Review: Reclaim Your Dreams

I first encountered Jonathan Mead of Illuminated Mind via his guest posts on Zen Habits. I am a regular reader of his contributions on that blog as well as his own, as I find him one of the more practical and to-the point personal development bloggers I’ve come across.

So, when Jonathan was looking for reviewers for his new e-book entitled “Reclaim Your Dreams: An Uncommon Guide to Living on Your Own Terms”  (link), I was more than happy to offer a review in exchange for a gratis copy of the e-book. That said, here we go!

What’s It About

I simply love the first page — it sets a high expectation for the rest of the book,  establishes the tone and gives you an insight into the content.

treatise

First Page from Reclaim Your Dreams

Unbrainwashing

The book itself is divided into two roughly equal sections. The first, a lengthy preamble entitled “Unbrainwashing: or Creating Room For Your Dreams to Grow”, presents an introduction to Mead’s philosophy.

In this section, he centres on the psychological side of personal development, inviting the reader to answer some tough questions: “Why do you live?” “Are [your thoughts] the type of thoughts you truly want?” and “Is this a decision that’s coming from my heart, or am I unnecessarily limiting myself in some way?”

For the most part, Mead avoids giving answers to the questions (from the outset, he acknowledges that what works for him may not work for everyone else. ). Instead, the writing stays on the higher, philosophical level, explaining a concept that will be familiar to many personal development readers: you are ultimately responsible for your thoughts, emotions and your happiness.

Manifestation

The second, meatier part of the book is entitled “Manifestation: or How to Make Your Dreams a Reality”. I was really excited about this section, as the first thing he discusses is how to solve the problem of not knowing what your dreams are. Mead then jumps into the most tangible exercise in the book. Writing, stream-of-consciousness-wise, the answer to these questions:

What does my heart desire? What do I really love with a passion? If money wasn’t an object, how would I spend the majority of my time? If I could have any career, regardless of my current experience and skills, what would I want to do?

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is a familiar exercise to anyone that’s spent time investigating personal development techniques.

But scanners, you’ll also recognize that answering these types of questions don’t do much for us. In fact, when I read those questions, my heart sunk a bit — I thought to myself “classic scanner trap.”

If you’re like me, you’ve tried answering those questions! But it’s impossible for a scanner to nail down any one thing that we “love with a passion”. In fact, we may love something with a passion for a few years, weeks or even just half an hour, never to love it again.

I won’t belabour the point; it’s just something I wanted my fellow scanners to be aware of, since the remainder of the section really pulls on the idea of “having a dream” and then making it reality. The emphasis on career choice is particularly sticky for scanners (for whom choosing a single career path can seem torturous!)

That being said, I did enjoy the section on getting past fear, a lesson that most of us need to learn at one point or another. Mostly, just be aware that while there are techniques that can be adapted to the scanner personality, it’s just not always immediately apparent how to do so.

 

Overall Thoughts

From the beginning, Mead makes it clear that this is a book with bold ideas, targetted to an audience focused on PD. At the same time, he’s aware of his responsibility as a writer, saying

It’s my hope that some of the things I’ve learned will work for you, as well. But most importantly, I don’t want to tell you what to do. That would go completely against everythign I’ve found to work in my life: listening to my own heart.

I think the book would have been stronger if the author had spent a bit more time actually telling us what to do. Not necessarily in the sense of giving us “all the answers” (no one can give all the answers when it comes to matters of the heart and mind), but in the sense of actually giving concrete ways and tools for listening to the heart.

Yes, there are exercises and “things to meditate on”, but I didn’t feel as though they were concrete or guided enough. Sometimes, I felt like saying “Jonathan, stop beating around the bush, and give us more tangibles and less philosophicals.” :-)

Not that this is unique Reclaim Your Dreams — it’s a trap that I find many, many PD books fall into.  This is just really unfortunate, since Mead’s blog posts are typically very grounded and very practical, and this felt like a departure from that formula.

That being said, I think that people who are either really new to personal development or really familiar with the techniques (who know what their dreams are and are experienced at listening to their hearts) would probably get more out of this book than I.

Those newer will find the concepts new, fresh and challenging. Those PD ‘gurus’ (I use the term lightly, of course!) will find Mead’s approach a twist on the familiar. But those who are familiar with the concepts but need more help with the concrete applications probably won’t get quite as much out of it.

PS. One bonus comment that has nothing to do with content, but because I’ve been doing a lot of work with typography lately, I wanted to comment on it. This book is beautifully laid out, with a smooth line for online reading. But! It is hard to read offline if you (like I) prefer to print things out. Just a small caveat to an otherwise nicely formatted book.

Weekly Reads: Facelift Edition

If you keep upon Sententia only via the RSS feed, you may want to stop by the site and check out the swanky new design I activated over the past week.

I can’t take credit for the design itself — the facelift is due to Magazeen, a fantastic free WordPress theme provided by the good folks at Smashing Magazine in conjunction with WeFunction Design.

Normally, I’d think it’s kinda goofy for a web designer to not design their own blog theme (even for a personal site — my design site was designed by yours truly), but when you get a freebie that’s as clean and simple (not to mention reader-friendly), it’s crazy not to take full advantage of it.

I’m still considering doing some tweaks to the theme, but for now, I’m really pleased with the way it all turned out. It’s easier to read, and I love the graphic element that the feature photos provide. Together with some fantastic Creative Commons pics from Flickr, I think it’s a winner all the way around.

Anyway, here’s this weeks’ collections of links from when I wasn’t tweaking design themes.

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments containing multiple links are flagged for moderation, so if your note doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

Never Again (from Unclutterer). I have a funny way of being both highly organized and completely disorganized — simultaneously — in different parts of my life. Finances? Highly organized. Laundry? Well… *ahem* … But organization typically implies that you want to be able to find something again, either physically or in memory. So what to you do with those things that fit into those piles? Unclutterer suggests a “never again” filing system for everything from “never again give Mary anything with nuts in it” to “never try to sort socks in the dark.” Hm. Maybe that last one is why the laundry just never seems to get put away…

Simple Guidelines for Workday Quality over Quantity (from Smarterware). Gina Trapani is well-known in the life-hacking blogosphere for the straightforward ideas she has for getting more out of your everyday life. The ideas presented in this post aren’t necessarily novel — they are strongly reminiscent of Tim Ferriss’ illuminating The 4-Hour Workweek — but it’s always worth a reminder. This week, I’m going to try actually putting some of these guidelines into effect myself: setting my e-mail to only check for new messages every 3 hours (and not first thing in the morning). It’s something I did with great success while under the gun last September, but fell away from recently. It’ll be good to get “back in the saddle.”

Do these Mysterious Stones Mark the Site of the Garden of Eden? (from MailOnline). Okay, let me first get this out of the way: the headline for this article is somewhat rediculous, and completely sensationalist. Alright, now that I’ve got that out of my system, the content of the article is pretty neat. After all, it’s not every day that archaeologists find a gathering site with exquisite carvings that dates to 12,000 years ago. Yeah, that’s right — no extra zeros there. Whether the site was the mythical or literal location of the Garden of Eden is beside the point; the fact that something that old even exists is way cool.

Is Marketing Evil? (from Seth Godin). A lot of people like to blame marketing for … well … just about anything. The latest craze seems to be blaming the current economic difficulties (I refuse to call it a crisis) on people for either giving in to advertising and buying to much or not giving in enough and saving too much (what?!?).  The important thing that I took away from this post, wasn’t just about marketing. Instead, I took note of this gem: “Just like every powerful tool, the impact comes from the craftsman, not the tool.” It reminds me of a saying that I heard often as a kid: “A poor workman always blames his tools.” Good advice to keep in mind, no matter what your craft.

On Leadership

Why You Should Think About Encouraging Others to Be Brilliant (from Zen Habits). I think a big part of being a strong leader is making those around you better. In this post from Zen Habits, Leo explains that there’s a good reason for this: if on your own, you can make a certain contribution, how much greater will the contribution be if you empower others to make a contribution as well? Too often, we focus only on ourselves and what we get out of something — but sometimes, a bigger contribution can be made simply by giving things away.

Review: Results Without Authority (from The Simple Dollar). I enjoy the book reviews that Trent does on TSD, if only because I find we have a lot of overlapping interests. Leadership — formal and informal — is definitely an area of interest and growth for me, personally and professionally, so I’m always looking for interesting resources to help me along the way. Based on the detailed summary Trent provides, I may need to locate this one at the library.

Are You Anonymous At Work? (Guest Post by GL Hoffman, over at ChrisBrogan.com). This one actually ties really nicely into the Results Without Authority review mentioned above. By giving practical tips and specific strategies, GL Hoffman’s post really lays out a clear path for making yourself indispensible at work, and by extension, in other settings as well. When layoffs seem like they can be hiding just around the corner, it’s no time to just sit by and let yourself be anonymous. Taking leadership of your situation can make all the difference.

Blog to Watch

The Audience Matters Most (from Synthesis). In a lot of ways, Synthesis is what Sententia wants to be when it (he? she? what is the gender of a blog, anyway?) grows up. I particularly liked this quote: “[G]reat communication is not about you getting across what you wanted to. It’s about understanding your audience, their interests and needs, and giving them what they need.” That’s an extraordinarily important concept to grasp, not just in marketing but in life. I picked this post because it spoke to a number of my recent interests: the importance of understanding culture when it comes to effective communication. But really, I just wanted to highlight the really cool stuff that Shafeen Charania is coming up with. Very cool — scanners take note, the variety in this blog is fantastic.

Canadians Take Note

A final note, this one is almost more of a personal request. The Federal Budget presented this past week in parliament contained a lot of things, some good, some bad. But there’s one thing in particular that’s important to me, and not for a good reason. I’m going to quote from a petition being organized by Churchill Manitoba MP Niki Ashton:

For more than thirty years, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) has been promoting and supporting university-based research and training in the humanities and social sciences. SSHRC funding has been used to complete ground breaking research in countless areas in Canada and around the world.

The Federal Budget presented on January 27th contains a 20% funding increase for this program, with a caveat that has the potential to halt this kind of research: “Scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees”.

These measures are backward and insulting to the thousands of Canadians that are students and researchers in the social sciences and humanities.

As a humanities student, finding opportunities for funding was hard enough as it was — most money is funnelled into the science because their “real world” applications are more obvious. But that doesn’t meant that the humanities don’t have a hugely important contribution to make. Just look at my posts above, and you’ll find many examples.

The simple fact is that the SSHRC grants were created to help fund the humanities and social sciences — to help Canadian students pursue degrees that help them communicate, analyse, think critically, etc. Many students rely on these grants to get through school; in many cases, it’s the only viable funding option. Not to mention “it is not the government’s role to direct granting agencies as to what research projects it may or may not fund. This is precisely the reason why such bodies are independent from the government. Each of the granting councils allocates funding based on peer-review of applications.” (quote from the Facebook group “Stop the feds from earmarking SSHRC funds for business-related degrees”).

So, if you’re Canadian, I’d ask you to give some thought to signing your name to the petition against the move to only allow SSHRC funds to be used for business-related research projects. It’s important.

Review: The Renaissance Soul

Are you a W.A. Mozart or a Benjamin Franklin? In other words, do you like to dive deeply into one subject and give it all your attention, or are you more happy when you’re jumping from idea to idea?

That question is at the heart of Margaret Lobenstine’s The Renaissance Soul. And the subtitle of the book (Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One) is a good first clue if Lobenstine’s message will resonate with you.

Before getting too far into the review, it’s probably a good thing to set the stage. So (borrowing from the back cover):

Do you enjoy following a diverse and evolving set of interests? Do you get down on yourself for being a “jack of all trades and master of none”? Do you feel trapped by others’ expectations of you to stay in your current field forever? Do you feel envy when someone says, “I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do with my life?”

That description sounds very much like me, and so this review will be written from that perspective. If that sounds like you, then this review will probably make sense; if it doesn’t, you may have a harder time understanding exactly where I’m coming from. Just as I can’t understand how you can be wired to know what you want to “do with your life”, you may not be able to understand that I (and other “Renaissance Souls” aren’t wired the same way).

But don’t let that stop you… let’s get on with the review itself.

What’s It About

As I suggested above, The Renaissance Soul is basically a guidebook for people who (like me, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo DaVinci, and a host of others) have so many passions and interests that choosing just one feels constraining.

Those of you who are familiar with Barbara Sher’s work will recognize “Renaissance Soul” as a synonym with Sher’s term “Scanner” — and they are in fact the same thing. In fact, Lobenstine makes reference to Sher’s work in her resources section as well as in some of her content.

The Renaissance Soul content itself is divided into five sections, intended by the author to provide a whole view of career and life design planning for the self-proclaimed Renaissance Soul. Starting from identifying yourself as such a Soul (and learning that there really is nothing wrong with you) through to learning how to model this personality for others like you (so they don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with them), Soul’s map covers the whole spectrum.

What is a Renaissance Soul

Lobenstine starts with a description of what exactly it means to be a Renaissance Soul. In the section entitled “Claiming Your Renaissance Soul,” she gives lots of examples of Renaissance Souls — the situations we find ourmselves in, the dilemmas we face, and she does a very good job of acknowledging that people in all walks of life and in all situations can be Renaissance Souls.

Some of the examples may seem a bit unrealistic to attain in our own lives (Benjamin Franklin being the biggest example), but it’s reassuring to know that if you’re a Renaissance Soul, there’s nothing wrong with you. Lobenstine also carefully points out that just because you have a variety of interests doesn’t mean that you automatically are a “genious” or more intelligent than anyone else — it doesn’t exclude the possibility, but being one isn’t a requirement.

That’s a good point to make, as it’d be easy to otherwise look at the classic examples of Renaissance Soul-“ness” (DaVinci comes to mind) and feel as though the book wasn’t really speaking to you. But Lobenstine is very careful to keep the definition very broad and welcoming, and it works.

How Does a Renaissance Soul Live?

The bulk of The Renaissance Soul centers around life- and career- design for Souls. In particular, she spends a good deal of time talking about identifying your Focus Points — interests and overreaching patterns of interests that draw you in at the moment — and finding ways to integrate those focus points into your everyday life.

Lobenstine dedicates a chapter to what she calls the “J-O-B” — a way to connect your goals and focus points into a career which brings them into alignment. You may feel that it’s impossible to bring all of your varied interests under one roof, but Lobenstine mentions many different techniques (such as the “umbrella”, in which you have one “J-O-B” that encompasses many areas: being a writer that writes about everything from Ancient Greece to emerging technologies, for example)

If you’re younger — high school or college age — Lobenstine has specific tricks on picking colleges and programs that can foster the … er… “Spirit” of the Renaissance Soul; if you don’t want to go back to school, there’s suggestions for that route as well.

One of the best sections in The Renaissance Soul is a short piece in which Lobenstine talks about perfectionism — it seems that for many Souls, perfectionism goes hand-in-hand. She notes,

What do you do if you’re a perfectionist as well as a Renaissance Soul? I learned long ago that it’s impossible to talk perfectionists out of perfectionism. A far better strategy for adapting to roadblocks created by this character trait is to learn how to become a perfect perfectionist — someone who knows when a task demands 100 percent perfection, when it calls for 75 percent perfection or 50 percent perfection, and when 25 percent perfection will do.

Even before reading about Lobenstine’s formula, this is something that I had found myself naturally starting to do, and let me tell you — it does make a big difference. Simply looking at something and asking if 100% perfection really is necessary can save a lot of headache.

Overall Thoughts

For some people, the notion of being a “Renaissance Soul” is foreign — societally, it’s seen as a bad thing, and such “souls” are called jack-of-all-trades’ or dilettantes. Where Lobenstine’s book shines is in showing Renaissance Souls that it is possible for them to find a place in this world which is targetted to “Mozarts.” Especially if you are looking to make a career move, or are just starting out in the career world, Lobenstine’s book offers some strong suggestions.

That being said, it’s not for everyone. Clearly, non-Renaissance-Souls won’t get as much out of the book. Apart from that, though, not all Souls are created equal. We don’t all function the same way — and as such, because Lobenstine often only offers one or two solutions, the suggested plan of attack just won’t resonate with all Renaissance Souls. For those that it does resonate with, it will really resonate.

I found myself actually falling a bit more on the side of “didn’t resonate”, to be honest. To me, this was especially true in the distinction that Lobenstine makes between Career Design and Life Design. Although early on, she acknowledges that “Renaissance Soul coaching … is not limited to career planning. It is about life design as well,” I found that for me the book was a bit heavy on the career planning side of things.

I personally think of career planning as an extension of life planning, and Lobenstine’s book almost put it the other way around: life planning read as an extension of career planning. Not that either is right or wrong in approach; it’s just a different approach that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.

Whatever the reason, the main points of the book just didn’t resonate with me (the “J-O-B” idea, the “Focus Points” description, etc.) — but at the same time, I recognize that the book does have huge ability to resonate with people. At times, I felt the book was a little thin on explanation, but I’m also acutely aware that it may just be that it just wasn’t suited to me; I’m not sure.

My Verdict

Ultimately, deciding whether this book is “for you” will rest on one major factor. If you struggle to know what to do with your life, simply because there are so many things you want to do, then give it a read. The writing is light and easy, and overall it’s a fairly quick read.

Personally, I felt as though Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose! was a better overall read (it resonated more, and just felt better organized and more clearly written) — but I know people who have had the exact opposite feeling on the subject

At the very worse, you’ll feel as I did: a good read, but not quite right for you. At best, you’ll have found a book that shows you how to truly give your Soul a voice.

Either way, if you feel that you have too many passions to pick just one, I recommend giving The Renaissance Soul a look.

Review: In Defense of Food

The next time you’re watching TV, watch how many commercials are for weight-loss products, prescription drugs intended to cure almost anything, and fancy cookware intended to reduce the amount of something-or-other in your diet. Not to mention all of the antibiotic this and good-for-you that.

The next time you’re in your local bookstore, go check out the health and diet section. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the pure volume of books and then stop and look at the titles. In my experience, there is certainly no shortage of “help” on the diet front — much of it contradictory. Eat more of this, less of that, and don’t forget about your nutrients!

In some stores though, hiding in and among all of the fad-diet books, you will be able to find a significantly different book: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan (256p., Penguin Press 2008). Why this one often gets shelved with the diet books, I’m not exactly sure, since a lot of pages are spent discussing the detriments of our nutrient-obsessed society. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

What’s It About

Pollan gives the whole book away even before the first chapter hits: the first paragraph of the introduction simply reads:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Those same words even grace the cover of the book — a simple “manifesto” for how we ought to be eating. I don’t think anyone would find that proclamation particularly revolutionary, or really all that interesting. Given that those seven words pretty much sum up the entirety of the book’s content, you might almost be forgiven for thinking that the book was a little … well … boring.

Far from it.

In fact, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” only really shows up in the latter third of the book; oh, to be sure, the general idea persists throughout, but in order for Pollan’s simple message to make sense, he first has to combat all of the ideas found in those other diet books on the shelf.

As a result, it’s perhaps better to discuss In Defense of Food in terms of its internal subdivisions; the book itself is roughly divided into three equal sections:

  • The Age of Nutritionism
  • The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
  • Getting Over Nutritionism

The Age of Nutritionism

 (A.K.A. How did we get into such a confused mess about what to eat, and what not to eat? And how on earth did Potato Chips and Cookies get health-food claims stickered on them?!?)

I don’t think a simple overview can nearly do justice to all of the fascinating information Pollan has collected in The Age of Nutritionism. Providing a carefully researched (and referenced!) history of the swirling mess that is “nutritional guidance” is one thing — and Pollan provides masterfully — but delving into the murky political mess that has become food lobbies and nutrition science is quite another.

Fortunately for the reader, Pollan bridges the two with a fantastic conversational approach which not only makes the dry details interesting, but makes the whole matter entirely disgusting — and that’s a good thing.

In many ways, reading the history of nutritionism (that is, being concern with the health impacts of parts of foods rather than the whole foods themselves) is like a car wreck — you can’t believe what you’re reading, it feels just absolutely wrong on so many levels, you’ve been duped into believing lies because someone else was profiting and … you just can’t turn away. It’s that fascinating.

The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

 (A.K.A. Are our health foods actually making us sicker?)

If The Age of Nutritionism is where Pollan uncovers the political agenda behind what we eat, The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization is where he takes on the scientific and research community.

From medical doctors to academics, and yes, even to nutritionists, Pollan’s investigation leads him next to the startling conclusion that all of our best intentions to eat healthier may actually be making us less well.

This section of the book begins with one of the most interesting bits of the whole book: the retelling of a 1982 study in which a group of Australian Aborigines with a host of health problems (including type 2 diabetes, obesity, etc.) spent 7 weeks living in the bush eating nothing but their culturally traditional cuisine. The result of the study was astonishing: in just 7 weeks, the health problems associated with type 2 diabetes had either disappeared completely or were greatly reduced.

Pollan uses this account as his jumping off point, from which he investigates the way in which the “Western Diet” (what most of us eat every day) has surely but slowly moved away from traditional diets — which, by the way, had us overall pretty healthy for many thousands of years.

Getting over Nutritionism

(A.K.A. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.)

Ah, finally we get to it: the part of the book which can really be summed up simply by the “eater’s manifesto.” If the message hadn’t gotten through sufficiently in the first two sections of the book, this is where Pollan really spells it all out: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Of course, it’s not nearly so simple as that — and so the reader is presented with a list of “rules of thumb” for determining what we actually should eat. In some ways, this section reads quite differently from the first two. It seems a lot lighter on facts and research, and heavier on calls to “culture” and “tradition” — not bad things, by any means, but just a different approach than the rest of the book.

If you’re looking for a quick guide to “what to eat”, then you could do a lot worse than the Getting over Nutritionism section — and it’s probably this section that sees the book most often show up in the diet section of the bookstore. The tips are great and easy to follow; my only wish is that the “what” was a little more integrated with the  “how” from the first two sections.

Overall Thoughts and My Verdict

Does In Defense of Food have a touch of polemicism in it? Yes.  Is it a condemnation of modern science and a hearkening back to “better days”? Sure. But is it worth reading?

Yes. Yes. A million times, yes. And then lend it to anyone and everyone you know.

If you’re afraid by the publisher’s stated length of the book (256 pages), don’t be. Pollan’s experience as a journalist shows itself here, and the writing is light and fluid; he is passionate about his topic, and it shows. On top of that, a good 20% of the book is citations of reference materials, which can be a bit disappointing until you realize that it just demonstrates how thoroughly Pollan researched this book.

From what I understand, In Defense of Food is also a nice tie-in to Pollan’s other well-known food book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I haven’t read it, so I’ll refrain from commenting on that aspect of things; however, any concerns about the book not being able to stand on its own would certainly not be well-founded.

Personally, I found the first two sections of the book far more interesting and engaging, but the last section is certainly valuable insofar as it gives you practical “to-do” steps to take in your own life. If the first two sections are the “why”, then the third is the “how” — it wouldn’t make sense removed from the rest of the book, but at the same time doesn’t quite seem to fit.

But the best thing I can say for this book would be simply this: it changed the way I eat. After reading In Defense of Food, I spent much of my next umpteen trips to the grocery store marvelling at exactly how much of the things on the shelves just aren’t food. And while I still do enjoy a few non-food items now and then, I’m finding it actually is really rewarding to eat food, mostly plants, and not too much.

It’s just too bad that we need to be told something that should be so obvious.