A wise man once said that if you want to know a man's priorities, examine his bank account and his calendar. The idea being that you find out what someone really values by looking at the way they spend their money and which types of activities they make time for in their life.
It's all well and good saying that you want to get fit and learn to speak French, but if I couldn't work that out from examining your calendar and your bank account then they probably aren't as high priority for you as you're claiming.
This works for self examination too. Sometimes you may realise what your priorities are only after noticing how you've been subconsciously spending your time and money.
I think you can make an analogous rule of thumb about a person's reading list. If you want to know more about who a person is, look at the books they read.
So, I thought it would be fun to take a look at all the books I read in 2016, highlight the best bits and see what my reading choices might say about my year.
Here's the full list of books I started in 2016. I've added a score out of 10 for each book which is based on how much I enjoyed the book and (for non-fiction books) the amount of good stuff that I learnt.
Enders Game - Orson Scott Card - 7
A Short History of China - Gordon Kerr - 6
Modern China - Jonathan Clements - 7
The Tao of Pooh - Benjamin Hoff - 6
Chinese Rules - Tim Clissold - 9
Good Strategy / Bad Strategy - Richard Rumelt - 8
That's China - Mark Kitto - 9
The 48 Laws of Power - Robert Greene - 5
Ego is the Enemy - Ryan Holiday - 8
Influence - Robert B. Cialdini - 9
The One Page Financial Plan - Carl Richards - 7
The Examined Life - Stephen Grosz - 10
The Happiness of Pursuit - Chris Guillebeau - 8
Man's Search For Meaning - Viktor Frankl - 8
Smarter, Faster, Better - Charles Duhigg - 9
Never Split The Difference - Chris Voss - 9
So Good They Can't Ignore You - Cal Newport - 10
Mr China - Tim Clissold - 8
I Will Teach You To Be Rich - Ramit Sethi - 7
Four Hour Work Week - Tim Ferriss - 9
The Long and the Short of it - John Kay - 6
Modern Romance - Aziz Ansari
Paused / On Going
How to Live: A life of Montaigne - Sarah Bakewell (Paused, 40% read)
What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School - Mark McCormack (Paused, 25% read)
The Hidden Pleasures of Life - Theodore Zeldin (Paused, 25% read)
Tools of Titans - Tim Ferriss (Currently Reading, 33% read)
In total, I started 26 books in 2016, meaning books that I got at least a chapter into. I didn't keep track or include any books where I read a couple of pages and then put it down again.
My goal this time last year was to finish 26, so I got close with 21 completed books, but not quite all the way. Nevertheless, I'm pretty pleased that I got through as many as I did, and enjoyed almost all of them very much.
The one book that I abandoned after getting through a big chunk of the book was Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. It's not a terrible book, but it's just not my cup of tea. I stuck with it for longer than I would have done because I really like Aziz, but ultimately I'm just not that interested in the sociology of dating - I suppose at least that's something I learnt!
Overall, the scores breakdown as follows:
- 10 out of 10: 2 (9.5%)
- 9 out of 10: 6 (28.5%)
- 8 out of 10: 5 (24%)
- 7 out of 10: 4 (19%)
- 6 out of 10: 3 (14%)
- 5 out of 10: 1 (5%)
Here is a venn diagram of all the books (excluding the abandoned one, but including the works in progress), organised by topic:
Looking at the picture above, it's clear to see my main interests this year.
I went to China in February for two weeks which played a fairly huge role in determining my reading interests for the rest of the year. Before I left I had planned to read a few books on China so that I could make the most of my trip. There's no point standing in Tiananmen Square or on the Great Wall if you don't understand the full significance of those places! However, I found myself pulled further and further into the China rabbit hole, ending up reading about Taoism through the characters of Winnie the Pooh, and three awesome books about what it's like to be a Westerner trying to do business in China.
That's China is an autobiography of Mark Kitto who built the biggest English language magazine in China, a country renowned for it's state controlled media. Mr China and Chinese Rules was written by Tim Clissold and are also based on the author's own experiences trying to build businesses. He and his colleagues were one of the very first (and largest) foreign investors when China first opened up to the world in the 90s.
Even if you have no interest in business, I would seriously recommend all three of these books to anyone who would like to understand Chinese culture and Chinese people a bit better. They don't make it sound like a relaxing experience, and some of the things they go through are unbelievable, but the biggest lesson I learnt is that to judge China entirely through a Western frame of reference is to miss something very important. 2016 has left me increasingly fascinated with China, and I'll be reading more in 2017.
The two books I have given a score of 10 out of 10 are The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz and So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport. Both were completely fascinating, and 100% required reading for every man, woman and child. Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst, telling stories about some of his most memorable patients. Not only is it written beautifully, but it makes you really appreciate just how complicated people are, and that often their emotions and behaviour are determined by unconscious defence mechanisms and experiences long passed. My favourite story is about the patient who visits Grosz because he is told by his girlfriend and then his boss that he is boring. After struggling to make much progress at all, it turns out that:
A fascinating story about a boring man! This book will make you more empathetic, more patient with people who are behaving in a way you don't understand, and it certainly made me tear up a couple of times. Probably the best book I read in 2016.
The other top scorer, So Good They Can't Ignore You, is about by the worst career advice you can give to someone is "follow your passion". Passion is not something you already have, it's something that comes as a consequence of being really really good at what you do. Following your passion leads to frequent job hopping as you try to find just the right fit. Newport instead recommends that you focus on what skills you have that are a) rare and b) valuable. By cultivating a skill set that is rare and valuable, you'll have more power to choose the job you want and you'll develop the passion that actually makes you happy.
It's a fantastically clear argument for an important idea that many people feel intuitively is true, but can't explain exactly why.
This book should be given to every graduating student in the country. Even if you left university a while ago, it's important you understand how to think about your career development. Read this book!
The overall theme that jumps out at me when looking back over the last year is that people are complicated, and the books I've read are an attempt to try to understand them better. China fascinates me partly because it's just so different. They have a completely different starting set of assumptions, experiences and culture, and you have to understand those things before you judge them or (try to) change them. One of the books I put in the 'Business' section is Never Split The Difference, a book about negotiation by a former FBI hostage negotiator. This should really be in an overlap between business and psychology, but it's too hard to draw! But again, what I learnt is that the first thing you need to do is genuinely listen and try to understand the world as the other person sees it. Understanding other people is a powerful, important ability to possess.
Even the books on personal finance fit into this overall trend! In The One Page Financial Plan the first thing it talks about is that before you can sort out your finances and make a plan for the future, you need to understand why money is important to you. I think most people assume that everyone feels the same way about money as they do, but it's actually a really personal, individual thing. Once you have figured that out, only then can you make good decisions about what to do.
I hope you've found this interesting! It's certainly been a useful way to look back at 2016 and think again about the things I've learnt. In 2017 I hope to at least match the number of books as this year, but I'll probably try to branch out into some different areas like history and politics.
If you have any book recommendations for me, I would love to hear them!