I read a lot of books. I read too many of them passively. I’ll take notes and move on, forgetting to review. And down the memory hole goes the good news. Or worse – I don’t act on what I learned. Usually it just feels good to pretend I’m putting things into practice. Well, I will tomorrow, I say. It’s a common roadblock for folks seeking “self-improvement,” which is one genre that is bending bookshelves everywhere these days. Instead of being a sucker for every new release, I have another idea.

Actually, it’s not my idea. Wally Conger wrote something a few years back that has hung out with me for a while. He was running with an idea from Ben Settle, who would rather read ten good books over and over. Forget the rest. Conger shared his experiences with reading a single book twelve times a year (it comes out to ten pages a day, basically). And knowing the heck out of it by the end of the year.

Anyway, I want to make time this year to re-read five books from 2016 that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. For me, action is the end game. My forgotten notes mean nothing. Especially in the realm of self-improvement, folks get pumped up from the mere thought of getting productive or getting creative or – dare I say, pursuing freedom. They get a happy hormone hit and instead of pursuing the hard work part that ends with the end product, they continue to seek the happy feeling. And the cycle continues. After reading enough books to wish I forgot how to read, I’d rather have it all up here (points to temple).

Old, frail, half-blind John Adams, when asked how he could tell what he was reading, replied, “The more one reads, the more one sees.” I look forward to reading many more books – most of them passively, I bet – but I would like to see a few closer. Here are five books from 2016 I plan to re-read in 2017, and some thoughts on the actions one can take after reading. I will also include links to my notes from the books, saved in my Evernote.

PRIMAL ENDURANCE by Mark Sisson & Brad Kearns [read my notes here]

Sisson is the dude behind the diet/lifestyle known as the Primal Blueprint and Kearns is a triathlete who works with Sisson on many projects. They reject all of the conventional wisdom when it comes to training for endurance sports such as running, rowing, bicycling, and swimming. Both authors come from successful endurance careers and have suffered from the more miles / more pain / more “chronic cardio” that predominates the training and shortened their careers. Excessive training at high heart rates and excessive mileage also creates inflammation in the body, which leads to all sorts of stress and health issues. Coupled with high-carb, low-fat diets, their bodies began falling apart at very young ages.

Endurance athletes rely on fat stores in the body to outlast the opponent – slow and steady beats the flailing whippersnapper. When the carb-dependent athlete runs out of glycogen stores, and their body doesn’t know how to access the stored body fat, they do this funny thing called “bonking.” It’s not very funny, actually – it usually ends with the athlete on his knees, hoping he doesn’t black out in a puddle of his own Gatorade-colored vomit.

The book outlines a training plan for the “primal” endurance athlete, that can be tweaked to fit any sport’s season. Or for people like me, the novice runner who wants to find more form and function in my journey to ideal fitness, it’s an excellent outline to get started. Intuition is your best friend, say the authors. Listening to your body as much as possible – that means knowing when to skip a day at the gym, or when to sleep for twelve hours – is as important as the training, itself. But to keep things somewhat structured, everyone should start with an aerobic training period. That means to do your endurance workouts at an aerobic heart rate. Their preferred formula for finding your aerobic heart rate is 180 minus your age. (Mine is 150 BPM.) If your heart’s beats-per-minute exceed that number, you will no longer be burning fat, but burning glycogen, and the body will kick into the stress state that leads to inflammation and injury. It might be a slog to get up to a reasonable pace, and the athlete will be tempted to speed up during training, but nip that competitive spirit during training. Mark Allen, one of the biggest names in triathlon sports, decided to train this way and ended up winning the 1995 Hawaii Iron Man at the ripe old age of 37. The book is loaded with examples like this.

The main point of the training is getting that aerobic rate in line, but then there are periods for intensity, including strength workouts and sprinting, then come all-out competition phases. The entire cycle begins anew after a rest period. The book promotes proper sleep techniques, a ketogenic (very low-carb) eating regimen, and unique recovery techniques that your local sports therapist might not be too fond of. I’m not going to pretend these are the best strategies to employ as an athlete or endurance enthusiast, but I have to admit I’m running a lot more now that I am able to actually run and breathe at the same time. And in the end, I feel and look better than I did when I tried to run and not understand anything about how my body worked.

All I know is that I’ve made more progress than some of the people who are still huffing and puffing around the block when they manage to convince themselves to get out there. I find that I have more energy after running, and my (almost) all-fat diet and speedy recovery from not being scared to sleep for nine hours a night are big reasons why. My mile is still pretty slow (10:58 PR) when I keep my heart rate below 150, which is a decent non-stop jog, but it used to take me over twelve minutes, so I must be doing something right. I signed up for four 5k races this spring, with my only goal to break 25 minutes by the fourth one in May. I just turned thirty, and in most races, I’ll be the young buck in my age group (30-39, 31-40) for the next few years. Sounds like a nice opportunity to begin a sports career. I look forward to revisiting this book to fine-tune my approach as summer approaches. Here’s to hitting the pavement – and the trails for some insanely long hikes.

PROSPER by Chris Martenson & Adam Taggart [see my notes here]

Martenson and Taggart are the dudes behind Peak Prosperity, a financial news website with the tagline that the next twenty years will be completely different than the last twenty years. Martenson also created the Crash Course, a fantastic four-hour video series that dives into the deep end of the economy, energy, and the environment, how they’re all related, and one more “e” . . . the exponential growth of just about everything, and how unsustainable that is. We live in a global system that relies on endless growth. Which is insane.

Prosper is their response to the giant insecure bubble that the entire planet is facing right now. When it pops, it’s going to be rough. But those who keep the proper narrative can direct their lives in a more positive manner. The end goal is resilience. “You have to become the change you wish to see in the world,” they say, which is a quote that has helped me change my life and a few around me in just a short time.

While financial wealth is the main goal for most people, the authors argue that there are seven other forms of wealth – or capital. The world is an intricate and complicated place, and there is more to being resilient than having a broker and a horde of junk silver. The book goes through each type of capital – from financial security to material possessions and physical health, to knowledge and emotional well-being, to getting involved in the community and culture, and finally, the most important, time management. Any of these things can be traded for any other. They discuss ways to explore each topic, as well as offer links and further reading suggestions. They maintain a resource called What Should I Do? that delves way deeper into every topic, from things you can buy to videos on how to DIY what you need to.

I’ve spent the last year focusing on fixing my home and stocking up a nice pantry, as well as prepping the garden. I’ve saved more money than ever in recent months and also purchased a firearm. I haven’t got better locks yet, but I got a dog. I’ve straightened out my diet and took up running and sleeping as fabulous new hobbies. I’ve begun removing negativity from my life (goodbye politics) and focused instead on strategies to improve my emotional health and self-esteem (hello Nathaniel Branden). While pursuing wisdom at every opportunity, I must also remember to pursue friendships and relationships with a variety of new people. There’s plenty more to focus on in the coming year, and this book isn’t dog-eared enough.

FOOD FREEDOM FOREVER by Melissa Hartwig [see my notes here]

Another paleo book, huh? I was interested in this one because while I’ve been reasonably okay at eating a real-food diet – avoiding grains and sugar and processed garbage – I wanted something more. Not a “stricter” diet, but the diet I wanted. Too many times, I disappointed myself and gave in to treats or second helpings of foods I knew I shouldn’t be over-consuming. There is such a thing as too much butter, under very rare circumstances. Hartwig is behind the popular Whole 30 elimination-diet-turned-movement, an offshoot of the paleo diet and this book is her attempt to take the training wheels off the bike of someone who is ready to start riding, but keeps slowing down, scared they’ll lose their balance.

The title appeals to me, of course, since it has some of my favorite words in it. Freedom. Food. The word Forever is alright. Hartwig describes food freedom as “realizing I can have anything I want, any time I want it…and in the moment, simply honoring whether or not I really want it.” It means having autonomy over your choices. Most people want to eat healthy, most of the time. Sometimes, it’s just worth it to eat something bad for you – Hartwig’s example is a cupcake sitting in a shop window calling her name on her birthday. Maybe it’s six cupcakes, maybe it’s one bite, the thing that matters is that you choose that part. It comes down to choices, every time, and that’s fantastic advice for approaching any views of life, not just eating food.

There’s a hard part, though. You can’t just “know” what’s good for you or bad for you. It takes some practice. That’s where the 30-day reset diet comes in. You can eliminate any combination of foods that are known to be problematic in humans, then add them back in to see if you suffer. She lays all that out. I did my own version of a Whole 30 from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, avoiding all forms of sugar, sweets, dairy, grains and rice, cocoa, potatoes, and many other things that were suggested in the book. I didn’t lose weight or see any autoimmune issues go away because I already avoid most of the worst of those things, nor do I need to lose weight, but when I reintroduced some of them – mostly sugar and sweets like Splenda, and high-carb foods like sweet potatoes or white rice – I found that they do not settle well with me. I drank a Diet Coke and ate some Chinese food and I felt the pipes bursting. I’ve since embraced a much lower-carb eating strategy and my energy levels have been through the roof.

Hartwig gets into dealing with the emotional challenges of diets and lifestyles. Here the personal narrative comes in handy. I am not depriving myself of anything. I simply feel better when I do the thing I choose instead. The question “Is it worth it?” becomes a useful self-talk strategy at every turn. I’ve since employed it in every aspect of my life. It is synonymous with “Does this action align with my values?”

But sometimes there’s a goddamned gluten-free cake in the fridge and I can’t stop myself. I tremble while I hold a big, thick slice of some kind of frosting-covered pile of almond flour and sugar and eggs and take deep breaths, or better yet, pretend I wallop the thing and see how I feel after. Usually my mouth gets chalky and I can taste the petroleum. (I just tell myself that.) In all seriousness, there’s the infamous One Bite Rule: “If you think your less-healthy treat is going to be so delicious, so incredible, so worth it…and then you take your first bite and discover it’s not, STOP EATING.” More often than not, one bite is all I end up wanting.

I think Hartwig is doing a wonderful service to the world – particularly the demographic she tends to attract (mostly women who are constantly told how fake and shallow and hideously scrawny asnd malnourished they have to be) when she publishes words like this to her thousands of readers:

You are not good or bad based on your choices. They are simply choices.

You do not cheat; you make a choice.

You do not fail; you make a choice.

Your choices do not define you as a person.

There is no guilt, shame, or punishment, only consequence.

And I can’t wait to dig back in and try a few more 30-day challenges this year. I’d like to see if I can go thirty days without drinking caffeine – mostly to see if the dizziness goes away.

BORN FOR THIS by Chris Guillebeau [see my notes here]

As this is a book about finding your passion and capitalizing on it, I highly recommend you consider some options for entrepeneurship before reading this one. Before I decided which pursuits I’d like to enjoy for myself, all I had when I read this was the casual daydream of “I like to write sometimes.” However, it lit a fire under me to begin removing things from my life that didn’t help me reach my goals – even if I didn’t know what my actual goals were yet. Now that I have some visions of my future, some seeds to sow, I’d like to revisit this book and read it with that purpose in mind.

The first suggestion in the book is to stop following pre-determined scripts. These narratives that are already written for us – be a good employee, work the same job for 40 years, never try anything new or scary – can be challenging to reject, but must be rejected if you want to succeed beyond them. Ideally, Guillebeau offers the Joy-Money-Flow model: we want to perform work we enjoy, we would prefer to get paid for it, and we would like to maximize the skills we are best at. When able to perpetuate this cycle, good things can happen.

Early on in the book he offers general strategies that anyone can employ to make themselves more marketable as employees, whether that’s for someone else or for their own endeavors. Pursuing mastery of hard skills (like technical know-how) and soft skills (like communication and writing skills), negotiation skills, and the ability to say no or to not fear giving things up are all super important.

He offers tips on how to think more like an entrepeneur, even when you’re still an employee. For example, one person was told he has to climb the ranks one rung at a time, like everyone else. Intead, he chose to fling the sour grapes back in their face and call up some bigwigs and make a few deals, himself. He was wildly successful – and it was super easy. This chapter has provided me with much needed enthusiasm to go ahead and act on my own when necessary at my own job. What Tim Ferriss likes to say, “Act first, beg for forgiveness later.” Usually, there is no need to beg, since managers prefer action. And the confidence and skillsets I’ve developed will be useful when I am ready to break away and do my own thing. That confidence is also helping me do the actual breaking away.

The book dives into different types of entrepeneurship, from big one-and-done projects to side hustles, and how to turn yourself into a “rock star,” or just someone with a reasonably popular blog. A favorite of mine is his advice to create your own job title. My job right now has some foreman-like responsibilities, but I’ve decided to make it full-blown foreman and I’ve gained so much confidence and trust that I never have any issues getting what I need done…done. Someone I know negotiated a 30% raise by taking on the responsibilities from an unfilled part-time position on top of her own responsibilities. Her role with the company became so important that they didn’t know what to do without her when she left. She literally had created her own position. And took it with her, because I heard later that two or three people in a row couldn’t handle it and quit.

These days I constantly remind myself to seek opportunities wherever I can. Perhaps when my tomato plants produce too many fruits, I can make a few bucks for the surplus. I’ve observed that many people are unable to shovel the snow off their mobile homes in the community I live in, and that will be easy money for me if I simply put an ad up or knock on some doors. Once the opportunity-spotting muscle is flexed, it becomes very strong. However, acting on those opportunities is the important part. I know better.

HALF WILD: STORIES by Robin MacArthur [no notes for this book, sucka]

I like to write stories, and so I read a lot of stories. I also have an unexplained fascination with Vermont. I’d like to live on the western border of New Hampshire someday and just look out my window to the shadowy hills of Vermont, while the sun rises from behind Mount Washington and the Whites. There’s farms and trailers and hippies and old men in sweaters pulling their aging cows out to the milking parlor, same as any other morning. Much like Bill Kauffman, I seek and enjoy literature about where I live and the lives around me, and Half Wild joins the list of favorites.

In her collection of short stories, Robin MacArthur takes us down the backroads of rural Vermont – “Butterfield, Stark, Stickney Brook, Cowpath 40” – and into the shadows along the roadsides. Lives that could have been, lives that will be, mostly in broken down trailers hiding under trees by the brook, or on dirt roads leading into the woods. In Love Birds, we join a couple in their seventies on their last ride through the neighborhood, getting’ nostalgic with a couple of beers and some ham sandwiches, before the narrator’s beloved, Tub, passes away in the night. In Karmann, two girls cope with the temporary loss of one’s older brother (and the other’s crush) as he is shipped off to Vietnam. They discover alcohol and weed and rock ‘n roll in the beat-up old car behind the barn, but when he comes back, we find out who really suffers.

Right after I read Half Wild for the first time, I heard an interview with MacArthur on NPR. She and the host of the show Word of Mouth both touch on how we are drawn yet repelled by the strange magic of the places we are from.

Robin MacArthur: “. . . that kind of haunted attachment to place and desire to be elsewhere and yet here we are in the woods.”

Word of Mouth host: “. . . the woods, the trees, the birds, the wild animals, the real and the mythical wild animals are such a part of the character here.”

The setting, of course, is the main character. It screams from the borders of the fields, from the shadows in the barn, the bubbling of the brook. There are stories of people moving back home from the city to their ramshackle family properties, not sure where else to go. There are stories of people waiting to escape this life, not sure what else is out there, beyond the old farmhouse. Everything is sad, but tinged with hope. They are the stories of everyone I knew growing up and who I might be when I grow up a little more. They’re stories for getting lost, but having this book to read while waiting it out. And the view over the hills to New Hampshire is always right there.

[note: I’m done writing here for now. The personal narrative that is the wild ride! feels to me like it’s ended. Maybe I’ll pop back in now and then. But I think the ride I’m on goes in a different direction, so I will ride that-a-way. See you at PorcFest. (Makes a “peace sign”) –Rich]