My Favorite Books from 2011

I read a lot. Have I mentioned that? This year I managed to put back more than a few books, and now that we’re winding up 2011 I want to give a nod to those that really stuck out to me (a list which, in the interest of brevity, only covers books published in 2011) as an informal sequel to my recent post about learning new things.

As I say on my Goodreads profile, I only tend to read books that I have a good idea I’m going to like in the first place, and those I approach from an optimistically bright outlook such that I’m probably going to find something interesting, thought-provoking, and just entertaining enough to rate well. The presence of a book on this list does not serve as an endorsement of every statement or argument made within said book. It only means that I found something of value in reading it.

There’s virtually nothing fitness-related here, as I don’t really care for most of those books, although at least some of the nonfiction will be (indirectly) of interest to any exercise buff. I’m also including fiction along with the nonfiction because, well, I just want to.

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On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not [Book Review]

I think that perhaps the worst thing we can do, not only as fitness professional type or athletes, but in all aspects of life, is to become stale. We lock ourselves into ruts of habit and comfortable familiarity, walling ourselves off from people and places and ideas that threaten our worldviews. We convince ourselves that we’re right, wrap ourselves up in a filter of certainty, and ignore, dismiss, or explain away any factoid or data point that challenges our established thoughts.

Politics and religion, the two time-tested hotspots of interpersonal conflict, are obvious symptoms of mental rigidity. Bring up either, or both, and your company quickly becomes impolite. Why does this happen? What is it about people that make them so absolutely certain they’re right — even if evidence to the contrary is right in front of them?

That’s what Robert A. Burton, MD, sets out to answer in On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.

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Mindset: The New Psychology of Success [Book Review]

“Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.”

When I was a kid, I always scored well on those standardized tests they like to give children. I remember taking an IQ test when I was no more than seven or eight, and while I was never told the results, I was put into a ‘gifted program’ shortly after that. I was routinely praised as intelligent, as ‘the smart kid’, as all those kind and not-so-kind terms we use for so-called over-achievers. I was placed in an environment that told me I was smart — that defined me as smart — and created expectations from that stereotype.

Then I reached high school and, without being too nice about it, fell apart. I quit caring, and since I didn’t care I didn’t try. I didn’t care about school work, I didn’t care about learning, and threats of working at McDonald’s forever didn’t faze me. That attitude, of defining myself by a stereotype and its expectations, of treating failure as a personal trait, of judging things in strict good/bad terms, stayed with me for most of my adult life. It bled over into college, into relationships, and into my lifting.

Though I didn’t realize it, I operated under what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck divides our mentalities into two distinct mindsets. Those like myself hold to the above-mentioned fixed mindset; you’re born with certain gifts, and if you aren’t good at an activity, then that’s that. People don’t change, and if you suck you just suck, so you might as well give up. The fixed mindset focuses on ability as an unchanging (and unchangeable) quantity.

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Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think [Book Review]

In keeping with my theme of exploring the psychological side of training and nutrition, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on the cognitive and behavioral factors that go into decision making. As I said in my last book review (Switch by Chip & Dan Heath), the fields of cognitive science and behavioral psychology are underrated by us in the the fitness-related fields.

I know I was a prime example not that long ago. It was easy, almost intuitive, to write people off as ‘stupid’ or ‘uneducated’ when they fell for shameless marketing gimmicks or self-destructive ‘Bro’ training and diet methods. How times change.

I’m still convinced that human beings are irrational beings and emotional decision-makers. I’m still convinced that self-deception is a big part of that irrationality, such that very few of us are even aware of our schizoid natures. It’s just that I no longer think this condition is something to write off as ‘people are stupid’.

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Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard [Book Review]

I realize I’ve been stepping out of the usual bounds the last few months, which may put off some people. I promise all my talk about psychology and cognitive science does have a point, and is most assuredly related to goal-achievement in athletic activities (which includes successful eating strategies).

It isn’t that I think training discussion is exhausted. The theoretical side has distilled to nitpicking over details that don’t matter. It’s interesting in the way reading about quantum physics is interesting; a good time-waster, if you’re in the hands of a Hawking or Kaku or Brian Greene, but most of the readership really doesn’t get it. The concepts and the mathematics are too obscure; to make the material accessible, it has to be sloganized. Transforming nuanced concepts into one-off sound-bites is the origin of Bro-Science, so I think that’s best avoided.

The Just Go Do It discussion doesn’t involve much more than asking how you like to work out, or finding novel ways to come up with numbers to lift. You can make that as complex, or simple, as you please.

But the mind, now there’s an untapped area. Think past the classics like ‘mind-muscle connection’ and the motivational one-liners reminding you that ‘mind is everything’. It is, without a doubt — and like all uselessly vague clich├ęs, it tells you absolutely nothing of value.

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Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 E-book

I’ve been a big fan of Jim Wendler’s writings on strength for awhile. For those that aren’t aware, Jim’s one of the big boys over at EliteFTS, a former football player and competitive powerlifter. Like most of my favorite strength-writers, Jim’s always managed to keep things simple, to the point, and effective. There’s a definite trend towards overcomplicating things; it’s the people that can explain strength training in simple and practical terms that will benefit you the most.

Recently Jim’s released a new ebook simply called “5-3-1”. What the hell is that, you ask? In simple terms, it’s a program. However, I hate to use that word because of all the negative connotations involved. It’s better to say that this is a strategy for training.

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Book Review: The Reactive Training Manual

I don’t tend to buy a lot of fitness/sports/strength-related products. Don’t get me wrong, I have a shelf full of books and a hard drive full of documents – I love reading about all this stuff.

What I mean is that in terms of the sheer amount of products out there, and what I tend to see people actually shelling out money for, I don’t buy a lot of things.

It’s just not common for me to see something that interests me enough to bother with. Even the stuff that looks interesting can turn out to be lukewarm, worth a read but not worth the cost. So it goes.

That said, if it’s on the right subject I’ll still get worked up. When I first read that Mike was putting this together, I got excited.

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