I previously wrote the first five books that changed my life (you can read part one HERE.) Now I’ll cover the other five, all read more recently. I read mostly fiction, but these books all happen to be nonfiction.
5. “Moneyball”, Michael Lewis
Growing up in Carbondale in the 90s before computers/the internet became as common as they are today, my main source of baseball information was the sports section of The Southern Illinoisan, our local newspaper. I loved pouring over the baseball stat leaderboards. In those days, things like batting average, home runs, RBIs, wins, and ERA were the stats highlighted. The broadcasters on Cardinals telecasts echoed this, so that’s how I assumed you determined if a player was good.
I maintained this very narrow-minded view of the sport I loved until sometime after college, when I read Moneyball. Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland Athletics, a team forced to find ways to be competitive with a low payroll compared to the rest of the league. They couldn’t afford to give giant contracts to superstar players, so they used newer statistics to find players who were undervalued, and signed those players to lower dollar contracts.
Baseball is a very old school sport, full of talent evaluators with the “it’s always been done this way” mentality. So while those guys were going after players with great traditional stats, the As were going after guys who were strong in other areas, like on base percentage. Their analysis showed that getting on base at a high rate led to more runs, so they focused on guys who made outs the least amount of times.
This book opened my eyes to the world of sabermetrics. As originally defined by Bill James in 1980, sabermetrics is “the search for objective knowledge about baseball”. To me this means using data to determine how much value a player is responsible for adding on his own. Many traditional baseball stats are too context dependent–the number of RBIs a player has is dependent on how many guys get on base in front of him; pitcher wins are dependent on how many runs his teams scores for him and how good his defense is.
I began to realize many baseball players and sports writers, particularly older ones, were very set in their ways of thinking. Many people, like hall of fame second baseman Joe Morgan, were critical of Moneyball without ever reading it. I started avoiding traditional baseball writing and instead reading guys like Rob Neyer and Keith Law, who favor a more objective approach to baseball analysis. Now I go online to view statistical leader boards, and look at stats like on base percentage, fielding independent pitching, and WAR.
4. “Freakonomics”, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
I was forced to take economics in college and hated it. The concepts were too obscure for me; I wasn’t able to apply them to real life situations I had experience with and understood. Freakonomics uses economic principles and does apply them to real life situations to try to determine why something is happening. The main ideas are that humans are motivated by incentives and conventional wisdom is often wrong. The book describes a number of real life situations where data is used to illustrate those things:
–Real estate agents only receive a small percentage of a sale, so they’re more motivated to complete a sale quickly rather than negotiate to get a few thousand dollars more for the seller.
–Teachers in the Chicago public school system were evaluated based on how well their students scored on standardized tests, so they had an incentive to alter their students’ answers to ensure they scored higher.
–Most people would assume there’s a lot of money to be made as a drug dealer, especially for such a dangerous job, but data collected showed that only a small percentage of drug dealers, those at the top of the food chain, made a lot of money. The ones out on the streets had to give up a lot of their earnings to the higher up guys, and as a result, many lived with their moms.
This book shifted my way of thinking from “lots of people say this, it must be true” to “what does the data show?”
3. “Quiet”, Susan Cain
I am an introvert, to put it very mildly. I’m an only child, and growing up I would happily play with my Legos by myself. When I’d ride my bike, I’d look out the window to make sure none of the other kids at the apartment complex were outside. I also had friends I did enjoy playing with, but a lot of my happiest moments were playing alone, where I could do exactly what I wanted to do.
As an adult, I find talking to other people mentally exhausting. When we have all day meetings at work, I get a headache. I require hours of alone time to recoup. In work situations especially, collaboration and being a “team player” is praised. For years I’ve felt my preferred way of living and working (lots of solitary time) is some type of fault.
The book Quiet changed the way I view myself. Susan Cain shows that while often extrovert qualities are praised, introverts have many valuable qualities as well, and being different doesn’t mean being wrong. Some things that stood out to me:
–Group work doesn’t always lead to better work. In many cases the idea produced is a diluted version of what might have come about if group members weren’t sacrificing their creativity in the name of collaboration.
–Introverts often take more time to think about something before talking about it, which can lead to a better result.
–Many other cultures do not place importance on the extrovert ideal like our culture does. Cain gives an example of international students in American classrooms being surprised at how much students were encouraged to talk; in their cultures, teachers should be the ones providing the content of class and the students’ role is to listen.
I can think of so many times in my life someone has said to me “you’re so quiet.” This used to make me feel like a freak, but since reading this book, I simply respond “yes I am” and own it.
2. “Columbine”, Dave Cullen
Dave Cullen spent ten years writing this book about the 1999 school shooting, and it was evident as I read this thoroughly researched book.
I didn’t know a ton about Columbine before I read this. I’d just heard snippets about the “Trench Coat Mafia” and assumed both killers were evil and/or insane. It turns out a lot of what I thought I knew was wrong. These were not loners–both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were good students and had a lot of friends. Through the boys’ tapes and diaries it becomes obvious that while Eric Harris seems to be a sociopath, Dylan Klebold mostly seems depressed, the type who’d be more interested in killing himself than others.
The amount of access Cullen got to information was fascinating, but what really stood out for me was the fact that as the tragedy unfolded there was a ton of misinformation out there, both by media rushing to be the first to report things, and witnesses, who often aren’t very reliable, especially once they’ve been exposed to other people’s accounts of what happened. It’s common in mass shootings for a higher number of gunmen to be reported initially than how many actually exist, simply because witnesses often feel like gunfire is coming from more locations than reality. The takeaway for me was how often information reported as an event is happening is wrong, so it is wise to wait until all the information is available and substantiated by multiple sources.
1. “Daring Greatly”, Brené Brown
I read this book earlier this year. Daring Greatly is about finding the courage to be vulnerable, something I struggle with. Brown argues that showing vulnerability isn’t about being weak, it is actually quite courageous to put yourself out there, knowing there’s a chance you could fail. I find myself instinctively avoiding things I don’t think I’ll be good at and this book made me realize that might not be the best way to live.
Brown talks a lot about shame and practicing shame resilience by moving from shame to empathy toward ourselves. She says when she feels overcome by shame she often chants “pain pain pain pain” in order to focus herself, which I found interesting. As part of practicing empathy toward ourselves we should talk to ourselves the way we talk to others; basically, not be so hard on ourselves. Shame thrives on secret keeping, so we should be mindful of that and share with people in our lives who have earned a right to hear what we have to say.
Being vulnerable is not something that happens overnight; it’s a day by day process that is always a little difficult. But this book reminded me others struggle with the same problems and even when we are afraid of failure, all we can do is try.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” —Theodore Roosevelt