Book Spotlight: Atomic Habits — An Easy & Proven Way To Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Finished reading: Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear 📚

Have you ever tried to develop a good habit (or get rid of a bad one?) I have. During the pandemic, I felt strongly compelled to develop a habit of “journaling” (to keep my mind sharp and to focus on positive concepts outlined in mindfulness practices …) Had I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits first — it would’ve been a much easier process (spoiler alert, I did develop a rock-solid journaling routine, now going on a year and a half — but it wasn’t without much trial and error).

This book is one of those books that is so chock-full of wisdom, I can see myself reading it (or listening to it on audio) every year or two. (It’s that good.) I think for me, I wanted to read through Atomic Habits because I wanted to find the best way to nurture my writing … I’ve been pretty decent (?) about writing in the past, and I do it because I love it. That being said, I haven’t been super-consistent, and I want to develop that bullet-proof habit of showing up everyday to write — regardless if I’m feeling “inspired” or not.

Well, I can say that this book is worth every penny (exponentially so) because it takes complex ideas about self-improvement and boils them down to tiny concepts — concepts that everyone can understand, if they only take the time to absorb them.

I’ve gleaned many gems from this book already, and I certainly can’t list them all here — but I will share some of my favorite quotes just to give you a taste of the vibe offered by Mr. Clear:

You have to fall in love with boredom.

Professionals stick to the schedule, amateurs let life get in the way.

… and perhaps my personal favorite:

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

One of the major threads throughout the book is this concept of getting “1% better” everyday. What would happen if you got 1% better at your skill everyday? Thanks to the principle of compounding growth, you would net some super-serious gains within the next year. He keeps the guideposts simple, through four laws to remember:

  1. Make it Obvious
  2. Make it Attractive
  3. Make it Easy
  4. Make it Satisfying

… otherwise, the habits won’t stick! He’s simply using science and studies to remind us that no matter how great our willpower is — humans can (and will) take the path of least resistance. Instead of fighting that primal code, he nurtures it instead, and uses our physiology as a tool to set ourselves up for success (when it comes to creating good habits and breaking bad ones).

All in all, this book was a revelation (and a wake-up call) for me. James peppers tons of real-life examples and historical case-studies throughout the book, so you don’t have to take his word for it — you can just be awed by the stories of change, and let those stories light a fire underneath you. If you’re not ready to commit to a full book by Mr. Clear, I recommend signing up for his (free) weekly email newsletter to get an idea of the optimistic (yet realistic) lens through which he views the world.

Book Spotlight: The Secret Life of the American Musical (How Broadway Shows Are Built)

Finished reading: The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel 📚

Are you a “Broadwaholic”? (It’s okay, we’re all friends here …) While I grew up in the NW and didn’t have much money to spend on big traveling Broadway productions all that often, when I finally did get to see them — they pretty much rocked my world. As a matter of fact, when I was fresh out of college, I volunteered at the venerable Portland Center Stage (pouring wine at galas) mainly so I could sneak into whatever plays were currently on the docket. Later on, I had the privilege of catching traveling productions like Rent, Miss Saigon and Hamilton (to name a few) — and my brain has never been the same.

Jack Viertel captures some of that same magic in The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built. Jack has produced many epic Broadway productions over several decades, and he’s seen it all …. He knows what propels shows to mega-stardom and successful runs all over the world — and he also knows what makes even the most expensive shows a total “snooze-fest”. The focus of this book is on the songs, specifically the “types” of songs that are present in most great musicals. From Guys & Dolls to Little Shop of Horrors, from to Gypsy to South Pacific, from My Fair Lady to Hamilton — Viertel runs the gamut and peels back the layers to show you what these (seemingly) different shows have in common under the hood. This is not to say that they all follow some “staid template”, but rather — to highlight how they’ve innovated on the song styles that have historically “worked” and song styles that, well … “haven’t” … While I came at this book from a writer’s perspective — this book is still a delicious backstage pass to Broadway history that any “Broadwaholic” would find fascinating.

Book Spotlight: How Musicals Work And How To Write Your Own

I recently finished reading the fascinating How Musicals Work: And How To Write Your Own, penned by Julian Woolford (and subsequently murdered the book with my highlight pen). Julian meticulously takes apart the Swiss watch that is the stage musical — piece by piece — pausing to show you the shiny innards, and taking time to explain precisely what makes it tick. He writes in vivid detail the history and variety of stage musical formats, pitfalls to avoid when crafting your own story, how to collaborate on the musical composition — and also what to expect when your newborn baby enters into production. Julian knows of which he speaks, as he has written and directed several musicals (many of which have had successful runs all over the world) and he teaches a college course on the subject in the UK.

I imagine this book will likely only appeal to those who are already interested in writing musicals, but honestly — I think this book would be helpful for writers of all stripes (and if you’re just a die-hard fan of musicals, now’s your chance at the ultimate backstage pass, allowing you to hop into the minds of writers and composers).

The world needs more musicals — do you have one in you? If so, this is a fine place to start …

Book Spotlight: Apple Books Classics

Public Service Announcement: Apple Books just released its own collection of beautifully-modern editions of a dozen classic books … oh, and did I mention they’re all free? Currently, the list is:

  • Pride and Prejudice

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

  • The Art of War

  • Wuthering Heights

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

  • Dracula

  • Emma

  • Frankenstein

  • Anne of Green Gables

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

  • Jane Eyre

  • The Jungle Book

I’m not sure if Apple plans to offer these free forever — so if I were you — I’d grab ‘em while they’re hot! To find these shiny gems:

  • Open the Apple Books app (as of this post, I believe it’s currently only available on Apple devices)

  • Click on the “Book Store” tab

  • Click on “Featured Collection: Free books for everyone, from kids to adults”

  • Click on “Free: Dive into classics, Apple Books style.”

  • Have a literary feast! 📚

Book Spotlight: Start Something That Matters

Finished reading: Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie 📚

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books on business — but none have impacted me quite like this one. Start Something That Matters is that rare chimera of a business book that encourages you to develop simple products communicated through simple stories, and it also emphatically encourages you to bake social responsibility into your business model from day one — not tacked-on later as an after-thought.

Author Blake Mycoskie was visiting the lovely country of Argentina when he couldn’t help but notice a few things:

  • Nearly everyone in Argentina wore simple and beautiful flat shoes called “alpargatas”.

  • Everyone, that is — except those that couldn’t afford shoes. Namely children. He saw children walking through the streets barefoot — and in some neighborhoods, these streets were unclean. There were shards of glass strewn about, pieces of metal and debris …. Diseases were very common in the country due to foot infections that could’ve been prevented by wearing shoes.

  • He also noticed that “shoe drives” were a “thing” over there; concerned individuals would hold shoe drives where they accepted donations of shoes, and then they did their best to distribute those shoes to children in need. There were challenges with this method, however; first off, it relied on people donating, and secondly, the shoes always came in random sizes, so they were never sure if the sizes would actually match the children they’re hoping to donate them to.

Blake wondered …. “What if I start a donation fund, and all the proceeds will go to funding shoe drives in Argentina?” It was a noble idea, but it also faced the same core limitations of the shoe drive (what if the funding dried up?) He then thought … “What if I could bring this fashionable shoe over to the U.S?” He thought there was a market for it there, so he and some friends designed something very similar, but with a more durable sole. Eventually he landed on a sort of hybrid “for-profit but also socially-responsible business model”:

“What if … for every pair you purchase — we donate one pair to a child in need?”

It was simple and beautiful. It told a story in a sentence, and everyone immediately understood what this was all about. Thus TOMS was born in the living room of an apartment in Venice, CA — and the rest is history.

I’m not quite sure what this means for me (and potential future business ventures), but I will say that I was quite inspired by Blake’s story, and I got a lot out of this book. In fact, it’s one that I plan on reading again someday — it was that enjoyable.

Book Spotlight: Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace

Finished reading: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull 📚

What makes Pixar so … magical?  Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace unveil the secrets behind Pixar’s mysterious legacy in Creativity, Inc. In each chapter, we see the struggles and perseverance of a company not built on platitudes and mantras, but a community fortified by hard-work, honesty and passion.

For example, did you know that Toy Story 2 had a deadline to hit theaters in six months—and the Pixar team decided to rewrite the script because it wasn’t working? (Keep in mind they still had yet to animate the film.)  Yeah.  Pixar mustered the chutzpah to attempt that kind of gambit because they wanted the film to be the best it could, and yet pay off it did–as Toy Story 2 was released to a massive box-office haul and universal critical acclaim (with many saying it trumped the original).

You’re also welcomed to be a fly on the wall of a Pixar screening of a film in early, rough animatic form–which is followed by the hallowed “Braintrust” meeting–where open candor and constructive criticism rule the day.  Brilliant writers and directors give their heartfelt notes to a director and producer (who may be a wee bit too close to the material), and everyone honestly points out what’s working and what isn’t, so that the story can ultimately blossom and be the best it can be.  This is not a culture built on fear, but rather they understand that falling down is simply part of the creative process, as is dusting yourself off and getting back up.  I believe the storied Director Andrew Stanton said my favorite quote in the book:

”Fail fast and fail often.”

What Ed & Amy share with us isn’t glittery magic—they pull back the curtain on a team that forces itself to ask the hard questions about their work—and this team keeps working as a positive, encouraging unit until they get it right.  While this is especially convicting for a writer like myself, I believe the principals presented in this book can benefit anyone who creates or works with others to get their job done.