books

Best Books I Read in 2018

Every year, I spend a lot of time on choosing the books I want to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and mentions in books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

Best books of 2018.png

1. Reasons to Stay Alive - Matt Haig

It is a memoir about the author's depressive disorders and the ways he copes with them. I found this book at a time when I was struggling with my own mental health. And reading about the author's account helped me in a way sharing your problems with a friend does. It also taught me a lot about what depression and anxiety feels like in severe cases. I would highly recommend this book if you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health issues. It may not solve all the problems, but it definitely eases the burden.

2. Born to Run: The hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen - Christopher McDougall

It had long been in my wishlist but I was never too keen to read it. I am not a runner, so I assumed that this wouldn't interest me too much. I was wrong. It is a captivating story, told beautifully. Although it speaks a lot about running, there was never a moment when I thought, 'this is boring'. It has inspired me to take up running (albeit short distances) and also showed me how we humans have expandable limits.

3. Walk Through Walls: A Memoir - Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic is a performance artist. If you don't know what performance art, check out this short clip of her explaining what it is.

To say I was intrigued by her work would be an understatement. She has been one of the flag bearers of this art form for which there have been few takers and a lot of skeptics. During this time, she kept creating, surviving (and thriving). And her memoir is an account of her eccentric, bohemian and utterly fascinating life.

A short clip to get you started on her work.

4. Peter Camenzind: A Novel - Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse is one of my favorite authors and I always look forward to reading one of his works. Peter Camenzind is a light, breezy coming of age story. Peter is every one of us, or at least a part of us. He is an innocent, young boy who loves the mountains and the river near his home. As he grows up, he moves to the city and deals with conflicts not uncommon to what we face in our lives.

If you haven't read a Hesse yet, start with this one. As soon as I finished reading it, I practically shoved it into my wife's hands. And she was not disappointed. Neither would you be.

Other Notable Mentions:

Daniel Pink's When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing was insightful. It provided me with small hacks that can improve my life considerably.

I also read Charles Bukowski. His stories reflected my somber mood and I would often be drinking while reading them. I'd recommend Post Office.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson. If you like to follow debates on popular cultural issues like feminism, drug legalisation, gender identity etc., chances are you would have heard about him. The rules look simple, but have gravitas when you look deeper.

Mark Manson's The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck was an interesting read.

And finally, The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman, one of the few graphic novels I have ever read was a moving real-life story.

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:

Best Books I Read in 2017

Every year, I spend a lot of time on choosing the books I want to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and mentions in books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

1. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

The first thought that came to my mind when I finished reading this book was, “What do I do with my life now?” It left me feeling like I have now read everything that I would ever want to read and nothing that I pick again is going to match its level. This is an incredible book, a masterpiece. Of course you don’t need me to say this about the sole recipient of The Best of the Booker award. I had never read a Rushdie before so I did not know what I was getting into. And his imagination and the richness of characters totally blew me away.

People adept at their craft are sometimes called magicians out of respect. In Rushdie’s case, this is a veritable truth and not just in a metaphorical sense. I never imagined that language and words could be used in this way; I was spell bound. Midnight's Children ranks right up there with the best books I have ever read. And I would urge you vehemently to make this your next book to read.

2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind - Yuval Noah Harari

Over the past few years, I have dramatically reduced my internet reading. Instead, I like to read books which offer in depth material on a certain topic. Knowledge empowers the mind to make informed choices. And with Sapiens, I found answers to a lot of questions which plague me as an individual and also as a member of our society.

When I picked this book, I imagined that I’d learn a lot about mankind’s history from the prehistoric times up to today. But it did a lot more than inform me - it changed my worldview. Instead of passive knowledge, I received active wisdom. It helped me look at the world around me and things that I care about in a different light. And I couldn’t help but recommend this to every person I met. 

3. A Farewell To Arms - Ernest Hemingway

If you read a Hemingway, and it doesn’t feature in your Best-Of list, you probably didn’t read it right. He is one of my favorite authors and from whose writing style I try to take a lot. A Farewell of Arms is an intense World War 1 story and one of his best works. I want to leave you with the most famous quote from this book:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

4. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

It might come across as a children’s book. But it is much more than that. The best lessons are the ones which nudge you in the right direction from where you can travel on your own. And not the ones where you are pushed onto and you are not sure what you are supposed to do now. This book comes under the former category. Apart from the charming story and the illustrations, the author himself is quite a character. Its a cute, lovable, simple, deep book all at the same time. Read this with your partner or read it with your kids, and share laughter, happiness and timeless wisdom. 

Other Notable Mentions:

I read a few Agatha Christies which never disappoint. Also read a couple of books from The Song of Ice and Fire series - I only wish I had experienced them before watching the TV show first. Non-fiction works like Deep Work, Predictably Irrational, Song Machine and As a Man Thinketh were interesting reads as well. 

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:

Notes from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Here's an exercise: Count the number of times you are interrupted while reading this article. And when I say interruptions, I mean all of these things and more:

  • A colleague coming over for a quick question
  • A ting on your phone
  • New email notification on the corner of your screen
  • The sudden craving for a quick cup of coffee
  • Opening up a new tab and doing internet wandering

These interruptions may seem harmless, but they have a significant impact on the quality of our work, productivity and consequently on our life. The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport explores this idea extensively using solid research.

Some of the concepts in the book should be intuitive knowledge to us. But I've found that when such knowledge is backed by scientific studies, it becomes much more likely to be adopted in real life. (Like the benefits of meditation and why I started doing it after reading about its very real benefits).

This post covers my notes and highlights from the book. Passages from the book are in italics.


WHAT IS DEEP WORK

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

If we look back in the past, we’ll find that deep work was ubiquitous in influential people. For example:

Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention.

This is not an isolated example. The book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is full of such stories of important historical figures who owe their success to commitment to deep work.

Newport says that our behavior - ‘our’ as in most knowledge workers - is in sharp contrast to this. And he ascribes the reason to network tools and the proliferation of shallow work.

Shallow Work: Non Cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

If we look at our usual work day, a lot of the deep work is replaced by the shallow alternative - like the constant sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.

Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.

WHY DEEP WORK

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

This opportunity will become more apparent in the coming years when the artificial intelligent tools will take over more of our shallow (and some deep) tasks.

The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run the service (a decidedly deep task, hard to replicate).

Assuming that you agree with the deep work hypothesis, we'll need two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: 

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. Theability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

And this is where Deep Work will come handy.

 

1. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU QUICKLY LEARN HARD THINGS

To understand this, we'll get into the science of focus. I found it to be the most fascinating part of the book. A few things to learn:

Myelin: It is a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons. It acts like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner.

What are Skills? Skills, intellectual or physical, eventually are a function of our brain circuits. When we focus intensely on a specific skill, we essentially force the relevant circuit to fire repeatedly in isolation.

And this is how the two are connected:

The new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on the task at hand (or in other words, by using a specific circuit repeatedly), we trigger cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons—effectively cementing the skill. Instead, if we are distracted, we fire too many circuits simultaneously to be able to isolate the group of neurons we want to strengthen. It follows that - 

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

 

2. DEEP WORK IS RARE

A few examples of why in today’s work culture deep work is rare:

  1. Open floor offices - My last job was in at a very cool company with good perks, flexible vacation policy and an open floor office. But, that last bit was problematic. Ringing phones, laughter, discussions - all these traveled farther in an open layout. I had to find a meeting room just to be able to focus and do some deep work.

  2. IM in offices - ‘Coffee?’ ‘Smoke?’ ‘Yo what’s up?’ Simple questions which take not just your attention but also your time - The office instant messenger problem.

  3. Social Media presence - The effects of the attention sinks that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are has been well documented. This problem is more pronounced in the case of creators who not only have to do their deep creative work but also engage in the shallow work of keeping their social media updated since they also use it as a channel of promotion.

These cause a problem which you might have heard before:

Attention Residue - When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.
It implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. But that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.

 

3. DEEP WORK IS MEANINGFUL

Here's something perhaps you can relate to:

It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of e-mails and PowerPoint, with only the charts used in the slides differentiating one career from another.

At my work, some days would be spent in meetings with little output. Other times I would use my busyness as a proxy for productivity. It brewed dissatisfaction and a lack of purpose.

Newport quotes Winifred Gallagher, a scientific researcher in the field of focus:

There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work. Gallagher’s theory predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.

By contrast, shallow work begets discontentment.

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction. Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.

 

4. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU PRODUCE AT AN ELITE LEVEL

Consider this equation:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Newport gives example of a prolific professor who often isolates himself without distraction on a single research task. During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response.

If you believe this formula, then Grant’s habits make sense: By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working.

This idea of working smarter, not harder has been explored in multiple other books and articles. And it seems to make a lot of sense.


The second half of the book is used to lay down the Rules and the Techniques by which we can attain deep work in our life. To give you a short summary of those techniques is just not possible because there's too much information to be compressed in a succinct form.

The aim of this post was to introduce you to the concept of Deep Work, to show the solid foundation behind it and how profound of an impact it can have in our lives. I hope it has served its purpose.

I'd highly recommend you to read the book. You'll get a stronger understanding and hopefully you implement some of those rules in your life. I’ll leave you with one last advice from the book, which I feel is the simplest to implement and probably the most powerful.

 

RITUALIZE

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
Without structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.”

-Antonin Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the post, share it with someone who might find it useful. Leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

If you want to read more on the topic of focus, here's something I wrote: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

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Searching for The Sublime in Mundane - Notes from The Book of Tea

"LET US DREAM OF EVANESCENCE, AND LINGER IN THE BEAUTIFUL FOOLISHNESS OF THINGS."

One of the most important books that I read last year was The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. It talks about much more than just the art of making tea - aesthetics, simplicity and the transcendence found in the seemingly simple rituals of a craft (in this case, tea-making). It is a manual on living a deliberate life, in the depths where the sublime reveals itself to us.

The wisdom in these pages dwarfs the other important aspect of this book - the efficiency of words. At only 160 pages, this short read punches well above its weight. There are no wasted sentences, no time expended in citing shallow stories. It is a study in depth, and living immersed in your craft. I also featured this in my Best books I read in 2016 list.

Here are my notes and highlights from it. Lines from the book are in italics.

 

On the greatness of little things:

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.

This here seems like the crux of Teaism. Most of our life is spent in doing the mundane- sleeping, eating, cooking, washing clothes, etc. The moments of extreme pleasure - sex, travel, sports, dancing - form a minority of our time every day. So, in order to maximise the happiness from our lives, it makes sense to enjoy the mundane as much as we cherish the bursts of extreme pleasure.

The mundane holds equal importance with the spiritual. In the great relation of things, there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. 

The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.

 

On What makes gooD tea:

The best quality of the leaves must have "creases like the leathern boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain."

By using such vivid images to describe good leaves, the author has attached a romance to a seemingly simple morning ritual of making tea. This is a constant theme in the book. In fact, I wrote about this in my post A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus.

Lotung, a Tang poet, wrote: "The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrail but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,--all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup--ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horaisan? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither."
Wangyucheng eulogised tea as "flooding his soul like a direct appeal, that its delicate bitterness reminded him of the aftertaste of a good counsel."

If we replace drinking tea with any of our daily tasks, say cleaning, and imagine it being described by a great writer, it will transform from a mere chore to a event to experience in all its glory. While we are at cleaning, let's see what the book says about it.

 

On What Cleanliness Means:

One of the first requisites of a tea-master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting. A piece of antique metal work must not be attacked with the unscrupulous zeal of the Dutch housewife. Dripping water from a flower vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew and coolness. 

I have no idea why the reference of the Dutch housewife is here. But what attracted my interest was the the attention to small details.

The next quote is about the garden path. It is one of the parts that makes a Tea House.

There is a story of Rikiu which well illustrates the ideas of cleanliness entertained by the tea-masters. Rikiu was watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. "Not clean enough," said Rikiu, when Shoan had finished his task, and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikiu: "Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining with a fresh verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground." "Young fool," chided the tea-master, "that is not the way a garden path should be swept." Saying this, Rikiu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn! What Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.

 

ON GREAT ART:

The book explains what great art means by explaining  the metaphor of Vacuum. It claims that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. For example, the reality of a room was in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. Likewise, the usefulness of a water pitcher was the emptiness that it contained, and not in the shape or material of the pitcher. 

In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.

There is a wonderful story about a harp made from exquisite wood. All the harpists in Japan tried to play their songs on it but no one succeeded. It would not produce good music as everyone had hoped. Finally, the hero of the story Peiwoh, a celebrated harpist comes along and plays songs of the trees, the forests, the river - basically everything that the harp might have seen when it was a tree. 

"Sire," he replied, "others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp."

It connects with the concept of vacuum: 

One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations. The whole can always dominate the part.

In the olden times, the Samurais of Japan, much like most of Japan at that time held art in high regard. So, often if the samurais were given a job to do, they often sought art instead of money as a form payment for their efforts.

A single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school.

 

SOME APHORISMS:

We are wicked because we are frightfully self-conscious. We nurse a conscience because we are afraid to tell the truth to others; we take refuge in pride because we are afraid to tell the truth to ourselves. How can one be serious with the world when the world itself is so ridiculous!
Why do men and women like to advertise themselves so much? Is it not but an instinct derived from the days of slavery?
The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters explains admirably the trend of the three doctrines. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laotse once stood before a jar of vinegar--the emblem of life--and each dipped in his finger to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour, the Buddha called it bitter, and Laotse pronounced it sweet.

Taoism accepts the mundane as it is. And unlike the Confucians or the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry.


The beauty of words in this book is baffling. I sincerely wish that you get a chance to read it. Teaism had taught many things to the Japanese at that time - about culture, art, and living a meaningful life, most of which is still relevant to us. I hope you find it useful. And if you've read it already, leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Best Books I Read in 2016

Every year, I spend ample time on selecting the books to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and other books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

 

1. The Call Of The Wild - Jack London

I read it in a single bus ride from Dharmashala to Delhi. And every time I am looking for a new book to read, my thoughts go back to reading this book again. It's that good. It is not a complicated story but the writing style and the narrative evoked strong emotions in me. Sometimes, I see myself in Buck, the dog who is the main character. At other times, I see myself in his owners. I don't want to reveal more, go ahead and find it out for yourself. Thank me later.

2. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig

This was my fourth attempt to read this book. While in the first two attempts, I barely managed to move past a few pages, in the third one I read till about 100 pages and then stopped. The blame for not being able to finish it earlier rests solely on the immaturity of my ability to grasp the meaning and perhaps a lack of focus. It has got nothing to do with the quality of the book.

Quality - that is what this book is, and is about. I associate myself very closely to it - the writer's questions are the ones I seek, his fears are what haunt me in tense moments at night. I am a big fan of rational thought process, and thoroughly enjoyed the writer's journey to find the ghost of rationality. If you do decide to read this, take your time, don't rush and let every new concept sink in.

 3. The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

It is more like a very long essay than a book.  The art of making tea and the philosophy of life derived from it (Teaism) has left me deeply enamored. On its face value, you might assume that the author has written about the ways of making tea, its history, and its effect on Japanese culture. All that is there along with much more. The metaphors used can be applied to our daily life and provide a simple way to live in harmony with the nature that is around and inside of us. This book taught me a lot more about life in subtle ways than any other book could directly.

4. The Silent Cry - Kenzaburo Oe

If you are looking for a simple story to read, don't pick this book. Oe's stories, much like human behaviors are layered and multi-dimensional. They reveal to us the depth of emotions which we may or may not express to each other but harbor inside ourselves. So, in a way, Oe's books are a mirror to our deepest, darkest feelings. This is the second time that Oe's work has featured in my end of year best-of list. And honestly, I feel that it doesn't matter what the specifics of the book are, if it's an Oe, it'll find its way on such lists.

5. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

There are few books which make me laugh out loud. There are fewer which invoke pathos. And the books which can do both are even rarer. Catch-22 falls in the third kind. Each character brings something different to the story - humor, despair, innocence, vitality, absurdity, lunacy. The sum of all these parts lends a fascinating quality to the whole. As much as this is a great book to read, it is also a brilliant education in how to write a good story.

Currently Reading - When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi. I am half-way through this and I suspect it will find its way into my best of list soon.

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:
Best of 2015
Best of 2014
Best of 2013

Ego Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

Thus far, I have read only a quarter of the book. So, I think this could be a series of posts. We'll see about that when we cross that bridge. 

 

Ego-DepletioN

‘An effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. This phenomenon is known as Ego Depletion.’

This means that if you are involved in cognitively challenging tasks, especially the ones which you don't want to do, you would be more susceptible to give in to your urges later. An example from the book: Suppose I ask you to remember a sequence of 7 digits for a couple of minutes. And you are told that this is the number one priority for you. If at the end of two minutes, you were asked to choose between a virtuous fruit salad or a sinful chocolate cake, chances are you would choose the cake. 

In a demonstration of the concept, a group of people were asked to stifle their emotional reactions after watching an emotionally charged movie. This group then performed poorly in a physically draining task immediately after. The emotional effort of the first half of the experiment, reduced their ability to sustain physical pain and they gave in to their urge to quit more quickly.

 

Why having a job you like matters

An important implication of the concept of ego-depletion is that the kind of job you do, and how you feel about it dictates the rest of your day as well. An effort of will or self-control is tiring. So, if you are forced to work at a place you don't like, chances are that after coming back home, you might eat more junk food, watch more senseless TV and indulge lesser in creative interests.

For example, a friend of mine who hates her job enjoys painting. But, she found that after coming back home, she had little drive to do the one thing she loves - paint. She would scroll her Facebook feed endlessly, or watch movies and not feel good about it. Ego-depletion is in part a loss of motivation. The ego-depleting job reduced her desire to engage in creative pursuits (the hard task) and made her give in to the urges (the easy task).

Instinctively, you know that your job is screwing your life (if you hate the job), but now you know exactly why. If I look back at my behavior when I was working at a regular job, the regular drinking and going out was succumbing to my urges as much as it was a deliberate fun activity.

So, if you don’t do anything productive after work and feel guilty about it, cut yourself some slack. It’s biology. Your ego is depleted and you need a change of work or a glass of fresh juice. No, really. Read on.

 

Mental energy is more than a metaphor

The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body. So, the more strenuous your task is, the more glucose is consumed. Blood glucose level drops and the next task becomes more difficult to execute. 

In a demonstration of this concept, a group of volunteers was shown a short film featuring a woman. They were asked to interpret her body language. While they were at their task, a series of words crossed across the screen to distract them. And they were instructed to ignore the words, and refocus their attention on the woman if they found their attention drawn away. This self-control caused ego-depletion. After the end of the task, half of them were given glucose and the other half were not. Then, a second task followed where they needed to overcome their intuitive response to get the correct answer. The ones whose glucose level had increased performed much better than the others. The restoration of available level of sugar in the brain prevented the deterioration of performance.

A more disturbing demonstration of this phenomenon was in a study done on eight parole judges in Israel. Their job was to review applications for parole the whole day. It was found that the number of applications they approved was higher immediately after their food breaks. And, it dropped close to zero as the time since their last meal increased. The inference made from this data was that tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole.

 

Glucose For The Win

It seems almost too trivial to even point out - drink a refreshing sugary drink after a challenging task. This isn’t news right? We all know it intuitively. But, knowing the science and how it affects the rest of our day helps. So, I have started keeping a reserve of lemonade with ample sugar in the fridge. When I feel tired, a glass of it restores my glucose level. Also, since I am convinced of the positive effect of glucose, a placebo kicks in and refreshes me even more.

Let me know if it works for you.

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing. And if you are not on the mailing list yet, leave your email address on the right. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.

 

Read Next: After-Office Productivity Hacks

 

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read 20+ books this year. For some it is a lot, for others just a few. Personally, I am very happy with having read so many good books. I invest a lot of time and thought in picking them. Thus, most of what I read this year has been brilliant. Making a best-of list is hence difficult. But, I'll give it a shot.

You can also check out the lists from the last couple of years.

1. A Personal Matter (Audiobook) - Kenzaburo Oe

A few years ago, I visited the hill town Mussorie with my family. One evening, while roaming the streets after dinner, I found a thrift store selling books at throwaway prices. Among the many I bought, there was one called 'Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere' by John Nash. It is a memoir of an American who had migrated to Japan, learnt Japanese and translated many Japanese books into English. One of them is by Kenzaburo Oe. And my word, what a book it is!

A personal matter is a dark, poignant piece of art. It requires patience and lingering on the words to admire their beauty. It is a semi-autobiographical work where the protagonist deals with the birth of his mentally disabled child. In real life, Oe has a son who is under developed and forms the basis of many of his works.

I consumed it as an audiobook and found myself rewinding multiple times. Reading it would have been preferable. It is one of those books which make you wish you knew the original language to truly understand the magnificence of this work. If you are still not convinced, did I mention that Oe is also a Nobel laureate?

2. The Martian (Audiobook) - Andy Weir

Another Audiobook. I discovered this via a blog I follow (Wait But Why) much before the movie. And as most books-movies go, it is so much better than the movie version. I actually slept in the movie, literally. Even if you have seen it, I would recommend reading/listening the book. There are so many details, incidents and twists and turns that have been missed or changed in the movie. The performance on my audiobook was outstanding to help the matters.

A fun fact: This book was released iteratively in a serial format with feedback from people on the internet. On completion this was released for free only for its rights to be later bought by a publishing house. 

3. Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer

This was the book on which the movie 'Everest' was based on. It is funny that so many of the books I pick up are later made into movies. Again, this was much before the movie was released. And unlike 'The Martian', Everest and Into Thin Air are quite comparable in their execution. However, like always, reading is much more recommended. 

4. Elon Musk : How The Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future- Ashlee Vance

This is a great insight into the life and mind of Musk who is a modern day hero for me. Musk’s most endearing trait to me is his hyper rationalism. His endeavours are grand - on the scale of humanity and probably beyond.

His efforts in all the companies together surmount anything seen ever before. Granted that he may not have started Tesla or Solar City but without his drive to get things done, they may not have reached the state they did. 

5. Boats on Land (A Collection of Short Stories)- Janice Pariat

I don't remember who recommended it. Perhaps someone in my Facebook feed. It is a collection of stories from the North East region of India. The author, Janice, has done an incredible job at weaving beautiful, dreamy stories. You know the times when you read a book and instantly want to be transported to that time and place, that is what this book did to me. 

6. Jaya - An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharats - Devdutt Patnaik

It doesn't matter if you are religious, atheist or agnostic, you have to agree that Mythology is interesting. The stories are colorful, grand and capture your imagination. Jaya did all this and more. 

7. Shatranj ke Khiladi (Hindi Edition) - Munshi Premchand
A simple short story by Munshi Premchand. I read this in Hindi and it was a delight since we don't really read much in Hindi nowadays.

8. The Art of Asking: How I learned to stop worrying and let people help - Amanda Palmer

I read this non stop on a flight with sleepy eyes but found it unputdownable. It is a brutally honest autobiographical account by Amanda Palmer. 

Other Notable mentions:

Now Reading and probably will find place in the next best-of list:

  • Atlus Shrugged
  • Man's Search for Meaning
  • Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I hope you get around to reading some of these. Would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on them. After all, what does a good book do if not incite deeply polarized discussions. 

If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Further Reading

  1. The Dharma Bums Book Review
  2. Siddhartha Book Review

 

Restart - Lessons from one startup for another

One year of writing and 2 and half years of living before that culminates into this post, as I press the launch button for my first book.

Restart - Lessons from one startup for another, an ebook, is out now. 

Available on Instamojo (Pay What You Want)
Amazon Kindle ($1.99)

I love books. As a kid, I spent most of my time at home either playing video games or reading books. Without a computer, books were my way of learning about the world around me. Early on, most of what I read were quiz books bought for 5 bucks from vendors on train journeys. It graduated to volumes of Children's Knowledge Bank which my Dad bought for me from railway platform book stalls. From my school library, I picked Famous Five, Secret Seven, Hardy Boys, Aesop's Fables and similar other short stories. Gradually, it came to reading Sherlock Holmes and George Orwell. And I have never looked back since. 

People say that once you read a lot, it becomes easier to write. I guess it is fairly true. Although, I would also say that once you start writing, it becomes easier to read. Now, when I read something, I notice patterns, usage of words and style of language which I would have otherwise overlooked. I place myself in the author's seat and think how she would have thought of this word or that. It is a more absorbed and engaging experience.

The first memory I have of writing is as a small kid when I started maintaining a dairy. As I grew up, I made poems as a leisure activity. In school, I wrote essays and participated in debates which I drafted on my own.

After all those years, Restart is my first book. In recent past, I have written haikus, poems, articles of all lengths and even some fiction. And, finishing up a whole book is one of my proudest achievements. 

But, this book is not literature. It is not a story in the regular sense of the word. There are no fancy phrases to describe a setting and no elaborate character descriptions. Instead, there is a simple, boiled down narrative of what happened at Musicfellas and what I learnt out of it. 
If you like my writing style, I'd be happy. But, it's going to change significantly as I write more fiction or even non-fiction and I hope to keep your interest alive. If you don't like it, well, it's going to change anyways. So, stick around.

The book is priced as Pay What You Want. This was a payment mode we had at Musicfellas and we were pleasantly surprised not just by the transactions but by the generosity of people as well. Thus, I am happy to use it here.

stats from Pre-Order of the book to help you decide how much to pay:

Average Price (Including the free downloads): Rs. 95
Average Price (Excluding the free downloads): Rs. 273

I hope you read the book. It is a short, crisp read (according to others). If you enjoy it, please consider sharing it with your friends, enemies, loved ones, ex-girlfriends/boyfriends and anyone else you think might find it useful. 

Please consider reviewing the book on Amazon: (Link to be updated)

This labor of love is the first book in what I hope to be many to come. Thank you for being a part of this. I hope you enjoy it. 

The Art of Showing Your Creativity - Advice by Austin Kleon

If you are a creative, take a few moments to consider the following points:

  • You believe your art should speak for itself
  • 'Marketing' and 'promotion' discomfort you
  • You want your work to be discovered by more people
  • You want your art to get the recognition you think it deserves
  • You don't think you have a thick skin to deal with the trolls which come with sharing your work online
  • You want to add value to people's lives through your work
  • While sharing your art, you fear stepping on the wrong side of the fine line between adding value and spamming

As a writer, I associate myself to a lot of the above points. And so do a lot of other creatives. Painters, musicians, photographers, designers, filmmakers travellers, entrepreneurs and many other creatives are going through the same struggle of staying relevant, having their work seen by more people and at the same time maintaining the honesty and integrity in sharing your work.

Addressing these fears and issues, is a great book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. This is a sort of manifesto of the current times for creatives to share their work the right way. Here are some of my notes from the book with some commentary. Hope you get around to reading the book and find it as useful and relevant as I did.

Note: Excerpts from the book are in italics

 

WHY SHOULD YOU SHARE

Once we start creating, our self-doubt tells us that your work is not good enough or maybe just not relevant to the people. But, more often than not, that's not the case. We grossly underestimate the usefulness of our own work.

To someone, it may be better than you dare to think
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When you share ideas, sometimes conversations start around it. That is your contribution in this world. Give what you have, don't be a hoarder.

Scenius - Not all of us are geniuses. But, we grow with the help of the scene around us. 

Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first.
She can share her sketches and works-in-progress, post pictures of her studio, or blog about her influences, inspiration, and tools - the thing she really cares about. By, doing this, she can really connect with the people who care about the same things as hers.

The biggest takeaway for me was the simple fact that what you find trivial might actually be very useful for someone else. 

"You can't find your voice until you use it"

Sometimes, we wait for a while to find our own voice. But, how would we find it until we've used it in different scenarios? What niche of photography would you like until you start clicking different settings? Not everyone knows for sure as to which format of design they prefer until they try their hands at them. 

Remember:

Work doesn't speak for itsef. Even the renaissance had to be found.

 

WHAT TO SHARE:

''What are you working on?' Stick to that question and you'll be good. Don't show your lunch or latte, show your work.

Before sharing anything, put it through the 'So What' Test. Would people care about what you are showing? 

Turn your flow into stock. Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content your produce that is as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time
— Robin Sloan
Sloan says the magic formula is to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do - sometimes even more than your own work.

Share your process - this is an obvious yet fantastic piece of advice. A lot of people want to know how you do what you do and it can be very helpful for them. If you are signed up to my mailing list, you would see a direct result of this in my emails. I have started sharing things that inspire me, books I read, music I find therapeutic. By doing this, I hope I can connect with people who might enjoy what I write in my posts. Remember, you don't have to ensure that everyone in the world appreciates your art. You need to find only a handful to form a tribe who supports you when you need help and celebrates your victories. 

 

HOW TO SHARE:

Build Sharing into your routine. 
Don't give in to the pressure to self-edit too much. Don't try to be hip or cool. Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too. 

People like to hear good stories. Learn how to speak about your work in a manner which evokes emotion. Read books by good authors and notice how they weave stories. 

The cat sat on a mat is not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.
— John le Carre

On Structure:

A good story can be created in the following structure: Once upon a time, there was _______. Every day, ______--. One day, ______. Because of that, _____. Because of that, ______. Until finally, ____________
There's a way to tell open -ended stories, where we acknowledge that we're snack-dab in the middle of a story, and we don't know how it all ends.
The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading lists. Point to helpful reference materials. Teach what you know. Share your trade secrets.

This is what I aim to achieve with this post.

Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you'll attract people who love that kind of stuff. You want hearts not eyeballs. 
"Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide." If you spend your lfe avoiding vulnerabiliti, you and your work will never truly connect with other people. Learn to take a punch.
Don't quit your show.
You can't plan on anything; you can only go about your work, as Isak Dinesen wrote, "every day, without hope or despair." You can't count on success; you can only leave open the possibility for it, and be ready to jump on and take the ride when it comes for you.

How much of this would you be willing to use? I'd love to hear your opinions, suggestions and questions. Drop in an email or write in the comments below. 

And as Kleon says, Credit is always due, so a hat tip to BrainPickings which has been a major source of inspiration for this post's format.