Most Impactful Books of 2016

I am enjoying reading the lists of books, podcasts, and movies that people compile at the end of the year. People’s tastes are idiosyncratic, so I figure if I find one or two things that are new and interest me then it was worth the time reading their list. Whilst reading the New York Times Book Review survey of writers and their favorites of 2016, I found quite a few new things to read in 2017 (more on that at the end).

Three journals from 2016 and my current composition book… on my desk in winter’s light.

The challenge is always remembering what I have read in Q1 or Q2. This is why I write down the titles in my journal. Please allow me a moment to pause and say a word on behalf of journaling. I have been writing in a personal journal for most of my life. Okay, so when I was in third grade I called it a diary and it had a key that I lost somewhere over the years. Sometimes they devolve into a book of lists. Sometimes I take notes on a particularly moving podcast or documentary or copy passages from a book.

I also use composition notebooks for work. I learned this technique from Dr. Henry Vaux at the University of California. It is easier to look for notes based on the timeline of meetings and associations than to keep them in separate files by topic. When I begin a new comp book, I tear out a few of the most important pages from the old one and tuck them in the back. I hang on to the old one for about a month and then shred it because I find I rarely go back to find information. It is more important as a tool in the moment–writing helps me process information and improves my memory. I never understand the people who never write down a single word in a meeting. How can they relinquish so much power?

Back to the book list! I know a book has impacted me greatly when I give it as gifts to one or more people. So while Toni Morrison said that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was a must read, I couldn’t stop thinking about Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I gave it to 3 people and I have one more copy to give away.

I participated in the Jane Austen Reading Group that meets at the McClatchy library in Sacramento. I read two books that I shared with others:  Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: a life in small things, and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education. This almost made up for the other months when I had to read the muck that passes as Jane Austen tributes, mysteries, etc.

Lynne Twist came to Sacramento to speak at our church and to nonprofit leaders about The Soul of Money. I reread her book and gave several copies to others to encourage them to attend her presentations. You have to be ready to hear the message. I know I didn’t cotton to her ideas the first time I read it. I just recently watched the documentary Minimalism on Netflix, and while it touches on a lot of topics shallowly, I still found it compelling.

Thanks to the podcast On Being, I discovered some new writers including David Whyte. I shared chapters of his book with friends and colleagues and used them as the focal points of discussions. One discussion of “boids” in The Heart Aroused led to reading the 1992 book Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrup. I found so many of the ideas about complexity theory of interest to the challenges of managing a megaproject that I shared copies with our team before we went on holiday break.

One of the books that moved me most profoundly was Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink about the modern Muslim faith. It really helped me fill in a giant gap in my knowledge and to see similarities to my faith in Jesus. I want to know more.

What is in my pile to read in 2017? Waking Up White by Debby Irving; Lit by Mary Karr; Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Tribe by Sebastian Junger; Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. There are more on my wish list: Ann Pachett’s Commonwealth, and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

One final note, Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong had a real impact on me at the time I read it. And then the nastiness of the election overwhelmed the public space and now the world just doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable except among friends and trusted colleagues. I still believe that Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability is hugely important in our world today. So if you haven’t read it yet: give yourself a New Year treat and download or pick it up today.

Power and Vulnerability

Grendel as imagined Betterlifethroughgrendel

In David Whyte’s book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, he takes up the story of Beowulf to illustrate power and vulnerability in the workplace. I never read the story before. It is a fascinating tale of a warrior Beowulf asked by the King of Denmark to slay Grendel, a monster coming up from the lake and dragging people from the castle to tear them limb from limb. Grendel is also a metaphor for the inner demons that keep us from living the life we were meant to live. The fears that keep us from living wholeheartedly.

Beowulf slays Grendel, but then Grendel’s mother appears even more fierce than her son. Isn’t that how it often goes? We address some surface fears only to have more difficult demons take their place? The first was a quiz, this is the final exam.

Beowulf must enter the dark lake to reach Grendel’s mother. The dark lake is so scary that a stag pursued by hunting dogs would rather die a certain violent death than enter it and be saved. The only way for Beowulf to be powerful is to be vulnerable first. Find his voice, speak out against a bad idea or injustice.

It isn’t hard to remember a time when I’ve sunk down on our haunches like that stag at the shoreline. I am human and it is not easy to face down the demons every time. There is help available if I am willing to tap into the ancient feminine wisdom found in vulnerability and self-compassion.

This is where Brene Brown so marvelously illuminated the path to becoming more vulnerable. I have read all of her books and participated in her online courses and recommend any of her books. In her most recent, Rising Strong, she explores what happens when you take a risk or enter the arena. At some point when we risk vulnerability we will slip and fall. The key is to remain wholehearted and continue to stay open.

It is a choice to continue to put my faith in the long game or eternal story because my life is at stake. “The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that if you do not come to know the deeper mythic resonances that make up your life, the mythic resonances will simply rise up and take you over. If you do not live out your place in the mythic pattern consciously, the myth will simply live you, against your will.” (Whyte)

Be the hero of your own story; not a side character, as Sara in Katrina Bivald’s novel would say.

Rising Strong Should Come With Warning Label

Brene Brown is the author of a trilogy of "Self Help" books that will rock your world.
Brene Brown is the author of a trilogy of “Self Help” books that will rock your world.

Brene Brown’s Rising Strong completes her trilogy of books on overcoming shame and living wholeheartedly. Each book builds on the next and is grounded in her research. Rising Strong is a powerful book; however, it should come with a warning label. “Shit storm will inevitably ensue as you read this book.”

If you read the book in any kind of earnest you will reaffirm your commitment to living wholeheartedly and as a result you will better define your boundaries and stay in touch with your emotions. Ultimately this will clash with someone else’s expectations or values in variance with yours. Someone you care about. Let me explain with my own story.

Rising StrongI received Rising Strong as a gift from my dear friend Mara V. Connolly who is an executive coach trained in the Daring Way. She knows I am a Brene Brown enthusiast and it was a delightful surprise to open an unexpected Amazon package and see her note. I was heading to Los Angeles so I tucked the book in my bag and began reading it almost immediately.

I was only a few chapters in when I found myself triggered and face down in the dirt. While still in the whirlpool of embarrassment and hurt, I sent an angry, hurt-you-back text to the person in my “Rumble” in the cab rushing from to the airport. I risked airsickness while I wrote what I called my “first story” in my journal on my Southwest flight home. The next morning I realized that I needed help and I reached out to Mara to process.

Over the next few days I figured out what triggered such a strong emotional reaction and the values that were stepped on. This helped me get clear about what new boundaries I needed to set with the friend in the Rumble. I wish I could report that my friend and I were able to be curious about each other’s triggers and clear. It did not go down that way and I have been processing the heartache that comes when a relationship is not what we hoped.

As I read the rest of the book I kept referencing my Rumble. It was such a powerful learning opportunity. I especially struggle with the question, “Are people in general doing the best they can?” This cracks open my own harsh self-judgement for the times when I stumbled and did not live up to my own standards. Was I doing the best I could in that moment when I sent the angry text? I do not think so.

The key to the question is “in general”. I am not asking: are people infallible? Instead I am choosing a more compassionate life philosophy. If I assume that people are in general doing the best they can in this moment, then I can extend grace and live life more wholeheartedly, that is a life defined by courage, engagement and clear sense of purpose.

This assumption that people are doing their best first came up when I was coaching with Marj Plumb. The CTI Co-Active Coaching curriculum says every client is creative, resourceful and whole. I remember really challenging this with Marj. What about the people who are mentally ill? And Marj encouraged me to continue to start from the assumption that people are doing their best. Like forgiveness, starting from this place of grace and compassion is as much for my own benefit as the other person’s.

If I assume that I am doing my best, I can be curious about my own triggers and extend grace to myself. This does not mean I never need to repair with someone for something I said thoughtlessly. It does mean I can lay down that incident as a lesson learned instead of continually using it as a lash to whip myself for my inadequacy. And get on with the business of leadership.