Book Recommendations – Volume X

The Summer reading session is well upon us and there is no better time to dive into another edition of my book recommendations. Whether you are at the beach, at the pool, or lounging on a rooftop deck, you can take some leisure time to read a great fictional or non-fictional offering to indulge your mind or open your imagination. The three books I cover are all non-fiction, which is the category that my favorite books often fall under. I do hope to dive into some fiction books sometime soon, but I’ll save that for other post.

The three books I recommend vary from personal finance to progressive politics to self-help psychology, but they all are educational and thought-provoking in their own way. These books aren’t mindless reads, so you’ll have to pay attention and even re-read certain chapters twice or more to really get the gist of what the author is getting at. However, each of these three books have staying power and they would make an excellent addition to anybody’s personal book collection since the different lessons that these books impart are timeliness in nature. Without further ado, let’s discuss which books I enjoyed in this latest volume of recommendations.

1.) “Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope” by Mark Manson

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Following up on the tremendous attention and success gained from his previous New York Times best-selling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which dealt with unconventional yet powerful self-help advice, Mark Manson is back with an excellent follow-up book in tackling how to apply similar lessons to humanity as a whole. Whether its today’s turbulent geopolitics, the growing climate crisis, or the negative effects of social media, everything can seem to be f*cked nowadays and hopelessness as a condition of these events seems to be gaining steam.

Manson uses the teachings of Nietzsche, Kant, and other prominent philosophers to denote why humanity is facing these systemic problems and how they came to be based on our collective psychology as a species. He argues that having hope in of itself is a paradox and that it’s best to deal with life’s uncertainties and foibles as they come. Wishing for a better, happier, wealthier, and safer future is unproductive if you do not take actions in the present to create that more hopeful reality. Manson breaks down complex topics such as politics, religion, and even the future of artificial intelligence into digestible concepts on how humanity has gotten to be where it is currently.

One of the aspects I like most about Mark’s writings is that he doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and he allows you to draw your own conclusions based on the evidence he presents and the stories he tells. My favorite parts of Everything is F*cked focus on why treating people as means to an end is a selfish endeavor and how our feeling brain has a lot more influence on our thinking brain than we have been told. Also, in accepting what is ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’, as Mark cites in one of the first chapters is part of recognizing our innate humanity and what drives us collectively. This truth, while uncomfortable to all, is the main reason why we strive to do what we do in life, for better or for worse, and how we tend to live our lives denying that truth when it is staring us right in the face.

Instead of looking to politics or religion to give us hope, which tends to have its own set of consequences, it should rather be our own individual actions of being kinder, gentler, and more respectful of others that carry the day. We should not wait around for other people to change for you or be better to you. This book, like Mark’s first, is well worth a second and third reading to grasp all the lessons he lays out for the reader. Posing deep existential questions and acknowledging hard truths rarely covered elsewhere in the self-help genre, Manson stands out as one of my generation’s best authors and a good example of how to live a better life, not just for ourselves but for others as well.

2.) “Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World” by Rutger Bregman

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I really liked this book by Mr. Bregman for several reasons. Whereas most books today examine problems and investigate how they came to be, Bregman describes the possible solutions there can be to these problems and how life in the 21st century should be different from the past. Given the rise of automation, how interconnected we have become globally, and increasing efficiencies in the workplace, Bregman dares to ask how we can make life better for vast majority of people in our societies based on these factors.

Rutger Bregman does an extensive amount of research for this book and draws upon years and decades of datasets and public policy to make his three main ideas not only relevant but persuasive to his overall argument. Bregman’s ideas are not new and have been discussed before but in ‘Utopia for Realists’, he really examines each of his proposals individually from a public policy perspective and how the time is ripe to make them become a reality. Today, it seems like we have lost to the drive to implement big changes to both our economy and our society. Bregman asks his readers to think of the plausibility of the 15-hour work week, a Universal Basic Income for all, and an ‘open borders’ policy that would benefits people’s lives in numerous ways as he lays out diligently in each chapter of the book.

While some may not agree with these proposals politically, Bregman backs up his arguments with facts and evidence, as a good social scientist would. One of the things I did not know before reading his book was how close President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress came to passing a universal basic income in legislative form back in the early 1970’s. Giving people the chance to have basic economic security, the ability to live across borders without bureaucratic roadblocks, and having more free time for family life or to better themselves through personal hobbies, interests, or side businesses are related to his three main proposals. These societal changes, he says, would lead to greater fulfillment and happiness and benefit our collective mental health.

While his ideas may be unrealistic today, the way in which the job market is shifting and has become more efficient in terms of productivity over the past few decades, how automation and advanced Robotics may affect millions of jobs being lost, and how the demographic crunch in the Western world may lead to more liberal immigration policies to spur economic growth, the main proposals that Bregman focuses on could become a reality sooner rather than later. It’s not a question of if these utopian ideas could ever happen, it’s more about when they will happen and how they can be implemented successfully around the world.

3.) “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” (2nd Edition) by Ramit Sethi

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I will be the first to say that I have shied away from reading books on personal finance given that the advice given and the person giving it may not be reliable or trustworthy. However, based on the recommendations of other authors I like and how sensible his recommendations are from watching his videos, Ramit Sethi has delivered and recently updated one of the best personal finance books out there. For someone who is just getting started in thinking about optimal strategies for long-term savings and investments, Mr. Sethi breaks it all down from negotiating lower interest rates on your credit cards to how to find the best investment vehicles to deliver you a secure retirement.

If you are new to personal finance, this book is really meant for you. You don’t have to be an expert in 401ks, Roth IRAs, or index funds to make full use of this book. Ramit is not only an author but also provides an additional website, which offers a free blog, multiple courses to improve your finances, and career opportunities. His common-sense finance solutions garner millions of views per month and very positive media coverage. Ramit’s book does not make his readership feel guilty if they have made financial mistakes in the past. Instead, he offers tips and advice as well as personal stories from people he’s helped to get them out of trouble whether its credit card debt, student loan debt, etc. He wants his readers to figure out what exactly a ‘rich’ life is for them and what steps they can take to make it happen.

You are left reading this book feeling uplifted and ready to use his advice to improve your financial situation. You are also left wondering why Ramit’s book isn’t mandatory reading for high school students, given that we tend to neglect this kind of basic financial education for young people in the United States. Whether you are 18 or 28, it’s never too early to start thinking about your long-term finances. With Ramit’s well-written, digestible, and even humorous personal finance book, you are in good hands. He gives you actionable advice on how to greatly improve your finance in weeks instead of years and discusses in detail how many hours it will take you in setting up your savings, investments, and credit card debt payment options with as little of a hassle as possible. While Ramit can give you all the advice in the world, he leaves it up to you, the reader, to take actions yourself to improve your financial situation. Now that you have the knowledge based off his book, you’ll be ready to create a financially secure future for yourself and perhaps your family too.

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‘The Grey’ – Film Review and Analysis

The actor Liam Neeson has become one of the main action figures in Hollywood, starring in such popular films as ‘Taken’, ‘Batman Begins’, and ‘Gangs of New York.’ However, while these roles were a bit one-dimensional or short lived in terms of his supporting role, you get to see the full scope of his talents in a powerful and dramatic role in the 2012 film, ‘The Grey.’ In this fictional drama, we get to see a man pushed to his mental and physical limits and how he is able to come to grips with such weighty topics such as his own mortality and his religious beliefs.

Not only is ‘The Grey’ a great film when it comes to its views on mortality, religion, and the depths of human nature when pushed to its limits. The cinematography, direction, pacing and setting in the film help make it stand out. There’s something in this film for everybody who is a fan of serious cinema especially when it comes to character backstory, action scenes, and touching moments of vulnerability and camaraderie. ‘The Grey’ doesn’t sugarcoat anything as well and does not shy away from addressing real life struggles such as depression, a search for meaning, and the futility of having bad luck run roughshod over one’s life.

Man can only control so much in his life and that includes what happens to those who he loves, how he adapts and survives when it exposed to the worst elements of nature and of the animal kingdom. Sometimes, the only choice that you have is to fight, persevere, and struggle to the last breath even when things look bleak. Neeson and the other men in the film have to grapple with a lot of bad events that make it a hopeless situation to get out of. There is no choice though and all of them have to do their best to make it out alive especially to the ones they love.

John Ottway, the main character in the film played by Liam Neeson, is a guy you want with you in the oil fields of Alaska. We know little about his backstory in the film, but it is revealed that he struggles with depression, meaning, and his faith in a higher power. He dreams of a woman who is his wife and the audience are not sure if he is still with her or if they divorced or each other or if something fatal has befallen her.

We assume that he is in Alaska working as a marksman protecting oil workers from the wolves and that he is doing this job for lack of better options and to preserve some remaining meaning in his life. Part of the brilliance of this film is that it doesn’t reveal everything too quickly about why Ottway is in Alaska or what happened to his wife. ‘The Grey’ does not ignore the great sense of suspense that can be built up over the course of the film to make a true compelling drama that captures and holds your attention until the end.

Ottway and the other men are facing grey wolves who see them as a threat and it’s not possible for the men to communicate to these wolves that they are friends and not foes. The animal kingdom suffers no man especially when he is in their territory. They can’t communicate with each other so it’s a battle for survival between man and wolf. While the grey wolves in real life are harmless and do not hunt humans, ‘The Grey’ takes some creative liberties with this fact in order to have a compelling film. Despite the criticism from animal rights groups, if you enter the area of a wolf’s pack den, you are likely asking for trouble regardless if you didn’t mean to do so, man or animal alike.

After a freak plane crash, Ottway and the other oilmen must fend for survival in harsh conditions while they are stalked by wolves including its alpha leader who see the men as threats to be reckoned with. Ottway has killed wolves before to protect the oilmen when they’re working in the fields and he knows what they are like. Against ever increasing odds of survival, he proves to be a great example of how to lead men in times of crisis and peril. His leadership, throughout the film, proves pivotal in giving the men a shot to get out of the Alaskan wilderness and back to their families. Even though it seems at the beginning of the film that Ottway has lost his will to live due to the situation with his wife, the freak plane crash and his survival from it propels him to try and save the men and outwit the wolves if possible.

Still though, ‘The Grey’ is a serious and realistic film about how far faith will carry you out of a real crisis. There is an underlying atheistic outlook of the movie that may rub some people the wrong way, but I found it to be needed. In life, when you face a tragedy, a crisis, or a perilous event, faith can only do so much, and you have to claw and fight your way out of it. I think ‘The Grey’ does a great job of showing how important it is to confront your fears, show true leadership, and fight as hard as possible against the odds to make it out alive of a bad and deteriorating situation.

Ottway’s character and his fight against the Alaskan wilderness and the wild wolves is a great metaphor of how each of us is fighting against our own personal demons and against events that are beyond our control in life. We each have a struggle to face and we have to do it on our own. If we have a wife or a crew by our side, that’s a great thing to have but that’s not always the case as it is in ‘The Grey.’ When you’re put into a bad situation and all hope is lost, you have to truly fight for survival and live like it’s your last day because it might just be it.

There’s an excellent quote from ‘The Grey’ that has a lot of resonance for how true it is regarding life’s fragility and how you have to live like it’s your last day and to do the best you can to survive against the odds. “Once more into the fray…into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day…live and die on this day.” This quote that Liam Neeson’s character recites throughout the film is not only a metaphor for his fight against the wolves and nature but his fight against depression and to make it through the day when all hope seems lost.

‘The Grey’ is a true survival film and it is excellently directed with a great starring performance by Liam Neeson. I believe it is an extremely underrated film and does a good job of bringing up various themes surrounding hope, faith, loss, and about life’s injustices. If you can check it out, I highly recommend giving ‘The Grey’ a view. It will be well worth your time.

On Leadership

There are a number of keys and steps that it takes to become a good leader. There are also many interpretations of what a good leader can be, but I believe there is also a specific formula of characteristics, habits, and traits that separate the good leaders from the bad ones. It is extremely useful nowadays to go over the themes and the values that often make up the blueprint of a good leader whether you are referring to a business executive or to a prime minister. I particularly rely upon using books and other reference materials for further analysis, which help to highlight the importance of leadership when operating under difficult circumstances.

Especially when it comes to working within an adaptive leadership framework, you have to be able to address different challenges and crises that arise which may cause you to adapt your leadership style to fit the times. In order to meet these challenges, a leader has to be open to new ideas, be able to self-reflect, and stay true to the overall vision or goals at hand even when obstacles are thrown in the way.

Each modern and historical leadership figure that you can think of was an adaptive leader since they were not following a specific script or manual and had to sometimes improvise or change their beliefs or views when the time came for it. Still though, these leaders had a steadfast vision, were good communicators, and had the trust of their constituents and colleagues to carry out the work they were doing even under high pressure situations.

The most useful example for me of displaying adaptive leadership in action was the movie “Invictus”. That movie portrays an excellent example set by the former President of South Africa and human rights icon Nelson Mandela as an adaptive leader. He did not let his past experiences of being jailed unjustly in Robben Island cloud his ability to forgive and bring his country together to fight for a better future. He was open to compromise, dialogue, and reconciliation to heal a very divided country.

I think that even if we do not consider ourselves to be natural leader, it would do us a lot of good to put ourselves in other leaders’ shoes to decide how we would act if we had been the leader in those situations. I believe it would be very beneficial for anyone to do role playing scenarios, either historical or modern-day ones, where someone is forced to put our leadership abilities to the test and see how they would do when evaluated by counterparts or colleagues.

Being a principled leader takes time but can be rather straightforward when you really think about it. Anyone can have principles that they stand for but that does not necessarily make a good leader. There are other qualities that make a good leader which involves having a deep sense of who they are including their strengths, weaknesses, and how they can tell their story. Even if a leader has principles, they may not be morally sound or ethically fashionable, which is what someone can conclude when you consider the actions of controversial leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

When you contrast these principled yet morally compromised modern leaders with positives historical examples of real leadership from the likes of President John F. Kennedy or Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, you can get a better sense of how a leader can be principled in their decision-making but still a bad leader in terms of reputation. The Kennedy brothers still had principles, but they were based in sound morals and humane values as well as an ability to reach out for advice and counsel before making an important decision. They were decisive but not arrogant. Both men would be considered well-versed in exercising what is known as emotional intelligence. Under immense pressure, they were able to not let their ego or personal feelings get in the way of making a fateful executive decision that prevented World War III.

I have learned through my own life experience and by reading about other people that a leader must be able to put him or herself in difficult situations where their ability to exercise leadership will be tested. Being able to open yourself up to risk, setbacks, and failure can help to mold a true leader as overcoming adversity has helped many people in the past to rise up to take charge when their community, their country or the world needed them.

You do not need a stirring personal narrative to be a good leader, but it does help you build a strong connection with others. Sharing your story and connecting that story to the larger society is a very powerful tool that can make you stand out as a leader. I believe that a leader should always aim to be authentic when they connect with other people and to see themselves as not the center of attention but a small part of a larger story. To be transformational and a servant of the people, you have to put your ego aside. Those leaders who are the most developed as individuals are those who know themselves well.

A leader must not only be successful in leading himself or herself but also in successfully leading a team to achieve goals and in working together collaboratively. In order to lead a team, every member must be open and honest with each other. Accountability is a key aspect of being a team leader both to themselves and the rest of the group in order to be a more cohesive force.

While the leader has to hold the team members accountable for how they work and what they do, the leader must expect that the team members can also hold their leader fully accountable in response. Each member of the team must live up to the duties expected of them because if just one of the team members isn’t pulling their weight, then everyone on the team will suffer as a result. A true leader will not let the weight of the powers and responsibilities given to them let it go to their head. True leaders must be humble as well as selfless in how they set the example for the rest of the team or organization that they are in charge of.

In a group setting, each member of the team including the leader must be willing to have difficult conversations and point out both the positives and negatives that are ongoing within the team. Sometimes, I believe it is best to pull a team member aside to have a private conversation if the matter is really serious but if it is a consistent yet small error that is hampering progress, then that should be brought up in the team meeting. However, it’s best for the leader or any members to gossip or talk negatively about someone in a passive-aggressive manner.

I, myself, am wary of a hierarchical structure when it comes to leading teams. It creates an unhealthy dynamic where the team leader may not be accountable to anyone in the group but himself or herself. They may be able to critique their team members flaws without any fear, but the team members would not be able to do the same to the leader. The hierarchical system of leadership should be considered imperfect in its nature and I think it’s best to consider a more collaborative approach to the concept of leadership where the team or group take turns becoming the leader at different intervals in order to better understand what it’s like to lead the group rather than just stay on the sidelines and carry out orders from above.

As a leader, you should be willing to bring together qualified people of different skill sets and capabilities together in the hopes of achieving a common goal that you have set for your team. There is an inherent importance of being open with your teammates as well as a willingness to accept your own boundaries within the team or organization. In order to be an effective leader, one must realize their own limits within their given expertise and skillset. A good leader will not try to do everything or infringe upon the necessary work of other team members. Building a true sense of collaboration and cohesiveness instead of competition and infringement is key in order to achieve the goals and objectives you set as a leader.

Being vulnerable with your team members is a key part of being an effective leader. However, there’s a balance that you have to have as a leader. You should be open to having difficult yet necessary discussions with all team members, a few of them, or just one-on-one if the discussion is extremely sensitive. I believe it’s best to be open and honest with your team members rather than closed off and withdrawn. You should act with transparency when it comes to your decision-making process and the actions that the team as a whole should implement. It’s also necessary to not sweep things under the rug and let a small issue become a big one. A leader should also admit his or her own shortcomings, which will let others in the team be more comfortable around you in expressing their flaws as well.

When constructive criticism is warranted both for the leader and team members, it should be discussed. Before criticizing, I think it’s important to follow the rule of saying one or two nice things about the work the team is doing before discussing what should be improved upon. Any kind of critical feedback should be preempted by a positive remark that would soften the blow of a negative comment that could be taken the wrong way. A true leader will let himself hear open feedback from the team he or she is leading and implement those changes to improve the results of the team. Also, it’s the most important job of a leader to delegate responsibilities and tasks well enough so they are not responsible for too much or find themselves to be too prideful to bring on new team members.

Lastly, I think another distinct priority of a leader should be to always actively look for the most qualified people and bring them onboard. Having the diversity of background and of opinion can build a strong team but you must also have a variety of opinions available to you so as to avoid groupthink within the ranks. A leader should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses at all times and be humble enough to fill in the gaps with wise counsel, strategy through the addition of others who compliment his or her area of expertise. Any leader can only go so far in life and in work by themselves, but it is the team, the organization, the army, or the people that the leader builds who can help that leader build their legacy in the history books for their good governance and fair decision-making.

Stanford University

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Location: Palo Alto, California

Silicon Valley

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Camera: iPhone 8

LocationBay Area, California (Silicon Valley)

The European Parliament

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

LocationBrussels, Belgium

The Why of Standards

How do we define standards? What exactly do they mean to our society and the world as a whole? See, the thing about standards is that if they are not observed by everyone to some degree than what would be the point of having them in the first place. Having standards when it comes to behavior, dress, professionalism, ethics, etc. helps society to function and for people to live productive and healthy lives. Without having standards or not being beholden to anyone else will create a society of winner-take-all or every man or every woman for themselves, which is not only counterproductive but also self-destructive in the long run.

As defined by Dictionary.com, A ‘standard’ is defined as “something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; or an approved model.” It’s a general definition but you can see that creating a standard requires the consent of the society at large. Standards can be difficult or easy to enforce depending on how popular they are but the total absence of standards in different areas of life should be fought against as much as possible. Everybody has different standards but the key to keep in mind is whether a lack of standards or a complete abandonment of standards is making the local community or overall society worse off as a result.

We don’t think about it but basic standards helps create laws, rules, and regulations that keep society running well. When there are no standards in anything whether its’ with business, politics, dress, the environment, etc. then every individual man, woman, and child will suffer in some regard as a result. Another thing to keep in mind is that a lack of standards or standards that are burdensome and counterproductive also cause harm to us as well.

Standards change over time but there are certain ideals and beliefs that I think should stand the test of time. By this I mean that basic manners and politeness should always be observed, presenting yourself well in your outer dress and appearance depending on the setting is crucial, and that you add with basic integrity, decency, and honesty when doing business or leading as a member of your community. Standards over time for these particular areas should not change and should even become stronger so that the next generations do not forget how to act, behave, and be good.

Standards can be relaxed in a number of areas or they can be hardened in other areas depending upon the mood and whims of the larger society but those areas I listed above should be consistent and not be trifled with. When basic manners, integrity, and matters of presenting become optional rather than mandatory, it’s likely that the entire society will feel the ill effects of such an absence of standards rather quickly. Fundamentally, systemic societal issues such as corruption, violence, and poverty, which while they have a wide range of causes are still related to an absence of moral and behavioral standards.

In a free society, standards can most definitely change and be adapted to fit to the times but it has to be with the approval of the majority of those people in that society. Leaving standards to the whims of a few leaders can be cumbersome and even negligent especially if they themselves due not match the standards for which they should follow based on their leadership roles. Standards are best when they are created, managed, and enforced in a democratic fashion and where the majority of people in that society are able to follow those standards.

While we are all individuals, we are all still apart of a collective society and we have to sometimes sacrifice our personal standards when we come up against those standards of the larger society even when we may fundamentally disagree with them. No standard is perfect but if the society has collectively agreed upon those standards, then all of the people must abide by them to the best of their ability. If the standards are to be changed, that should be done over time with the consent of the majority. Even if we don’t like the standards, if no one agrees to them, then they are not standards anymore and society could suffer as a result.

If you don’t like the absence of certain standards or believe that they are too burdensome on you or people that you know, then you need to make the effort and put in the work to change these standards. If you don’t like with how someone is behaving, then you need to make an informed argument as to how that person should behave in a more polite and decent manner. If you see some form of corruption and certain political leaders are letting it slide, then you need to take some responsibility in holding yourself first to a higher standard and then calling out that corruption to get others behind you so that the corruption may end in the future.

Individuals have power in a society with standards but they will fundamentally have less power in a society where there are weak standards or none at all. That is also the case where one sole individual can set standards for everyone else without so much as a protest from others, which is also dangerous and detrimental to society as a whole.

While standards such as for behavior, dress, professionalism, ethics, etc. may not always be popular to uphold, these standards form the backbone of the collective society. With the absence of any sort of standards comes at the behest of laws, rules, regulations, and principles as well. Standards form the base for a civilized society and in their absence; there is no way that a society of individuals can function at all.

When you read this article, think about your own standards and how they came to be in your thinking. Also, think about how important they are to you. Lastly, think about the current standards of your society and how long it took for them to be formed and implemented as well as how important they also are regardless if you agree with their being in existence or not. Standards are not meant to be popular all the time but they are meant to ensure codes of conduct in various manners of life.

The sheer absence of standards leads to an anarchy of sorts that would render polite society meaningless and turn individuals against each other in a collective free-for-all. Understanding the why of standards will make you more likely to improve and better your own existing ones.