News & Opinion

Inside the Longlist: Personal Development & Human Behavior

Blyth Meier

December 13, 2018


Our Marketing Director Blyth Meier takes a closer look at the top five Personal Development & Human Behavior books of 2018.

The world needs change on multiple fronts. Some of the problems we face are systemic (see: our Big Ideas & New Perspectives category) and the only way to make meaningful progress is through collective, long-term action. It’s necessary, important work that we all must participate in, but it is also some of the hardest. Groups are joyous and messy and unpredictable. Sometimes it’s a small relief to get the chance to step away from struggles of democratic action and just focus on ourselves; ponder how we move through our days and our work; weigh which choices we can adjust along the way to clear a smoother path, if only for ourselves. Because those adjustments we make might radiate to those around us as well. I’m grateful for the five books in this year’s Personal Development & Human Behavior category, which have, in their own individual ways, made changes large and small in my heart and mind; how I think about others, how I think about situations, and how I think about my place in relation to them. It is my great hope that these new thoughts will result in changes not only in my own behavior, but in those around me, and in you, too.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker, Riverhead Books

In our world that genuflects to the power of computers, it is crucial to remember that people coming together in the same physical space remains the most magical and transformative act. No Twitter threads, no Instagram filters, no emojis signaling humanity in emails, can trump the simple act of people in the presence of other people. Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering is not only a comprehensive and indispensable guide for gatherings of any size or purpose but more importantly, it is a reminder to be fully present with each other. To say to each other: “I Am Here,” as Parker, her husband, and their friends did for many weekends after they moved to New York, in an effort to feel at home in their new city. As they rambled through a chosen neighborhood for hours and hours together, sans phones, they broke through the small talk that carries us along in groups and created real, unbreakable bonds. The kind of bonds that bind, even when our viewpoints diverge. Parker helps us put thought and care into all of our gatherings, honor the people we have brought together, and take a step towards a better world.

Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning by Leslie Odom, Jr., Feiwel & Friends

“You walk toward the things that make you feel most alive.” Failing Up follows actor and singer Leslie Odom, Jr. as he walks from Rent-obsessed teenager to Tony Award winner. But before he tackled his once-in-a-lifetime role, he was stuck. He was playing it safe. He wasn’t getting the roles he wanted. And when he did, he was reining in his performances. The man who would eventually command the Broadway stage as Hamilton’s Aaron Burr admitted he was “never comfortable at ten,” never willing to let himself completely go in his performances. And as he turned 30, he even thought it might be time to call it done. Until he heard these words from a trusted mentor: “I’d love to see you try before you quit.” Massive worldwide success starts as a series of small but critical steps we take in the quietest moments in our lives. In Odom’s book we get to see his footsteps on that private path up close—the shuffles, strides, leaps, and even stumbles. Because it is in those stumbles, those failures, that we learn more about ourselves than the spotlight can ever tell us. It is in the uncountable hours of preparation before we get to the stage that will make us fearless. And it is this book that will inspire us all to take those steps of our own.

In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman, TED Books

There is a to-do list on the back of an envelope on my kitchen counter. A list of different tasks is printed out on my desk at work. An app syncs yet another set of lists on my phone and computers. Then there are voicemails and text messages and emails and Instagram story messages to respond to, or at least look at. Or not. It’s all part of a raging digital river that will not end, commanding our attention and “destroying our inner selves and our creative capacities.” Alan Lightman’s In Praise of Wasting Time is the anti-time management book that we all need to reclaim our psychological well-being. While some, especially in the workplace, feel that “wasting time” is a cardinal sin, Lightman assures us that our brain is working just as hard during that time. Just differently. And that different kind of thinking, or “divergent thinking” is the only way some tasks will get done. Projects that need stillness of mind to germinate cannot start to grow if they are scheduled to death. This slim volume will leave an outsized impact on your inner self, the most unique part of us all.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, Seal Press

The way we are talking about race in America is changing in small and large ways. For those of you who want to join the conversation but don’t have an idea of where to start, Ijeoma Oluo’s primer on the structures and effects of systemic racism is the perfect entry point for your journey. Oluo expertly combines personal storytelling with historical context and immediately actionable steps to explore the complex topic of race in a straightforward, helpful, and compassionate way. Conversations about race are difficult and uncomfortable for all involved. We will get it wrong, but that’s okay. This book is here as your guide, and your reminder to keep trying. As Oluo says, “Do not fear the opportunity to do better.” The road to systemic change is step by step, and it’s time for more of us to start walking. This book is a true gift—to our workplaces, our schools, our neighborhoods, and our country.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink, Riverhead Books

Each of us has the same twenty-four hours available to us every day of the year. It turns out what activities we choose to fill those hours with might not be as important as when we choose to do them. Dan Pink's newest book digs into the science of the one thing we all wish we had more of—time. Whether we are “larks,” “owls,” or what Pink terms “third birds,” we all experience the same predictable patterns of peaks and troughs in our energy and focus, just at different times of day. What that means for how we plan our days and the work we do can have huge implications, as “the performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to the effect on performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol.” Whether we are a judge handing down a sentence, a surgeon operating on a patient, or an author working on the Great American Novel, Pink argues understanding these rhythms and taking necessary breaks is the key to doing our best work. “I used to believe that timing was everything,” he writes, “Now I believe that everything is timing.”

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