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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Daily Discipline

“Discipline is the hardest yet most important personal trait for an adult to develop.”

Discipline is the hardest yet most important personal trait for an adult to develop. In previous articles such as A Wealth of Knowledge and A Lifetime of Learning, I covered the importance of learning new things and making them apart of your skills and abilities. I want to continue on a similar note for this article on the topic of ‘daily discipline.’ We often think of having discipline in terms of avoiding that delicious piece of chocolate cake or making sure you don’t procrastinate when you’re studying for a test. However, discipline is so much more than that as a concept. The best definitions for discipline in my opinion focus on controlling one’s behavior and honing it towards a certain goal you have in mind.

Another definition that discipline is often associated with focuses on training yourself mentally or physically in order to do an activity or go through an experience. Discipline can be one of these definitions or both depending upon the context of its’ usage. It’s not difficult to obtain basic discipline when it comes to controlling your food habits or in participating in an activity that can happen on a weekly or monthly basis. However, the real test of discipline is making something a daily habit or being able to do something positive for yourself on a daily basis that takes some effort.

The first kind of daily discipline is committing to do something every day that will benefit you either mentally or physically. The key to improving or reaching your goal is to do it every day. If you want to see rapid gains in your abilities, you have to commit to it each day for as long as you can. For every person, this is a little bit different depending upon what goal you’re trying to reach and what activity you want to focus on.

The activity could be lifting weights to get stronger by committing yourself to do it every day or at least every other day. Even if you’re not lifting weights, you could be doing push ups, sit-ups or squats. More generally, you want to be doing some kind of exercise every day for an hour and you should see results if you’re disciplined about it. The ‘daily’ part of the discipline factors in because you won’t see much improvement if you’re only exercising once a week. The same goes for playing sports or doing martial arts. You won’t improve much in soccer if you only play or practice once per week. You won’t become a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu if you only train once a week.

When it comes to mental discipline on a daily basis, there are a variety of ways in order to accomplish this. Being able to sit down and read from a book each day for thirty minutes or an hour straight without stopping is a good example. Concentrating on learning a new language every day consistently whether it’s focusing on grammar, vocabulary, speaking, and/or writing it is key in order to make progress. If you want to develop a new academic skill like getting proficient at coding or statistics, you need to be able to sit down and work on those skills consistently for at least an hour a day. When it comes to these mental tasks, one day per week is simply not going to cut it. Similar to physical activities, in order to become proficient at mental activities, you really need more than just monthly or weekly discipline; you need daily discipline. Daily discipline takes a serious amount of effort and hard work which means that it’s not for everyone. However, if you’re able to prepare yourself both mentally and physically, you’ll be able to make progress and reach your goals.

The second kind of daily discipline is not just doing the activity but doing it well. What I mean by that is that you have to be concentrating solely on that activity. You should not be checking your social media, texting your friends, or watching Netflix at the same time. This kind of discipline takes narrow and complete focus. It’s simply a fact from my own experience among other people I’ve read about is that you have to be working on the one mental and/or physical activity at a time in order to achieve the most gains. This is the hardest part when it comes to having discipline because there are so many distractions in today’s world so that it can be difficult to focus only on one task at a time.

However, I’m telling you that it is completely possible and you need to have a strong sense of self-control in order to be able to do it. Daily discipline is not for everybody and it’s going to take sacrifices. If you really want to achieve something great, you really have to dedicate a lot of time and effort to it. Unless you are a natural-born genius who excels in all areas of life, you won’t be able to achieve your goals unless you’re dedicated to it 100%. If you want to do something badly enough, then you need to put the time and effort necessary into it in order to become great at it.

To use myself as a personal example, I’ve written over one hundred thousand words on my blog at this point. I would say that I’m a good writer but I have a long way to go. I’m humble about my abilities because I’ve read some truly excellent writers who have a lot more dedication to the craft than I do at the moment. I’m hoping to change that in the future but to be a great writer; it takes serious discipline, focus, and a canny ability to make observations about the world in a succinct way. I still have a goal to become a great and renowned writer but it’s going to take a lot more time and effort on my part. I have to be committed to it and to keep practicing which is what this website is for.

As I mentioned in the previous article, The Passage of Time, time is precious and it is fleeting. You have to choose what you devote your time to. That being said, if you have a serious goal that you want to accomplish or a physical / mental activity that you want to excel at, you need daily discipline. An hour a day every day of the week will put you on the right track more so than just an hour per week total. If you would rather binge watch Netflix or play games on your smart phone, then that’s the choice you make, but if you want to really excel at more things in your life, you’re going to need serious discipline and it’s going to have to be daily discipline. Good luck.