Sam Holstein

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5 Books That Changed My Life In 2021

There are so many great books in the world to read, and any one of them has the power to change your life forever. Finding a great book to read, then, is more than a matter of mere personal enjoyment. It’s a serious responsibility.

At least, I consider it a serious responsibility. In 2021, my reading goal was to read 100 books. My goal is 100 books every year, and while I never do quite make it, I came the closest I ever have before with 90 books this year. And as I’ve said before, when you read so many books, there’s always a handful that rise above the rest. Books that not only teach you what you need to know but change you at a deeper level.

What makes a book change you is less about how good a book is, and more about how right a book is — whether the right person is reading the right book at the right time.

What follows is not a list of the most popular books or the books with the most sophisticated writing, but a list of the 5 books that changed my life the most this year. They taught me a brand-new, fact-based, highly intelligent way of looking at the world. They were, for me, the right books at the right time.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

“Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.”

― Hans Rosling, Factfulness

You don’t realize it, but you have a vastly inaccurate sense of what the lives of most people are like around the world.

When you look at the hard data that global organizations like the WHO collect, the fact of the matter is that compared to a few thousand years ago — or even a few hundred — the world is practically a utopia.

That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement. Of course there is. The historical rate of extreme hunger for the first 11,000 years of human history was 90%, and in the last 200 years, it’s fallen to 10%. Amazing improvement! But that’s still millions of people who are suffering from extreme hunger, and they still need to be rescued.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling is an easy-to-read book. Rosling takes the reader through 10 common myths people believe about the state of the world and shows the reader the data that demonstrates why those myths are just myths. And in every case, the data demonstrates the world is a lot better than we think it is.

Now that I’ve read Factfulness, I see evidence of these mythical beliefs everywhere. It’s almost every day that I meet someone who believes the world is dangerous, or that poverty is common, or that healthcare is not available for many people.

These myths have more dangerous consequences than mere personal delusion. The insanity and hysteria of modern politics are driven almost solely by the perpetuation of these myths in the modern media, which they do because outrage and hysteria get clicks. I genuinely believe that if Factfulness were required reading for students, the world would be a much better place.

You can get Factfulness for free with a subscription to Kindle Unlimited. If you do decide to buy a physical copy, I recommend the special gift edition. It has a blue cover instead of an orange-and-white cover, and the interior pages are full-color with a range of well-illustrated and useful charts and graphs. Much easier and more engaging to read than the paperback.)

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Stephen Pinker

“To the Enlightenment thinkers the escape from ignorance and superstition showed how mistaken our conventional wisdom could be, and how the methods of science — skepticism, fallibilism, open debate, and empirical testing — are a paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge.”

― Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker is like Factfulness’s smarter older brother. If Factfulness teaches you why those 10 myths about the world are wrong, Enlightenment Now teaches you about several more myths and why they’re wrong, as well as how we got those wrong ideas and how we can dig our way out of the societal and cultural swamp they’ve created.

One thing that is apparent from both Factfulness and the opening sections of Enlightenment Now is that the incredible massive progress we’ve made as a species and as a global community has happened almost entirely over the last 400 years. Human civilization is between 7,000 and 11,000 years old, yet 99% of all progress made to the quality of human lives happened in a mere 5% of the lifespan of civilization. How can this be?

Pinker explains. Remember those boring lessons about “enlightenment era history” you sat through in high school? Remember those names like Rosseau and Hume that kind of went in one ear and out the other? Yeah, it was the ideas of those dudes that gave humanity the tools to go from disease and squalor and misery to iPhones and vape pens.¹

Enlightenment Now is more than an educational book to me. This academic book, full of tiny print and charts and graphs, actually brought me to tears. You and I are so lucky to live in the first thousand years after the enlightenment. Not only do we get to enjoy adequate food and healthcare and the many unimaginable blessings of modern society, we get to watch as humanity flowers and becomes more than anyone thought we could ever be. And a thousand years from now? Well, those people might be like the gods that ancient Romans dreamed of.

That is, as long as we don’t accidentally undo our progress. Pinker closes Enlightenment Now by discussing the recent lack of enthusiasm for enlightenment-era philosophies. Anti-enlightenment era philosophies like postmodernism are gaining more traction in more academic circles. If that trend continues and enlightenment-era philosophies are forgotten as a thing of the past, there’s a real chance our society a thousand years from now could be less like the society of the gods and more like Idiocracy.

Make no mistake. Enlightenment Now is a big book. It’s 576 pages of small-print text and enough charts and graphs to make your head spin. But I read the entire thing in less than a week because it was, truly, enlightening.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

“Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”

— Adam Grant, Think Again

It’s all well and good to read books like Factfulness and Enlightenment Now and learn about your huge, gaping intellectual blind spots. But how can you move forward in the world and identify blind spots without having to read bestselling books to teach you better? How can you become a sharp and intelligent thinker who sees connections others don’t? How can you become like Hans Rosling and Stephen Pinker yourself?

In Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Adam Grant teaches you the mental skills you need to become one of the smartest people alive, regardless of your natural IQ.

What’s most fascinating about these mental skills is that they’re not really based on intelligence, they’re based on attitude. The smartest people in the world are what they are not because of their native IQ, but because they have the right mindset about learning.

The most important mindset Grant teaches is humble confidence. Many people are confident in an arrogant manner. They believe in themselves and their ability to do things, so they won’t entertain the idea that they have something to learn or accept correction from anyone else. Other people lack confidence. They don’t educate themselves or master new skills because they see these things as too hard and they don’t believe the effort will be worth it. Humble confidence is believing in your ability to master difficult subjects and find the truth, but also knowing you are a small and fallible human who is wrong more often than right.

The culmination of humble confidence is the joy of being wrong. When you tell most people they’re wrong, they are upset. Even if they’re willing to listen to you, it’s with an attitude of disappointment. The smartest people in the world, however, love being wrong. They view being wrong the same way you view discovering a new area of a map in a video game. “Wow!” they will say. “How fascinating! I thought I understood this! There’s so much more for me still to learn. I’m excited and looking forward to learning more.”

Before reading Think Again, debating seriously upset me and arguments sent me into a tailspin. When my partner told me I was wrong about something, I viciously argued with him about why he was actually wronger than me, thank you very much! It never ended well.

After reading Think Again, a magical transformation took place in me. I’m much more accepting of the idea that I’m wrong. Sometimes I even enjoy it. I have the distinct pleasure of having a social group that is highly educated, so when people in astrophysics or neurology graduate programs share new facts with me that make me look like a total fool, I don’t feel embarrassed, I feel excited to learn more. And when my partner complains about something I do, I don’t take it personally nearly as often anymore. I can hear his complaint about me without my ego or our relationship being damaged in the process. I’m so much smarter and more thoughtful than I used to be.

I’d been wishing for this kind of magical transformation to take place for years. Reading Think Again is what finally made it happen.

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters by Stephen Pinker

“Submitting all of one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence is an unnatural skill, like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated.”

― Steven Pinker, Rationality

If you’re an educated thinker, you probably consider humans to be irrational. You know we are predictably irrational, you know psychologists study our cognitive biases, and you know marketers take advantage of our irrationalities and cognitive biases to sell us products. What you probably don’t know is we’re actually not so irrational at all.

Stephen Pinker is back, and this time, in Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, he explains why humans are actually pretty damn rational.

When you pluck people from their homes and install them in research psychology labs to be subjected to a variety of bizarre tests, the results say humans are biased and irrational. But when you look at these biases or irrationalities in the real world, many of them seemingly disappear. Most people will fail riddles or pattern-matching questions on IQ tests, but when you ask them to use the same logical and pattern-matching skills to solve real-world problems like “How do I order Christmas presents from Amazon so they’re all here before Christmas?”, most people do well.

In other words, human intelligence is contextual. Computers can run their algorithms regardless of the variables involved, but the human brain changes the way it does computations based on what’s going in and out. Abstract logical problems, like riddles and math equations, activate a different part of the brain than ordinary life. And for most people, the “ordinary life” part of their brain is far more developed, so they are far smarter when it comes to managing their ordinary life.

There are two important takeaways from this insight.

The first is to appreciate that ordinary people — you know, the people who aren’t academics or social elites or who read 100 books a year for fun — are actually pretty smart too. Pinker explicitly cautions elites from imagining themselves as the occupants of ivory towers.

The second is to realize that rationality is a skill that explicitly needs taught. Most people are rational in their ordinary lives, but that rationality breaks down in abstract situations. When it comes to assessing political or economic questions, most people do worse than a random number generator. Since in a democracy, everyone participates in the governmental process, everyone needs a formal education in how to conduct rational thought.

Reading this book certainly made me a better rational thinker. There are lots of books that teach superficial lessons about critical thinking and cognitive biases, but Pinker takes these lessons much farther. He delves into the studies themselves and explains why their results only make sense in certain contexts. For example: He not only explains the Monty Hall problem, but he explains why when the Monty Hall problem has 1000 doors instead of 3, most people get it right!

In my quest this year to sharpen my critical thinking skills and understand the world around me much more clearly, Rationality was indispensable.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Dr. Matthew Walker

“First, after waking up in the morning, could you fall back asleep at ten or eleven a.m.? If the answer is “yes,” you are likely not getting sufficient sleep quantity and/or quality. Second, can you function optimally without caffeine before noon? If the answer is “no,” then you are most likely self-medicating your state of chronic sleep deprivation.”

— Dr. Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep

If you’re like most people, you probably know it’s important to get good sleep, but you’re not totally sure why. You know how awful you feel when you get five, four, or three hours of sleep, so you aim for six or more, but you don’t worry too much about whether you go to bed at 9 pm or 11 pm, especially on the weekends. You use coffee in the mornings and use the weekend to catch up on sleep and you’re pretty comfortable with this whole arrangement.

If that’s you, what Dr. Walker has to say in Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams will make your stomach drop through the floor.

Dr. Walker starts by teaching the reader about exactly what it is sleep does. He explains that there are two sleep cycles, REM and NREM, and both sleep cycles perform critically important functions for cognitive performance and memory consolidation. He shows how even losing half an hour of sleep each night can lead to alarming cognitive deficits that you probably already suffer and merely write off as the effects of “aging” or “stress.” After reading this section, you’ll have a sudden conversion like I did, and you’ll start taking your eight hours of sleep a night deadly serious.

Then Walker busts myths about sleep and how it works. He explains how most people are using caffeine to self-medicate chronic sleep deprivation and how most people who drink on the weekends are functionally getting less than half of the sleep they would otherwise get. He also explains why most sleeping pills reduce your sleep quality and why the best intervention to help yourself sleep is to turn off all your screens an hour before bedtime and set your bedroom to a frosty 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

After reading Why We Sleep, I started taking my sleep seriously. My life turned around instantly.

For several months prior, I was struggling to do quality work. I couldn’t motivate myself to work, and when I could, I couldn’t seem to produce work I was actually proud of. I was totally stuck and couldn’t figure out why. I was beginning to despair. Was something wrong with me? Was this because of my mental illness? Was I doomed because of something I couldn’t control?

Just a few nights of turning my screens off and getting a full nine hours in bed, however, and things turned around. I started waking up in the morning eager to work. Shortly after, I figured out how to use my early-morning motivation to do the most difficult task on my to-do list. Combine that with alcohol abstinence, and now even on days when my mental illness overwhelms me, I’m still able to get something awesome done. That change came as a direct result of reading Why We Sleep.

In Conclusion

For the five books that made it on this list, there were another ten or fifteen that helped me quite a bit that I’m not sure other people would find as helpful. These books made it on the list not only because they irrevocably changed my life, but because they have the power to irrevocably change yours too.