As I did last year, I think there is value in passing along my favorite books of the year. Not necessarily because I think I have some great insight into what books may be impactful on you, but instead because the books you read give an insight into how your thought process evolves and changes.

Last year, I provided a trend of my book reading history as I evolved from a very specific base of running/training books and have continued this further branch outwards towards disparate topics that on first glance have little to do with my actual sport and job. Last year’s theme could be summed up as a glimpse into my evolution of learning. At some point I had to ask the question why is that?

And after pondering I think the answer is connection.

You see, the ability to connect seemingly disparate concepts is what I think defines true knowledge and understanding. It’s when the clouds part and you start to see how different things in life connect and can translate into useful information in your specialty when things get really interesting. And it makes complete sense. The brain, and memory in particular, function best by establishing connections. As author and storyteller Neil Strauss put it, “The brain learns through metaphor and story telling.”

It’s the narrative that matters. What happens when we force ourselves to read topics that aren’t exactly in our field of expertise is that we lose some of our biases and blindness. In my field of running, I have extreme comfort in most areas, so it’s almost as if my brain goes on slight autopilot. We browse through the material, quickly able to filter and identify what matters, what is right, what is wrong, and what is useful.  When we read something off topic, we lack this filter and have to evaluate and think about claims. Or in Daniel Kahneman’s terms, we get to System 2.

The key is knowing just enough to be dangerous, but not knowing so much to be blind to the more subtle points being made. And that’s the life of a coach. You are an expert, but in reality you are an expert at being a generalist. In my coaching I have to play part time coach, physiologist, physical therapist, trainer, strength coach, psychologist, biomechanist, counselor, and a number of different things.

Without going to far into a reflection on 2014, as I’m sure I’ll find time to blog about that at some time, here are my favorite books that I read in 2014, that caused me to make the most connections.

(I get a lot of my reading lists from recommendations from friends, so feel free to post your best books of the year in the comments!)

1. Anti-Fragile

Go buy this book.

It’s a scathing condemnation of sacred cows. Vern Gambetta turned me on to this book and after signing up to speak at Dave Tenney’s amazing sports science conference in Seattle that was named “Building the Antifragile athlete” I figured I should read it.

And boy was I glad I did.

First off, don’t be turned off by the tone the author takes. It reads almost like a pull no punches critique of everything Talib has ever been involved in. Whether it’s Academia, Economics, trading, medicine, or even exercise, nothing is left safe from a very harsh critical analysis.

Yes, Talib comes across as a little arrogant and superior in some cases, but it’s deservedly so because in most places he’s making points using common sense with some rigor behind the suggestions. And he pulls no punches in naming names, calling people out, and standing behind his ideas.

What I love about this book is that if you take the concepts, they translate to a myriad of different specialties.  I normally don’t do this, but I’m going to give a selection of some of the highlighted concepts that I got out of the book. What I do for every book is highlight items, quotes, etc. that
interest me like a lot of people. But in addition I keep a running list of key themes in the back of the book (see side picture). So these are key concepts, words, phrases, that are essentially the ideas that I want to be able to take away and come back to in the future. (note: grabbed this concept from the lady who does the fantastic site, brain pickings, Maria Popova).  This way I just pull out the book and look in the back.  Here’s a brief selection of those

  • Absence of a stressor
    • o “Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.”
  • Variability, Randomness, Stressors
    • “Keep mistakes small enough so they can survive them.”
    • Keep stressors to where you can adapt!
  • Complexifiers vs. simplifiers
    • “the simpler and more obvious the discovery, the less equipped we are to figure it out by complicated methods.”
    • “But we don’t correct for the difference in science, medicine, and mathematics, for the same reasons we didn’t pay attention to iatrogenics. We are suckers for the sophisticated.”
    • “If you say something straightforward in a complicated manner with complex theorems, even if there is no large gain in rigor from these complicated equations, people take the idea very seriously.”
  • “Hormesis-
    •  when a small dose of a harmful substance is actually beneficial for the organism
  • Domain dependence
    • “Their strength is extremely domain-specific and their domain doesn’t exist outside of ludic-extremely organized-constructs.”…
  • “try taking them slightly away from what they studied and watch their decomposition,
    loss of confidence, and denial.”
  •  Iatrogenics
    • Side effects caused by the person that no one sees/anticipates
  • Interventionism
  • Trial and Error “traditions provide an aggregation of filtered collective knowledge.”
  • Science “the more studies, the less obvious elementary but fundamental things become.”
    • “No, we don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice.”
    • “The theory is the child of the cure, not the opposite.
  • Learning- school vs. actual learning
    • “Whatever I selected myself I could read with more depth and more breadth- there was a match to my curiosity.”
    • “the trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading.”
  • We’re bad at preparing for rare events- only prepare for slightly more.
  1. The Willpower Instinct

Kelly McGonigal wrote a very easy to read and free flowing book. Often times that means it may lack depth or research or only makes surface style points, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Willpower instinct takes you through the recent theories on willpower with depth and practical applicability

For those who don’t know, the current theory says that willpower is a reserve. And that every decision we make or time we use willpower to resist or perform a task we dip into this reserve. And as we use up our resources,

I could go on and on about it, but here’s what you need to know from an exercise standpoint. The model she describes fits incredibly well with exercise, fighting fatigue, and racing. In fact, in the book she actually mentions the Central Governor, which gave me great pleasure. But the point is that if you have to deal with fatigue and pacing, which every sport does, then this book will help clarify that model. If we see endurance sport of one of self-control it really provides a fantastic model off of which we can alter training, challenge people psychologically and prepare for a race.

After all, in my sport of running, dealing with fatigue from both a physiological and psychological point of view is simply decision making and willpower. We have to make decisions to speed up, give in, kick it in and those decisions are made at the point of highest fatigue, stress, and uncertainty. If we can improve and understand the processes that influence these decisions, we will see improved performance. For a brief glimpse into connecting willpower to performance read my previous post here, which sparked my search to The Willpower Instinct.

In addition, you’ll get lots of great nuggets of wisdom on what effects the reward pathways, how we view our current and future self, and how stress effects decision making.

I could spend hours discussing this book and the works surrounding willpower, but I’ll stop and simply highly recommend this book. I’ll leave with these two quotes:

“Evolution doesn’t give a damn about your happiness itself,
but will use the promise of happiness to keep us alive. And so the promise of happiness- not the direct experience of happiness-is the brains strategy to keep you hunting gathering, working, and wooing.”

“When dopamines puts our brains on a reward seeking mission, we become the most risk-taking, impulsive, and out-of control versions of

3.Make it Stick:

I periodize my life, much like I periodize my training. It’s not planned, but just like we have hard days and easy days or workouts with rest periods, I try to do the same thing in my life. With way too many things going on in my life, I’ll go through periods where I am in the zone and get more done than I can imagine and then I have periods where I binge watch something mind numbing, turning my brain off TV like Entourage on Netflix for 3 hours straight.

Now I have reason to back up my ideas. While that’s not the only think I learned, Make it Stick, was a great read on learning. And what makes it so great is once again it destroys some of the commonly held notions in learning. No college students, cramming is not a productive way to do it. Instead we learn that “If learners spread out their study of a topic, returning to it periodically over time, they remember it better. Similarly, if they interleave the study of different topics, they learn each better than if they had studied them one at a time in sequence”

When I read, I read two books at once most of the time. No, I don’t actually read them at once, but rather I alternate back and forth. For instance, often I’ve had one be domain specific and about running or coaching and one be about something I’m just curious about, such as how Curiosity develops, and only vaguely connected to my real world life.

It turns out that this back and forth might be one of the best ways to learn:

“When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings”

This isn’t the only lesson to learn on how we learn. Another favorite take home message was the idea of actual learning versus the fluency effect. We tend to suck at predicting what helps us learn best, because we mistake fluency with learning. For instance, if you were to re-read a passage over and over, then we get a false sense of confidence that we know it well. Why? Because it feels really fluid in our mind. But the reality is that fluidity isn’t learning. As Brown put it

“Rereading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery, but for true mastery or durability these strategies are largely a waste of time.”

And finally, learning is connecting. That’s it. Our brains strengthening connections that matter. And learning how best to learn translates and connects to anything you do.

  1. The Rare Find

This book is one that my podcast co-host Jon Marcus introduced to me to. In it, George Anders takes on what makes someone a “rare find”, how to find them, and even a little about how to become one. In essence, it is a talent identification book that brings examples from the world of sports, business, and beyond.

Anders weaves a compelling narrative, interleaving research with stories from some of the most successful talent identifiers in the business. It’s a compelling and quick read for these reasons, but the gems hidden in it are great.

The book really gets interesting when it discusses how our own psychology gets in the way of selecting the best talent. Learning our innate bias’ helps us fight the urge to follow the norms.

And I think that’s the central tenant of the book. Just like in Make it Stick, the underlying message is that our central tendencies make us kind of suck at predicting and deciding who to hire, draft, or recruit. So it’s a process of understanding the items we look for that take us down that wrong path.

In translating to my own work in sport, there’s not only translation to recruiting or taking on the right athletes, but also in motivating and developing athletes.

For example, one of the items that hit home with me is that talent needs to be challenged. Often times, what happens in the real world is we’re stuck in jobs that stifle any innate creativity that we possess. This is a huge problem in organized academic learning/school on both the undergrad and graduate levels as well as in the office place. Instead of stifling, we need to have the confidence to give people enough leeway to do their jobs in a productive manner.

Secondly, the book does a great job of showing how the narrative we create influences our thinking. Similar to the idea of fluency in learning, we weave our own narrative in our own lives about how we are progressing and also in those that we recruit or hire. There’s this great misnomer in talent identification where after the fact when we came across a diamond in the rough, we tend to weave this great narrative on how we spotted him, when the reality is that we actually didn’t see the talent and we simply lucked out.

I’ll leave you with two quotes on the importance and influence of the narrative form the book:

“Yet many people let those potential insights slip away. The reason: most of us dodge the hard work of extracting lasting truths from the zigzags of our own careers. We don’t want to know why we stumbled at certain points. We may not even care to pick apart our successes that much. We would rather settle for a soothing narrative-revealing little about the real reasons for success or failure—instead of staring at the raw truths of why some people achieve great things and others don’t.”

“When we fiddle with the narrative afterward, trying to create a sense of awe at the first encounter, we do so because it feels as if events should have unfolded that way. But when such retouching of the story takes place, we  shortchange the most impressive part of the talent spotter’s art. If bells went off every time someone amazing walked into sight, it wouldn’t be hard at all to recognize the first stirrings of greatness.”

  1. An Organized Mind

Ask almost any of my friends and they’ll tell you I’m not the most organized person. It’s not that I’m messy, it’s just that I have a lot going on and tend to compartmentalize things to the max. About the only thing that has an organized long term plan to it is my training programs for my athletes. Even our practices, with 5-6+ workouts going on at once are what I’d call controlled chaos. The thing is, I’ve found that I tend thrive in the chaos. I get my best work done when I have a million different projects going on, and it tends to put me in a sort of flow state.

But the key is finding the balance between chaos, order, and creativity. Once you have that balance good things happen.

But here’s what I currently have going on in my life:

So after realizing that in my life right now I have the following things going on:
-Coaching men and women’s College team
-Recruiting and calling HS kids to join our team for next year.
-Coaching 9 post-collegiate runners
-Working on my PhD in Exercise Science
-Columnist for Running Times
-Advisor for several tech start up companies
-Consulting jobs for a few different athletes, teams, businesses for health, endurance, fitness, etc.
-Maintain this blog and all the social media work on twitter, instagram, Facebook, that I do.
-Just in the last month, presented at 3 different conferences/conventions.
-Promotion/Marketing/Interview for my book and my work.
-A weekly podcast with Jon Marcus
-And two other “secret” projects which I’m excited about but not quite ready to reveal
-My own running/fitness goals
-…and a social life? (alright, maybe not this one…)

So lots of things going on…and I committed myself to figuring out how to better organize my life to get stuff done.

Besides sending a plea to friends and colleagues Greg McMillan, Jay Johnson, and Mario Fraoli asking how the heck they organized their busy coaching, training lifestyles, I also picked up The Organized Mind.

While it can become verbose at points, the text is filled with ideas that shift our thinking in understanding how our modern world is shifting our ability to organize not only objects, but thoughts.  Getting beyond the theoretical, Levitin does a fantastic job of giving real world examples, and more importantly applications.

For instance, since reading the book, I carry around a handful of notecards in my back pocket. The idea is that you simply offload interesting thoughts, ideas, or tasks that you need to do onto the notecards as you go throughout the day. Then at the end of the day you see what you wrote and then simply put them in a “Time sensitive” “Non- time sensitive” and “throw away” pile. While it might seem pretty basic, the concept struck home with me because often what I do is keep my ideas in a separate small notebook. This works great (and is really cool because I can track my thought process and how it developed through the past decade), except it’s too big to carry around and mainly sits in my backpack or desk drawer. Similarly, I try to write my “to do list” on my whiteboard in my bedroom or office so that I remember to get things done.

With the notecard system it’s allowed me to write down things as they happen, forget about them, and then transfer it to my permanent records at night. It’s all about offloading things from your brain. Similarly, the concept of using affordances struck home with me as that ties into my PhD work. If you designate a room, spot, place for getting certain work done, what they’ve found is that the environment “affords” or invites you to do work there. So you’re more likely to do work in that spot, because it’s your work spot.

Anyways, it’s just one example, but the book is filled with not only practical advise but also explanations on how our brain actually organizes itself. Furthermore, and perhaps most interestingly he talks about how technology is changing this, in both a positive and negative way. The way technology is altering our organization abilities is an interesting thing to think about.

To summarize, the most powerful message from this book is once again understanding how our mind works, what we are biased towards, and what to do about this.

It’s not about being super structured and created rigid systems, but instead about creating that balance between creativity, chaos, and organization that works for you. Take advantage of the way your mind works and don’t fight against it. While from an interview and not the book, I think this quote from the author sums up some of the gems.

“I think what happens in this overcaffeinated
age where there’s so much happening is that we feel like we can’t even
stop for a minute or two because it’s all we can do to keep up. “If I
stop work for five minutes, I’m not going to be able to get as much
done” is the way we think, but it’s an illusion.
The fact is that if you take time out from
your work just to ponder and to daydream, at the end of the
day—according to studies, to research—you’ll get more done and the
quality of your work will be better.” Daniel Levity

  1. The Other Side of Normal

This is another book outside my comfort zone and looks at psychology through a slightly different lens. I don’t think I can describe what this book is about better than Smoller does in the introduction:

“This book is about the obscure and the obvious. It is about phenomena that are so complex they may seem indecipherable, even though they are so familiar we live inside them every day. It is a book about how the brain gives rise to the mind and how the mind, in turn, gives rise to everything we care about. It is about the universal and the unique.”

In the book, Smoller looks at what normal is defined as normal in a wide range of topics. Then he goes through and uses biology, evolution, neuroscience, and a range of different fields to see if there is a basis for that normalcy. When things get really interesting is when Smoller uses this defined normality to evaluate “abnormalties.” In particular, I found the concepts that some “abnormal” issues ranging from OCD to anxiety to depression could be seen as simply hyper or hypoactive responses of normal response. For example:

“Psychological and neuroimaging research has shown that anxiety and depression prone people have emotional circuitry that tends to process the world as a glass half empty- a bias toward registering negative emotional and social features of the environment”

It’s a book that covers a wide range of topics, and introduces some concepts that translate very well. In particular the last section of the book on anxiety is incredibly thought provoking. There’s a concept called the reconciliation window, that is particularly fascinating. It states that there’s a small window after in which we face a stressor in which we can manipulate our reaction to that stressor. In fact, they’ve found through research that manipulating the stress response during this time, can manipulate memory consolidation. So, if someone has a phobia for heights for example, you can decondition it way more successfully in this window then in attempting to at other times. In other words, timing matters.

My one big take away from this is that often “diseases” are simply normal responses that are hyper or hyposensitive. There’s not clear cut distinction of normal, and instead it’s a flowing spectrum like most things in life. It’s a perfect example of categorizing because we like things in nice neat boxes to classify our life with.  Highly recommend this one for those coaches trying to understand the connection between the mind and biologic processes.

  1. Allostasis, Homeostasis, and the Cost of Physiological Adaptation

While every other book I’ve recommended so far has only been slightly connected to my real world of coaching and running, this book is more directly connected.

In essence, it’s a book about how we adapt to stress. No, not just anxiety causing stress, but any kind of stressor. Why is this important? Well adapting to a physical stressor is the name of the game for training athletes. It’s what we do.

What this book does is provide a theoretical framework for how we adapt. In it, Schulkin takes the approach of using the concept of Allostasis. What is allostasis?

Well homeostasis is the concept we are all familiar with and think about in terms of the body reaching some nice little steady state. What Schulkin argues is that the body actually functions with much more variability.

Read this book and tie it in with Taleb’s ideas on variability in Anti-fragile and you will really start to grasp the concept.

Oh…and this other little book that came out in 2014…

The Science of Running:

So I may be extremely biased, but I’d recommend taking a read :). Plus I just got word that it will be translated into Chinese, so get ready for that! (Okay, shameless plug over!)

Enjoy reading, and as Nassim Taleb pointed out “the trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading.”

So if you get bored, move on to the next!

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    1. James Marshall on January 29, 2015 at 7:35 am

      P.s 4 disciplines of execution by Covey is a very good book about getting things done.

    2. Aaron Olson on January 30, 2015 at 6:10 am

      Thanks for sharing your selection of books. Loved Antifragile and Willpower, I will look into the others. Please tell me you've read NN Taleb's other books as well?

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