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book reviews

tony riccaRdi

Tony has been a close friend of Ollie's for over 20 years, they shared some great times growing up and in later years they continue to share life challenges, aspirations and the love of self-development.

On a frequent basis, Tony would WhatsApp his thoughts on his latest read for Ollie to take in, then they realised his passion for reading and writing could help men live happier. By providing insight to those books he has found of use over the years. 

Enjoy the reviews and pick one to dig deeper into.

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I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) by Brené Brown

Brené Brown is a research professor and author specialising in the subjects of courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. I’ve seen Brené’s work being referenced many times and I Thought It Was Just Me explores the subject of women’s shame, and how women’s quest for perfection, and for managing other people’s perception, becomes an exhausting and unrelenting battle. 

 

This book is written predominantly for women to help them understand why embarrassment, guilt, humiliation and shame are powerful emotions that drive them to live up to unrealistic expectations and avoid feelings of “psychological abandonment“ from their family and social circles. Women go to huge lengths (and costs) to paint a picture of effortless perfection and this book shines a light on those behaviours and what they and those around them (including men) can do to be more empathetic for their situation. 

 

I personally have worked hard over the past few years to care less of what other people think of me, yet I am acutely aware of the triggers and behaviours that I adopt when interacting with others. I berate myself whenever I put an act on in order to appear funnier, more intelligent, less care-free and reflect back and ask myself why is it so important for these people to like me. It’s hard for me - and I’m aware of the behaviour - but for women, especially those not aware of the triggers, it’s an everest climb to be the primary caregiver at home, to work full-time, to not care about food yet always remain thin, to never age, to be successful and financially independent, to wear the right clothes, to drive the right car, to have the right looking house, the perfect kids, the right husband (my wife nailed that one), to be seen in the right places, to be sexy and confident, to never be angry and to always be there emotionally for others - and if they don’t achieve these things, then expect to be shunned and rejected by family and friends.

 

This is a great book for helping you to understand the social pressures women are under and how we can be kinder to women going through a hard time especially when the challenge impacts other people’s perception of them.

 

Check out this book or watch Brené’s TEDTalks. ★★★

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The Secret Lives of Men by James Hawes

This one’s more than just a book about men’s mental health. This is a concise, easy-to-read and educational guide on the psychological make-up of men, that does exactly what it says on the tin - it changes the way you understand yourself, men and relationships. 

If you’re a man, or you know a man who is stuck emotionally in their head then I can’t stress how important it is to read this book. James Hawes provides a brilliant guide to help understand the societal pressures that men are placed under to remain “strong”, “silent”, to be the “provider”, keep a“stiff upper lip”, to never display any signs of weakness or vulnerability, to never express true emotion and to never ever cry (except maybe during a football match). 

Many many men remain in a perpetual “adult-child” state using recreational activities as a way of maintaining shallow and safe relationships with other men. They never really express their true feelings or share their problems, and assume that the women or partners in their life will and must know instinctively how they’re feeling, what their problems are and what they need at all times.

This all leads to feelings of isolation and depression, with many men remaining entirely dependent on a spouse, parent, or even a child for emotional support - if they’re lucky. Otherwise it’s a lifetime of pain, isolation and toxic shame causing endemic levels of depression and suicide amongst men.

With support and reassurance, men can understand their feelings and begin to unlearn the patterns of behaviour developed from society, gender conditioning and cultural scripts, and gain the emotional fitness to express their feelings constructively, to be kinder with themselves and avoid prolonged feelings of shame and isolation.

Secret Lives of Men is placed firmly on the special pile of books that I pledge to read over and over again. I’ve highlighted, scribbled notes and bookmarked so many useful references. There are so many sections that resonated with me, which I’ll reference back to over and over again, especially during those more challenging moments in life. ★★★★★ 

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Discourses & Selected Writings by Epictetus, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

In my new found interest of Stoicism gleaned from Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday, I decided to delve into the lives of two of my favourite philosophers – Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

 

Very little is known about the slave turned stoic master Epictetus. Anecdotal evidence suggests that under slavery he was repeatedly tortured and his master broke his leg in a fit of rage, yet he was intelligent enough to be granted permission to attend stoic lectures where he became an outspoken and ruthless Stoic master himself. All his original teachings were lost and all that we know of him are from second-hand accounts from his students.

Marcus Aurelius is probably the highest profile of all the Stoics. He was the last of the “Five Good Emperors” following the treacherous reigns of the brutal Caesar dynasty. He’s remembered today not for his military victories, although there were many, but more for his posthumous philosophical teachers encapsulated in a collection of private thoughts and diaries that have been published and studied by generations for almost 2000 years.

These two books are tough going, due to the translation style they’re not easily read but I certainly came away with some interesting thoughts.

Epictetus, despite his horrendous start in live, maintained an inner strength that was unbreakable. Epictetus teaches you no matter how bad life gets, no matter how much you are tortured, persecuted or outcast, no man can take away another’s ability to think for themselves. Although we are not born into the same opportunities, we all have the ability to decide whether to remain a victim to our circumstances, or take control.

Marcus Aurelius was a reluctant leader and a family man at heart. 8 of his 13 children died before him, and although his heart was broken many times over, he worked hard to reflect on his situation, to not lose perspective on his life or his vocation. Marcus teaches us that our time on Earth is short, we have no control over the workings of the Universe and tragedy is to be expected. It’s up to us to keep learning, keep growing and to keep serving and to make the most of every single day for the greater good of mankind. ★★★★

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How Britain Ends by Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author, born in Glasgow, raised within an Ulster Scots family and has lived in London for the good part of 20 years. His journalism career started in 1977 at the Belfast Telegraph Newspaper during the height of The Troubles and he has since travelled the globe covering some of the biggest political stories, interviewed Presidents and met a string load of political leaders. Gavin is best known for presenting BBC’s Newsnight for 14 years and continues to provide political commentary. In short, Gavin knows his stuff.

The emotive title of this book represents Gavin’s journalistic eye for a headline, but once your attention has been grabbed, the next 350 pages is spent educating you on the political history of the United Kingdom, the major political events that have shaped it over the past five centuries, and the present day constitutional crisis we find ourselves in triggered by two divisive referendums and a global pandemic. 

Gavin goes to great lengths to help you understand why England is struggling to define its identity, and how the total mismanagement of both the Scottish Independence and Brexit referendums have left Scotland feeling betrayed and the Unionist Parties of N. Ireland abandoned, threatening the unity of the United Kingdom.

 

If you’re looking for a book to help you understand what the heck is going on, then I can’t recommend this one enough. Gavin does a brilliant job of providing an eloquent analysis and a sharp and sympathetic view from the perspective of all four nations. 

 

As a son of an immigrant family, born in England, living in N. Ireland I often struggle to define my own national identity (Northern-Irish-Anglo-Italianish?) and I really enjoyed this book and related with many of the topics Gavin wrote about. Gavin is a stickler for facts and figures, and his analysis of how Westminster’s influence has changed not only within Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland but also within areas of England outside of the “London Bubble” is eye-opening, educational and quite often humorous. 

 

Gavin doesn’t hold back on airing his views of the incompetence that got us here, and remains hopeful and optimistic that whilst the United Kingdom will continue to devolve it will remain perpetually connected by its people, culture and heritage.  ★★★★★

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Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

Aristotle, Plato, Voltaire, Kant, Spinoza along with many others - names I’ve heard of but like most people I didn't have any idea about their teachings or philosophies, or how they have shaped modern day thinking.  After spending 3 months’ worth of bedtimes treading through The Story of Philosophy, I’m still clueless. And it’s fair to say I was way out of my league with this one. I did gain a rudimentary idea of the teachings of each of these great philosophers - and what I lost in understanding I gained in a good night’s kip because the style of writing was so difficult to follow that it often sent me straight to sleep. I should have aimed lower as I can imagine even the most seasoned of academics and spiritual leaders struggling to break this very confusing and often pretentious book down to its fundamentals. 

The book is ordered chronologically, and Durant introduces each Philosopher, with a detailed analysis of their teaching and their view of the world, the universe and the fundamental questions of life. 

However, it would be a little unfair to say that this book failed in teaching me something:

 

I learnt that our perception of knowledge, reality, and existence are heavily influenced by the society we’re born into - whether it’s monarchy, aristocracy, socialism, democracy, individualism - and we as a social species are swept along by these outside influences that we are unable for the most part to live or think as freely as we believe we can. We’re emotional beings. Our brains are not designed to comprehend everything, yet we feel an underlying fear and restlessness that compels us to try to understand what life is all about.

 

Ignorance protects us, yet we know there are greater forces at play, that are actually in control of our destinies. It’s the lifework of these great Philosophers who have come the closest in breaking down these deep conundrums, within the restrictions of conventional language, in explaining to the masses using the limited comprehension that we as a species possess.  It’s hardly surprising I found this book so difficult to understand.

 

This book is not for the fainthearted nor is it for the casual philosopher. I completed it out of sheer stubbornness and won’t be returning to it any time soon. Proceed with caution … ★★

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Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday

‘Stoicism’- what's it all about then? Live of the Stoics is essentially a review of the greatest philosophers and teachers of Stoicism who lived during the dominions of the Greek and Roman empires from the accidental founder of Stoicism ‘Zeno The Prophet’ in 334 BC to Marcus Aurelis (born 121 AD), arguably the greatest of Roman Emperors who used Stoicism to bring Rome to order after decades of turmoil under the Caesar dynasty. 

 

To live a Stoic life is to follow core principles - courage, self-control, fairness, hard-work, and to keep learning about yourself, your motivations, your fears, how you react to situations, and to always commit to becoming better, every single day, so that you can improve your own life and the lives of those around you. Stoicism is essentially about letting go of trying to control the outside world and accepting that fortune and tragedy are parts of life, dished out randomly regardless of your personal circumstances. This book illustrates how the great 

 

Stoics lived happy and meaningful lives despite losing great fortunes and despite being born into slavery or persecution by focusing on what was under their control - their thoughts and reactions. Stoicism is not a dogma, or a religion … but a way of life and I can’t help feeling that the world would be a far better place with a bit more Stoicism in it. ★★★★

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Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L. Trump

Happy New Year everyone. If you ever thought your family were dysfunctional then this book will make your own seem like The Waltons in comparison. Written by Mary Trump, Donald's niece and daughter of Donald's estranged and disinherited older brother Freddy, Mary explains how Fred (Mary's grandfather) earnt the family's fortune in real estate and how the rest of the family have been tearing each other apart ever since. When Freddy failed to live up to Fred's expectations, young Donald stepped in to become the new face of the Trump Empire. However, it became apparent very early on that Donald didnt have a business bone in his body, but with Fred's intent to keep the fortune in the bloodline he made use with what he had and that was a second child who was (is) a bully, a loud mouth and a backstabber, yet someone who understood media and public perception.

 

The revelations are spectacular and the repercussions are yet to be realised but as Donald prepares his departure from the Oval Office we await to see if Mary's side of the story is actual fact or just a case of sour grapes. Absolutely brilliant read ★★★★★

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Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

If you’ve ever attended a development course or read books on productivity the likelihood that you’ve already heard of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi* is extremely high. This landmark study provides a digestible analysis of what it means to reach the conscious state of “optimal experience” where we are in effortless engagement with an activity, and the “autotelic” experience of doing a task provides the life enrichening reward as opposed to gaining the result. Being in the zone is more exhilarating than reaching the goal -'' the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

 

The importance of this book simply cannot be overstated. If you’ve struggled with finding motivation, are easily distracted and find yourself constantly drawn to distractions then make it a 2021 goal to improve your ability to be more attentive because “attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience”. So, whether it’s training for a marathon, working on an engineering project or clearing out the house (I find tremendous flow in decluttering my house!) then the feeling of doing that activity must be harnessed and replicated if you are to experience long term happiness. “Happiness … is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.” If there’s one book you are looking to start 2021 off with then I cannot recommend this one enough – definitely in my top 10 of great reads.      ★★★★★                                

*by the way it’s pronounced Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high

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High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard

Ever wondered how people become successful and manage to stay at the top of their game for so long? Do you want to take the next step up in your career, in your health or in your relationships but already feel the burden of your existing responsibilities and obligations? Do you stumble into each day and allow random tasks and the false priorities of others to dictate how you spend your time and energy? Then this book and the teachings of Brendon Burchard is just for you! 

 

After surviving TWO near-death experiences, Brendon faced his mortality and asked himself - Did I live? Did I love? Did I matter? The answer was a resounding NO which led him to leaving his cushty corporate job to become a New York Times Best Selling author, dedicating his life to teaching millions how to turn their lives around and sustain long term success. 

 

This book holds a very special place for me, and I commit to reading it at least once a year. With my own personal combats with stress and overwhelm compacted by a poor diet, irregular exercise and a horrendous sleeping pattern, my search for life hacks stumbled me upon Brendon’s YouTube channel. This ultimately led me to studying his work and taking on board much of his advice which is all backed by science and the results of the world’s largest study of high performers. 

 

Need anymore reasons to read this book? In the first 12 months of working on my own performance habits I gained a promotion, my cholesterol returned to normality for the first time in 15 years, and my relationships with those I care about the most benefited from my boost in energy and undivided attention. 

This book is certainly special to me and if you’re looking for self-development tips, this book can open a gateway to a new way of attacking your day and spending time on the things that really matter ★★★★★

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

After reading a few times of Benjamin Franklin's influence in the early rising of the United States I decided to give his autobiography a crack. Franklin was a true pioneer and independent thinker. He openly shares his thoughts on vegetenarism, gender equality and the abandonment of his religious upbringing and after being taken advantage of financially and emotionally by family members and close friends he decides to embark on life under a new set of self-defined rules and practices that he believes will help him grow into a better man. His level of influence in steering governments, international trade agreements and military units is quite remarkable especially for a man who started off as a humble printer in his family business in Philidelphia.

 

But through hard work, constant self analysis, and an understanding of human behaviour he achieves incredible success as a statesman, politician, scientist, diplomat and inventor and helps draft a number of important laws and treaties including the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to become one of America's Founding Fathers. Reading 18th century English was a hard slog and keeping up with the underlying narrative was a huge challenge but what did translate was Big Benji's self awareness and intention to change his daily habits towards gaining incremental success. Not an easy reader but BF certainly was an inspiration. ★★

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Owning Your Own Shadow by Robert A. Johnson

We've all heard about the Ego. Well the flip side to that coin in Freudian terms is the Shadow, and that side of our personality is often shielded from others and ourselves in fear of some form of social rejection. Owning your Shadow is all about exploring that shady part of your personality and working towards understanding and integrating it into your life. Ultimately its about self acceptance - of yourself and understanding that the ego and the shadow come hand in hand and in the same way that social conformity anchors you down, the shadow can become a useful tool for fuelling you towards a better life. Some good concepts but did get a bit preachy towards the end. In short - give the little bastard inside you a chance because he's part of you and if used properly can propel you towards becoming a happier person ★★★

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Minimalism - Live A Meaningful Life

Two fellas, both from broken homes grew up with the belief that earning a ton of money would lead them on the pathway to happiness. Even once they began earning 6 digit salaries they realised they hadn't become happier at all. Huge mortgages, unmanageable debts, unnecessary amounts of clutter, and failed relationships bore a huge weight on their time, health and ability to form real connections with anyone ... so they decided to give it all up. In their book Minimalists Joshua and Ryan explain how living a life focused on improving your health, pursuing your true passions and building close relationships is the key to true meaningful success. Still good the second time round. Also check out their Netflix film. ★★★★

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Silence - In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge

Just finished reading Silence by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, which I’ve read for the second time and keeps a permanent spot on my bed side table. This is the perfect book to help you to slow down, reflect and ultimately become aware of how the pressures and craziness of modern day life has worn away on our ability to be still, quiet and comfortable in pure Silence. Erling was the first explorer to reach the "3 peaks" of the N and S Poles and climb Everest and although these physical feats in themselves had a very profound effect on him, it was the complete isolation from civilisation and the pure Silence (other than the sound of blood pumping round his body) that moved him towards sharing his thoughts in this concise and easy to read book. ★★★★

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Everything You Need You Have by Gerard Kite

Whilst my morning reads focus on motivational and practical subjects, my bedtime reading tends to be more spiritual. Gerad Kite is a good mate of Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace and is a psychotherapist popular amongst the famous including Chris Evans, Fearne Cotton and The Spice Girls. A good introductory book on how to gain a little perspective in our over stimulated world. I think I got this copy off Amazon second hand for something like £4. Worth a go. ★★★

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The Secret Lives of Men by James Hawes

This one’s more than just a book about men’s mental health. This is a concise, easy-to-read and educational guide on the psychological make-up of men, that does exactly what it says on the tin - it changes the way you understand yourself, men and relationships. 

If you’re a man, or you know a man who is stuck emotionally in their head then I can’t stress how important it is to read this book. James Hawes provides a brilliant guide to help understand the societal pressures that men are placed under to remain “strong”, “silent”, to be the “provider”, keep a“stiff upper lip”, to never display any signs of weakness or vulnerability, to never express true emotion and to never ever cry (except maybe during a football match). 

Many many men remain in a perpetual “adult-child” state using recreational activities as a way of maintaining shallow and safe relationships with other men. They never really express their true feelings or share their problems, and assume that the women or partners in their life will and must know instinctively how they’re feeling, what their problems are and what they need at all times.

This all leads to feelings of isolation and depression, with many men remaining entirely dependent on a spouse, parent, or even a child for emotional support - if they’re lucky. Otherwise it’s a lifetime of pain, isolation and toxic shame causing endemic levels of depression and suicide amongst men.

With support and reassurance, men can understand their feelings and begin to unlearn the patterns of behaviour developed from society, gender conditioning and cultural scripts, and gain the emotional fitness to express their feelings constructively, to be kinder with themselves and avoid prolonged feelings of shame and isolation.

Secret Lives of Men is placed firmly on the special pile of books that I pledge to read over and over again. I’ve highlighted, scribbled notes and bookmarked so many useful references. There are so many sections that resonated with me, which I’ll reference back to over and over again, especially during those more challenging moments in life. ★★★★★