Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Stolen Focus book cover

I am fascinated by technology and how it changes us and our societies. One of the biggest concerns these days is how fragmented out attention has become due to smartphones and social media. These days it seems like no one can pay attention long enough for the person talking to them to finish their sentence. Sometimes I am talking to someone and they pull out their phone while I am still talking. Even worse, sometimes I am the one pulling out my phone while someone else is talking to me! What in the world in going on here?

This book presents research and discusses the reasons why we have such a hard time focusing, and not all of them are technological. There are two ways to address these challenges–individually and society. The first says that it is your fault. You need to get better control over your attention and what is distracting you. The author largely does not focus in this direction though encouraging the reader to do what she can. He encourages personal change to address the issues but feels they are not enough. He focuses instead on how our world has changed that makes it hard for us to pay attention. He compares it to trying to lose weight when everything around you is shouting at you to eat bad food and sit on the couch. Sure you can do something about it, but it is harder that it needs to be or should be.

My favorite aspect of this book is that the author has included all the interview audio on his website for the book. He is also very clear about where the research he shares is relatively settled or still highly in dispute. He makes a strong case for his perspective and solutions, but he doesn’t pretend that there aren’t others with differing opinions. Refreshing. A good place to start is the interview with Nir Eyal from chapter eight. Eyal favors focusing on what we can do for ourselves because collective action takes a long time. Both Eyal and Hari see the need for individual and collective change, but they differ on which we should start with.

My rating: 5/5

Women Are Not Flawed Versions of Men

Come As You Are book cover

I heard Emily Nagoski, author of Come As Your Are, interviewed on a podcast recently. She was very articulate and down-to-earth. I liked that what she said was grounded in science, so I decided to read her book. This book is for women and focuses on women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure. That said, not only should every young woman read it but so should every young man. It dispels all kinds of wrongheaded ideas of how sex works for women.

There are a few ideas that the author literally goes over again and again in the hopes that they will stick. One of these is that all genitals have the same parts organized in different ways. Because of this, unless you are experiencing pain, your genitals, while unique, are normal and beautiful just the way they are.

Another concept she shares is that of nonconcordance. Just because your body is reacting sexually does not mean that you are turned on. Also, you may be turned on while your body is not reacting sexually. Again, this is normal.

The last idea I want to share is that women have a sexual accelerator and a sexual brake. These are separate and have separate sensitivities. All combinations are normal. The trick is to understand your own and how to work with them.

The book is filled with a lot of other useful information as well as worksheets to help you. While this book is about sex, its focus is that you are normal and helping you learn to be comfortable in your own skin and with your own pleasure.

A Remedy for “Safetyism”

The Coddling of the American Mind book cover

Like many, I have become more and more frustrated with the lack of civility in political discourse. I remember when we could disagree with someone’s politics without considering them a monster. We all largely saw the same problems. We just disagreed with how we should go about solving them collectively. That no longer seems to be the case. When I went looking for an explanation and (hopefully) a remedy for this, I came across the book The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I was thoroughly impressed with the authors’ thinking, research, and conclusions.

They came to write this book after wondering what had changed in American universities around 2013 that resulted in so many calls for “safe spaces” and violent protests against speakers that students disagreed with. The core of the book is what the authors call the three great untruths:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People

After describing these untruths and their causes, the authors then go on to show some of the results of this erroneous thinking. These include intimidation and violence as well as witch hunts.

In the meat of the book, the authors outline their analysis for how we got here and then follow it up with how we address and correct for the state our youth and universities are in. I found myself nodding along with their descriptions of the problem and hopeful that their solutions can lead to an improved community in the nation, not just at colleges and universities. This is an important book for our time that all citizens should take the time to read.

Emotional Education

Atlas of the Heart book cover

We spend a lot of time as a culture debating what and how we should teach our children. This includes math, science, history, sex education (sometimes). But a tremendous oversight in our pedagogy is emotions. Perhaps because everyone has them, we simply think that everyone knows what they are and what they are for. Studies show that most people only identify regularly with three – happy, sad, and angry. But there are many, many more. In fact, in her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown identifies eighty-eight emotions and emotional experiences. The premise of the book is that if we want to have a more nuanced understanding of ourselves and others beyond the three basic emotions, then we need to have a better understanding of the language and nuance of emotions.

The majority of the book is definitions and research of emotions.These are grouped in chapters like “Places we go when we’re hurting” and “Places we go when life is good.” While this may sound dull on the surface, Brown’s language is vernacular rather than academic and she shows her usual vulnerability in sharing her own experiences. The is largely what the title says it is – a map of human emotions.

In the final chapter, she it all together when she shares her research backed method for cultivating meaningful connection. She summarizes why this is important to us as a social species when she writes, “Our connection with others can only be as deep as our connection with ourselves.” And since we lack any formal education for dealing with our emotions and connecting with one another, this book is a fantastic place to start in educating oneself. I know that I will be referring to this book and learning from it for years.

Success Through Failure

Book cover for Adapt by Tim Harford

Throughout my life I have been told that mistakes are okay and to learn from them. However much of my experience has taught me very differently. In school, mistakes were bad and led to low grades and poor performance. At work, mistakes can lead to reprimands, demotions, or the loss of a job. So contrary to much of what I was taught, mistakes felt like something that should be avoided at all costs and certainly should not be accepted as a normal part of life. In his book Adapt, Tim Harford turns this on its head, showing not only how to learn from mistakes but arguing that, as it says in the subtitle, success always starts with failure.

The key takeaway is what Hardford calls the Palchinsky Principles after a Soviet scientist who was sent to Siberia and later executed by Stalin for daring to point out adaptations that would not work. These principles are variation, survivability, and selection. Adaptation starts with trying lots of things that might work, but which are unlikely to cause a catastrophic failure. After seeing what fails (most attempts) and what works, select the change that best meets the need.

A key to this process is to make sure that you know when you have failed. That may seem obvious, but we humans have a way of talking ourselves out of our mistakes. We deny they were mistakes at all by telling ourselves a story that somehow turns them into successes. Sometimes when we fail to admit our mistakes we continue on a failed course, wasting time that could be spent pursuing a more successful solution. And sometimes we just convince ourselves that it really wasn’t that bad even when we know better.

Throughout the book, the author uses examples to illustrate learning organizations (the US Army in Iraq), creating ideas that matter (solving the problem of locating a ship at sea), finding what works for the poor (building wells in Africa), and many others. By using such case studies, Harford explores in a practical way how to successfully change and adapt. In a world where it sometimes seems that innovation and change are happening for their own sake with no consideration of unintended consequences, this is a book with a method that could help create change that better solves the problems we collectively face.

Optimizing Regret

Cover of the book The Power of Regret

Bestselling author Daniel Pink’s latest book is The Power of Regret. It is based on scientific research that he commissioned as well as numerous previous studies. What is unique about this book is how the information is presented. It is both highly accessible and incredibly informative and practical.

The main argument is that regret is actually a positive emotion. It focuses us on how we can do better. Of course, focusing too much can incapacitate, and the book shows how to tap into this power of regret while avoiding its downsides.

Most studies group regrets by life categories–work, family, friends, romance, etc. But Pink sees similarities in regrets across these categories discovering four core regrets that he classifies as foundation regrets, boldness regrets, moral regrets, and connection regrets. He details each of these regret types and shares examples from regret surveys.

In the final part of the book, Pink shows how to “optimize” regret in a way that makes life better. In some cases this simply means taking the lessons from our regrets and moving on. In others, it involves undoing regrets.

I have had many regrets in my life. I spent the latter half of my forties working through a lot of them–learning from them and frankly growing up a bit. I feel like I learned so much of what is in this book the hard way. I sure would have appreciated learning sooner with the help of this book.