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Posts from the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

The Happiness Ironman with Gretchen Rubin

Frankly, it’s not really like me to read a book like the Happiness Project. 
I’m usually very suspicious of books like these–they seem too self-indulgent and kind of preachy. I find I get frustrated with the voice and the perspective can’t be generalized to my own life. 

And I admit, I was clueless about the Happiness Project. Two weeks ago, I didn’t know about the Happiness-Project blog or the fact that the book by the same title was climbing its way to #1 the top of the NYT bestseller list. 

A friend called me to go see Gretchen Rubin at a book signing in Berkeley and I immediately agreed. It sounded intriguing. Through a random chain of events, I owned Gretchen’s first book from many years ago and knew of her inspired career choice as a writer.  The room was absolutely packed. More notable than the amount of people there was the amount of energy. People seemed keyed up. 

The premise of the book is simple, but the application of it is not. Rubin is crossing Manhattan in a bus and considers what she wants from her life. The answer is to be happy. It’s not a midlife crisis, she is not depressed or even unappreciative. And she certainly isn’t a whiner. A malaise has crept in and as she wonders is this it?

 In that moment, a spark catches fire. 

Gretchen decides to undertake happiness as well, duh, a project. Just like she would around the house or at work. And that calls her into action. 

The chapters that follow–with a new theme each month like Money or Mindfulness–she runs a series of ‘experiments’ of what may make every day life happier.
Some work, some don’t. 

Here are things I loved about Gretchen’s book:

1. It opened up possibilities.  
I think the world is filled with people who tell us what we shouldn’t or can’t do. One of those people is ourself. We are plagued by responsibilities, by shouldas and musts. For many of us, our die feels cast. Gretchen’s book creates a world of possibilities. As you read about the many activities she undertakes (no matter how crazy…who writes a novel in a month?) you find yourself feeling creative, explorative, imaginative. It changes your lens and makes you feel hopeful. Who can argue with that?

2. It reminds us that we are in charge. 
Self-admittedly, I have a fear that I will wake up later in life and feel like life happened. Passivity makes me crazy. Gretchen’s book reminds us that we are accountable. We are in charge. She points out we often believe in an “arrival fallacy”–when I get that promotion, I will be happy; when I buy that big house, I will be happy. That means we intrinsically are telling ourselves that happiness will be done to us and that we can’t control the outcome fully. Silly.

Gretchen puts us back into the driver seat without a lecture. She leads by example. A recent colleague of mine said: Power is not given away, power is taken. Take the power to be happy. 

3. Big change happens with small steps.
I love that Elizabeth Gilbert took a year and traveled the world in Eat, Pray, Love. Yep, that sounds awesome. But I don’t think I just get to step out of my life for a year. Rubin gives us permission to create a new reality without completely blowing off the one that surrounds us every day. She challenges us on how we will bring happiness into our lives rather than overthrow our old life for a new one. It seems a helluva lot more realistic. 

4. Working on your own happiness takes courage. 
I think it’s very easy to be cynical about the Happiness Project. Take Penelope Trunk. She writes that we overemphasize happiness instead of leading an interesting life. And further, that people with more choices are generally not as happy. Because if you live in Wisconsin, for example, there aren’t as many choices and therefore it’s easier to be happy. 

I like Penelope’s stuff–it’s witty and amusing.
But this? Lame.

Between the lines she seemed to be saying it isn’t really her fault she isn’t happy because of her big, fat, choiceful life.

Gretchen Rubin has taken a risk and not made an obvious choice. You try walking into a cocktail party and telling people you are launching a Happiness Project and not feel like a moron.

It takes courage to put very public energy into your own happiness. Because what if you fail?

Now a warning from the surgeon general.
I need to point out that this book is like the Ironman of happiness. 
Gretchen literally tries 60-100 ‘experiments’ in happiness. 

Fortunately, she did this so I don’t have to.

I would like to run an Ironman, but I know I won’t.
And I couldn’t take on half of the many initiatives she did.

But that’s not the point.

As I leave New York after an amazing weekend with my sister, (a weekend spurred on by the HP, when I decided I don’t see her enough for someone I love to be with), I think to myself:

That was sooooo easy. 


Donating to Haiti: A Plug For Doctors Without Borders

Of course Haiti is on the minds of all.
It is hard to know where and how to donate to the relief cause when there are so many options available to us. With MLK and the overall sense of service it is meant to foster–this is a great opportunity to do some meaningful.

I was so happy to learn this week that our school had chosen Doctors Without Borders as a selected organization to rally the school community efforts around. (This is a group often compared with Partners in Health created by Paul Farmer and his amazing story of the ground breaking work he has done in Haiti is chronicled in Mountains Beyond Mountains. You’ve heard me mention this book before in my Tracy Kidder post.)

Doctors Without Borders is dedicated to both emergency response and elevating the medical condition of the countries where it works. It began its history of service in Haiti and they have treated over 2,000 Haitians in the last week through makeshift medical facilities.

If you are motivated to learn more about Doctors Without Borders, you can learn more about donating here.

In any case, I thought this helpful advice from our head of school might be useful for families:

Talking About Tragedy:  Teachers are talking with their classes in age-appropriate ways about the situation in Haiti.  As you speak as a family about the earthquake and its aftermath, you may wish to:

    • Ask them what they already know about the earthquake in Haiti, and give them plenty of time and space to talk.
    • Practice active listening by asking relevant follow-up questions.
    • Protect them from too many and too severe images of the quake.  Images are incredibly powerful for all ages, so use your best judgment.
    • Assure them that we are all working hard to help out however we can.
    • Ask them if there is something they would like to do to help: write a card, say a prayer, share a moment of silence together, research an organization to support.

Please post here if you have other organizations you are considering in its relief efforts.

Daniel Pink: Wikipedia kicked Encarta’s butt

Two book truths:
1. I don’t usually recommend books I haven’t read. (Trust no one)
2. I don’t spend a lot of time reading business books. (40++ hours is enough)

Coming clean now.
And violating both of these.coverforblog

Daniel Pink, former speechwriter for Al Gore,  is about to put out Drive: The Suprising Truth of What Motivates Us. Peripherally, I have heard amazing things about Pink and his desire for more right-brain thinking in business.

Here’s what did it.
Check out his speech at Ted.
In 18 minutes, he hits a complete homerun.

Okay, okay–maybe it is where I am in my own job quest.
Or that I have some missing connection with how business is designed to motivate me. But I think for those searching for or trying to create a better motivation dynamic at your job–he’ll certainly grab your attention.

Pink describes in a very light, entertaining way why corporate incentives fail to personally inspire us to do better work.

Autonomy + Mastery + Purpose is what we are searching for, not a big fat year-end bonus. In fact, he’ll argue that those big fat year end bonuses are causing a decline in performance. Intriguing.

Putting this one on the Nightstand.

Tracy Kidder: Non-fiction Rock Star

Oh, the terrible disappointment when you pick up a second book from an author who astounded you with the first one. It so rarely measures up.

But then there is Tracy Kidder–slowly working himself to rock star status.
(A long way behind Philip Roth, of course, but impressive.)
Boy, do I have a non-fiction two-fer for you.

Tracy Kidder blew me away, with Mountains Beyond Mountains. mountains-beyond-mountains-754158
It was my Mom’s recommendation–and she simply described it was about an amazing Harvard Doctor treating infectious diseases in Haiti.

Sounded dry.
It was anything but.

Tracy Kidder interviewed, followed, and travelled with the inspiring and unsatisfied Paul Farmer as he single handedly tried to tackle the inequality of health in Haiti. How does Farmer do it? “He works nonstop, hardly sleeps, sees his wife and child for a day or so every few months, inspires an uncommon degree of devotion and enthusiasm among collaborators and potential donors, and tolerates planes and airports for days on end.”

Now Kidder brings us The Strength in What Remains, sharing the life of Deogratis, a young man from Burundi in Africa. (Think9781400066216 neighbor to Rwanda, think genocide, think Tutsi). There is a small link with Mountains, as Kidder met Deo while following Farmer–and Farmer gave Deo a job at his Partners in Health organization. But the connection is acknowledged and fleeting. 

The story takes us quickly through the 6-8 months that Deo is trying desperately to escape Burundi and the ethnic madness that ensues there. He is a third year medical student in his home country, intelligent and likable, but when we meet him in New York City, he has $200, a $12/day job, he sleeps in Central Park and doesn’t speak the language. Kidder asks: “How would one survive?”

Survive he does–from luck, perseverance and the charity of others. Attends Columbia University and Dartmouth Medical School. Journeys back to Burundi to establish a medical presence much in the spirit of Paul Farmer. And while he is there, Kidder helps us to relive the terror Deo endured in his country. He is just one story in the historic recounting Kidder gives us of what transpired in Rwanda and Burundi. 

As Kurt said in this post about What is the What (a story which is first, excellent and second, shares a tremendous amount with the books described here): “life is not fair, so those of us who have it easy should take on the hard problems.” The Strength in What Remains reminds us of how good we have it, how gratitude is something we should show more of every day and how resilient and remarkable is the human spirit to survive. It’s humbling. 

Read this book.
The NYT gushes about this book.
I do too.

The Lost City of Z: Stranger Than Fiction

It’s been a while since I have had a chance to down some good non-fiction.

Inspired by the Amazon Best Books (So Far) of 2009, I dug into The Lost City of Z.Lost-City-of-Z-David-Grann-unabridged-compact-discs-Random-House-Audiobooks
My hip parents had picked it up on their own, a belated birthday present for Peter. I waited patiently for him to finish it. He praised it faintly, but I was undeterred.

I have been at the margins of the Amazon River myths, buying  The River of Doubt and Fordlandia, for my Dad over the years. The River bows to no one. While we all know that intellectually, the history and detail of the region in the Z book was inspiring. Where air travel, adventurism and Google Earth have left no stone unturned in this great big world, it seems that life–both tribal and animal–sit mysteriously and secretively under the canopy.

How refreshing.

The author, David Grann, is a staff writer at the New Yorker and a self-proclaimed obsessive about his subject matter.  And what perfect a selected storyteller, as he relates the history of Percy Fawcett, a British Explorer who embarks on a quest in 1925 to find the “Lost City of Z”. This ancient civilization known as El Dorado was a myth for hundreds of years and Fawcett sets out to prove himself in the Royal Geographic Society and make “the most important archeological discovery of his time.” 

The obsession unfolds. Not just in joining Percy, but in the hundreds who followed, trying to find the original party that mysteriously disappeared. Finally, we follow David Grann, as he leaves his family safely in NYC and chases the Percy trail yet again. 

It’s a great adventure tale. The history and legacy of the Amazon is amazing. If there is anything that was unsatisfying, well, I’m a bit cranky about unsolved mysteries. You’ll need to find that zen like place which says it’s all about the journey, not the destination…