Worth a Read — on Books and Learning to Be Yourself

No less than seven times in 2018 did I sit down with a cup of coffee, push open my laptop and try to tap out this little letter. Like many moments this year, it felt awkward, uncomfortable, hard — hard in the way that learning to ice skate or planning a wedding or quitting your job are hard.

You’re out there on the ice with two flubbaroo legs that haven’t seen the sun since August. You’re blinded by the smooth surface beneath your blades, inching forward and trying to remember if you were ever good at this and wondering what your very-critical-audience-of-strangers will say and so-help-you-God think when your right big toe catches a rut and you lose your footing and slip up right in the center of the rink, sharing this special moment only with the old fashioned, preternatural pain that comes with falling down cold in a very public place.

So then you stand up.

You’re on the old sunroom floor cutting speckled cream paper and stringing fake flowers onto fishing line for the fourth hour when a voice drops in to let you know that You Are Doing It Wrong. After you re-write the seating cards, you need to tell the caterer you’ll be adding plus-ones for seventeen strangers So That Everyone Will Have A Good Time, but before that you’ll order the scissor lift that will drape the glass atrium in sheer voile and install the cafe patio lights and rent the five-hundred dollar parquet dance floor, or, You Know, You Could At Least Try to build the platform you saw on Pinterest. While it is true that some people get married without cake, without champagne toasts, without credit cards, you’ve read enough Emily Post to know what it means to be counted in the company of Some People.

So then you stand up for yourself.

You’re two months in your new job and staring into a cup of Pinot Noir on the living room sofa you realize you’ve come home crying more days this week than you haven’t, that this has happened more weeks than it has not, that it’s longer than you can remember since you’ve felt so new and very much alone in the place that you spend most of your waking life. You believe in earnest that everything happens for a reason, you remember that the first few months are always tough, you keep up your work and that old habit of counting and contacting the kind people you know like rosary beads strung up on an old cotton thread.

So then you stand up for yourself and help others stand up, too.

What’s that old page on vulnerability from The Velveteen Rabbit? Real is when your hair is rubbed off, your eyes are droopy, and you’re really very shabby. And it really doesn’t matter.

What’s the chapter in that Patagonia book about asking for help? Where the woman cold-calls bank managers and business owners and says, Hey, I’m really new at this thing and I really think someone should help me — so can you tell me how to do this?

What’s that line you thought was from The Old Farmers’ Almanac until James Comey started tweeted it under the pseudonym Reinhold Niebuhr? Grant me the courage to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I can’t, the wisdom to know the difference.

As I type these words, a very noisy voice staccatos each keystroke from behind some musty, expensive curtain to remind me of The Very Important Fact that there are People Who Will Read This and possibly Form An Opinion About Me and Share It With Others.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with hearing that voice out, thanking it for its deep concerns, and moving along — with just being open and honest and real, with delighting in the fact that you’re still growing, sharing that growth with others.

The most important thing I learned this year is this:

What we see and say about others
reflects
what we see and believe about ourselves.

Reality mirrors perception, mirrors perspective. Recognizing that and reminding myself of it daily helps me remember why it’s so important to keep sharing and keep being okay being, well, real. That putting words to paper is powerful, that no one is perfect, and that asking the universe how you can help and grow and be better, well, really matters.

Today I would like to share some of the best books I came across and revisited over the past year. These words, steps, and stories have helped me foster real, personal growth and continue to shepherd my mind, body, and soul toward a greater good.

With love and light, here’s wishing you a beautiful new year.
—Jess

The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness
by Andy Puddicombe

A couple of years ago I began meditating with the Headspace app. I hit 50 days in a row, and then I felt a little burnt out and let my daily practice slip. But the buffer of new space between my thoughts and my feelings continues. It’s hard to describe, but something about learning to meditate permanently alters how you approach your own emotions, and perceive others’ emotions. You learn to pause, observe, and reflect without reacting. You learn to get past a visceral response and just listen to your own “small self” and see the “small self” in others. You also learn to better love and care for those small selves, to support and nourish them with understanding and contemplation. When I first picked up Andy’s book, I asked him to write inside the cover, in a word, what meditation means to him. He offered that the root of it all is simply, “Perspective.”

Designing Your Life
by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett

After working in and out of the same office for eight years, my boss and the leader of organization for nearly as long announced he would be leaving. I asked him for parting advice and his response was, “Don’t be afraid of change.” Soon after I came across two Stanford professors’ neat little hardcopy on embracing change and designing career development. As a fellow industrial design grad, Dave and Bill’s iterative approach to creating life work really resonated with me, and I devoured the book and hands-on tools: creating a health/work/play/love dashboard, mind-mapping five-year life odysseys, seeking out life interviews instead of job interviews, keeping a good time journal and tracking energy, engagement, and AEIOU — activities, environments, interactions, objects, users.

The book re-framed my core understanding and the role of work itself, and it showed me how to ask for help. When I did, I was overwhelmed by the response of friends stepping up to offer encouragement, job openings they knew of, interview tips, résumé editing skills, and a tidal wave of personal advice — including Bill, who reminded me, “Trust your emotional intelligence as much as your rational. Many small steps will add up quickly. Stay optimistic and grateful for the opportunities you have and explore the things that are right in front of you and available.”

Six months after my first read I started my first day at a new job at a small non-profit, and as my new boss promised, it’s been a wild ride since. I gave my copy of Designing Your Life to a friend, so last week I popped into a local bookstore to revisit it — sitting on a step stool in the self-help section and re-remembering the importance of building a path, trusting your emotional (feelings) and intestinal (guts) responses, narrowing down your options and just making a decision and moving forward.

Steal the Show
by Michael Port

Before leaving my old job, I borrowed a copy of this book from the campus library to prepare for a big presentation at my last board meeting, as well as the first one at my new job. I find it difficult to make it through single subject books, but I’m happy that I stuck with this one and worked through Michael’s advice and steps to becoming a better public speaker. I still get nervous and sometimes fumble words when the microphone is passed my way, but no longer feel the old heart-racing, knots-in-the-stomach anxiety when waiting to speak to a crowd. Plus, I feel a much better sense of how to educate, entertain, and connect with the folks in front of me. Think of this one as How to Win Friends and Influence People, but with Powerpoint and props and a little, ah, stand-up pizazz to help you find and foster your voice.

Let My People Go Surfing
by Yvon Chouinard

I’m a big fan of the Patagonia’s products and philosophy (not to be confused with Chadagonia, which I’m also a big fan of, but that’s another post altogether). Learning more about Yvon and his wife Malinda’s journey to building their brand and community makes me feel even better about supporting their company and its mission to make the world a healthier place through conscientious consumption and environmental activism and stewardship. Managing people, projects, and programs is often a lonely and uncomfortable endeavor — Yvon’s book feels like building a campfire with an old friend and sitting back for a long conversation about life, work, the world, and how we can make all three of those things better, together.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
by Marie Kondo

Much has been said about KonMari and her very specific method of cleaning your house. A couple of years back I waxed poetic on my own “spark joy” experience and have since bought her second book, Spark Joy, marveled at her presentation of the book for the first time in English, given my own presentation at a tiny house festival on building a tiny wardrobe, used the book to help my mom clean out 30 years of domestic detritus in my childhood home, sat down with some local folks for interviews and tours of our home and my closet, and created a free guide to cleaning and clarifying your closet based on the KonMari method. It’s a book that’s truly changed my life, and one that I come back to every season when I get the hankering to clear the decks of house and mind.

The Abundance of Less: Lessons in Simple Living from Rural Japan
by Andy Couturier

Four years ago I came across this wonderfully kind and simple book under a different title, A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance. Fast forward to a sunshiny afternoon last fall when it caught my eye on the bookshelf and I wondered, has Andy written anything lately? It turned out that three days earlier he’d released a new version of the book, with updates on the lives of his friends and mentors throughout Japan. This is another book I come back to often, thumbing through the dog-eared pages when I’m looking for inspiration, encouragement, and sage guidance on how to live simply and live well in a very noisy, very busy modern world. If there’s any book that makes me want to pack up the pups and move to the country with my better half (other than Heidi…) it’s this one.

PS: For 2019, I’m building a little curriculum of books and blogs and podcasts. Here’s what I’ve have so far. What else should be on it?

  • Tools for Grassroots Activists by Nora Gallagher and Lisa Myers
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
  • On the Shortness of Life and Moral Letters to Lucilius by Seneca
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • The Architecture Reference & Specification Book by Julia McMorrough
  • The Interior Design Reference & Specification Book by Chris Grimley and Mimi Love
  • A Frame for Life: The Designs of StudioIlse by Ilse Crawford
  • The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
  • The Modern Mind by Peter Watson
  • Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken
  • The Simple Path to Wealth by J L Collin
  • Worth It by Amanda Steinberg
  • Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington
  • The Now Age podcast by Ruby Warrington
  • The Lunar Logic Blog by Jenn Racioppi
  • To Universe with Love blog by Archana
  • Age of Ecology blog by Chad Ralston (aka, my better half)