of students, so I checked out a copy of “All the President’s Men” from the university library. The pages are yellowed, dog-eared and filled with penciled notes in the margins from decades of students checking this book out for assignments. Here’s what I learned 20 years after I watched the movie:

Amusing Ourselves to Death

George Orwell’s 1984 was the No. 1 seller on Amazon, before Milo’s new book replaced it. But maybe the future to fear isn’t Orwellian. It’s Huxley, according to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Back in 1985, Postman cautioned about a world centered around TV culture. Postman viewed advertisements as the perfect embodiment of our image-centric world. In his view, advertisements don’t really inform, but rather tell a seductive story to make consumers yearn for a product. Postman cited the fact that the average person was exposed to 1 million hours of advertisements by age 40.

Postman looked around at a country that had recently elected a movie star as president in 1984. He saw everything become a form of entertainment, including politics, education and capitalism. He feared we were becoming the society that Aldous Huxley predicted in , dulled and lulled to sleep by the drug of mindless consumption.

That was more than 30 years ago. Today, the average person spends 10.7 hours per day — as my friend Joseph Simmons, SJ pointed out — in front of some sort of screen, be it a TV, computer or iPhone. Our multimedia consumption has hit an all-time high.

So what’s the solution? Postman thought our only hope was education.

“[Educators] have not yet got to the question, How can we use education to control television (or the computer, or word processor)?” he wrote on the last page of the book. “But our reach for solutions ought to exceed our present grasp, or what’s dreaming for?”

Future Shock

Not sure why I’m all about books from the 1970s lately, but I was strangely excited to find Future Shock in a little free library. The chapter about the new “experience economy” really resonated. To me it sounds like a Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs/ hedonic treadmill kind of thing. We’re constantly on the lookout for new and novel experiences, which can be overdone as much as collecting physical things.

The Power of Habit

A good book to start a new year. It shows the psychological, neurological and sociological reasons why habits and routines control so much of what we do on a daily basis. (I saw one statistic that said about 45% of our day is simply following an ingrained abit.) The good news is once we’re aware of this, we can critically examine our habitual actions and work to reinforce, tweak or change them. So rather than create another resolution, get started on a habit.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

There were times while reading this book that I muttered under my breath “you’ve got to be kidding me” or “give me a break.”

Marie Kondo has a highly specific method to her decluttering madness, and sometimes her rules can feel over-the-top and arbitrary. Why does she need to break down the exact order you should go through each category of clothing? She even admits in one section she doesn’t know why you should follow a certain order — just trust her, she’s an expert.

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On the other hand, I figured, sure, why not? If decluttering is an art and science, it might as well come from someone who has put in 10,000 hours. Marie Kondo is clearly a little obsessive about tidying up a house.

She has found her calling, and many of us (myself included) could use any advice on this topic.

I did find her guidelines and rules of thumb helpful: Start early in the morning when your decision-making powers are sharpest. Leave sentimental items for last. Handle each item, don’t just look at it. These rules and others create a helpful common sense system.

Much has already been written about Kondo’s method of asking if an item sparks joy. That theme runs through the entire book, and I think it’s worthwhile. But I think there’s an even larger message from this book. It’s about being mindful and intentional about your surroundings. Not just your things, but your house and your energy.

Kondo’s system invites you to really pay attention to what’s around you and what you want (or don’t want) in your life. It’s about caring about your environment, rather than just coexisting with random stuff. I think that’s the real value of tidying up.

Peak Performance

Peak Performance was mostly stuff taken from other recent sources in this genre. But there was one new study I wasn’t aware of about the restorative effects of socializing after exercise. There will probably be another study that comes along that refutes this finding, but until then I’m running with it.


Starting with Jerry and Larry David brainstorming ideas for a sitcom and ending with Seinfeld2000 and Seinfeld and Jason Alexander’s Super Bowl commercial reunion, Seinfeldia takes the reader on a chronological tour of Seinfeld. I couldn’t put this book down and finished it mostly in a weekend. It’s a fun trip back in time to the ’90s and through today, as Seinfeld never really ended. This book reminded me that to be creative, do the opposite.

The Coaching Habit

Decisions don’t need to be binary. This is one of the lessons from Michael_BungayStanier’s . Sometimes there is a third (or more) option.

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The Audacity of Hope

There was a phrase that President Barack Obama said during his farewell address that caught my ear.

“For all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy,” he said. “Citizen.”

I flipped through my copy of e that I’ve been re-reading the last few months. There it was, at the end of his chapter on politics. It was an anecdote about a meeting with a constituent that disagreed with him. Page 135.

“As he walked away, I was reminded of something Justice Louis Brandeis once said: that in a democracy, the most important office is the office of citizen.”

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Obama ended his farewell address the same way he started his candidacy, with the short, simple phrase “Yes We Can.”

But if you look at the text of his speech, all the themes he talks about go back further than 2008. Here are just a few of the parallels between 2006’s and 2017’s farewell address:







That’s just a small sampling. Obama’s farewell address is the Ted Talk version of his book.

is sometimes filled with soaring hopeful rhetoric, but mostly it reads like a series of legal essays.

Almost every paragraph contains some qualifier like “on the other hand” “of course” “still” “though” “although” “if I’m honest with myself.” Obama stretches himself to show the many complex facets of any contentious issue, whether it’s global trade or immigration reform.

Sometimes, it reads like a textbook.

As I read chapters from faith to the Constitution, I can’t help but picture Obama as a professor of law in the classroom. He’s poking and prodding his students to question their beliefs, consider counter arguments, understand the other side and still try to come to some coherent conclusion. And we are the students.

If feels like a textbook, then Obama’s farewell address felt like one last epic review session.

Obama delivered his speech with the calm demeanor of a professor who has been repeating the same familiar themes all semester. But we’re an easily distracted audience. We check our phones too much when we should be listening. We need reminding.

So he’s going to sum it all up for us again, one last time.

At this stage, nothing is new. Obama covered all the familiar Obama-isms: Don’t get cynical, most contentious issues aren’t black and white, we’re all in this together, get out of your bubbles and talk to people who aren’t like you, roll up your sleeve and get involved yourself.

“I am asking you to believe,” Obama said in his parting words. “Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”

And then, that’s it. We’re on our own for the test.

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity: http://bit.ly/thecreativejourney

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