2021 Reading List: Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

I think I have to stop reading books by Brene Brown. Don’t get me wrong, I love all her vulnerability work and I think she really has something there. But I looked back at the past few books of hers that I read and I didn’t love those ones either.

I love her as a person. I really do. I think she’s doing great work. I think she’s changing lives and organizations. I think she’s making a difference. And I’m sure her message and her books resonate for a lot of people.

But for me, I just can’t read about rumbling and wholeheartedness anymore.

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2021 Reading List: The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World

Two days after I finished this book, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce. Since I loved this book and I suddenly felt irrationally close to Melinda after reading her words, I was heartbroken. I have struggled to finish this post ever since.

I admittedly don’t know very much about Bill and Melinda Gates, besides their involvement with Microsoft and the Foundation. But I will be the first to tell you that I don’t think you need to know someone’s entire biography in order to read their books, articles, media, etc. and listen to what they have to say. So I was excited to read Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

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2021 Reading List: Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope by Wendy Holden

Every so often I pick up a book about the Holocaust. It’s a heart-wrenching reminder of the strength and fragility of human beings. I can’t remember where I saw this book recommended but it was probably on a list somewhere. Seems that other people find these stories to be moving as well.

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope, by Wendy Holden, is perhaps more impactful and meaningful to me now, as a mother myself, than it might have been a few years ago. This is a shockingly true story of three women who were in the early weeks of pregnancy when they were sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Amazingly, all three mothers and all three babies survived. This book is their story.

This book takes readers through each of the women’s lives, telling us where they grew up and went to school, how they lived with their families, their hopes and dreams, their skills and values and religious views. One chapter at a time, we learn about their backstory and who they were before the Holocaust changed their lives forever.

Every story of a Holocaust survivor is heartbreaking. It’s horrific and unimaginable. These stories are perhaps more so.

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2021 Reading List: Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo

Somewhere I must have read something good about this book. There has to be some reason why I thought it would be worth reading, why I thought it might help me succeed in life.

Maybe for someone out there, this book really was worth reading. But for me, it felt redundant and childish.

Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo is the basic pep talk you need if you are struggling, in general, with life, and maybe if you’ve never ever had a pep talk before and if you’ve never heard anyone else cheer you on and tell you that you have what it takes. But at the end of the day, that’s all it was. A pep talk. It was nothing life changing. There were no huge life lessons explained. There was nothing that the book told me that I didn’t already know.

I have had lots of supportive people in my life who have told me, in some way or another, that I am amazing and strong and capable and smart. And I have read books and articles that are far too similar to what this book ended up offering.

I wanted this book to actually help me figure shit out. I wanted this book to give me some mind-blowing insider knowledge about how to literally figure everything out. Things like how to change a tire, how to plan a wedding, how to fly to a foreign country. Actual, practical things. And yes, the book is telling you that those things are figureoutable. But it does so in a vague way that starts with setting your goals and managing your time and following your dreams.

There are plenty enough books out there about how to follow your dreams and achieve your goals. I don’t need another one, particularly this one. This book was full of platitudes and fluffy motivational quotes. As if she’s the first person to ever quote them. As if I don’t see those exact same quotes set against the background of a beautiful sunset at the beach every other day on Facebook. She starts the chapter with one of these Pinterest-y quotes and then she goes on to explain it as if she has all these deep, innovative, novel thoughts. All she did was take the same old tips for goal-setting and career-building and put it against the backdrop of a made-up word. She tried to make her philosophy seem new and different but it was the same-old same old framework.

I don’t think Marie Forleo acknowledged real life enough either. She mentioned that, yes, the working mom doesn’t have much extra time in her day. Or that, yes, there are setbacks or issues that happen in your journey to achieving your goal. But she almost completely ignores the fact that there are actual struggles that sometimes are beyond people’s control. You can’t just dedicate 20 minutes a day to your goals and get out of the cycle of poverty. You can’t change systemic racism with her figureoutable mindset.

At the end of the day, this was a cute little self-help book that was wildly naive and incredibly lacking in original thought and advice.

2021 Reading List: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Here’s a fun, light-hearted read for you. Of course I had to read Crazy Rich Asians, by Keven Kwan, before I watch the movie and see what all the hype was about.

I finished this book pretty quickly, but not because it was particularly great. For the first half of it, I actually thought the plot was pretty boring. It was extremely descriptive of the rich lifestyle led by these families in Singapore and rather lacking in the action. Of course, the detail and nuances about their lives was necessary for the reader to truly understand the reasons and emotions behind the later actions.

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2021 Reading List: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Let me start by saying, I love Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I own a bunch of them, I’ve reread some (which is something I don’t do often), and I recommend them to anyone who’s interested.

That being said, I thought this book was going to be a little different. I thought this book would be about the chance encounters that human have with strangers every day – the barista at the coffee shop, the chic mom shopping at Target, the neighbor walking his dog, etc. I thought it would be more about the awkwardness that humans feel in certain situations with strangers, the way we interpret body language or facial expressions, the reason we’re afraid to ask for someone’s phone number even if we felt we had a great conversation with that particular stranger.

Someone should write that book.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell, was actually an analysis of very certain types of interactions with strangers.

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2021 Reading List: What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn

I have always been intrigued by great brands. What makes us buy something, use something, do something, or go somewhere based on the brand name alone? What do those brands have that makes us recall them immediately when we need that product? What makes us trust them so implicitly that we don’t need to do the research or read reviews?

So I’ve had this book on my reading list for awhile, tucked away in my Save for Later cart on Amazon. (Ahhh Amazon…) I finally just asked for it for Christmas so I could really dive in.

And really I think that the seven principles discussed in What Great Brands Do: the Seven Brand-Building Principles that Separate the Best from the Rest could actually be compared to what people are looking for in their own personal lives. The principles don’t just apply to brands – they apply to being human.

The principles are:

  • Great brands start inside
  • Great brands avoid selling products
  • Great brands ignore trends
  • Great brands don’t chase customers
  • Great brands sweat the small stuff
  • Great brands commit and stay committed
  • Great brands never have to “give back”

When you list them out like that, it feels like common sense. Of course you want leadership to walk the talk and to believe in their products before they tell their customers to. Of course you believe that ultimately your products aren’t just a product, they make life better! Of course you’re not just following the crowd. Of course you can stand on your own two feet and right customers will just come to you. Of course the details matter. Of course you’ve committed for the long term. Of course you want to make a different in the lives of those less fortunate.

When you talk about it like that, it sounds easy. But if it were so easy, then we’d have more great brands. More people would feel like the brands they were buying were authentic and trustworthy. More people would feel like their purchase choices matter. It’s not easy.

As a marketer myself, having worked for several agencies, I often get clients who want a social media campaign. Or a brochure. Or a new website. And they come to us with who they think their audience is, what they want out of the promotion (more customers, almost always), and what their message is. But rarely do they come to me with who they are. There is often a lot of disconnect between the true core of a company and the message they put out there. Leadership doesn’t always see the big picture. They don’t see the real customer journey, they don’t understand the emotions behind a decision, they don’t think it matters if they say something in an ad but can’t truly back it up as a company.

I think this book did a great job explaining why these seven principles matter. We can all sit here and say that yes they do, but if we don’t truly understand why it works or how it works, then we’re going to fall back into the same trap of chasing the customers, selling the features of a product, or skipping over the little details that show a company cares.

Now back to being human – aren’t these seven principles also things that you’d want to see in a relationship with someone? Not necessarily a romantic relationship. Just any human relationship. You want other people in your life to do what they said they’d do. You want them to understand you on a deeper emotional level. (You don’t just want a nanny who keeps your kids alive, you want a livesaver who will help raise your kids.) You don’t want someone who’s only around because it’s a convenient time and place for them, or because you make them look good. You want a relationship with someone who cares about the details and pays attention to the little things. (The husband who cleans the snow off your car in the morning before you even wake up.) You want someone who is committed to the relationship, through thick and thin. And at the end of the day, you don’t need that person to give you birthday presents or Christmas presents because just being in each other’s lives makes your lives richer.

Behind every great company and every great brand are just people. People connect with people. It’s not some mysterious puzzle that we’re solving here.

This book was actionable in a long-term planning way. You could sit down and do some of these exercises, but at the end of the day, the actions you need to take are bigger-picture. This book can give you the tools and steps to take, but also the reason behind it so that you can build a better plan for your brand and get the right people involved.

I had been hoping the book would focus a bit more on the examples, in more of a storytelling way, but that wasn’t the case. It was descriptive, but more technical and action-oriented, rather than storytelling. So if you’re in a position to build a brand, then this would be an excellent starting point to put you in the right mindset.

2021 Reading List: Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman

When they say this is a page-turner, they aren’t lying. Once I got about halfway through this book, I literally could not put it down. I just had to know what was going to happen.

Something in the Water, by Catherine Steadman, is a thriller about a couple who goes on their honeymoon to Bora Bora and finds a mysterious bag floating in the water while they are out on a scuba diving day-trip. What happens next is probably what would happen for anyone who found several million dollars unclaimed in the ocean.

Erin is a filmmaker, currently doing a documentary about the transition to the world after prisoners are released. Her soon to be husband, Mark, works at a large bank. But right before their wedding, he loses his job and has a hard time finding a new one due to the politics around his exit. He is suddenly extremely worried about their finances and their future and makes some pretty harsh decisions to completely change their wedding venue, skimp on the food, and cut their honeymoon in half. Erin is mad at first, but he points out the actual numbers – how much she makes, how much savings they have, how much their house costs – and she comes around.

She really comes across as a bit ditsy and out of the loop, considering she’s a documentarian and she’s supposed to be good at noticing details, managing projects, sticking to film budgets. It’s like she’s so blinded by her love for this man that she lets herself stay out of tune with her whole personal life.

Mark’s hysteria over losing his job seems a little unnecessary to me. Sure, it really sucks, they wanted a nice wedding and to start out their lives together and plan for their future. But he should be able to move on and stay positive, and he’ll find another job eventually.

So they go to Bora Bora for their honeymoon and have a fabulous time. Erin gets over her panic about scuba diving and they go out to dive, taking a boat out about an hour away. On their way back they find a bag floating with some mysterious papers out in the middle of the ocean. When they come back to the location the next day, they find an airplane beneath the surface, crashed, supposedly with people inside. I say supposedly because Mark was the only one who saw them and now that I’ve finished the book, I’m not sure I can trust anything he said anymore.

So what do they do with the bag? Well first they try to do the right thing and turn it in to the hotel. But the hotel staff misunderstands and keep giving it back to them. So what else to do but open it, right? Inside they find a million dollars cash, two million dollars worth of 2 carat diamonds, a gun, a cell phone and a USB drive.

They are suddenly transformed into people so desperate for money that they become criminals. It’s amazing what money will do to people, mess with their heads. They want to keep the money so badly that they try to cover their tracks and erase their involvement. They destroy their files at the hotel and leave early.

When they get back home, they set up a Swiss bank account to deposit the money and use it subsequently for transactions into their own person accounts as freelance payments. Erin continues working on the documentary, but ends up involved with her subject’s breaking of parole and terrorism scheme, which adds to her paranoia that they’re going to be caught or that someone is after them trying to get the money back.

But her job also puts her in touch with a prisoner who was part of a world-renowned gang for decades so he knows all the secret to the trade. He actually helps her find a buyer for the diamonds and figure out what to do with the USB when the “plane people” come looking for it.

Despite the fact that this book was so good I couldn’t put it down, I had some major qualms with some pieces of it.

First of all, I don’t know why she wasn’t suspicious of Mark sooner. I caught on early that there was something up with him. His demeanor suddenly changed, he suddenly decided he didn’t care about money, he was putting Erin out in public as the face of this crime. She just played dumbly along, distracted and preoccupied.

Secondly, I’m annoyed that we never find out what was on the USB. I’m annoyed that the “plane people” are never defined. I’m annoyed that they don’t care about their money or their diamonds and also that they’ll pay more money in order to get the USB back, as if just saying “you can keep all our other stuff in exchange for our USB” isn’t enough. I’m annoyed that after Mark can’t give them the coordinates of the crashed plane in the ocean, they just drop it, and they don’t continue to look for Erin, track her down or kill her.

Thirdly, I’m kind of shocked that they got so greedy that they kept trying to get more and more money out of this group of criminals. I don’t understand why they couldn’t stop once they had the cash deposited into the bank. Get rid of the diamonds, get rid of the phone and the USB, move on. Give it all back to the people it came from and don’t look back. I truly don’t understand why Erin kept opening the phone, tried to find out what was on the USB, actually got herself a gun and was so intent on doing an exchange in order to get more money. If I were her, I would have just handed everything over that they asked for and walked away. She already had a million dollars in the bank.

Lastly, the book ended nicely with Erin figuring it all out herself. She came to realize on her own that her husband was playing her and deceiving her. But she couldn’t figure out why he’d stopped loving her, why he wanted to siphon all this money for himself and move to New York, why the money had changed him in so many fundamental ways that he didn’t even want to be with her anymore. And she never got a chance to find that out because he was dead.

And also – where did the plane people go?! If they were really bad people, they wouldn’t let Erin go alive, walking around with the knowledge of coordinates of the plane crash. If they wanted those coordinates so badly, then there must have been something else incriminating in that plane, still under the ocean. If they were good at their job, they would have realized that Mark and Erin were a couple. They would have done their research. They would have known that even if they killed Mark, Erin could always still be a problem, even if Mark said she wasn’t. They weren’t doing their due diligence.

Overall though, great book. Highly recommend.

2021 Reading List: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Even before you read this review, you know Liane Moriarty will never disappoint.

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty, has a lot more going on than you might think at first glance. The book is about nine people who book a 10-day retreat at a health resort in order to transform their lives. It is actually a bit of a misnomer because not all nine people are strangers to each other. There is a married couple and a family of three. So obviously they are not strangers to each other. But on second thought, maybe they are…

The story is told from the point of view of all of the characters, but seemed to focus most on Frances. Frances is a romance novelist who had recently fallen for, ironically, an internet romance scam. Maybe it would have been better if she’d lost all her money and been more destitute, but Moriarty made it sound like she was so insanely rich that losing a ton of money didn’t even matter for her. Frances has two ex-husbands, no children, a gaggle of friends, an estranged family. She had just read a critical review of her recent book and decided that she needed this cleanse at the resort to start over.

We learn about the rest of the characters in similar chapter by chapter fashion. Tony is an ex-football star, Lars is a gay divorce lawyer, Ben and Jessica are a young married couple who recently won the lottery but are struggling with their marriage, Carmel is a recently divorced mother of four who thinks she’s fat, Heather and Napoleon are there with their daughter, Zoe, and they are grappling with the grief of their son’s (her twin’s) suicide three years ago.

They are all there for different reasons, but being at a health resort, they all believe the ultimate outcome will be that they are refreshed, rejuvenated, healthier, and perhaps thinner. But the reviews of this resort are mixed, the guests just don’t know why. We learn early on to be skeptical of this place when Frances’ friend warns that the director, Masha, has some unconventional techniques. And Frances’ massage therapist warns her not to do anything she is uncomfortable with.

I was hoping for a little more drama amongst the guests, but their challenges and struggles are fairly straightforward. They are all going through different seasons in life and trying to figure out what that means for them, how to cope, and how they are going to move forward. Nothing sinister is going on in any of their backgrounds, like I suspected.

The true crazy one turns out to be Masha. I felt sorry for her innocent assistant, Yao, and all of the resort’s staff, ignorant of what was happening right under their noses. I felt sorry for Masha, who couldn’t find a healthy and normal way to cope with the terrors of her past.

This book takes you deep into the character’s lives, and their normal human struggles. Death, grief, love, jealousy, money, vanity, weight, drugs, marriage and divorce. It covers everything. And it makes you wonder, what would it take to truly transform your life? Is it as simple as a week at a health resort? 10 days without your phone and alcohol? Losing weight? A meetup with a stranger? Confronting death itself?

What would make you realize you need a change and turn your life around? Is the answer that simple?

Rereading The Book of Joy, Three Years Later

In 2017 I loved The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams so much that I now own my own copy.

The last time I was looking for joy, I was traveling in Greece. It seems funny to me now that at a time when, looking back, my life seemed pretty easy and wonderful, I felt that I was lacking true joy. After rereading that post I wrote three years ago, I think I was actually looking for a personal escape. I was working at a company I loved, doing a job I loved, but I felt stressed and overworked. I wanted to feel happier in the career choices I’d made. I wanted to know that I didn’t make the wrong choices and that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I just needed to shift my attitude and my perspective and then I’d feel more joyful about my daily life.

And it’s true – a lot of what the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop say truly boils down to an attitude adjustment. Telling yourself to find joy and be grateful. Reminding yourself that everyone is struggling and your struggles are not unique, meditating about the people around you and wishing them happiness which will in turn bring you more happiness. These things aren’t true changes that you need to make in your life. They are mental shifts.

It was also easy to feel more joyful after vacationing in Greece. I took a break from my phone and the internet, I observed a new culture and world around me, I relaxed, exercised, and drank ouzo. I was full of joy.

But now. After the year we’ve had I felt like another dive into The Book of Joy was warranted. I am feeling lonely, sad, self-centered, and stuck. My grandparents just died. When I picked up this book, I was looking for meaning and purpose beyond my day to day activities. If my grandparents were able to live their lives in meaningful ways that made such a difference to so many around them (as I’d come to realize at their funerals), then what could I do to give my life that same sense of purpose and fulfillment?

It’s amazing how you can read a book more than once and take away different messages each time. Different chords ring true, different phrases stand out, and different chapters make more sense. Last time, I unknowingly focused on anything related to internal happiness. My own joy.

What I took from the book this time was its focus on others. You can’t just find happiness within yourself. You can’t just will it to happen with an attitude adjustment. You actually have to go live a purposeful life. And the way to do that is to actually focus on others. Life is meaningful in relation to the people around you. The people you help, the people you go through stuff with, the people you love. Your life’s meaning comes from what you do for others. Focusing on others take the focus off yourself. You forget your own troubles but you find such joy in making others happy that your troubles aren’t important.

It’s been difficult to do this in a pandemic. How can we focus on being kind to others when we can’t see their face under the mask? How can we practice compassion when we’re holed up in our own homes? It makes sense that I’ve turned inward, focusing more on myself. But perhaps it’s because of this pandemic that we should be turning even more to others. Helping each other, supporting each other, talking to each other. It’s just so difficult.

I rarely reread books, but this one was worth it. It was worth the reminder right now that even though it feels like we are all living in our own little Covid-bubbles, we are actually all still connected. Even though we feel isolated and we’re struggling, there are others who are struggling as well. Even though it’s difficult, we will get through this by focusing on the greater community, the world around us, and helping others.