Things I Learned Reading In 2014


Some of the most important lessons we’ll learn in our lives will come from books. Some of them will be “quake books” that totally changed how we thought about everything. Some come from totally inconsequential books that possess some random fact or lesson that stays with us.

I learned a lot from the books I read in 2014. More from some than others of course, but I came away with at least one important thing from every good book I picked up this year. For the first time ever, I’m going to try to make a public accounting for some easy and clear lessons I learned.

Along those lines, here some insights that helped me over the last 12 months and hopefully will help you over the next 12.

-From Sam Sheridan’s A Fighter’s Heart and A Fighter’s Mind, I learned the difference between confidence and ego. One is earned, the other is stolen. One is healthy, the other is toxic. Also, great fighters are great because they are humble enough to be perpetual students.

-I learned that I finally need glasses. And to be proud, in a weird way, of wearing out my eyes. As Theodore Roosevelt said, we have the choice in life: to wear out or rust out.

-From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity, I learned that the myth of the miserable, dysfunctional creative is almost wholly without basis. In fact, creativity requires self-awareness, well-adjustedness, and a connection to reality.

-From Bird by Bird, I loved and will always remember the line: Is life too short to put up with shit, or too short to mind it?

-From The Avengers by Rich Cohen I learned that not all Jews went passively during the Holocaust and heard the story of the fascinating and inspiring Jewish resistance movement.

-From Michael Jackson Inc., I learned that Michael Jackson was an expert in royalties and publishing and that’s how he made most of his money. I also learned that most of his weird
persona was a P.T. Barnum-esque marketing campaign. Also he was a big reader and loved the 48 Laws of Power.

-I learned so much from Tiny Beautiful Things that I wrote an article about it. But mostly: Be ten times more magnanimous than you think yourself capable of being.

-From A New Pair of Glasses, I heard about Rule 62 of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t take yourself too damn seriously.” Also, ego = “a conscious separation from God, others and Self.”

-From Tides of War, I learned about the difference between boldness and courage. Courage is solid and self-contained. Boldness is illusion and empire. Boldness invites disaster which brings it down.

-I learned that binge reading is more fun than any other way.

-In Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins I learned just how much Hemingway was disturbed by Fitzgerald’s lack of discipline and enormous ego. When Hemingway can chastise you about those things, something is wrong.

-From Aristotle, I re-familiarized myself with the concept of the “Golden Mean.” Between brashness and cowardice, for example, is bravery.

-From The Will to Meaning, I learned that Viktor Frankl had a chance to avoid the Nazi death camps, but chose to stay to take care of his parents. Wow.

-From Life of Black Hawk, I learned that Americans actually paraded this captive Indian chief around like a Roman spoil of war. Terrible.

-From Here is Where, I learned that John Wilkes Booth’s brother saved the life of Lincoln’s son at a train station. I also learned the backstory of a crashed Japanese pilot in the Hawaiian islands that led to the hysteria that led to the internment of the Japanese during WWII.

-From a biography of Washington, I learned just how impressive this man really was. From Col. Roosevelt, I learned how great (again) that man was. It would be impossible in two sentences to list everything I learned from the nearly 2,000 pages that these books have between them, but wow did I learn a lot.

-From the famous book about Shackleton, I learned a wonderful Latin saying–his family motto and of course, the source of his greatness–Fortitudine vincimus (by endurance we conquer).

-From Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, I learned: “You are whatever the company you keep is.” And: “To repeat other people’s thoughts, without considering whether they are right or wrong, is the talent only of a parrot.” [something to keep in mind here!]

-From Hormegeddon, I learned how too much of a good thing leads to disaster over and over again.

-From Marcus Aurelius, each time I reread it, I was reminded how important it is to never drift too far from philosophy.

-I learned in Isaac’s Storm that the deadliest natural disaster in American history was the Galveston hurricane in 1900 and killed nearly 8,000 people. The storm surge was higher than the town was above sea level.

-I finally learned, in the middle of some forgettable book I’d been forcing myself to muddle through, how freeing it is to quit books that suck.

-There was great stuff about self-respect in Joan Didion’s book Slouching Towards Bethlehem. As she put it, “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”

-From Theory of Moral Sentiments, I learned that Smith wasn’t just an economic philosopher but a true philosopher of life. I also loved his concept of the “indifferent spectator” that one ought to use to judge their actions. What would they think about what you are about to do? Also, his crucial distinction between “praise” and “praiseworthiness.” [hint: the latter is what matters.]

-I learned the hard way to never put a book in the airplane seatback pocket when you get tired. You will forget it when you get off the plane and you will lose all your notes.

-From Dying Every Day, I saw how torn Seneca was between his philosophy and his Machiavellian role in politics. I related to this very deeply. I have felt this same contradiction, I imagine a lot of people have.

-From The Boys in the Boat, I learned just how fucking hard rowing is and how much of the game is mental. Also, just how Hitler-driven the 1936 Olympics were. I learned a lot from the lessons of the old school British boat maker in the book too.

-Also I learned just how many people are desperate for some speed reading shortcut. It doesn’t exist. Sorry!

-From Harold Holzer, I learned about Lincoln’s mind for media manipulation and media strategy–which our current President could use to learn from.

-As I learn every year, I was reminded that just because lots of people say a book is good doesn’t mean it is. More than that, I was humbled to find that a few books I’d dismissed as bad because everyone said they were good, were in fact quite good.

-I learned about the insane wildlife and ecosystem of the Vancouver Islands in The Golden Spruce. Loved it.

-From Austin Kleon, I was reminded of the joys and importance of showing your work. It’s not about perfecting it in a laboratory.

-From You Can’t Make Me Angry, I learned that another person can’t make you feel something. Mastering this is called “emotional sobriety.”

-From The Fat Lady Sang, I learned that Robert Evans is still alive and still in love with his own narrative. Interesting to read but also sad.

-From Marshall: Hero for Our Times, I discovered a man far too undersold in history. He was a great man, one of the best and most honorable military men we’ve ever had. In fact, most people don’t know about him because he turned down $1M to write his memoirs because telling the truth would have involved embarrassing some of his peers.

-I learned to slow down.

-From The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, I learned that the hustler, the striver, if he cannot prioritize, loses everything in the end. It is a curse, not a talent.

-From Up From Slavery, I learned how Booker T. Washington got into college by sweeping the waiting room of the registrar’s office. I learned all sorts of great lessons about organization and leadership too. The man was a force of nature.

-I don’t know how much I learned from Bo Knows Bo but I sure do like the guy.

-From Robert Louis Stevenson’s book on writing, I learned that Treasure Island was inspired by a map he drew. Everything in the book came from the map. I also learned that he loved Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and he recommended Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude, which I loved.

-I learned about the insane history of oil in Texas in The Big Rich.

-James Altucher’s The Power of No was a good reminder in why you have to say “no” to stuff and what an important skill this actually is.

-I was super fascinated by the strategies used to kill off the non-native goat population of the Galapagos Islands in Henry Nicholls’s The Galápagos: A Natural History. Hint: the used a “judas goat.”

-I learned about the Korean War in The Coldest Winter. How MacArthur lost and won the war and how Ridgeway navigated the insane political situation he was put in to salvage the damage that MacArthur’s ego had done.

-From MacArthur’s memoir, I learned that his father, Arthur MacArthur, was a Civil War hero. Gives you a different perspective on history–that a leading WWII officer was the immediate descendent of a Civil War officer.

-From a book about Nellie Bly, I learned so much about this inspiring and brave female journalist.

-From Erik Prince’s memoir, I learned how inexcusably dependent we have been on government contractors to wage our foreign wars.

-I am in love with a great line from Emerson’s Representative Men: Seven Lectures, that for all the initial glory, Napoleon’s accomplishments “disappeared like the smoke from one of his artillery guns.”

-Learned all I can stomach about high-frequency trading in Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys.

-I learned that Moby Dick was based on a true story in In The Heart of the Sea. I also learned a lot about whaling which I found to be fascinating.

-I found that old biographies are almost always more dependable and better than newly published ones.

-From Ben Horowitz, I learned the hard thing about hard things. I learned how to make a way when there is no way.

-From It’s Kind of a Funny Story, I learned about depression. What it really is and really feels like. I don’t think I’ve seen it done better in a book.

-I learned that Amazon’s Buy Back/Trade In program is a great way to get rid of books you don’t want.

A couple of the books listed here have made my relationship with my fiancée/wife much better. Others have made me decent money. The point is: there is so much evidence about what a good investment books are. The more you put in, the more you get out.

Multi scire volunt sed vere discere nolunt (many want to know but in fact they refuse to learn).

So read a book man!

If you want some more recommendations, sign up for the reading recommendation email. Or check out some book lists that have been published on Thought Catalog below.