By the title of the post, you might think this about to be some amazingly woven story of how restricting my calories helped me build talent and thus get married. Nope. It's just a post about a few really good books I've read recently.
Good Calories, Bad Calories
Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes is a pro-meat book which covers dietary "history" since the 1950s. What I liked most about it was that it covered three angles simultaneously, the political angle (which, unfortunately, seems to have as much of an impact on our nation's diet as any other angle), the research angle, and the biological angle.
From the political angle you read about the story of overzealous dieticians who, before conducting any research that proved such a theory, believed that fat was bad. They managed to sell Washington on it, with a "we might be wrong, but it can't hurt to cut out fat" message, and it stuck. The government had so much money invested in studies trying to prove them right, that they found it hard to back down from the fat-is-bad message they promote. This angle isn't nearly enough to convince anyone to eat meat, but it provided a useful context to understand the other messages in.
The research angle was also interesting, but not wholly convincing. It, again, provides a backdrop, but the truth is that there are studies that show both positive and negative correlations with meat eating. If a clear majority of studies showed one thing or another, they might serve as proof for one side, but they don't. Good Calories, Bad Calories does a good job of showing pro-meat studies and debunking anti-meat studies, but I imagine an argumentative vegetarian could do much of the opposite. If I learned anything from this portion, it's that meat PROBABLY isn't a major force for good or evil in the diet, and that correlation isn't enough to prove causation.
The most interesting part of the book, for me at least, was the biological angle, where Taubes methodically explains how animal fat affects the body. In particular, he talks about how HDL and LDL are very poor indicators for heart disease, and how using them as a drop-in replacement for heart disease in studies ends up muddying the results. He describes what actually causes heart disease, how animal fats affect those conditions, and why those fats are actually beneficial.
The book is extremely long at 640 pages, but it needs to be. The conclusion of the book is so counter-intuitive to information that's been drilled into our heads since childhood, that Taubes needs the time to fully explain and document his case.
I read this book as part of an effort to read more books I don't agree with. I read a lot now, and while I like reading books that share my opinion, I think that it's important to read conflicting points of view. Despite being nudged by Denise Minger's critique of The China Study, I was vegan when I started reading Good Calories, Bad Calories, but it pushed me over the edge by the end. Most books that conflict with my point of view don't change me so much, but I have found that they make me more able to understand where other people are coming from.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
I'm not married and I won't ever be. I haven't written a post about why I'm so against marriage (for myself, that is. I don't care if other people get married), but that's mostly because I always seem to have friends getting married, and I don't want them to think it's some attack against them.
Anyway, just because I'm not going to be married, doesn't mean that reading a book about marriage won't benefit me. This book was recommended by my friend Brian, who also recommended life-changer Difficult Conversations. After that recommendation, I read everything he suggests.
Interestingly, Brian isn't married either. The book has benefitted his relationships, but he also has his employees at Bungie read it. It's that good of a primer on interpersonal relationships.
The Seven Principles is written by a guy named John Gottman, who I've been fascinated with for a long time. Unlike most marriage counselors, who rely on old advice passed down through various courses, John Gottman did his own scientific research to figure out what makes marriages work and what makes them fail. After watching just a few minutes of a couple talking, he can predict with 96% accuracy whether or not they'll still be together three years later. That's amazing, and is enough to make me pay attention.
Maybe the most interesting part of the book comes in the beginning: the four horsemen. These are the four things he looks for, whose presence account for about 80% of his ability to determine whether or not a couple will last. They're also pretty easy to identify, which makes this a pretty useful heuristic to learn and monitor in your own relationships. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. It's no surprise that these aren't good things to find in a relationship, but it was eye-opening to me to realize just how important they are (and how relatively unimportant other things are, like arguing).
The four horseman are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the book is concerned, but I have the feeling that what I found interesting from the rest of the book has more to do with my own weaknesses in relationships than anything else. There's a lot in there and I doubt anyone could read the book and not leave with at least a few concrete ideas for improvement. It also dovetails nicely with Difficult Conversations, which further bolsters my confidence that both authors are putting me on the right track.
The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated
These books were also recommended by Brian. I read them back to back and they have so much overlap that it's hard to write about them separately. They cover a really important topic, so I found it really valuable to read both books and spend a bit more time thinking about talent.
Although they attack it from two different angles, both books come to the same conclusion, which is reassuring. They say that talent is simply a matter of how much time you've spent outside your comfort zone in a particular field, and getting feedback for it. There's a lot of nuance to optimizing talent acquisition, but that's the meat of it.
It's a neck and neck race, but I think I liked The Talent Code just a bit better. It talks a lot about a substance called myelin, which is essentially an insulator for neural connections. The more of it you have, the more quickly and precise you'll be able to fire those connections, and thus the better you'll be able to link the various actions that are required for complex skill execution.
One of the big takeaways from these books was actually a bit of a letdown: I only have enough time to get good at a finite amount of things. Time spent getting good at Japanese is time I'm not spending, and will never spend, getting good at playing the piano. I'm the kind of person who has a tough time saying no to learning new things (in my Groupon account, for example, I have groupons for learning horseback riding, sailing, and airplane piloting), but now I'm very realistic about it. With any skill I consider learning, I consciously decide whether I'm going to just forget about learning it because it will take too much time and effort (Arabic), whether I'm going to learn it but accept up front that I won't be amazing at it (horseback riding, sailing), or that I'm going to have to devote a lot of time and energy at it to actually become good (writing). It's always a good thing to know what you're getting into.
Another aspect of the books that I'm grateful for is that they really crystallize your understanding of nebulous ideas like genius and God-given-talent. Actually, they debunk both of them, and use the very examples you'd try to use to prove them wrong (Mozart, Einstein, Tiger Woods), to convince you.
Do you like these book reviews? I only recommend the few very best of the books I read, which makes me think that they're probably pretty useful.
If you like fiction, check out Sherlock Holmes. I'm about 70% of the way through the entire collection.
The new RV tour will be posted within a month, guaranteed.
There's a non-zero chance of a Life Nomadic revival of some sort. That's all I'll say about that for now!
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