Special Edition: Best Books of the Year
An integral part of our writing and coaching process is exploring and connecting ideas from seemingly disparate domains. This requires reading broadly. Collectively, we've read over 100 non-fiction books this year. We're regularly asked about our favorites, the books that have most influenced our thinking. The following lists, ordered alphabetically, represent just that. Not all of these books were first released in 2018, but this is the year during which we first read them. Books that we both loved appear in green.
All of these books relate to performance and wellbeing—some narrowly, others broadly. We encourage you to dive into these books yourself, and to consider giving those you love one of the best holiday gifts there is: the chance to explore, learn, discuss, and reflect upon new ideas.
Brad's Favorite Books
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, by Anne Lamott.
This book explores the uncomfortable truth that most truths contain paradox. How can we feel both despair and happiness, sometimes on the same day, or even in the same hour? How can it be true that global events make it seem like the world is ending (and it might be) and yet we still deeply enjoy our morning workout and afternoon coffee? Lamott's advice: don't always try to figure out these conflicting narratives, or choose one over the other. Practice creating space—both within yourself and within your communities—to hold everything at once.
Can You Go, by Dan John. I read this book toward the beginning of the year when I was transitioning from endurance running (the last 10 years of my athletic life) to weightlifting and power training. My natural inclination in moments like this is to get caught up in complexity and overthinking. Dan John makes everything so simple. Can you balance on one leg with your eyes closed? Can you press your bodyweight? Can you carry the suitcase up and down the stairs without your back hurting? It's as simple as defining what you're training for, and then asking yourself: Can you go?
Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, by David Whyte. "Anything that you care about will break your heart," writes David Whyte. This includes your work. Because regardless of what self-help books say, there is no such thing as work-life balance. So long as you are breathing and showing up to your job, then in that moment, work is life. For some this seems second nature, for others, it may be utterly against provoking. Either way, Whyte, whose writing is gorgeous, explores the sacredness of the ordinary: work.
Endure, by Alex Hutchinson. We are so proud of our close friend, Alex. He hit this book out of the park. It is the best sports book since The Sports Gene. Hutchinson explores the limits of human performance and the interplay between the mind and body. Both Steve and I walked away from this book more convinced than ever that it's not mind or body, and not even a mind-body connection. It's a mind-body system. Alex uses science and story to illustrate how this is the case and what we, even us athletic mortals, can do about it.
Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat Zinn. Kabat Zinn is known for bringing mindfulness meditation to the west and pioneering the scientific study of the practice. This book is his masterpiece. It's a non-dogmatic look at mindfulness meditation and its benefits. Containing more than enough information and research to be a textbook, what makes this special is that most sections of the book read like poetry. (As an interesting aside, Jon's son, Will, has become a teacher to me, and is wise in his own right. He hosts a weekly group every Sunday night in Berkeley, CA).
Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, by Mark Epstein. True freedom is getting over yourself. It's the goal of most spiritual traditions and, even for those who aren't spiritual, letting go on the grips of self-involvement just feels good. But letting go of yourself isn't something you can simply decide to do. It's a practice; and at times, a terrifying one. Who are we if not our egos? How can we blast ourselves without totally falling apart? In this compact, elegant book, Epstein, a long-time psychiatrist and practitioner of Buddhist meditation, offers insightful guidance.
How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan. A mind-blowing book on how psychedelics can support cognitive, emotional, and spiritual growth. Though neither myself nor Steve have tried psychedelics this book immediately drew us in. Pollan weaves his world-class reporting; personal experience from his own trips; and the somewhat surprising history of psychedelic research and medicine into a compelling and scientific case for the broader use of psychedelic compounds. If you find yourself having a judgmental reaction to this summary (in either direction; good or bad) that's all the more reason to engage in what amounts to a nuanced conversation on the topic with Pollan.
The Art of Living, by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is a summation of over 50 years of teachings from Thich Nhat Hanh, including pragmatic daily practices. If you were to ask me who my favorite spiritual teacher is, I'd say Thich Nhat Hanh. Best life coach? Thich Nhat Hanh. Original performance expert? Thich Nhat Hanh again. He knows things not only in his head but also in his bones—and he communicates them with awesome ease. Don't believe me? The man has been a seminal teacher to everyone from Martin Luther King Junior to Thomas Merton to modern-day icons like Krista Tippett. Regardless of your belief system, there is so much to learn from this wise zen master.
The Craving Mind, by Judson Brewer. So many of our behaviors happen on autopilot. How many times per day do you check your email or phone? Perhaps you are addicted to thinking, getting lost in your head when with family or friends only to regret not being more present later on. Do you often find yourself eating loads of food after 9PM, not sure how you even got started? Maybe you struggle with a more traditional compulsion, be it substance abuse, exercise addiction, or responding to uncertainty with gripping anxiety. Whatever your case, this book can help. Brewer, an addiction researcher and psychiatrist, shares a compelling program that is both simple and hard. The way through cravings, he writes, is to pay closer attention to them; to get to know them and their effect on you so well that you can't help but make a more conscious choice about whether or not to engage in them.
The Recovering, by Leslie Jamison. Jamison looks deeply into alcoholism (and addiction more broadly) through her own experience. I've never suffered from alcoholism but what I learned from reading this book is that nearly all of us have escape mechanisms for feelings of irrelevance, insecurity, and fear. And it's only by surrendering to these vulnerabilities—creating space to hold them within ourselves and in our communities—that we can learn to live with them. Also: Jamison writes the lights out. Even if you aren't interested in human nature or addiction or vulnerability or any of that stuff but merely enjoy reading good, moving prose, well then start here. (Teachers: teach this book!)
Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach. The theme of acceptance has been a big one in both my personal life and my coaching practice this year. I've worked on myself and my clients to understand that you can only move forward if you start where you are. Not where you think you should be. Not where you want to be. But where you really, truly are. Acceptance doesn't mean passive resignation. It means having an intimate understanding of what is happening so you can take wise, skillful action in its midst. Brach knows and writes about this topic better than anyone else alive right now.
Steve's Favorite Books
Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor. If I’m an endurance athlete, I’m picking this one up and giving it a read. Elite marathoner Deena Kastor gives us a tour of the inner workings of the mind of a world class runner. She takes us through the inner dialogue of racing, the doubts and anxiety of competing, and more. I really enjoyed understanding Deena’s journey, but more so seeing how she figured a way through all of the challenges and setbacks along the way.
On Confidence, by Alain de Botton. As he often does, philosopher Alain de Botton turns common advice on its head in this short read. Instead of putting the focus on psyching yourself up and reminding yourself of your own greatness to increase confidence, de Botton's solution is to embrace reality. Realize that everyone is a bit crazy, weird, and different is just one of the ways de Bottons suggests to increase our confidence. In a world of constant comparison, this short read is much needed.
The Coddling of the American Mind, by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. "How do I understand this generation?" is a question I get at just about every conference or consulting gig I attend. Haidt and Lukianoff's work takes us through a subsection of today's younger generation, explaining how our proclivity to protect children is leading to children who are fragile. As they say in the book, we've turned to clearing the road for our children, instead of preparing them for the road they will face.
The Culture Code, by Dan Coyle. Culture is one of those buzz words in the world of sport, where we know what it means but we can't quite explain it. We just feel it. In The Culture Code, Dan Coyle sets out to combine science and story to explain what makes up great team culture and leadership. Whether part of a sports team or a company, there are many gems in this book.
The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey. I am not a parent, but if I was, this would be the first book I'd turn to. A wonderful discourse on how we've slowly taken away risk and failure from our children's lives and the consequences of doing so.
The Laws of Human Nature, by Robert Greene. This is an epic discourse on the psychology and behavior of humans. It’s long, but worth the read. In Greene’s trademark style he combines a dash of science and lots of historical examples to create a grand takeaway. Occasionally, Greene gets over ambitious in making connections between, but that can be forgiven as his conclusions are mostly spot on. If you deal with people, this is a great start towards understanding why people act and behave the way they do.
The Phenomenon, by Rick Ankiel. The rare biography in my reading list, the Phenomenon explores baseball player Rick Ankiel’s journey. What makes Ankiel’s story fascinating is that he was once a phenom pitcher, who had his baseball career derailed by a case of the “yips.” He lost the ability to do that which made him great, throw a baseball. He then battled back to the majors as a hitter. If you’re interested in the mental side of performance, this one is worth a read.
Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright. I'm not Buddhist but in a world where mindfulness is reaching trendy fad level, Wright pulls together the science to explain the practice. Wright offers a mixture of ancient wisdom and neuroscience heavy explanations for why you should implement practices like mindfulness into your daily life.
You are Not a Rock, by Mark Freeman. A book on mental health that doubles as one of the best guides to handle the inner battle of racing. In Freeman’s book, he discusses how to deal with the urge, or in his words, compulsions. It could be to stop in racing or to scroll through Twitter, or the strong urge experienced by those of us who suffer from OCD. They all have remarkable commonalities and are more similar than different. And it's these commonalities that let you apply Freeman's framework for dealing with mental health issues, as well as figuring out how to push harder in the middle of a race.
For More on Books
Here's an article detailing Brad's method for active reading. It includes ideas on taking notes while reading, integrating new ideas into your web of knowledge, and engaging in an ongoing conversation with what you're reading.
Here is the list of our favorite books from 2017.
And we're always sharing what books were finding interesting on Twitter: @Bstulberg and @Stevemagness
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