3 Lessons Books Taught Me in 2019

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Since starting this website in 2013, I’ve included a year-end reading list every December. But last year I did something different. I took the time to reflect on the books I read and distilled 5 major life lessons from them.

In doing so, I found that I was better able to remember and internalize what I read –more so than by only listing out a bunch of titles.

This year has been crazy. I published essays in two books: Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict and Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War. We hosted one of the most popular panels at AUSA 2019 and From the Green Notebook was even featured in a post on Forbes. I also deployed to Afghanistan, so reading has been challenging.

But, I still managed to keep at it. And no matter how crazy your year has been, I hope you kept up with the practice too. Below are a few of the major lessons that I will take with me into 2020.

If you don’t decide what’s important to you others will

In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he argues that if we don’t prioritize our lives, someone else will. And this lack of prioritization pulls us away from doing the things we really want to do.  Also, it holds us back from doing anything well.  I’ve seen this play out in areas of my own life where I either tried to take on too much or allowed myself to be swept down a path of doing things that weren’t important to me, but important to someone else.  I’ve also seen military organizations get run into the ground because commanders had too many top priorities.

So, to paraphrase Mark Manson from one of my favorite reads this year, we need to figure out what we truly give a f*ck about.

To determine what is essential in our lives, we should heed the wisdom in Ryan Holiday’s Stillness is the Key. We need to step away from our phones, television screens, and be present, thoughtful, and reflective. In doing so, we can take better control over the decisions we make.

This idea of focusing on stepping back from the noise of daily life is echoed in Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Joe McCormack also provides some great advice for cutting out the noise in Noise: Living and Leading When Nobody Can focus.

Books take on new meaning when read a second time

This year I decided to re-read a few books after coming across a quote from Dr. Christopher Coker who wrote, “I am not exactly the same person I was when I first read the works; and I am a different person, in part, because of what the books have made me.”

I discovered that he’s right.

I reread Ego is the Enemy and the Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday as well The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntsford and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I found new meaning and insights in these books based off the experiences I’ve had since I last read them. In some respects, it was like reading entirely new books.

These books also came with bonus materials –my margin notes and highlights from the last time I read them. For example, I read The Last Place on Earth in 2013 and it was interesting to see what I wrote in the margins over six years ago.

Asking what others are reading is the best way to expand your horizons

Some of my favorite books from 2019 weren’t even on my radar, but I quickly picked them up after asked the question, “What are you reading?’

For instance, I discovered the impressive prose of Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments only after having a conversation about books over coffee.

I was introduced to the sage wisdom of Mark Manson, and picked up The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Everything is F*cked after a friend sent me pictures of two books she brought with her on vacation.

I took a deep dive on the history of Afghanistan after a leader I admire explained how The Game Without Rules and A Kingdom of Their Own shaped his outlook on the current conflict.

I learned about Essentialism when a mentor recommended the book during a weekly lunch. I also gained an appreciation for working with introverts when one of my coworkers recommended Susan Cain’s Quiet.

I picked up Mindset by Carol Dweck and Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Lansing after a conversation with one of the most talented officers I know.

Keep on reading

If you have been following this site for a while, you know that I like to read. At any give time, I’m reading between 3-5 books. They range from history to science fiction and everything in between

If you’re interested in reading for personal or professional growth, join over 2k other readers who receive my monthly Read of the Month email. Each month I send out some thoughts on the books I’m reading. It’s a great way to learn about new titles. Click here to sign up.

Below is the entire list of books I read this year.

Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood

The Testaments By Margaret Atwood

Recursion by Blake Crouch

The Warehouse by Rob Hart

Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Neal Stephenson

Productivity and Personal Growth

Great Leaders Have No Rules by Kevin Kruse

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald J. Robertson

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

Noise: Living and Leading When Nobody Can Focus by Joseph McCormack

Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less by Joseph McCormack

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday

Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts by Ryan Holiday

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days by Chris Guillebeau

Initiative: A proven Method to Bring Passions to Life by Joshua Spooked

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking By Susan Cain

Herding Tigers: Be The Leader that Creative People Need by Todd Henry

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg

Grit by Angela Duckworth

World Views

Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nasim Taleb

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene

Afghanistan

A Kingdom of their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster by Joshua Partlow

The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings

Game Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary

Warfare

The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder by Sean McFate

History 

Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II by Benjamin Runkle

Planning to Fail: The US Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan by Jame H. Lebovic

The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole by Roland Huntsford

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

Sports and Human Performance

War Room by Michael Holley

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson

I hope you read some great books this year and take the time to absorb the lessons you gained from them! Don’t forget to sign up for my monthly reading list email!

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