This is a post about a bunch of useful books, and how I’m using them this year.
But it starts with some angsty self-recrimination about me making a complete pig’s ear of late 2017.
If that intro sounds like a whole lot of nope to you, you can skip to the good stuff by clicking here.
“COME HERE, YOU THIEVING F***!”
I hop gingerly over the smashed glass (I’m barefoot) and run like hell the rest of the way down the garden. At the far end, a pair of trousers is climbing into next door’s, through a tiny gap between the barbed wire and the broken glass lining the top of the wall.
It looks like our burglar is going to get away.
There’s no way I can cover the distance in time, but I try anyway, bellowing the foulest English words in my vocabulary, hoping he’ll panic and slip. Another few seconds in my favour, and maybe I’d be able to grab one of those dirty trouser legs, yank him back into the garden and hold him down until the police arrived. But alas. His feet kick in the air – and he’s gone.
Still, not much harm done. One broken window. Nothing taken. Could have been worse.
Our house is set back from the road, at the end of another house’s garden. He must have thought it unoccupied – which says a lot for his judgment. He was foolish (or confused) enough to try breaking in during daylight, ignoring the many signs of occupation that it’d be easy to miss at night.
As an attempted burglary, it’s a pretty poor effort.
Nevertheless, I’m furious. This is the part I hate, and have problems dealing with. When Mariana yelled, and I rushed downstairs, I felt calm. A situation to assess, then to deal with. It’s only afterwards that my emotions are uncorked and spill everywhere. While we ring our landlord about the broken window, my thoughts cycle round and round, powered by frustration, self-recrimination and pulses of fury. My fists clench and unclench.
If only I’d been quicker, I wouldn’t have let him get away.
He’s not the only thing that got away from me this year.
Earlier in the day, a stranger looked back at me from the bathroom mirror.
Well, okay. Let’s skip the bad poetry. I’m not Doctor bloody Who here. I’m still the Mike that arrived in Costa Rica in the Spring of 2017.
Yet this is a version of me that has gone . . . a little awry. There are new lines in that face, more flesh in the wrong places, sunken and shadowed in others. There’s something snuffed out, behind the eyes. Overall, I look like I’ve had a bad CGI moustache removal.
So what’s that about?
In one sense, everything’s good. Costa Rica has turned out to be a fine, fine place to recharge after suffering burnout at the beginning of the year. I’m surrounded by good people. Work is picking up nicely, and I’m currently writing two books (either of which will be my first self-published book – I’m treating it as a kind of race between them). My plans for 2018 are thrilling. There is much to feel grateful for, so I really should.
But behind the obvious stuff, there’s a lot that got away from me this year, and I haven’t got it back yet.
There’s the illness that hammered my ability to sit in front of a computer for more than a few hours a week, for months on end. We finally got to the bottom of it in early December, thanks to friends and my in-house doctor, and now I’m taking a mixture of papaya and horse medicine to deal with it (I’m not making this up, I promise). However, all my work deadlines and side-projects have slipped, to a degree I can see reflected in my bank account.
Equally badly, my fitness has suffered and I’ve lost a fair bit of muscle. I started the year capable of walking 25 miles in a day. I walked six miles a few weeks ago and it completely exhausted me. I’m heavier – not much, but enough to feel it in my knees and my lower back. My body nags at me when I try to act like Last Year Mike – and this year I hit 46 years old, an age where it’s becoming really tough to stay in good shape, let alone get back into it.
(Sorry, body. Thanks for keeping me going, despite my worst efforts.)
Unfortunately, my diminished physical state has hampered my ability to haul myself completely out of the mild depression I was suffering from when I arrived. In recovery terms, I’ve been stupid, and I’ve got in my own way. F-minus for self-care.
I could go on – but in summary, things are a bit of a mess, and this is not really where I wanted to be by the end of the year.
There are two methods of dealing with this situation:
(1) Accept what’s changed, resign myself to a kind of low-grade disappointment about some things, diluted with the contentment I’m feeling about other parts of my life, refusing to grumble, saying things like “still, not much harm done, could have been worse” and heading into 2018 with a feeling of necessary (if demoralizing) compromise in my heart.
(2) Grabbing all these things (my health, my wildest ambitions, my curiosity about what I’m truly capable of) by the trouser-leg before they climb over the wall and are gone forever.
Guess which one I’m choosing.
A Few Rules For Rebooting Yourself
1. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just get it done. The big reason people abandon their New Year Resolutions is they grow attached to the idea of perfection – of a triumphant 365-day run of non-stop winning. This is why January 2nd is such a disappointment and January 3rd involves a massive hangover.
This is not how healthy, productive habits get formed.
Habit-forming is a process of minimizing failures until they’re too small to count against you. You don’t succeed because you ace it first time. You succeed because you keep trying to do it better and better, no matter what the result on the day is. After a while, inertia will do much of the work for you. Just keep pushing.
For example, if you plan to get up at 6am and write for an hour every day, and in your first week you only do it twice, that’s fine – it means your goal for the next week is to do it three times, or maybe four. If you grit your teeth there’s no reason you can’t set that habit perfectly from day one, and there’s a nice pressure to not break the cycle, but if you don’t (which is 92% of us) then that’s fine.
Lose the battle – but keep fighting until you win the war.
2. Shake up your routine – or rewrite it completely. In the words of Rita Mae Brown commonly attributed to Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
So don’t, or you won’t get them.
Beware the usual. Embrace the weirdly new. It’s your best shot.
3. Get longterm help. Assume the answers you seek have already been found by someone smarter than you, and then find a way to actually follow their advice. The advice-following part is where it gets really tough, since as modern users of the internet, we’re used to “inspirational advice” – something we read, nod our heads to, and do absolutely nothing with.
A good method is to find some good advice and just live with it for a while.
In content marketing, there’s a thing called “multiple touches with your brand” – where people only trust your voice and are willing to follow your advice when they’ve heard it maybe a dozen times, sometimes much more. This is clearly how our brains work, and it’s a big part of why I value rereading – something that seems impractical, even unfashionable, in the face of so much new stuff hitting us right between the eyes every damn day.
Rereading the right books is a great way to remind yourself again and again of the stuff that really matters, and to get the mentoring you need from some of the smartest people in the world. The trick is to keep going back in, until that advice is second nature to you.
All this shouldn’t be a quick process. If it’s quick, it’s a fad. You really have to live this stuff to get it to work for you.
My Rebooting Reading List
Here, then, are eight books and a few websites that I’m using to catch up with myself over the coming year, and I’ll be writing at length about each one in this ‘ere blog in coming months, from the perspective of what worked and what didn’t.
If you fancy grabbing a copy and following along, click through to Amazon (they’re all affiliate links, meaning I’d get a tiny commission if you did that.)
Levelling Up My Social (And Antisocial) Life
Problem: I love people and hate crowds. I’ve talked on stage in front of 250 people and loved it, and had borderline panic attacks at parties. There’s a word for this paradoxical way of living: “introvert”. But I don’t know what that means, regarding my daily life. How do I manage it? How can I feel empowered, not shackled, by it when I’m dealing with lots of people? In 2018 I’m doubling down on my public speaking. I need to understand my behaviour better.
Taking The Initiative & Tuning Out The Noise
Problem: Reacting. Like most of us, I spend the bulk of my online time reacting to what I see on the internet. Some people seem to thrive on it. I don’t. I feel helpless, frustrated, exasperated with myself and the stupidity of others, especially at my ability to fritter away the day on things I have no control over, no meaningful opinion on, and no plans to make an important part of my life anytime soon. Reacting to the internet is allowing it to eat my brain.
Solution: The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People – By Stephen Covey. At first glance, this looks like the worst kind of over-promising. self-important self-help guff that you’ll find in any wannabe consultant’s bookcase – but this one is the original that everyone else has copied, and well worth your time (especially if you get Covey’s audio lectures – the book can be a bit ponderous at times).
I’ve dipped into 7 Habits many times over the last 20 years, particularly the sections on working within your ‘sphere of influence’ (the stuff you can actually do something about, right now). The aim of the book is to wean you off dependent thinking (ie. just reacting to stuff) and into adopting a proactive mindset. That’s the antidote to a lot of frustration.
Saying The Right Things In The Right Way
Problem: I need to become a better public speaker. It’s been a while since I did it, and I miss that energy, that fear and being part of that kind of controlled performance (I’d love a shot at acting lessons, but that can wait for now). There are many good business reasons why I should speak – and I love it, and based on past performances, I’m fairly good at it – but not good enough to get the gigs I want. Not yet.
Solution: I have already read Max Atkinson’s brilliant Lend Me Your Ears, the book that taught me how to avoid putting up text-heavy Powerpoint slides and then spending whole goddamn minutes reading them out, while people in the audience lose their minds and attempt to hang themselves with their lanyards. Avoiding that pitfall turned me into a decent speaker overnight. I’ve also got Joanna Penn’s Public Speaking For Authors, Creatives And Other Introverts – I’ve followed Joanna for years and she knows her stuff.
However, my main guide will be Nancy Duarte’s Resonate, which focuses on the shape of your presentation, the structure you use to persuade your audience. In other words, its story. Totally my thing. The book is on Amazon, but Duarte was generous enough to release the whole book on her website for free in a multimedia form, which you can read here.
Rebuilding My Body
Problem: I have little stamina, my muscles are weaker, my joints ache, and I can only walk a quarter of what I was walking at the beginning of the year. That’s some deterioration – and since I’ve set myself a major physical challenge for the summer (see below), this has to be corrected as quickly as possible.
Solutions: (1) The archives of Nerd Fitness. I could pick any one of a dozen fitness books or courses – but I’ve been following Steve for years and I like his science-heavy, gamified approach. This is where I start.
(2) Tools Of Titans – By Tim Ferriss. Here is a guy who has spent most of the last decade rebooting himself using all sorts of experiments – then telling everyone about it, sometimes in a faintly obnoxious, self-obsessed-sounding kind of way, sometimes by being relentlessly generous with his hard-earned wisdom, usually both at the same time. He’s already written a book about putting his body through some truly crazy ill-advised shit (occasionally ill-advised by his own admission), and I’m definitely not keen to follow him down all those paths. This isn’t that book. Instead, it’s all the wisdom he’s gathered from everyone he’s interviewed on his podcast – and it’s a gold-mine of things to try out. In my case, I’ll be narrowing down on the section about physical health. This is how the professionals get and stay in shape. I’ll be taking all the notes.
Learning Word Magic
Problem: I can’t write like Kathleen Jamie.
Solution: Studying Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012) in great detail, like I’m doing English Lit at school and there’s an exam looming, so I can work out how to become a cheap Kathleen Jamie knock-off, and maybe one day I’ll appear at the bottom of her Amazon pages under the words “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…”. Then my life will be pathetically complete. I don’t think I’m aiming too high here.
Making Everything Sticky
Problem: Like anyone online, I want to get the word out about what I’m doing. Except, not in the spammy way. Mechanically pounding people in the face with mentions of your work is inelegant, depressing and a massive waste of creative energy (thanks, social media “gurus”). The real goal is to be doing things so amazingly interesting that people seek you out without you having to self-promote to them. So – how does that happen? What does “interesting” actually mean?
Solution: Made To Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath. This is a book about how things “go viral” – or if you loathe that term as much as I do, it’s about how good ideas can be designed to be catchy, so they spread far and wide without relying on saturation marketing. If you clicked something online this year, one of the psychological principles outlined in this book probably made you do it. This has a lot of application in my story consultancy work, which is all about creating things that hook and reel in massive numbers of people. I’ve already tested a few things in here, and they paid off better than expected. So now I’m going to learn and test everything.
sLEEPING iN tHE wOODS lIKE a cRAZY pERSON
Problem: I’ve set myself the challenge of sleeping outdoors for at least two months, maybe three, next summer. This is purely recreational (it’s a thing I like doing) and I’ll be looking into ways to use it to raise money for charity, while using it as the foundation for a follow-up book to the one I’m currently writing. It’s also a great way to roam around the UK, hanging out with friends and doing some proper exploring, working out of coffee shops, libraries and anywhere with a WiFI signal and a source of power. And at night? I’ll be sleeping in the woods. So I need to know exactly how to do that for weeks at a time.
Solution: Stef Roberts is a British graphic designer who has spent the last few years sleeping in the woods. Yes, even in the deepest winter (I’ve done it too, if only for one night). He’s documented the process on YouTube, with the first video here (h/t to Al Humphreys). I won’t be doing everything he does – chopping down young trees to make your fire is a huge conservation no-no – but I have plenty to learn from him, and since he helpfully lists all the equipment he uses, that makes things even easier for me. Well, until I’m out there in the woods, wondering if I’d finally lost my mind. Until then.
That’s the current list I’m working with. I may add a few books to the pile as I go (but I’m being careful to avoid overloading myself – the classic trap for the modern self-improver).
If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Please pop them in the comments below. Thanks!
Images: Mike Sowden, Pixabay, Unsplash.