Recommendations

Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life

By Amy E. Herman

If you’re interested in how art improves our ability perceive and understand, we highly recommend Amy Herman’s Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life.  (We prefer the hard copy over the e-reader copy, because the images are easier to see on the hard copy.)  This book will definitely improve your powers of observationeven while some of the stories are so compelling that the book’s tough to put down. And yet another excellent, but hard-to-get book on art is Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by Margaret Livingstone.

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

By Stephen Covey

This month’s top book recommendation is the great classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, by Stephen Covey.  (Dr. Covey actually read the Audible version of his book. Don’t forget that you may be able to get two free audiobooks through this link.) There is a reason this book has been translated into translated into 32 languages and has sold over 5 million copies. It is one of our personal, life-changing favorites—a synthesis of timeless principles for personal effectiveness that focus on character, rather than technique.  The stories he uses to convey key ideas help the ideas resonate unforgettably. We only wish that Dr. Covey were still alive to do a MOOC!

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Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

By Robert Cialdini

We also love to listen to books—we’re now listening to Robert B. Cialdini’s masterful volume Influence, which has influenced a generation’s understanding of the art of persuasion.  Influence will help you to see more clearly the subtle influences that others are exerting on you—and allow you to more easily bring people to agreement with your own ideas. (If you want to try Audible, you can get two free audiobooks through this link.)

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The Ego Is the Enemy

By Ryan Holiday

Lately, we’ve found ourselves caught up in Ryan Holiday’s thought-provoking books.  We found a lot to like in his The Ego Is the Enemy, (Audible version here) which provides a refreshing break from today’s relentless onslaught of books about successful egotists. Ryan’s reflections on his own ego-related failures, as well as well as those of intriguing people through history, can give you good strategies for avoiding these problems yourself. Ryan’s excellent related book which has understandably developed a cult following is The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (Audible here).

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A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)

By Barbara Oakley

This stealth world-wide best-seller has been translated into over a dozen languages worldwide.  Whether you are a student struggling to fulfill a math or science requirement, or you are embarking on a career change that requires a new skill set, A Mind for Numbers offers the tools you need to get a better grasp of that intimidating material.

Unlike most books on learning, A Mind for Numbers delves into the neuroscience–walking you through research insights that are immediately and practically useful.  This is the book that the MOOC Learning How to Learn is based on–it helps reinforce and deepen your understanding of the fundamental concepts involved in learning!

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My First Book About the Brain

By Patricia J. Wynne and Donald M. Silver

If you think your or a relative’s child might be curious about neuroscience, we recommend My First Book About the Brain (Dover Children’s Science Books), by Patricia J. Wynne and Donald M. Silver, 2013. This 32 page long, award-winning coloring book is actually used in some regular classes, and could be a particular boon for the wide-ranging interests of home-schooled kids. Suitable for ages 8–12, but grownups also seem to enjoy the relaxing process of coloring while they learn.

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The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

By Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Our book recommendation this week is The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. (The Audible version seems to be on sale now. Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)  The ONE Thing has  been a monster best-seller, with  more than 350 appearances on national bestseller lists, including #1 Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today. We read this book when it first came out in 2013, and then reread it again recently. What’s surprised us is how much of its message we’ve internalized into our approach to our work. This has clearly been beneficial!  Highly recommended if you’re trying to improve your productivity in your work—and your happiness in family life.

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Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

By Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

We’re now reading Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, which has become a #1 New York Times bestseller. We can see why the book is so extraordinarily popular—Designing Your Life is a book “built” for people of all ages to consider what their life is about, and to help them create a life that makes them happy to wake up to each day.  Even if you’re not looking to change, this book will help you get the most out of the life you do live.

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TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking

By Chris Anderson

We happened to pick up the book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, by Chris Anderson, the curator of TED. We’ll admit, we didn’t have great expectations—after all, the title sounds a bit like a how-to manual.  But instead, as we like to say in English, it knocked our socks off!  This riveting book should be read by anyone who needs to communicate with others (which means everyone), and especially by teachers.   Even as Anderson regales us with the intriguing and sometimes hilarious stories that lie behind the great TED talks, he gives all sorts of useful nuggets about how we grow to trust and learn from others.  Highly recommended, also in the Audible version, which is actually read by Chris Anderson.   And if you are looking for a more specific how-to manual on public speaking, we also recommend Nancy Duarte’s HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations.

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Peter the Great: His Life and World

By Robert K. Massie

Peter the Great: His Life and World, by Robert Massie, is in our opinion, truly one of the greatest biographies ever written–fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize.  Not only does the book provide great insight into Peter the Great—it also takes us down some of the stranger rabbit holes of history.  Who knew that Sweden’s Charles XII squirreled himself away in Turkey, driving his hosts crazy and refusing to leave?  Barb babbled so much about this book at home that she was temporarily banned from discussing it.

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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

By Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is one of Barb’s all-time favorite biographies.  Author Jack Weatherford has spent years traveling, exploring, and researching in Mongolia. As a consequence of Weatherford’s writing, we can enter into the world of one of civilization’s most storied leaders.  The juxtaposition of Genghis Khan’s utter ruthlessness with his enlightened policy-making, all mixed with great discussions of Mongolian culture and the great Khan’s impact on the world, makes for riveting reading.   This is a not-t0-be-missed biography!  (Jack Weatherford himself narrated the audio version.)

A great companion book is The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire.  Genghis Khan’s incredible achievements shine even more brightly once they’re contrasted with the decay that followed his death.  The stories of the great Khan’s daughters are riveting, and his descendants’ role in the birth of what is today modern Mongolia makes for a fascinating read.  Who would have thought that a little physically handicapped boy in manly Mongolia, and his more-than-a-decade older mentor (and, eventually, wife), could grow a nation?

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Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams 

By Matthew Walker, PhD

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams is one of the most important books we have ever read.  If you read one book to help you with your learning (and life) this year, we think it should be Why We Sleep.

It seems that every question we’ve ever wondered about related to sleep is covered by author Matthew Walker’s masterful discussion of sleep. Walker is the Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to snoozing.  Yet Walker is also a masterful writer, full of witty, insightful metaphors that give an in-depth understanding of how and why we need to sleep.  We’d always known that sleep was a vital part of learning–Walker’s book tells why sleep is so important.  Walker shares sleep-related insights by the dozen along the way, such as why sleeping pills are much less innocuous than you think, tips and tricks to falling asleep more quickly, and why a tiny percentage of the population needs only 4 hours or so of sleep a night–(and why you’re probably not one of those people).  Do not miss this book. (Audio version here.) [Hat tip, super-MOOCer Ronny De Winter.]

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Leonardo da Vinci

By Walter Isaacson

Everyone’s been talking about Walter Isaacson’s latest biography, Leonardo da Vinci, so we had to join the crowd and see what all the hullabaloo was about. (We’ll admit, we’ve previously tackled da Vinci biographies that ended up putting us to sleep, so we were excited to see what master biographer Isaacson would do with Leonardo’s story.)  Isaacson’s book is a stellar exposition of what we know of Leonardo’s life—Isaacson bases much of his writing on what we know of Leonardo from his encompassing set of notebooks.

Da Vinci will always remain something of an enigma, because the inner turmoil he communicated so poignantly in his paintings is not something he described in his otherwise comprehensive notebooks.  So as a biography, Leonardo da Vinci is slightly paler than some of our favorite other Isaacson biographies, including the fantastic  Einstein: His Life and UniverseSteve Jobs, and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. But our lack of understanding of da Vinci’s inner life is more than made up for by learning of da Vinci’s unparalleled life of curiosity and brilliance. Da Vinci tackled virtually every field of science and turned it into art.  As Isaacson observes, we ourselves can learn to observe life more fully by seeing how the magnificent Leonardo did it.

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The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

By Josh Waitzkin

We’ve just finished a fantastic book: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, by Josh Waitzkin.Waitzkin’s book provides a fantastic juxtaposition of the commonalities of learning, whether in mental or physical endeavours. (Not only was Waitzkin an eight-time National Chess Champion–he is also a world champion in martial arts.) Josh is a wonderful writer with a wealth of telling stories–his book is hard to put down. Good writing seems to run in the family: Josh’s father wrote Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess, which we enjoyed when it first came out.  Josh’s experiences reinforce the importance of chunking. This is precisely what is emphasized by “expert on expertise” Anders Ericsson–see his excellent book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which was another recent top pick, along with Mike Merzenich’s terrific Soft-Wired.)

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Still Alice

By Lisa Genova

Still Alice is a book that has resonated amazingly with the public–it has over 5,000 reviews on Amazon, with an overall 4.7 out of 5.0 star rating.  Barb’s father passed from Alzheimer’s–this book gives a rare, “from the inside” perspective of what it’s like to live with this disease.

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The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over

By Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins

We love The Like Switch!  It has made us much more aware of the tiny “tells” that signal whether or not you’ve captured a person’s attention and interest.  Most people naturally give off “friend” or “foe” signals without even being aware of it. With the information in this book, you can find yourself making friends quite literally with the flick of an eyebrow.  You’ll see others–and yourself–with a new perspective. We only wish we’d read this book decades ago!

Audiobook version narrated by George Newbern, who’s voice we really enjoy–he did a fantastic job on Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (Two free audiobooks may be possible through this link.)

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Cajal’s Neuronal Forest: Science and Art

By Javier DeFelipe

Cajal’s Neuronal Forest: Science and Art, by Javier DeFelipe, is a sister volume to neuroscientist Javier DeFelipe’s earlier beautiful Cajal’s Butterflies of the Soul.

We were in Madrid looking at Cajal’s illustrations with Javier DeFelipeseveral months before Neuronal Forest launched.  The level of effort to produce this fantastic volume, and the extraordinary nature of the illustrations themselves, have to be seen to be appreciated!

Other books for Cajal fans include The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, and Cajal’s own Recollections of My Life.

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

By Marie Kondo

We’re just finishing Marie Kondo’s intriguing The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, (Audible book here). Before reading this book, we hadn’t made the connection between tidying and, for example, doing well on examinations. Some of Marie’s observations seem spot on for both improving productivity and improving ability to learn well under stress.  Marie’s book has sold over two million copies worldwide, and has over 12,000 reviews on Amazon with a 4.5 star average rating.  We can all clearly learn something of value from Marie’s lifelong compulsion to tidy. At first, her recommendations may simply seem impossible. But just keep reading—you’ll see that Marie has great insight not only about tidying, but about life.

We have to laugh at our recommendation of Tidying Up, given that we recently also recommended Tim Harford’s Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. As Ralph Waldo Emerson has observed, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

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Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential

By Barbara Oakley

Dan Pink says it best! “Mindshift is essential reading for anyone seeking a reboot, reset, or reinvention. As Oakley trots around the globe and across disciplines, she explains the power of taking a ‘pi’ approach to your career, why worriers often get ahead, why negative traits can house hidden advantages, and why it’s smarter to broaden your passion than follow it. Jammed with inspiring stories and practical tips, Mindshift is a book that can change your life.”
                                               — Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind

If you’re into audiobooks, don’t miss Barb’s reading!

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Don’t Pay for Your MBA

By Laurie Pickard

When some of the most prestigious business schools in the world began providing free versions of their courses online, Laurie Pickard (whose great ideas Barb featured in her latest book, Mindshift) saw an opportunity to get the business education she had long desired, at a fraction of the typical MBA price tag.  Laurie launched a blog site to document her MOOC MBA journey. NoPayMBA.com quickly attracted attention from prospective business students and the media alike. Laurie’s terrific new book Don’t Pay For Your MBAteaches readers how to put together a career-launching business education using massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other free and low-cost resources. Don’t miss this one! Even if you are interested in something other than an MBA, Laurie’s book will give you great ideas for putting together a program that’s right for you.

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Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

By Bill Browder

Book of the Month

It can sometimes be important to step back and look at society’s impact on how we learn and grow.  Bill Browder’s magnificent best-seller Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice tells the story of the impact of highest level corruption on ordinary people’s lives.  (This book has an amazing 5-star rating with over 2600 reviews on Amazon.) Browder was the co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, which specialized in Russian investments.  In the course of his work, Browder became a victim of a kleptocratic part of Russia’s economy, where the rule of law can be rewritten on a whim.  The book’s cover notes “A financial caper, a crime thriller, and a political crusade, Red Notice is the story of one man taking on overpowering odds to change the world, and also the story of how, without intending to, he found meaning in his life.” We agree—we couldn’t put the book down.

On a side note, we often think that relentless focus is the best way to learn and be successful. Along those lines, we often tout Cal Newport’s Deep Work.  But as Browder notes, Edmond Safra, one of the world’s greatest investment bankers, could evince an almost gnat-like attention-span.  If you have trouble keeping your focus on just one thing, it may sometimes be an advantage.

That’s part of why we read great books—we often also gain insight in unexpected areas.

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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

By William Zinsser

This is the best book we’ve ever read on how to write well. Period. Barb would not have become a successful writer (or MOOC-maker!) if it hadn’t been for this book.

Anyone who writes will benefit from reading this book.  If you are in the “publish or perish” phase of academic life, you really need this book.

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Peltor High Performance Ear Muffs

When you are trying to focus on something difficult, whether reading a book or anything else, one of the best things you can do to help you keep that focus is to block out sounds.  Earphones like these are used by professional memory champions to help them keep their focus–whether in competition or just learning something new.  Barb has found over the years that when she puts on her earmuffs, it signals her brain that it’s “focus time!”  It’s much easier for her to concentrate with earmuffs on, because the earmuffs not only block sound, they also indicate that it’s time to focus! Earmuffs are one of the most important tools in Barb’s learning repertoire.

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Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

By Cal Newport

Cal’s Newport’s Deep Work is the best book on productivity we’ve ever read, bar none.  (Go for the Audible version if you don’t have time for the written.) Highly recommended!

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Goya

By Robert Hughes

Goya, by Robert Hughes. Barb’s recent visit to Madrid allowed her to linger in person to examine at some of Goya’s most famous paintings, including the remarkable The Third of May 1808, as well as many of Goya’s more obscure, but equally riveting works.  An artist is able to focus on reality in a way that helps us “mere mortals” to also see that deeper reality. We decided to dig deeper into Goya’s life to discover what set him apart and made him one of Spain’s –and the world’s–greatest painters.  As Hughes’ biography reveals, Goya’s journey to greatness was spurred in part by an illness that made him deaf.  This, perhaps, set Goya unwillingly apart from the world–allowing him to be the last of the Old Masters as well as the first of the Moderns.

If you read the Kindle version, be prepared to look up many of Goya’s paintings on your cell phone beside you.  Hughes biography isn’t just a biography–it’s an insightful view of Spain of the late 1700s and early 1800s.  As you’ll discover, today’s seemingly modern societal trends are often simply repetitions of trends from centuries past.

Robert Hughes’  The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding became an international best-seller.  His The Shock of the New: The Hundred-Year History of Modern Art–Its Rise, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall, is also on our “must read” list.

Incidentally, here’s Barb at the Cajal Institute in Madrid, with Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s death mask peering over her shoulder.

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The Keystone Approach: Healing Arthritis and Psoriasis by Restoring the Microbiome

By Rebecca Fett

If you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, or other autoimmune-related disorders, we highly recommend The Keystone Approach: Healing Arthritis and Psoriasis by Restoring the Microbiome, by Rebecca Fett. (Rebecca read the Audible version of her book.) Rebecca Fett is a science author with a degree in molecular biotechnology and biochemistry. Before becoming a full-time author, Rebecca spent ten years as a biotechnology patent litigation attorney in New York, where she specialized in analyzing the scientific and clinical evidence for biotechnology companies. This book has enabled Barb to largely get off of medications for rheumatoid arthritis—remarkable, given her 30 years on a cornucopia of drugs.

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World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech

By Franklin Foer

The central idea of this book is that Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple have become pernicious monopolies. One result, according to Foer, is that the writing world has changed dramatically, and not for the better. Foer has personally experienced this upheaval. The magazine he edited, the New Republic, ran roughshod over his career. Franklin makes some important points, even as it’s amusing to see him show the same “we know best” bias he’s accusing others of. Franklin, incidentally, is the brother of Learning How to Learn author fave Joshua Foer, who described how he became an unlikely memory champion in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.

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Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins

By Garry Kasparov

What a contrast with Foer’s book! Although Kasparov acknowledges the same seductive, monopolistic problems that Foer alludes to, Kasparov’s overall assessment is upbeat. This is a surprise, given that Kasparov will go down in history as the first world chess champion to be felled by artificial intelligence. Lots of readable insights about how AI experts went about tackling strategy in the games of chess and go. The gripping description of the final battle with Deep Blue will keep you up at night. We love Kasparov’s quote of Coursera’s co-founder, Andrew Ng, who has said that “worrying about super-intelligent and evil AI today is like worrying about ‘the problem of overcrowding on Mars.’”

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