Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017) by Kieran Setiya presents a philosophical view of midlife and the author’s musing on his own life. Setiya is professor at MIT who is married and has a child. It’s relevant because his view of midlife is one from substantial success.
The book first presents a history of the midlife crisis and then look at the various reasons people often enter in a malaise in their forties. Fear of missing, regrets and pondering what to look forward to all feature.
The book points out that in happiness studies there seems to be something of a dip in reported happiness in people’s forties. The modern world, with greater wealth and less struggle. The idea took off in the 1960s and 70s and was strong by the 1980s. Still, careful analysis pointed out that crisis was too strong a word, with only a small fraction having a real crisis, most people people just having something of a struggle with work and family.
There is also reflection on the fact that people inevitably confront mortality in their thirties and forties and that career paths become fairly clear at this point. We must all deal with regret but acknowledge that our strange paths have also led us to the people we love and potentially to children. Other paths would result in their nonexistence.
The book looks at how we should work out how much of our life to live in the present and how much to dedicate to our own and others happiness. Setiya looks at Mill, Schopenhauer and others to help answer the question.
It’s not a bad book and for anyone who wants something more than just a self help book but something that does look seriously at how people feel and view their lives in midlife it’s worth a read.
Micromastery: Learn Small, Learn Fast and Find the Hidden Path to Happiness (2017) by Robert Twigger is a book that describes why you should learn small skills that appeal to you quickly and then improve on them.
The book has an interesting idea, namely that we often say we want to learn big, time consuming things that take ages to do but then never really undertake these things because they are often too hard and don’t provide rewards for our learning early enough. There is definitely something to it. Instead Twigger suggest learning small skills that are impressive and can be done more quickly and more easily and building on these skills. He suggests things like learning how to start a fire with two sticks, juggling four balls, telling a good children’s story and various other things.
He puts it forward as being a bit like punk, having an ethos of making your own things, which is really admirable.
However, the book definitely over reaches in suggesting learning these sorts of things is a great way to happiness or a panacea. It’s quite a good thing to do, better than watching TV, but the author oversells the idea.
Micromastery isn’t a bad book but it’s far from great either. It’s got some good suggestions and would have made a good essay.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016) by Mark Manson is a self-help book with a clever title. It’s not terrible, indeed the first and last bits are really quite good.
Manson makes the point that we really have to not care about a lot of things to actually be able to care for a few things that matter to us. And he makes the point quite well with some sweary language. Having done this the book really sags and drags though until near the end where it perks up a little.
It’s strange to see that there are so many really positive reviews for this book. It’s not bad, but it’s far from great. Perhaps Manson’s blog is pretty popular and he’s had people who like him from there review it.
Do The Work (2011) by Steven Pressfield tries to explain how to get out there and write a book or manuscript. The title is great, the book itself isn’t.
Pressfield concentrates on what he describes as resistance, which is the way chattering voices in our head and other distractions stop us from putting the effort in to write a book. There’s something in it. But even in this short, short book it gets repetitive.
There are much better books on writing out there, like Steven King’s ‘On Writing’ and others. Perhaps this might help someone stuck 3/4 of the way through a novel. But for most other people it’s going to seem trite.
The Underachiever’s Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great (2006) by Ray Bennett is an amusing and surprisingly wise take on self-help books.
Bennett extols the virtues of not trying to hard, not exercising hard and not expecting too much of yourself at work, at the gym and in live and instead making sure to relax and spend time with people who are important to you. The book manages this and makes you laugh which is always great.
Bennett is a doctor which does mean somehow he’s been achieving and he also finished this book which is well, an achievement. But even with these slight problems of not living down to the standards it still fun. The book nicely has some lists which patched in numbers and a cleverly half-done quiz. And as the book says, live life to minimum.
Deep Work (2016) by Cal Newport is a book that looks at how focussing deeply on a particular task is something that work with email, instant messaging, meetings, social media and the ever present myriad of distractions of the internet is something that many workplaces have made more difficult despite the dramatic improvement in tools that technology has provided people with.
Newport is an assistant professor at Georgetown with a PhD from MIT in distributed algorithms and has written other self-help books and runs the Study Hacks blog.
The book describes how to work with high concentration and depth. Newport describes how people can rapidly fill up their days at with busywork without really achieving much. He describes how to reduce the impact that all the distractions have on your day and how to schedule both the mundane tasks and time for really concentrating on what you’re meant to be doing. He doesn’t say to completely stop using the internet and other aids, merely to carefully limit their use and acknowledge the negative as well as positive impact that they have.
The book is well written and makes really good points about how to improve your own productivity. It’s one of the best self-help books I’ve read and I’m keen to read Newport’s other books. It’s definitely worth reading for almost anyone.
A Mind for Numbers (2014) by Barbara Oakley is a book on how to study and more particularly how to study math. It’s adapted from a course on how to learn to learn.
Oakley did poorly at math in high school, stopped doing it and joined the army where she became a Russian translator. There she learned how to learn. After being in the Signal Core she decided she wanted to learn how the systems she was using worked so she got an Electrical Engineering degree and used her improved learning skills to learn math, which had eluded her previously and she went on to get a PhD.
The looks at how to get an overview, create chunks of knowledge and revise them so that they become embedded in your mind in a framework that enables you to keep the knowledge and understand math. Working through math in periods of focussed time and then relaxing and using diffuse thinking to get to more creative solutions is carefully described.
It’s a well written, carefully constructed book that would have been a great help to me when studying. The book is full of anecdotes of people who have overcome study difficulties and learnt material deeply. It’s very much worth reading.