2021 has been quite the year.
Aside from the obvious pandemic stuff, I went through some big personal changes. A move from Singapore to London, new city, new apartment, new job. Phew!
Yet, I’d say the most significant changes of all have been internal. A newfound passion for reading and learning. Signing up for several online workshops and courses. Starting to write on Medium, sharing thoughts and ideas publicly. A level of motivation and self-discipline I did not really have before.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading over the past year (take a peek at my list here), but there are three books in particular that I can credit for these changes.
The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
Don’t be put off by the title. This is not a cheesy self-help book about “just think positive thoughts”.
It’s not even about happiness in the usual sense of the word. Instead, the core message is about how to cultivate a positive outlook and a growth mindset.
More than anything, this book has opened my mind to the possibility of change — not just on a behavioural level but on a neurological level. Neuroplasticity is the idea that we can rewire and change our brain through our actions and thoughts — once thought impossible, and now a well known and scientifically proven fact.
We can train our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient and productive — to see more possibility wherever we look. As Shawn says in his book: it’s not a question of if, but how much change is possible.
A Harvard professor and researcher, Shawn outlines seven specific and actionable principles for retraining your brain to capitalize on positive thinking. Take a look at my post here, focusing on the four principles that resonated with me most strongly.
For me, reading this book led to an unexpected interest in neuroscience, Buddhism, positive psychology and psychotherapy. These are concepts that I had not thought twice about before, and I now enjoy reading and learning about.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Whenever people ask me about a non-fiction recommendation, this one is the first on the list.
If you haven’t read it yet — I promise it’s worth the hype.
For me, the book addresses so many things that people, including myself, struggle with when it comes to building new habits: defining realistic goals, managing expectations, overcoming obstacles.
I used to be someone that expected quick results whenever I’d try something new. I would easily fall into an all-or-nothing cycle, thinking that if I can’t do something perfectly, I shouldn’t bother doing it at all. I’d set my goals and expectations so high that it would be unsustainable with my life and schedule, leading to disappointment — and a self-image that I can’t stick with things.
Atomic Habits has completely transformed how I approach goals and habits.
My two most significant mindset shifts are around:
- The power of compounding. Of course, I had heard of compound interest in finance, but I had never considered how the effect applies to every single area of our life. With any new skills or habits, the key is to start small. Make it easy to stick with, be patient and be consistent. The effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day, yet the impact they deliver over the months and years will be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.
- The power of environment design. The idea is that sticking with good habits is more reliant on your surroundings than on your willpower. It’s important to create an environment that makes it easy to perform certain good habits. For example, going to the gym. Before I go to bed, I make sure my gym clothes and gym bag are ready. I’ve booked a class, and I know what I’m going to do, so no decisions need to be made in the morning. Or using my standing desk. When I wrap up my workday sitting, I make sure I raise my desk so that I’m not tempted to immediately sit down the following morning. It’s small things, and it requires a bit of thought and pre-planning, but I have noticed it helps me enormously.
James managed to achieve a nice balance between psychology, science, relatable examples and practical action items, delivering the kind of book that motivates you to start changing things straight away. You can read my key takeaways of the book and how I’ve applied them in my own life here.
Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
Ahh, this one holds a special place in my heart.
For the longest time, I thought about blogging but I always talked myself out of it. “It’s too late.” “What will you write about?” “People you know might read it and think it’s stupid”, bla bla bla.
Austin dispelled every single excuse and fear I had in my mind — one by one. Show Your Work is a must-read if you are thinking about starting any kind of creative endeavour.
Of course, the insecurities still pop up constantly, but I now know where to go whenever I need some perspective and motivation.
A few zingers that really hit home and pushed me into action:
On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.” Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.
I was so scared of being bad that it was easier not to start. Reading this made me realize that there is no way around being bad, and the longer you wait, the more valuable time you lose. The only way to get good is to be bad, repeatedly.
When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it. Don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take in the things you enjoy. Celebrate them. When you share your taste and your influences, have the guts to own all of it. Don’t give in to the pressure to self-edit too much.
A big part that was holding me back was my fear of what other people would think. Even as I’m writing now, there’s a tiny voice in my head thinking about what X or X would think when they read this. Will they think it’s silly, arrogant, self-indulgent? I am constantly reminding myself that people don’t care as much as I think, and even if they do, what difference does it make? I am trying something. I am putting myself out there. I should be proud of that and have the guts to own it. Don’t self-edit. Don’t self-reject.
The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading list. Point to helpful reference materials. Create some tutorials and post them online. Use pictures, words, and video. Take people step-by-step through part of your process. As blogger Kathy Sierra says, “Make people better at something they want to be better at.”
Another breakthrough moment. You don’t need to be an expert to share stuff online. Write about what you’re learning and reading. Write about the problems you are solving for yourself. If you have thought about a problem or a question, chances are someone else has too.
I’d like to end with the words of the wise Richard Feynman:
You are under no obligation to remain the same person you were a year ago, a month ago, or even a day ago. You are here to create yourself, continuously.
These three books have helped me with that this year, and I have no doubt they can do the same for you in 2022. :)