Sleep, Education, Happiness and Vulnerability: my top 4 growth-inducing, non-fiction reads of 2018.

Looking back on 2018, and my bookshelves, I think I read more books in this calendar year than in any other. Yes, it’s entirely possible that this means I didn’t get out enough…but my top four non-fiction reads of 2018 left such an impression on me that I’ve decided to share these with you. I must caveat that only two of these four were actually published in 2018. For the rest, I’m late to the party. You may have already read them, in which case I’d love to hear your thoughts too. Alternatively, they may be stuck in your ever-growing ‘to read’ pile and hopefully this will serve to fast-track them to your January 2019 reading schedule (you have one of those, right?).

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker (Penguin, 2018).

My diarised early bed-times have become a running joke in my team. But FINALLY I found consolidated, scientific justification for my behaviour. For two weeks this book was all that I talked about; I tried to convert people by relaying Walker’s research, but as of Dec 21st I think my attempts had failed. And so, I bid you the chance to discover this for yourselves.

Walker begins by explaining the science behind our circadian rhythms and what causes feelings of tiredness: sleep pressure (or tiredness/desire to sleep) is created by the build up of a chemical, adenosine, around the brain, which is ultimately washed away during the sleep process. Based on scientific studies, Walker goes on to explain the benefits of sleep (including napping) to the learning process: those who napped during the day had a whopping 20% learning advantage, with further studies suggesting the delta to be closer to 40%. Adopting a more urgent tone, Walker proceeds to highlight the ways in which a lack of sufficient sleep can kill you – microsleeps whilst driving being the biggest culprit; after one night of no sleep, missed responses increases by 400%+. Driving drunk or driving drowsy were found to be equally dangerous, statistically.

For the exercise junkies among us, Why We Sleep also documents Walker’s work with athletes. Anything less than 8 hours of sleep and time to physical exhaustion drops by 10-30%, including faster rates of lactic acid build up. Even sweating is impaired by sleep loss. Most staggeringly, 9 hours sleep can reduce the % chance of injury to under 20%, compared with 75% for those who only obtain only 6 hours per night. I was astounded.

I could go on in recalling the minutiae of his research, but it’s all there for you to read and discover. Some of the other highlights include sleep’s impact on mental health, the role of dreams in dealing with trauma, and the impact of various substances on sleep (“sleeping aids” included). Considering Walker’s academic role as Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, this book is incredibly accessible for the lay-person, with research applied in every-day, relatable examples. It’s a phenomenally convincing call to arms to end the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century and start living a life ‘truly awake’.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (Penguin, 2018). 

With rave reviews from across the literary spectrum, this memoir by Ms Westover fully lives up to expectation. Westover recounts coming of age within a family of extremist Mormon faith and suspected mental illnesses. It’s a frank telling of a battle of wills, between Westover’s and her father’s, as he clambers to retain control of her daily activities and sphere of knowledge. For anyone who has fought to escape the mental and physical control of an abusive partner/family member, this is a poignant read. But, as the book progresses, we see Westover’s strength of will and intellect increase with age, eventually finding peace and fulfilment within an academic environment.

One of the most touching takeaways of this memoir was the role of Westover’s academic supervisors in pushing her beyond her comfort zone and instilling a sense of self-worth within her. This text shines a light on the importance of (academic) mentors – how they can fill the void of lost parents, friends, or spiritual leaders. However, Educated’s most profound message is that of education’s ability to lift people out of financially and intellectually destitute environments. It enables people to find and construct their own truth, rather than accept the one bestowed upon them. In the pursuit of knowledge, one can establish their own identity and values – a pathway to self determination and independence.

Admittedly Westover’s masterpiece is not the most joyful read, but one of the most inspiring.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (HarperCollins, 2009). 

I am so late to the party on this one (by almost a decade), that I could have purchased Rubin’s 10th anniversary addition of the text. It was a book which I had previously, repeatedly, selected against when searching for my next read. During my travels earlier this year, I ran out of books (gasp) and stumbled across the most epic book shop in Victoria BC: Russell Books (photograph above). Within this treasure cave I finally succumbed to making the purchase – it’s been a game changer.

The book follows Rubin’s journey to spruce up her life, by way of making marginal gains in her every-day happiness. Rubin picks 12 areas of focus and dedicates a month to each. Within these areas, such as Vitality (January), she breaks it down into a number of achievable objectives. For instance, implementing a bedtime, reducing clutter, exercise better. The achievement of these objectives is then documented on a chart. As she moves through the months she retains the objectives from the month before to create a cumulative total. Indeed, it also becomes apparent that it’s often difficult to target one area of life in isolation to the others. For instance, as a self-employed author who works from home, Rubin’s work/leisure/passion projects are deeply interconnected; she lives and breathes literature.

The premise of this book is about making small tweaks to your life to eek out some gains in happiness. It demonstrates how we can hold ourselves accountable for our own happiness and assert control over our life experiences. Having tried out my own happiness project for the last four months I can attest to the fact that it’s a structured and purposeful method of bringing about areas of professional and personal growth. It’s grounded in the concept of SMART objectives, accountability, and the every-day.

As your focus turns to 2019 and what you want to achieve, this could be an effective partner resource in helping to formulate your strategies for the new year.

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (Gotham Books, 2012).

Drawing from her academic research and personal experience, Brown delivers a daring argument to embrace vulnerability, personally and professionally. She helps identify the feelings and cultures of shame and fear, and in turn analyses the impact of living within such cultures.

There are two areas of analysis which have stuck with me – the first being her research into the impact of working within an organization that operates on the basis of fear and shame. Aptly put, ‘shame works like termites in a house’, eating away covertly, only to find one day that the structure has crumbled. Brown identifies how this culture kills engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity and trust within a workplace, but offers some strategies for turning this around and building shame-resiliency.

Second, her research on the relationship between the social constructs of femininity/masculinity and vulnerability offers breath-taking insight. She suggests that feminine and masculine norms are the foundation of shame triggers…’one move outside of these expectations and BAM! The shame web closes in’. ‘Shame triggers get reinforced…when we enter into a social contract based on these gender straightjackets’ – we start to fear rejection, disconnection, and these expectations inhibit us from fully performing our own truths. Before you presume that I’m talking purely about its impact on women – I’m not, Brown is not. Her research equally enforces the detrimental impact of a shame culture upon men.

Brown offers a wholly convincing argument for us to ‘dare greatly’ in order to maximise our creative and innovative potential. She challenges us to embrace vulnerability in order to live with authenticity, and ultimately be the best that we can be.

Select one of these non-fiction books to kick-start your reading for 2019; I’m confident that their influence will extend through the new year and beyond – broader than the immediate enjoyment of reading them. Go explore!

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