The Best Books I've Read In 2016

In which I summarise and share highlights of my favourite 5 books of 2016.

Diner Ismail

10 minute read

I found it quite difficult to pick just 5 books to talk about in this post. Even though the number of books I’ve read is much lower in 2016 than it was in 2015 (by about 20 books!), the list includes many incredibly inspiring volumes that have played an important part in my personal growth. Honourable mentions that didn’t make the list are: Wired for Culture, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Improv Wisdom and Deep Work.

1. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

This book was by far my favourite this year, and definitely the best biography I’ve ever read. It was not only fun to read, but also inspiring and full of timeless wisdom. Feynman is the kind of human being that I aspire to be: he was prolific and influential, but at the same time kind, playful and fun-loving, always cracking jokes and not taking himself too seriously.

One of the ideas that I’ve learned (or reinforced) this year is that it’s possible, and actually not that difficult, to be at the same time a high-achiever and have a lot of fun - maybe something like what Cal Newport calls a Zen Valedictorian. We tend to associate ambition and hard work with stress, but they don’t have to go together. What I’ve noticed in Feynman’s life is that he was fully engaged with whatever he was doing, whether he was doing research in theoretical physics, writing poetry or playing bongos in Brazil.

As a takeaway lesson from him, I’m always trying to be intensely engaged with whatever I am doing. If I’m focused and work hard during the day and I do great work that I’m proud of, then when I go out in the evening I feel very positive and I can be fully present with the people that I’m with. It sounds simple and obvious, but it’s so important.

2. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

I liked this book so much. Based on the title you may think it’s a book that turns you into an asshole who doesn’t care about anything, but that can’t be further from the truth. In Mark Manson’s words:

“There is a subtle art to not giving a fuck. And though the concept may sound ridiculous and I may sound like an asshole, what I’m talking about here is essentially learning how to focus and prioritize your thoughts effectively—how to pick and choose what matters to you and what does not matter to you based on finely honed personal values. This is incredibly difficult. It takes a lifetime of practice and discipline to achieve. And you will regularly fail. But it is perhaps the most worthy struggle one can undertake in one’s life.”

That’s only one part, but Manson goes on to talk about such concepts as the value of discomfort and struggle, the perils of trying to ‘find yourself’ instead of inventing yourself, the importance of boundaries in romantic relationships, and even about our fear of death.

As you might have guessed from the title, Manson has a very straightforward but also hilarious tone in this book.

“Decision-making based on emotional intuition, without the aid of reason to keep it in line, pretty much always sucks. You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three-year-old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.” Here are a few other passages that I’ve highlighted:

“This is not about willpower or grit. This is not another admonishment of “no pain, no gain.” This is the most simple and basic component of life: our struggles determine our successes. Our problems birth our happiness, along with slightly better, slightly upgraded problems. See: it’s a never-ending upward spiral. And if you think at any point you’re allowed to stop climbing, I’m afraid you’re missing the point. Because the joy is in the climb itself.”

“Some of the most difficult and stressful moments of our lives also end up being the most formative and motivating. Some of the best and most gratifying experiences of our lives are also the most distracting and demotivating. Don’t trust your conception of positive/negative experiences. All that we know for certain is what hurts in the moment and what doesn’t. And that’s not worth much.”

“Until we change how we view ourselves, what we believe we are and are not, we cannot overcome our avoidance and anxiety. We cannot change. In this way, “knowing yourself” or “finding yourself” can be dangerous. It can cement you into a strict role and saddle you with unnecessary expectations. It can close you off to inner potential and outer opportunities. I say don’t find yourself. I say never know who you are. Because that’s what keeps you striving and discovering. And it forces you to remain humble in your judgments and accepting of the differences in others.”

“I came to the startling realisation that if there really is no reason to do anything, then there is also no reason to not do anything; that in the face of the inevitability of death, there is no reason to ever give in to one’s fear or embarrassment or shame, since it’s all just a bunch of nothing anyway; and that by spending the majority of my short life avoiding what was painful and uncomfortable, I had essentially been avoiding being alive at all.”

Yes, I absolutely loved this book. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t wait a second and order it straight away. As soon as I finished writing this I ordered a copy for my brother.

3. A Guide to the Good Life - The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

I think stoicism can be an excellent operating system for life. There are many concepts in this philosophy that can help one achieve tranquility as a default state of mind. I credit it for helping me go through some rough patches with little or no stress, always keeping in mind the words of Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

I won’t try to summarize the philosophy here. The above paragraph briefly describes how it helped me personally, hoping that it convinces you to read more about it. This book is a very good and gentle introduction to the philosophy, so you might as well start with that.

Here is one passage that really stuck with me:

“Whenever you undertake an activity in which public failure is a possibility, you are likely to experience butterflies in your stomach. I mentioned above that since becoming a Stoic, I have become a collector of insults. I have also become a collector of butterflies. I like to engage in activities, such as competitive rowing, that give me butterflies simply so I can practice dealing with them. These feelings are, after all, an important component of the fear of failure, so that by dealing with them I am working to overcome my fear of failure. In the hours before a race, I experience some truly magnificent butterflies. I do my best to turn them to my advantage: They make me focus on the race that lies ahead. Once a race has begun, I have the pleasure of watching the butterflies depart.”

4. Extreme Ownership - How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

I found out about this book on a road-trip with a friend, and that’s when I realised that one of the few episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show that I skipped was the one with Jocko Willink, the author of this book. Big mistake, as listening to that interview filled me with so much energy and determination, therefore I was convinced to also read the book as soon as possible.

Extreme Ownership means taking full responsibility for everything in your life and not blaming anybody and anything else when things go wrong. This idea can be applied in your workplace, family, relationship and everywhere else.

When something goes wrong, extreme ownership isn’t just a way to approach the problem, it can also help you find what your fault actually was when it’s not immediately apparent that it was your fault. Let’s say you gave a task to somebody but they messed up. By taking extreme ownership, it’s still your fault because you haven’t communicated the task clearly enough, or you haven’t talked about the importance of that task in the grand scheme of things, etcetera.

A team where everyone takes extreme ownership would work very well. Okay, besides the fact that you might hear a lot of conversations like: “It’s my fault, don’t worry.” “Oh no, it’s actually my fault, I’ll sort it out.” “No really, it’s my fault” and so on.

“Leadership isn’t one person leading a team. It’s a group of leaders working together, up and down the chain of command, to lead.”

5. Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind

I love books that change the way I think about the world, or clarify it. This one did both. Harari takes the reader on a thrilling journey of how humans evolved and started to cooperate and form civilisations. By not focusing on any specific events or periods, and by taking a birds-eye view he manages to examine developments in terms of centuries or even millennia.

One of my favourite ideas from the book is the concept of shared myths, and how these were essential in helping humans cooperate and form such complex societies. Some shared myths that we all take part in are governments, companies and the stock market. All of these things only work or seem to be real because many people believe in them at the same time. I may not explaining this well enough, so if this sparked your interest you can read a much better description here.

Here are a few passages that I liked, which also evoke important ideas. This one makes me think of US politics, and how the democrats want more equality, while the republicans want more freedom:

“Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as attempts to reconcile this contradiction.”

How countries are becoming increasingly dependent on each other, a lesson that the UK is learning the hard way with Brexit:

“As of 2014, the world is still politically fragmented, but states are fast losing their independence. Not one of them is really able to execute independent economic policies, to declare and wage wars as it pleases, or even to run its own internal affairs as it sees fit. States are increasingly open to the machinations of global markets, to the interference of global companies and NGOs, and to the supervision of global public opinion and the international judicial system. […] Immensely powerful currents of capital, labour and information turn and shape the world, with a growing disregard for the borders and opinions of states.”

Harari goes on to talk even about science and its importance in advancing our civilisation:

“The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge. This has hugely expanded our capacity to understand how the world works and our ability to invent new technologies.”

Hope I’ve convinced you to read at least one of the books in the list. Let me know if you have any books that you’d recommend, I plan to devoure many more in 2017 :)

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