Book Recommendations – Volume IX

What better way to enjoy the Winter season than by enjoying a few good books by the fireplace or in a coffeeshop. Whether its’ fiction or non-fiction, being able to sit down and read for an hour each day is one of the best activities one can do during those cold, winter months. The three books I have recommended cover very different themes and topics but each of them is worthwhile reads especially if you are into non-fiction. From Candice Millard’s vivid storytelling of President Theodore Roosevelt’s perilous journey to the Amazon, James Clear’s atomic habits to build a better life, and author Chris Hedges’ look into the dark underbelly of American society, each book is one that I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend to anyone depending upon what kind of non-fiction they are looking to dive into.

1.) The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

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In our current era where past Presidents settle into retirement by creating foundations, writing memoirs, and going on paid speaking tour circuits, it can be difficult to recall that there was a time when the American president would not stay still but rather seek out new adventures. President Theodore Roosevelt was just such a former President when he embarked on a perilous and physically strenuous journey down the Rio Duvida (River of Doubt) in the heart of the Amazon. In the aftermath of his election defeat in 1912, the former President did not stand idly by and settle into a quiet retirement from politics. Instead, he did what he did best and ended up taking upon himself an adventure that no other modern President would think of doing nowadays.

Still in the early days of the 20th century, it was still the age of exploration as explorers from the Western world would go to the lesser known parts of the world to make their mark on mapping areas and landmarks that had not been discovered yet. From Antarctica to the Himalayas to the Amazon, men like President Roosevelt were drawn to both the adventure and the notoriety but also to discover the flora, fauna, and newly discovered animal species, which had never encountered humanity before. This expedition’s success relied upon the men whom Roosevelt and his Brazilian counterpart, Colonel Candido Rondon, would bring on to make sure it was successful in its mission of mapping the extent of the mysterious Rio Duvida. Because of the courage, hard work, and perseverance that men including the former President’s son, Kermit, displayed, they were able to get through a series of trials and tribulations that would have broken lesser men.

Over the six-month period of 1913-1914 when the 19 Brazilian and American men descended the River of Doubt, they were faced with multiple challenges including diseases like malaria, perilous weather conditions, intense rapids, and murder among their ranks. President Roosevelt dealt with near misses to his life including a close encounter with a venomous snake as well as a ghastly injury suffered when trying to retrieve a loose canoe that caused a serious gash injury to his leg. The President flirted with thoughts of suicide after his injury and infection leading his son and counterparts to decide whether they should honor his wishes or to carry him the rest of the way’s journey. Because of their pledge to not leave any man behind including the President of the United States, Kermit and others pushed through the physical obstacles ahead of them to arrive at the successful end to their journey through perseverance and the belief in their mission to map the entire river.

Brilliantly told and remarkably intense in its description as a fast-paced tale of adventure, Millard’s ‘River of Doubt’ is an excellent book that details a harrowing journey of the 26th President, his son, the Brazilian colonel Rondon, and his courageous men. It is hard to believe that there was a time when an American president would go on a journey like this one well into his 50’s but that was the kind of man Theodore Roosevelt was. Because of his courage and his perseverance, the Rio Duvida was renamed Rio Roosevelt in his honor. This story reminds us of what it takes to push past our mental and physical limits and why we remember these tales to understand what true bravery looks like and how Presidents should act in the face of a great challenge.

2.) Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

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‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear is an excellent book on how to re-think our habits and our reliance on them based on our awareness of how they come to be, how they are implemented, and how to change or remove them based on their overall utility. As Mr. Clear explains, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” We can only develop ourselves based on the habits we have on a daily basis. In order to change them effectively, small changes that lead to incremental improvements are what we should be aiming for. It’s not advantageous to change our systems of living overnight but rather to slightly shift our habits each day and start to see progress over a longer period of time.

One example is going to the gym for the first time. You may not stay for very long but if you are there for five to ten minutes and get through the initial hurdle of showing up, you can feel better about the progress you have made. Over time, you should start to feel more comfortable and attuned to going to the gym as well as staying longer once you get used to the new routine. I found James’s four-step process to breaking a bad habit or creating a good habit to be very persuasive in its argument. The ‘cue, craving, response, reward’ system is laid out in greater detail in his book but I believe that it’s an effective tool for developing better habits and eliminating bad ones.

Also, keeping track of both your bad habits and good habits will help you measure if you are making progress with either by understanding what habits you have on a daily or weekly basis. In order to better change our habits, we firstly have to be aware of them and classify them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their utility to our lives. For example, if you don’t floss your teeth, perhaps you have to make it attractive by highlighting the benefits associated with the action, putting the floss in a visible place on your bathroom counter so it’s visible, and then make it easy by not using mouth wash without flossing first to develop the system.

Mr. Clear’s book is easy to read, the system he advocates for is immensely appealing, and the four-step process is clear in its methodology. You cannot change your habits without doing it yourself but ‘Atomic Habits’ successfully gives its readers a vision of how you can do so while not making it overly complicated. The system is easy to follow and he incorporates outside materials like the ‘habit tracker’ to make it easy to start changing them while reading his book.

3.) America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges

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Beyond the stock market, the unemployment rate, and even the gross domestic product, notable author and journalist Chris Hedges writes eloquently and profoundly about the state of America in 2019. He does this through excellent on-the-ground reporting from Anderson, Indiana to Atlantic City, New Jersey in an effort to understand how while Americans at the top of wealth and power are doing well, the rest of us are struggling to get by in this new gilded age of income inequality. Hedges pulls no punches regarding the societal ills that have been wrought due to political dysfunction and record income inequality in America by describing in great detail the effects of the opioid crisis, the recent rise of hate groups, increased reliance on gambling, pornography, and sadism to escape reality.

Our ability to combat these negative societal trends is nullified when communities are weak and the bonds that religion, union membership, and rotary groups provided have been cast to the side. In an age of increased atomization and loneliness, Hedges argues that the average person will not be able to build a better future for themselves or their families if they have no ways of accessing economic opportunities or through having deeper social connections.

This book is a true warning sign that time is running out and that we must start paying attention to the swirling negative political and economic trends going on because it is likely that the next generation in America will be worse off if serious changes are not made. By failing to combat income inequality, climate change, gun violence, the opioid crisis, and failing infrastructure, faith in both the economic and political system will continue to decline. When power is concentrated in the hands of the few, that prosperity is not going to spread around or ‘trickle down.’

While it may be a dark and disturbing book to some, Mr. Hedges is a student of history and is eloquent in describing what are the warning signs or symptoms when a society is on the verge of decline or overall collapse. From the Roman Empire to the Soviet Union, the warning signs were there in the forms of inept political leadership and an unholy concentration of wealth. Mr. Hedges warns that we are on the same path to potential ruin and that the societal hollowing out relating to increased suicides, the fall in overall life expectancy, and the epidemic of gun violence are the sad consequences of how we are failing the average American citizen in 2019.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the sheer effort that went into meeting with people across the country to get a sense of how difficult things are and what challenges they are facing. Mr. Hedges should be commended with focusing on the real issues that confront us as Americans and being a truth-teller when it is not always popular to do so. My hope after reading this dire book is that we are able to make the necessary changes and confront these systemic challenges before it’s too late.

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English Corner – The Keys to Public Speaking

It can be difficult to speak in front of another person when you are not so sure of your English abilities. You’re probably comfortable when you talk to your family or your friends but you struggle to practice your English skills in front of random strangers. You’re fine on the phone with your best friend and may have no problem talking to them one-on-one. You might even be comfortable speaking in front of a class to practice a dialogue that your teacher prepared for you.

However, what about when it comes to speaking in English in front of a large group? Public speaking makes most people uncomfortable or nervous even when they are talking in their native language. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make it easier especially when it is your first time talking in front of strangers or an audience where you do not know anyone. The next time you have to do a presentation or make a speech, try these techniques and see if they help you. The more you practice your English in front of people who don’t know you, the more you’ll be able to gain self-confidence and get better at speaking even if you happen to make a few mistakes.

Choose a Topic You Know Well: Think about your background and experiences. Who are you? and what do you know a lot about? When you speak to a group for the first time, you have to be yourself. Don’t try to talk about something you know little about. Also, remember to not try to be someone you’re not. If you love sports, for example, do a presentation on your favorite baseball team and why you like them so much. You could also discuss what sport is your favorite to play and how it is played.

In order to grab the audience’s attention, remember to include personal stories from your own life and use a conversational tone as you would with a friend or a family member. Your audience wants to hear about your knowledge and expertise but they also want to get to know the real you along with how you were able to become the person you are today.

Practice and Practice Again: After you plan your formal presentation, it’s time to practice your English. If you do not want to practice it in front of friends or family, at least try to practice in front of a mirror or in front of your pet if you have one. You should use a clock or an alarm so that you know how long your presentation will take. Then, do your whole presentation out loud without stopping, even if you catch yourself making a few grammatical errors.

It is absolutely necessary that you follow through with your presentation even if you are not perfect at it during your practice runs. Also, please be sure to practice with the equipment you plan to use such as a laptop or projector. You may also need to practice with a microphone so you can know if you need to be louder or if you need to tone down your voice a bit for the future presentation. Practice more than once and when you have put that fear behind you, remember to practice in front of a friend or family member if possible. They might be able to give you some helpful advice about your tone, grammar, subject matter, etc. They will be your best critic because they know how your English is in spoken form.

Use Eye Contact and Gestures: Words are only one way that we communicate during a spoken presentation. You can also connect with your audience through your body language. First, always make eye contact with someone in the audience. Remember to look directly at different people in the audience so that they feel that you are talking to them personally. Second, use natural movement with your body and use gestures to get your points across. You do not have to wave your hands and arms around ecstatically but it is good to move them around to emphasize a certain part of your speech that you feel is uniquely important. Walking around the stage or platform a little can make you look less nervous and also gives you an air of confidence. On top of all that, being able to use your hands while you talk can also be helpful for your presentation.

Never Say “You’re Sorry”: Finally, don’t ever apologize for being nervous during a presentation, especially when English is not your native language. The audience probably doesn’t know or realize how nervous you are, and they are more interested in hearing about your topic for which you are an expert in. Also, if you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s alright to admit that you don’t know it and to move on to the next one. You don’t have to say you’re sorry. However, it’s great if you can explain to that audience member that the question is not something you know about. When you can do this in a polite manner, you will be able to move on to the next question without offending the audience you’re talking to.

Do Your Best: Nobody’s perfect at public speaking even if their native language is English. You may make a few mistakes but the audience will respect and admire you for giving it your best and presenting to them about a worthwhile topic. As the old saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither will the perfection of your public speaking skills. The main things to take out of your public speaking experience are to develop your grammar, diction, vocabulary, and overall cadence. Putting yourself out there is hard to do but you will be a better English speaker for it and after having gone through these experiences, you will have more confidence and better communication skills. Whether you are pitching your new business, explaining your scientific discovery, or examining the witness at a trial, good public speaking is absolutely key to your professional development.

Bruges (Nighttime)

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Bruges, Belgium

Crave Discomfort

The mountain looks intimidating. You’re chilled to the bone as you make the final ascent. You didn’t think you were prepared for this moment but you wanted to push yourself to the physical limit. You made this hike not because it was easy but because it was hard. In order to understand your mentality and physicality better, you had to put yourself to the test.

There’s no other way to know what you are capable of than to test yourself and to do it often. It does not matter if you are cold, you are tired, you are hungry, you are sweaty, or you are sleepy, there are times in life when you must simply crave discomfort because you know deep down that you will be more fulfilled from pushing yourself than from having played it safe.

Imagine being on the side of that same mountain and you are rock climbing to get your way to the top. Each move that you make must be analyzed quickly so you don’t make a mistake. It’s likely that you will have a harness or some kind of restraint to catch you if you fall but that’s not always the case. You’re under a large amount of emotional stress and personal discomfort but you feel invigorated when you successfully climb or hike your way to the top. You’ll never regret those times when you put yourself out of your comfort zone especially when you are able to push yourself past those previously held limits that you thought you had.

There is no such thing as a challenge-free life. Putting yourself out there is going to be uncomfortable and you are going to be vulnerable. However, you may find that you will be the most fulfilled emotionally and physically when you challenge yourself. Discomfort as a concept may seem unappealing but it is in those moments or those times of discomfort where we advance the most.

Having the means of comfort may give short-term happiness but it is definitely unlikely to lead to long-term fulfillment. The only way to achieve satisfaction or fulfillment is to acclimate yourself to dealing with discomfort and being able to overcome it again and again. Being able to handle uncertainty will set you apart from other people and give you a level of maturity that will make you a stronger and more resilient person.

Discomfort does not only show up in the form of physical challenges but also in the realm of mental obstacles. Keeping your mind active by putting it to the test will improve you in numerous ways. Whether it’s reading a 400-page book, writing a research paper, or studying a foreign language, these mental challenges will definitely cause some discomfort and that’s a good thing. These personal projects will be very uncomfortable at first, but you will notice results when you stick with them, little bit by bit, and you’ll realize that the discomfort was worth it because of how far you have advanced with your mental development.

Living a life of ease and pleasure is not going to lead you to be the best person that you can become. Only by overcoming obstacles and meeting challenges will you be able to develop yourself fully. It’s good to kick back every now and then to relax and enjoy life yet that kind of pleasure is temporary. True personal growth lies in craving discomfort in whatever form it may yield the highest rewards for you. Whether it’s running a marathon or climbing a mountain to reach new physical capabilities or to writing a thesis paper for your doctorate or solving a complex physics equation, both our body and our mind need these challenges.

If you are ever feeling lethargic or lost, you should evaluate whether or not you are challenging yourself enough. Giving yourself personal goals to work towards will make you uncomfortable but you will also be able to greater fulfillment and longer lasting happiness. Being able to put yourself out there, use your physical and/or mental abilities, and logically think through and solve problems will get you out of your self-imposed funk.

Having a deeper purpose in life that is fulfilling and meaningful is necessary for everyone to pursue. Everybody will struggle at first to find out what exactly they were meant to do. Instead of doing nothing about it, I think it is best to try out different things that are uncomfortable to find out which challenges make you feel the most engaged and willing to overcome. Doing a bunch of different things to keep yourself active is better than to do nothing at all. Time is limited so it’s best to challenge yourself in a variety of ways first before you settle on the one or two major challenges in life that you want to succeed at.

Craving that discomfort is a necessary part of this part of self-development. Failure is possible and you may not ultimately succeed. However, if you fail, you will learn from having tried your hand at it and you will be the better person for it. Once you try at something, even without ultimate success, you know that you have the ability to take on challenges and eventually you’ll meet them without unease and with greater confidence. It is far better to have failed one hundred times and to have succeeded on your 101st try, then to have failed only once and then give up entirely without trying again.

Many people today shy away from being uncomfortable at all, even for a minute, but this is much to their detriment. Being in discomfort and going through painful times is part of being human. Without experiencing that pain and that discomfort, you won’t be able to become a stronger person. The person who has been through several trials by fire is the person you want around in times of discomfort and distress. You don’t want to be around a person who only indulges in pleasures and shies away from any pain.

Having physical toughness and mental fortitude to meet challenges head on are traits that you should want to make part of yourself for the rest of your life. Putting your fear and your doubts aside to climb that mountain, write that book, learn that language, or solve that Math problem will give you an advantage over others who deny themselves discomfort. You have to want to engage in the discomforts in life because in today’s day and age, it is easier than ever to avoid discomfort. Those who pursue discomfort will be rewarded long after the challenge(s) you set for yourself have been overcome.