In between literary novels, weird genres of non-fiction and indulgent YA dystopian fantasies, I read some books on productivity, happiness, and creativity here and there. Here’s a quick round up of the ones I’ve tackled in the past few months.
Oh, and I swear, I don’t usually hate everything. I’m usually a total sucker for self-development books!
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris
10% Happier, is essentially, a memoir of discovering mindfulness. That sounds intensely dull, but this account is not. Dan Harris has an irreverent, often funny style and his take on mindfulness is full of a salt-shaker’s worth of grains of salt. That said, the teachers he comes to be influenced by (largely the Insight Meditation folks) are the same ones that I’m very drawn to, so I appreciated his story all the more. This isn’t a self-help book, and neither is it particularly instructive in any way. That said it did give me a few new helpful ideas about meditation, and it was a quietly inspiring story of how you can get to grips with your brain and negative or frantic self-talk — at least a little bit — if you put some mental muscle into it.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
People love this book. It had been recommended to me so many times I decided, finally, to give it a read — even though I don’t have any interest in Stephen King’s novels or kind of writing. I thought it was OK. Just ok. Like many books on writing, the secret sauce trick King provides (and hammers in, many many times) is, sit in your chair every day and do it (and don’t use adverbs). He’s got some other tips, about who your first readers should be, and how to face writer’s block — but the essence is: butt in chair. The memoir aspect is vaguely interesting in a voyeuristic way (how other people live always is, right?). The section on when he was hit by a car got self-indulgent really fast. It was traumatic and terrible, no doubt, but King really abandoned his literary concision when he got to complaining about his aching joints. I never felt particularly inspired by On Writing, but I found it mildly entertaining enough to finish. If you’re a King fan, you’ll probably like it far more than I did, for the memoir aspect and details of writing various novels. As a general writing or creativity inspiration book, I’m not sure what everyone’s on about here.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Everyone seemed to love Big Magic, but I have to admit I didn’t, really. I also haven’t read any of her novels, or even watched her TED talk that everyone also seems to love — so I’m not an Elizabeth Gilbert fan, per se. But I was ready to like her. I hate to be so contrary when others have found inspiration here, but I didn’t feel like this book said much of anything. Gilbert has some hokey and ultimately utterly personal ideas about where ideas come from and how to use them and while I’m happy that that helps her write books, it meant little to me. Her other main tenet revolved around persistence (like all books on writing?), which is well and good, but certainly nothing new. To be honest, I think the part of this book that stuck with me the most were her anecdotes about interacting with other writers. Those bits were a little gossipy, but ultimately, could be the making of a yummy memoir in some years.
On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life by John O’Leary
I realize I’m now starting to sound like a complete grump, but On Fire was the worst in this whole group of “inspiring” books. I see nothing but glowingly positive reviews on Amazon and, ok, I admit, it is pretty curmudgeonly of me to diss a book by a dude who was burned horribly in an explosion as a child and has gone on to be a motivational speaker who helps people through tough times. I’m not reacting to his biography — his story is pretty fascinating. But his advice is so generic that I finished the book recalling none of it. I think, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s suggestions, it’s all about faith and persistence. (Define faith how you will.) But these are obvious ideas. There was nothing new to really nuance them for me here. I would have enjoyed this book if it were a poignant memoir rather than something that purported to help me live. I think maybe a show and don’t tell approach would have worked really well that way — certainly I’ve been inspired by many personal stories and autobiographies without “takeaways” in neon lights at the end of each chapter, and perhaps, subtitle aside, that’s what I thought this would be. But no… just generic advice from someone who lived through something crazy.
Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise
Now, here’s a book I had no expectations of. Mini Habits is very short and with the unvetted stigma of self-publishing. (I say this as someone who loves self-publishing.) But this little volume surprised me. It had a simple, small, but valuable idea in it. One I’ll actually use in my life. The idea (spoiler alert!) is that rather than taking on too much and failing, it’s best to create mini habits that are so small and easy that it’s a complete no brainer to do them. And once you do them repeatedly (like a regular-sized habit) they’ll become ingrained and you can up the ante. Or, you may even be inspired to up the ante (but not your expectations of yourself) along the way. So, instead of that goal to read 50 books this year, perhaps you try a goal of reading 2 minutes a day. Or 1 page. Or something ridiculously easy. Perhaps, some days, you’ll feel like reading 2 pages, or 50 pages, and that’s great. But building the habit is just about reading that 1 page every day. Cool idea, right?
Even at 126 pages, the Guise belabors the point a bit — but I definitely get the feeling that some of the repetition is about building the concept in the reader’s mind in the same way one builds a habit of mind or body. He gives several plans for different ways to combine multiple mini habits with warnings about how much is too much — useful I suppose, but perhaps a bit arbitrary and overly prescriptive. What is really useful here is the core idea he presents, and the ways you can think of to use and iterate upon it in a very practical manner. Guise explains it pretty well, so I’d say this is worth a (quick!) read.