Book review

Book Review: The Grit Guide for Teens

Every once in a while you stumble across a book that is very much relevant to your present circumstances and as if written with you in mind; The Grit Guide for Teens happens to be such a book that is proving really valuable to me in my current endeavor of championing positive education.

Some of you might know, that I am currently executing a long term positive education intervention in a school in Pune, which is structured around VIA character strengths. One of the strengths we are focusing on is Grit, the target audience is teenagers and this book has been God-send!

Along side Angela Duckowrth’s book, which I reviewed earlier, this book has been instrumental in designing activities and introspection exercises to which the teens can relate and embody in their daily lives.

The book is in the form of a workbook and is very well structured; each chapter contains multiple activities that draw the reader in and at the same time help build their grit muscles with a relentless focus on clarifying complex concepts without using any jargon.

Caren Baruch-Feldman, makes very novel and innovative contributions, while writing the workbook; she extends the concept of grit to emotional, social and wellness domains apart from the usual suspects of academic and extracurricular domains. When the teens think of being gritty, they usually think about achieving a goal that is either in academic domain (get better at math – I know this is not a SMART goal) or in extracurricular domain (become a good guitarist / get better at cricket) ; however Caren reminds us that grit can be shown in emotional domain (be good a controlling my anger), social domain ( overcome shyness to initiate and sustain connections) or in wellness domain (stick to an exercise regimen to become fit and healthy); these are all my examples, Caren embeds the different domains based references throughout the book, so that one has an idea of how grit can be accomplished and plays out in all five domains.

She is also a clinical psychologist with tons of experience with CBT/REBT and uses that to add additional nuance, when it comes to developing the right mindset for grit- growth mindset , the power of yet and optimistic mindset is conjoined with a focus on thinking traps and figuring out if the thought is real, useful, or something you will tell a friend if he or she was in the same situation? These are powerful tools, one is providing to the kids, and which will help them in good stead in the future.

Caren also makes it clear that if you really want to exhibit grit you have to develop the right mindset and then go forth and execute stuff (like do deliberate practice to hone your craft). There is also adequate coverage of strategies for remaining focused on your goal, by using things like Advantage cards and overcoming temptation by using strategies like situation selection, situation modification etc. She draws upon proven techniques from allied fields in psychology like self-control and habit-formation etc apart from a focus on increasing grit per se. That makes for a holistic package when it comes to ensuring success by the teen.

While I read it mostly from the point of developing activities and using the material with my school students, I could readily see how relate able it would be for the teens themselves and how they will be so much richer for having gone thorough the book and completed all the activities. If you have a teen and his or her school does not promote positive education, yet, then you ought to buy this for your teen; it will be money well spent.

The only lament I have, why don’t we have many more such books, directed towards teens, for each of the VIA strength!! Hope the publishers develop a series around VIA strengths- we do need such workbooks for teens! Here is wishing so much success to the book, that others get inspired and write about all the other strengths and tools that the teens also need desperately!

Book Reviews: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

I have read quite a few books that fall into the ‘hard work triumphs intelligence’ camp, such as ‘Peak’ by Anders Ericsson, ‘Talent is overrated‘ by Geoff Colvin and ‘Outliers‘ by Malcolm Gladwell. And I am more than sympathetic to that viewpoint, however I have always believed in a  more nuanced picture. The ability to work hard, is again, just part of the equation explaining outstanding achievements, there is more than enough room for other non-cognitive factors like passion, hope, purpose etc to impact performance.

English: Millstone grit

English: Millstone grit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And that is what Angela tries to do in Grit. She is obsessed, in a harmonious way, with what leads to success and high/ exceptional achievements. After showing that talent/intelligence/ IQ only explains part of the picture,  she makes a strong case for non-cognitive factors as being more predictive of success in life than the so called cognitive factors.

Angela defines Grit as a combination of Passion and Perseverance. Passion is built by discovering, and more importantly, cultivating interest. Another source of passion is when you feel what you are doing is purposeful or helpful to others and connects to a bigger whole. Perseverance, on the other hand, can be cultivated by being optimistic/ hopeful, developing a growth mindset and indulging in deliberate practice.

Now, some people have accused Angela of being too expansionist by including hope and growth mindset and purpose and what not in her theory of grit! I think that criticism is uncalled for- she is determined to find what makes people successful and what are its antecedents and mediators. If hope/ growth mindset is an antecedent to gritty behavior, I believe it makes sense for her to touch upon those subjects.

Some have claimed that grit is not yet ready for mainstreaming and that the damage one does by focusing solely on grit is more than its benefits. Angela, in her conclusion admits that she never intended or believes that grit is the only trait worth having; first there is a problem with the goal of success being a be all and end all; other goals like happiness, morality and meaning are legitimate both as ends in themselves and as predictors of good outcomes; secondly its not established that apart form IQ and grit, other factors like creativity etc are not that important for success.

One thing I found surprising was Angela’s reluctance to admit that too much grit may be harmful; brushing aside John Henryism or the need to disengage from goals at times, she come across as someone too invested in the concept of grit to acknowledge its dark side. The fact that these things are discussed in conclusion doesn’t make things any better. I guess an honest upfront admission of grits limitations as well as its power would help put things in perspective.

That said, I am not at all sympathetic to the many critical reviews of the book that have focused on the downsides of the concept / book to the exclusion of its utility/ strong points. Angela does a wonderful job of explaining her own and others peoples research and how it is related to what we know about who succeeds. She also has beautifully organized the book into sections where we can grow Grit from inside out (as end users)  or outside in (as parents, teachers working with kids etc).

As a matter of fact for those who read the book, but don’t manage the time or don’t have the inclination to go deep into original research, but would like to dig a little deeper, I am currently featuring Angela’s articles on my newly introduced research summary feature and you may like to check some Grit related articles there for now. These articles should give you additional insights about the data and studies that Angela refers in the book.

Also, I believe that Girt is ready for mass market adoption; I myself am running a long term VIA character strengths based positive education initiative for schools, and Grit is an integral part of our offering.

So my recommendation, do read Grit and grow it in yourself and others. It will definitely help you in good stead.

Growing From Depression

“Growing from depression” is a short, easy read on the subject of the depressive experience and how to make best use of and grow from that experience. The book is written by Dr. Neel Burton, who is a psychiatrist as well as a philosopher, and an exceptionally good writer.

“If I had more time, I would have written a  shorter letter” so wrote Pascal/ Twain and in case of Neel he seems to have spent enough time on this book, making it succinct yet easy to understand and follow by a layman.

The book is organized in four sections; one dealing with defining and delineating depression – an experience that is bound to affect us or our close family/friends once in the lifetime. Some estimates have put lifetime incidence of depression as high as 30 percent , which means we are either a sufferer or a caregiver at some point, thus the importance of the topic.

The second section deals with current treatments for depression, including CBT, ECT and antidepressants. Maybe in future editions newer treatments like Metacognitive therapy or rTMS/ DBS can be explored and elaborated at in depth.

The third section makes the meat of the book- its a self help section with bite sized chapters making one think aloud and get help growing from the depressive experience. Given that Neel is a philosopher, some chapters do digress a bit and become more philosophical/ at tangent with the main premise of the book, but overall the suggestions and elaboration is grounded in what we do indeed know about depression- including things like depressive realism.

The last section is related to mental health services and mental health law and has limited appeal to international audience as its focused and based around the UK health care system and the UK laws.

Overall, its a pretty good read and makes you realize that there is much that you can gain from the depressive experience- including wisdom as to how prevent a relapse by controlling daily stress, maintaining good daily habits like exercise etc.

I wish many more experts and scientists  were able to break up from the jargon, and write a self help book for people at large. I am sure we all will be richer for that!

Buy the book here.

Psychotherapy, East and West

Reading philosophical texts can be daunting- sometimes the terminology and words are dense and sometimes you have to re-read multiple times to understand what the writer means. But reading original sources can be highly enriching too.

Buddhist monk in Phu Soidao Nationalpark, Phu ...

Buddhist monk in Phu Soidao Nationalpark, Phu Soidao Nationalpark Waterfall, Thailand, Uttaradit Province Location: Phu Soidao Nationalpark Thailand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So when I came across an opportunity to read and review ‘Psychotherapy east and west,’ by Alan Watts, I proceeded ahead with some mixed enthusiasm- I like his quote ‘What if money was no object’ very much; but I also knew that I might not have the right expertise to do justice to the book. I am not a participating psychotherapist- the only saving grace is that I am very much familiar with some of the eastern ‘ways of liberation’ like Vedanta and Yoga and somewhat moderately familiar with the other oriental ones like Zen Buddhism and Taoism.

However, there is much that I could not understand, so take what I say with a pinch of salt.

Alan Watts, considers the eastern ways of liberation as something akin to western psychotherapy, with the aim being to bring about a change in individual consciousness.

The main resemblance between these Eastern ways of life and Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world. The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people. But it is increasingly apparent to psychotherapists that the normal state of consciousness in our culture is both the context and the breeding ground of mental disease. A complex of societies of vast material wealthy bent on mutual destruction is anything but a condition of social health.

And thus the importance of context to understand this book- it was first published in the early 60’s a time of cold war as also a time when the, now controversial,  double-bind theory of psychosis was proposed by Gregory Bateson, whose work Alan Watts seems to admire. Watts assumes, and tries to show ,that Eastern ways of liberation also work by making an individual come to see the true nature of the double bind that society / culture imposes. He references the Hindu concept of Maya or ‘world-as-illusion’ and applies it to social institutions and believes that even western psychotherapists are in the game of dispelling Maya for their clients:

For they (psychotherapists) are dealing with people whose distress arises from what may be termed maya, to use the Hindu-Buddhist word whose exact meaning is not merely “illusion” butthe entire world-conception of a culture, considered as illusion in the strict etymological sense of a play (Latin, ludere). The aim of a way of liberation is not the destruction of maya but seeing it for what it is, or seeing through it. Play is not to be taken seriously, or, in other words, ideas of the world and of oneself which are social conventions and institutions are not to be confused with reality.

 

….

Yet very few modern authorities on Buddhism or Vedanta seem to realize that social institutions constitute the maya, the illusion, from which they offer release. It is almost invariably assumed that Nirvana or moksha means release from the physical organism and the physical universe, an accomplishment involving powers of mind over matter that would give their possessor the omnipotence of a god.

Eastern ways of liberation work by dispelling Maya, dissolution of ego and letting Eros or Love/spontaneity reign. But first we have to understand the double-bind to comment on it and to come out of it.

 

And that is just the paradox of the situation: society gives us the idea that the mind, or ego, is inside the skin and that it acts on its own apart from society.
Here, then, is a major contradiction in the rules of then social game. The members of the game are to play as if they were independent agents, but they are not to know that they are just playing as if! It is explicit in the rules that the individual is self-determining, but implicit that he is so only by virtue of the rules. Furthermore, while he is defined as an independent agent, he must not be so independent as not to submit to the rules which define him. Thus he is defined as an agent in order to be held responsible to the group for “his” actions. The rules of the game confer independence and take it away at the same time, without revealing the contradiction.

This is exactly the predicament which Gregory Bateson calls the “double-bind,” in which the individual is called upon to take two mutually exclusive courses of action and at the same time is prevented from being able to comment on the paradox. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and you mustn’t realize it. Bateson has suggested that the individual who finds himself in a family situation which imposes the double-bind upon him in an acute form is liable to schizophrenia. For if he cannot comment on the contradiction, what can he do but withdraw from the field? Yet society does not allow withdrawal; the individual must play the game.

….

But in liberation this comes to pass not through an unconscious compulsion but through insight, through understanding and breaking the double-bind which society imposes. One does not then get into the position of not being able to play the game; one can play it all the better for seeing that it is a game.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. I will let Watts describe an example of double bind to you , both in philosophy and in practice, so that you get a clearer idea:

If all this is true, it becomes obvious that the ego feeling Is, pure hypnosis. Society is persuading the individual to do what it wants by making it appear that its commands are the individual’s inmost self. What we want is what you want. And this is a double-bind, as when a mother says to her child, who is longing to slush around in a mud puddle, “Now, darling, you don’t want to get into that mud!” This is misinformation, and this — if anything — is the “Great Social Lie.”

The theory of double -bind for psychosis, though largely discredited/ unproven; may still be a useful starting ground to think about how ways of liberation work. Is the purpose of Zen Koans like ‘show me your true self’ a way to put a person in double bind? Watts wanted this book to be provocative and not a summary of what  research had already happened in terms of commonality between eastern and western approaches to psychotherapy- and I believe he succeeds in making one think.

I loved the book and came out richer for having read that- but beware that like all philosophical books it could be a little dense at times. I hope others, including myself,  continue taking ideas from both east and west and keep cross fertilizing them, until we are all ‘liberated’!!

But the book here:

The books that shaped my 2016

‘Love of learning’ in VIA and ‘Learner’ in Gallup, is one of my top strengths, and it typically manifests as either participating in a lot of MOOC‘s or reading a lot of books. I’m trying to move more towards learning by doing, and moving more towards applied concerns, but I guess some reflection on the books I read in 2016 and which left a mark on me are in order.

I read a total of 16 books completely in 2016 as per goodreads, and I had set a challenge of reading at least 25 books in the year, so I did fall short of target.

Not all books I read made a lasting impact and here are the ones that did.

First off, I read Poke, from start to finish, on the very first day of the year and here is my review that I posted on goodreads.

Started the new year in a meta way by reading this book about starting and initiating, and found it such an interesting read that finished it in one setting. A really good book to hone up your ‘Activator’ strength. Motivated to start and ship ( and fail, and succeed) multiple projects this year.

And that set the tone for the year, where I did start multiple times, and fail and fail fast, and maybe ship once or twice too.

 

Next up was Leadership, again a short book finished in a short time with an equally short review:
Leadership: What Every Leader Needs to KnowLeadership: What Every Leader Needs to Know by John C. Maxwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

a good short read about why and how to increase your influence

View all my reviews

 

A book I had looked forward with great anticipation was Peak and I was not disappointed. I have already posted a detailed review of Peak on this blog.
While Peak was focused on how you can use the principles of deliberate practice for achieving excellence, the book Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, was about the other set of outliers, those who experience abnormal thoughts and perceptions and how we can better appreciate the ‘psychotic’ condition.

Understanding Psychosis and SchizophreniaUnderstanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia by Anne Cooke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A radically different , and much needed approach to understanding the ‘psychotic’ experiences. This books brings a humane as well as a much more science informed (which doesn’t mean a medical model ) approach to the whole topic and is an essential reading for all involved !

View all my reviews

 

One book that made a deep impression on me and that I found very practical and useful was Life coaching.
Life Coaching: A Cognitive-Behavioural ApproachLife Coaching: A Cognitive-Behavioural Approach by Michael Neenan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

a superb book and must read for all coaches; its CBT approach complements the positive psychology focus that I am more steeped in. Draws from practical experience and with coaching sessions examples is easy to relate to! highly recomnended!!

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Another book that left a deep mark and was very informative, motivating and useful to the work I do with children was Helping Children Succeed.
Helping Children Succeed: What Works and WhyHelping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent book for all parents, teachers, educators and policy makers …freely available here: http://www.paultough.com/helping/web/ …the online version has many embedded resources like videos etc and makes for a unique reading experience.

The only gripe is that Paul Tough, equates grit/ resilience with non-cognitive skills and makes a case that they cannot be taught in the traditional sense of the word; however many other character strengths like gratitude , forgiveness, kindness can be inculcated by giving daily homework assignments etc.

View all my reviews

 

A book that was OK types, but very useful from a coaching perspective was Triggers.
Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to BeTriggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts–Becoming the Person You Want to Be by Marshall Goldsmith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Marshall Goldsmith is more towards the Coaching for Compliance camp; while I lean towards Coaching with Compassion (as defined by Richard Boyatzis) ; still this is a pretty good read for anyone interested in adult behavioral change.

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I also managed to read Coping a book focused on applying positive psychology principles to how to cope in life. It is an edited collection of articles from leading psychologists and was very useful.
Coping: The Psychology Of What WorksCoping: The Psychology Of What Works by C.R. Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written when positive psychology had still not come of age; but this book on how to cope has a distinctly positive psychology spin to it. It has chapters on hope, optimism, mastery thinking and benefit finding – all dear to the positive psychology movement. Written by eminent authors in their fields, this easy to read collection of articles around the theme of coping is a good read for those related to the field of mental health/ counseling/ positive psychology.

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Another book that like Poke, gave me the confidence to be creative in my endeavors was Creative Confidence. I juts love this book.
Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us AllCreative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a gem of a book! For anyone who thinks of himself as a not-so-creative person, this book is a must-read (and must-do) to instill the much required confidence to be creative. For someone who already thinks that he has creative streaks, this book will fuel his/her creativity by providing rich tools and thinking grounded in the design thinking philosophy.
Read this book once, or twice, but more important —this is a book to do and try things, so try the suggested activities and tips a hundred times till you gain enough confidence. I wish this book was more widely read and I had chanced on it earlier!

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Another book that I partly re-read this year, because I hadn’t finished earlier was A First Rate Madness. This book and the Understanding Psychosis… book shows my fascination with the neurodiverse mind.
A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental IllnessA First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by S. Nassir Ghaemi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting perspective that mental abnormality and illness may confer some really cool benefits when it comes to leadership. Books like this will hopefully reduce stigma associated with mental illness. A brave effort indeed by Ghaemi to retrospectively diagnose many leaders with mental health and illness and make his case. Not a typical psychology book, but more of psychobiography of prominent leaders. A good read nevertheless.

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Regular readers of The Mouse Trap will notice my leaning towards philosophical issues like existentialism for some time. One such book that made me reflect deeply about meaning was Meaning in Life.
Meaning in Life and Why It MattersMeaning in Life and Why It Matters by Susan R. Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very clear, accessible and important treatise on meaningfulness and its importance in life. Susan Wolf writes very clearly and makes some important contributions; which are followed by equally lucid commentaries by other philosophers and psychologists and then her response that tries to tie everything together.
Wish more philosophy books were as clear and engaging as this was. Gave me new ideas and those are subject for another day/ blog-post!

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To make progress towards my 2016 challenge I picked this book which is a comparatively short read, but I wasn’t decided and though I finished this in a couple of days, I just gained a lot of perspective from this book.
The Mind of an ApeThe Mind of an Ape by David Premack
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating insight into the chimpanzee mind. I had read ‘original intelligence’ by David and Ann Premack quite a few years back and had admired the book a lot, so had great expectations from this book, and this book delivered, and how!
If you are fascinated by how experiments are done with animals (in this case chimpanzees) then this book is a must read. It will be especially helpful to those interested in comparative cognition and language abilities.

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The last book which I read in 2016 and which has made me ponder a lot is 80,000 hours- its supposed to resolve your mid life crises, but might have triggered one in me—-just kidding!!
80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good by Benjamin Todd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

a wonderful guide to choosing the right career, especially relevant to those who want to have a social impact or ‘make a difference’. The advice is research backed, grounded in psychology principles, and while being value laden to an extent, is also very pragmatic.
If only all self-help advice and non-profit functioning was as rigorous as the 80,000 hrs looks to be!

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What a way to end the year!! Which books did you read in this year and which made a lasting impression on you?

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