Surrealist artist Salvador Dali was almost as quotable as Oscar Wilde. I’ve always liked this nugget in particular: “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven, I wanted to be Napoleon. My ambition has been growing steadily ever since.”
Which is about what you’d expect from a guy with a mustache like a wi-fi antenna.
I identify, in my own small, restless way. There’s always more I want to make and do and learn and be. So I like to look for pointers that can help me get to as much as I can over time. I’m always interested in learning how I can build and maintain a better foundation for living. Always curious to see how other people approach things, do things, think about things.
Among other resources, I look for what I hope will be useful books, that will get me to think or reassess or take action or apply something I’ve learned. Even if they dish up just one valuable tip or insight, it’s time well spent.
These five-plus-one were the books that did me the most good this past year.
But First, A Mostly Courteous Rant
The first time I posted such a roundup was at the craft-focused Warrior Poet blog I had for two or three years, then let lapse because it felt as if it was increasingly taking on a separate identity from my own. I’d been persuaded it was better to keep things under one roof.
When I ran “The 5 Most Useful Books I Read In 2011,” it brought an intriguing reaction. A reader got in touch to make sure I knew how much less he thought of me for promoting “self-help books.” Which I found puzzling, because not one of them evoked the feel-good connotations typical of the sometimes derided term self-help. And so fucking what if they had? Value is value. Regardless, none of these would have been stocked or marketed that way. You would’ve found them under Business, Sports, Writing, and maybe Sociology.
I admit to uncharitably thinking a bit less of the respondent, as well, not so much for being a wanker, but for being a wanker in need of a refresher course on spelling and grammar. Gotta love the irony.
In January 2012, I hadn’t yet encountered the term aggressively stupid. I’d witnessed the principle in action, of course, but at the time, the notion seemed less prevalent: that there was a quantifiable cultural wave of people who proudly scorn learning, education, introspection, increasing competence, and acquiring new skills.
“Refuse and resist” can be a noble sentiment, but if you insist on aiming it back at your own head, I can’t regard it as anything other than a slow form of suicide. Like disconnecting yourself from life support and praising atrophy as a virtue.
As Arnold Schwarzenegger writes in the foreword to a just-published book sure to be on this list next year: “The worst thing you can ever do is think that you know enough.”
So I hold these up in their own spirit of refusal and resistance, in hopes that something here might someday leave you better off than it found you. Click the cover images to teleport to the books’ Amazon pages.
The Accidental Creative, by Todd Henry
My most impactful read of the year.
When I looked ahead to 2016 last January, there was a lot I planned for that didn’t happen. The year got a big hole blown in it after I had a temporarily crippling accident, and my energy and focus fell off a cliff.
Despite this, 2016 was still surprisingly productive. For that, I give this book a lot of credit, and am very glad it was one of the first things I read it last January. Think of it as a collection of best practices for keeping ideas flowing, project management, planning, problem solving, study, staying mentally fresh, not going bugnuts, and so on.
For all this, Henry uses the same word I used in my Writers On Writing essay about habits and mindsets: infrastructure. In several ways, this gave me a new, improved infrastructure that has carried through the year and added permanent refinements to the way I plan and proceed.
At its core, it’s addressed to people working in teams and organizations, but there’s still tons of benefit for the lone wolf. Author Steven Pressfield (whose The War of Art was on my previous roundup) gives good blurb, so he’s another beneficiary. Ultimately, it’s modular, and thus easy to pick and choose from what appeals, ignore what doesn’t apply, and see if it makes a difference.
Mental Muscle, by Logan Christopher
Over the years I’ve read several works on such topics as visualization and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) … in a nutshell, ways of telling your body and mind what to do, and to do it to the very best of your capabilities. Mental Muscle is easily the one with the most clarity and variety of techniques and approaches. If one doesn’t resonate with you, chances are something else will.
It’s geared toward physical training and athletic performance, but doesn’t have to be confined to that. Principles are just that, principles, regardless of where they’re applied.
Fortunately I read it in the first few months of the year. That aforementioned accident? In May I shredded my left knee’s patellar tendon, leaving my quadriceps muscle unmoored from my lower leg. “I’ve never seen one tear the way this one did,” the orthopedic surgeon told me in the recovery room. Oh. Great.
Long before I began physical therapy in August, I got aggressive about rehabbing on my own, so I could start PT from as solid a position as possible. It paid off. “You’ve cut three months off your recovery time,” the therapist told me that first session. By my final session in October, I’d come about as far and as fast as was humanly possible outside of a Star Trek sickbay.
I used visualization as part of the process — for healing, for opening up range of motion, for restoring strength and muscle tone to a leg that was left feeling like something that had quivered out of a Jello mold. Did it help? I think so. There’s no way to A/B it, because I’m not going through this again to subtract visualization from the equation and see what happens then.
But I was able to compare my progress with that of people who’d documented their own recovery from the same injury on YouTube. And bear in mind that mine was unusually severe. In most metrics, I was equal to or ahead of most of them most of the time. That’ll do.
The First 20 Minutes, by Gretchen Reynolds
One of the most informative books on exercise I’ve ever read. It’s science-backed all the way, but never comes off dry. Reynolds is a veteran health and fitness writer with a knack for keeping the material more entertaining than you probably would expect.
She provides useful breakdowns of what you could call the minimum effective dosage for what you’re after. If you’re simply going for low-fuss health maintenance, it doesn’t take much. If your goal is making gains in strength and endurance, there are prescriptions for that, too.
Also valuable is how she digs into what’s going on when two studies of the same thing come to seemingly diametrically opposed conclusions.
The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan
A relatively short book on priorities, and I can give you the gist of it in one line. As often as you need to, for any endeavor you’re engaged in, ask yourself this question:
“What’s the ONE thing I can do [this timeframe] such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
There’s much more to it than that, of course, elaborations on theory and practice, but in keeping with the spirit of the book, it really comes down to that. Sometimes it helps to have a simple, effective tool for cutting through the murk and your own bullshit. I have murk and bullshit.
Go Wild, by John J. Ratey, M.D. and Richard Manning
Several weeks before this, I read Dr. Ratey’s previous book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain — also highly recommended, if it’s a topic that interests you. There’s some inevitable overlap, but this one goes much broader, to how we live overall.
For a long time, I’ve maintained that the modern world and its institutions are not our friends. You and I and everyone we know … we’re resources to be exploited of as much as can be squeezed out of us. Our maladies — physical, mental, emotional — are more valuable commodities than our health and well-being. So, admittedly, I was primed for a book like this.
The authors’ premise — and looking around, it’s hard to argue — is that while we may have no choice but to live in modern civilization, so much of how our world has developed is antithetical to what our bodies and minds were, after millions of years of evolution, left to expect in order to thrive and develop in optimal ways. Hence, what Ratey and Manning term “diseases of civilization” … widespread physical maladies that were rare or nonexistent a couple hundred years ago, nutritional deficits, epidemic levels of depression and feelings of rootlessness and disconnection.
Refuse and resist applies here too, and Go Wild is a banquet of food for thought.
Bonus Round: Million Dollar Outlines (2013 Edition), by David Farland
One for fellow writers and storytellers only.
There are two kinds of writers, a sour old saying goes — those who write good books, and those who write good outlines. I suspect this was a shot of feel-good juice cooked up by some writer who sucked at outlining, and goobers like me made it a battle cry, all shiny and chrome.
Early in the year, through a set of freakish circumstances I don’t care to relive, I had seven weeks to write a novel of some tricky complexity. I had no choice but to outline the thing if I expected to keep on track and hit my daily targets. Million Dollar Outlines not only turned out to be a solid preparatory crash course, but also offered insights into the age-old art of storytelling that I’d never considered before.