The Most Important Book on Your Shelf

If there was ever a book to keep for ongoing reference on your bookshelf—whether your shelf is digital or wood—The Obstacle Is the Way is it. Ryan Holiday’s new book is about a philosophy called Stoicism. In case that’s off-putting to you (well, of course it is), there’s a better reason to read it. If you face something hard—a job crisis, a parenting sorrow, a painful breakup or even just a malaise—this book offers a way to transcend, to accept the hardship then turn it to your advantage. If you prefer to feel sorry for yourself, you really needn’t read this book. But if you want to do better, to feel better, this book will help you have the backbone to do so.  At least it did for me.

A bonus: The stories used to back up points are about fascinating characters, from Athenian orator Demosthenes to aviator Amelia Earhart to baseball pitcher Tommy John to German general Rommel. It’s a compelling, if random, history lesson.

Postscript: Do you like to read? It’s easy to get stuck in a book rut, reading more and more of the same. Ryan Holiday shares his intense reading life in a free monthly email to anyone interested (as 15,000 people are, including me). His recommendations are usually quite far from what I normally read, and those outliers have turned out to be some of the most stimulating books I’ve come across. Here’s where to get more info and subscribe.

Reading: Thank You for Your Service

If you’ve spent even 20 seconds in the last year feeling sorry for yourself, you need to read Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel. When you put it down, you will be overwhelmed with gratitude for the ease of your life.

This book follows men who have returned from serving in Iraq with the Army 2-16 Infantry Battalion. They are victims of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, and while they look “normal” on the outside, they are battling demons that threaten their lives every day. To say these lives are heartbreaking is an understatement. The amount of psychic work it takes for these men—and their wives, who remember the men they married…the men so different from those who came home from Iraq—to regain a stable life is astounding. And it’s not surprising that many do not make it. Much of the book covers the suicide rate for veterans and the Army’s efforts to care for and protect those at risk, with limited success.

I’m no longer sure I could say the words, “Thank you for your service” to a veteran. For too many, it’s a shallow, confounding and almost insulting phrase, in light of the lifelong devastation their service rendered.

Sometimes heartbreaking reading is required reading.

Reading: Creative Confidence

Design firm IDEO has wowed the world with applied creativity for decades. The company explains its work like this: A global design consultancy; we create impact through innovation. Now IDEO founder David Kelley and his brother and partner Tom Kelley, have written a book called Creative Confidence to cheer the rest of us on in this mission to create impact through innovation.

Travelers will enjoy several case studies from within our circles:

  • How Air New Zealand came up with the economy class “skycouch” (and why the idea of bunkbeds was rejected);
  • How an Olympic athlete on JetBlue’s staff figured out what went wrong during the airline’s Valentine’s Day 2007 snowstorm PR crisis; and
  • How Cisco invented the ultimate anti-travel technology, TelePresence.

The brothers Kelley are evangelists for travel and see it as a lens for viewing the world in a new way, thus spawning creativity.

We learn a lot when we travel not because we are any smarter on the road, but because we pay such close attention.

The Kelleys often take students from the d.school (the Stanford University design institute David Kelley founded) to the airport to observe passengers and talk with airline representatives. The students are surprised at what they notice for the first time.

For business travelers who can put on this beginner’s mind when they hit the road—and keep it on even when preoccupied with the upcoming meeting’s outcome or stressed from a delayed flight—travel can boost creativity like few other activities. A trio of personal essays from Chip Conley, Peter Shankman and Byron Reese about how travel stimulates their business thinking is one of my favorite Executive Travel editorial packages.

Keeping a beginner’s mind and staying present enough to really see when traveling is the road warrior’s version of meditation. And they don’t call meditation a practice for nothing: It requires much of that.

Reading: Week of December 30, 2013

In the last couple weeks, I have poked around a little in genre fiction. I’ve always been a literary fiction gal, but there’s such an explosion going on in the genres that I wanted to see what’s up. Time to stop being a book snob and check it out (literally, at my local library).

On a friend’s recommendation, I picked up The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, in the YA (Young Adult literature) genre. I started the book on a plane. So many people love to read on planes, but I too often feel restless and can’t concentrate. Yet I could not put this book down, immediately hooked on the characters’ voices. I even found myself slowing my pace so I could read it on the flight home, too. YA (Young Adult) literature did not exist as a specific category when I was a YA (though books were written that would be labeled YA now). But it’s fascinating that this genre is as popular for OAs (you can guess that meaning) as for its intended audience. Some research shows that more than half the readers of YA books are older.

Another genre, speculative fiction, is also getting a lot of love these days. (It includes science fiction, horror, fantasy and a number of other sub-genres.) I’m just finishing up World War Z by Max Brooks, which also happens to be very popular with the YA crowd, but it seems Zombie lit is now its own genre. I have a fascination with comparing books with their movies and have recently read a number of books after seeing the movie to compare them (e.g. True Grit, Rebecca, A Christmas Carol, No Country for Old Men, The Hobbit). Apparently, I’m one of the few people who loved the World War Z movie, but in any case, the telling of the tale in the book is very different. And even better. The book’s format, a fictional oral history, is brilliant but would be hard to hold onto in a movie, so it makes sense that this was omitted. The oral history allows the writer to get into some fascinating repercussions of this fictional apocalypse. It’s an engaging—and frightening—read.

I’m glad to give up some of my genre prejudices. And while I’ll stick with my literary fiction mainline (just finished The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson—now that is an impressive piece of writing…well deserving of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), I want to be sure and pick up more genre fiction. The more books—and the more readers—the better.

Reading: Week of November 11, 2013

Bay Watched: How San Francisco’s new entrepreneurial culture is changing the country, by Nathan Heller

This week, the reading that rumbled around in my brain for days was an article, not a book, that I found via Ben Casnocha (whose blog you should read regularly, if you don’t already). The New Yorker piece posits that San Francisco is incubating a new generation of entrepreneurs, with very different strategies from their predecessors (and different from their compadres in Silicon Valley and New York). Writer Nathan Heller tells the tale artfully. I felt I’d romped around the Peninsula with him, meeting up with the cast of unconventional and creative characters myself. Good reading for locals and beyond, with keen insights into “The City” and its national impact.