The Four Tendencies – Gretchen Rubin

In this groundbreaking analysis of personality type, bestselling author of Better Than Before and The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin reveals the one simple question that will transform what you do at home, at work, and in life.

During her multibook investigation into understanding human nature, Gretchen Rubin realized that by asking the seemingly dry question “How do I respond to expectations?” we gain explosive self-knowledge. She discovered that based on their answer, people fit into Four Tendencies: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Our Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so using this framework allows us to make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress, and engage more effectively.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was a non-believer of Gretchen Rubin for a long time. She became famous with her book The Happiness Project, in which she realized she was unhappy and so spent a year investigating and doing things that would make her happier. Theoretically this sounds like a nice pursuit until I learned that she basically had it all already – a beautiful family, a loving and handsome and wealthy husband, a posh home in New York City, etc. I still respected her pursuit of happiness because I wasn’t about to begrudge anyone of that, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t roll my eyes at her “woe is me” situation.

BUT. Then she wrote Better Than Before, which examines habits and sorts people into four different types of personalities, and I read an interpretation of myself that completely answered some questions that have tortured me since I was a child.

Let me back up a little here. While Better Than Before is the OG book that covers a lot of ground,The Four Tendencies is a deeper dive into just the personality types themselves: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel. I’m an Obliger, which means I’m primarily motivated by external accountability and do excellently in anything relating to completing requests/satisfying others, but can’t keep any promises to myself for shit. THIS WAS REVOLUTIONARY TO ME! My entire life, I’ve always hated myself for being lazy and a procrastinator, someone who can’t work up the internal motivation to learn or do anything for herself. And then this book comes along and tells me it’s ok that I’m the way I am – actually a large portion of the population is the same way, and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me.

When I read this, I felt the same way as I did after reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts. It was like someone finally understood me and my life was validated. Which sounds dramatic, but it is what it is.

The solution to Obliger problems is to have external accountability for anything that’s important to me. For example, if I’m training for a half-marathon, tell people about it so that I can’t play off missing workouts, or join a running group. If I’m invited to movie night with friends but know I won’t want to change out of pajamas after dinner, offer to pick up a friend on the way there.

I’m still working on doing this more, but honestly this book was eye-opening to me. I don’t think everyone will benefit from it as much as I did, but if you suspect you might also be an Obliger or Rebel, it might be really helpful.

Trick Mirror – Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino has become a peerless voice of her generation, tackling the conflicts, contradictions, and sea changes that define us and our time. Now, in this dazzling and entirely original collection of nine essays, written with a rare combination of give and sharpness, wit and fearlessness, she delves into the forces that warp our vision, demonstrating a stylistic potency and critical dexterity found nowhere else.

Trick Mirror is an enlightening, unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives. This is a book about the incentives that shape us, and about how hard it is to see ourselves clearly in a culture that revolves around the self. In each essay, Tolentino writes about a cultural prism: the rise of the nightmare social Internet; the American scammer as millennial hero; the literary heroine’s journey from brave to blank to bitter; the mandate that everything, including our bodies, should always be getting more efficient and beautiful until we die. Gleaming with Tolentino’s sense of humor and capacity to elucidate the impossibly complex in an instant, and marked by her desire to treat the reader with profound honesty, Trick Mirror is an instant classic of the worst decade yet.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is an outstanding collection of essays examining different aspects of our society. I really enjoy Tolentino’s sharp, incisive cultural critique, even if it tends to digress into side topics and lose the original train of thought, and her writing is very distinctly hers. In particular, her writing is dense. She comes off as intimidatingly intelligent and well-spoken through these essays (and she is – she went to UVA and was accepted to Yale) – the kind of writing that makes you wonder if you’re just not smart enough to understand what she’s saying – and doesn’t shy away from tackling complicated topics with sophisticated language and strong opinions. At the same time, she’s quite graceful in admitting when her perspective is limited, whether because she’s young and attractive (not her words, she’s too diplomatic for that), or because she’s Asian and can’t speak to the white experience, etc.

This is not a book to speed through. The density alone prevents that, but even if not for her writing style, her ideas are engaging enough to make you pay attention as well. I particularly liked the essays Always Be Optimizing (The Guardian has an excellent shortened version of it) about the pursuit of perfection by today’s millennial woman, and We Come from Old Virginia about the 2014 UVA rape case and the countless other unreported rapes that occurred on the one campus alone. The book was most readable when Tolentino made it more personal – sharing her anecdotes from being on reality TV and what it was like growing up deeply religious in Houston (I’m from Houston and recognized a lot of the references!). To help on the accessibility front, I think Trick Mirror could have benefited greatly from a paring down. Simplicity is always preferred over convolution. And there’s no need to rehash stories and events that are public knowledge – I was almost annoyed to see retellings of how Facebook was founded and how the 2008 financial crisis occurred.

This is well-worth the read because her life experiences – Asian in a deeply conservative, religious part of Texas, reality TV exposure, Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan during the coup – give her unique perspectives and she channels them into this furious onslaught of words. But make sure you have the time and patience before you dive in.

P.S. Isn’t the blurb more than a little fatalist though? I mean, “Trick Mirror is an instant classic of the worst decade yet”? And this was published in 2019, before the whole pandemic!

Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain

A deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade from Chef Anthony Bourdain, laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine—now with all-new, never-before-published material.

New York Chef Tony Bourdain gives away secrets of the trade in his wickedly funny, inspiring memoir/expose. Kitchen Confidential reveals what Bourdain calls “twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This book is a total whirlwind to read. I first picked it up one winter break in college, and it immediately grabbed me until I was done just a day later – it was just impossible to put down. I’ve since come back to it a couple times (especially interesting as the restaurant industry has overhauled itself in the past decade or so) and recommended/gifted it to countless people, and I have to say, it’s still as good as it was that first time through.

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Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this book. Even though I’d call myself only a casual runner at best (and that’s when I’m actively running at all), Born to Run really ignited an excitement in me to not only run more, but also to simply enjoy it.

The main story about the eventual race between the Americans and the legendary Tarahumara was really interesting to read, but the two most fascinating parts for me were: 1) learning the evolutionary history of how humans became uniquely designed to run, and 2) as mentioned above, that you can sheerly love the act of running itself and have fun doing it. The bushmen’s hunt near the end was also extremely vivid – the storytelling made it seem like running your prey to exhaustion was the most natural thing to do in the world, and genuinely like running at an easy lope for hours on end was what we were born to do.

McDougall alternates the science/history sections and anecdotal sections so you get a good balance between entertainment and knowledge, and his pacing is even and gradual, making his ideas easy to follow and digest. This book also popularized those dreadful-looking toe shoes (Vibrams being the biggest brand) under the idea that they allowed you to run more naturally – the closest sensation to running barefoot while still wearing something protecting you from the ground. Even though that theory has since been disproven, the other premises in its pages were still fascinating and more than made up for that misplaced endorsement.

I can definitely see myself coming back to this book throughout my life. 

Uncanny Valley – Anna Wiener

In her mid-twenties, at the height of tech industry idealism, Anna Wiener—stuck, broke, and looking for meaning in her work, like any good millennial–left a job in book publishing for the promise of the new digital economy. She moved from New York to San Francisco, where she landed at a big-data startup in the heart of the Silicon Valley bubble: a world of surreal extravagance, dubious success, and fresh-faced entrepreneurs hell-bent on domination, glory, and, of course, progress.

Anna arrived amidst a massive cultural shift, as the tech industry rapidly transformed into a locus of wealth and power rivaling Wall Street. But amid the company ski vacations and in-office speakeasies, boyish camaraderie and ride-or-die corporate fealty, a new Silicon Valley began to emerge: one in far over its head, one that enriched itself at the expense of the idyllic future it claimed to be building.

Part coming-age-story, part portrait of an already-bygone era, Anna Wiener’s memoir is a rare first-person glimpse into high-flying, reckless startup culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance, wild fortune, and accelerating political power. With wit, candor, and heart, Anna deftly charts the tech industry’s shift from self-appointed world savior to democracy-endangering liability, alongside a personal narrative of aspiration, ambivalence, and disillusionment.

Unsparing and incisive, Uncanny Valley is a cautionary tale, and a revelatory interrogation of a world reckoning with consequences its unwitting designers are only beginning to understand.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

First off, I just have to say how much I LOVE the cover! It’s eye-catching and fits the subject perfectly…although to clarify just in case, know that this book is not about robots and AI (not directly, anyway), but about Silicon Valley during the growth years.

This was one of my most anticipated reads of early 2020 (can’t believe I posted that in January, seems like a lifetime ago). How’d it stack up? I was maybe a little disappointed by it overall, but it was still an entertaining and informative read.

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No Time to Spare – Ursula Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin took readers to imaginary worlds for decades. In the last great frontier of life, old age, she explored a new literary territory: the blog, a forum where she shined. The collected best of Ursula’s blog, No Time to Spare presents perfectly crystallized dispatches on what mattered to her late in life, her concerns with the world, and her wonder at it: “How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I’ll be honest: this wasn’t exactly a voluntary pick. I usually never choose books like this for myself, being a fiction lover all the way, but as things go, it was an accidental selection from the NYPL ebooks page. I’d been impatiently looking for Wizard of Earthsea for weeks, saw a Le Guin book scroll by, and without thinking, checked it out. Then I opened it up and – surprise, it was actually a collection of her blog posts from the later years of her life! Quarantine being what it is, I gave it a shot and settled in.

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Maybe You Should Talk to Someone – Lori Gottlieb

One day, Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who helps patients in her Los Angeles practice. The next, a crisis causes her world to come crashing down. Enter Wendell, the quirky but seasoned therapist in whose office she suddenly lands. With his balding head, cardigan, and khakis, he seems to have come straight from Therapist Central Casting. Yet he will turn out to be anything but.

As Gottlieb explores the inner chambers of her patients’ lives — a self-absorbed Hollywood producer, a young newlywed diagnosed with a terminal illness, a senior citizen threatening to end her life on her birthday if nothing gets better, and a twenty-something who can’t stop hooking up with the wrong guys — she finds that the questions they are struggling with are the very ones she is now bringing to Wendell.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What a great read! Lori Gottlieb is a columnist for the New York Times and The Atlantic (she’s the therapist in their Ask a Therapist series); I’ve been loosely following her writings there for a while and have always really appreciated her intelligence and empathy, so when she came out with a full-length book about being a therapist and going to therapy herself, I knew it had to be interesting.

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