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First, a shoutout to Portfolio Books for sending a free copy my way!

How are your listening skills? Do you think of yourself as a good listener?

Ximena Vengoechea's book Listen Like You Mean It could be the book you need to really step up your listening game while helping to reclaim connection. What really stands out about this book is its readability, the inclusion of easy-to-use exercises, and graphics that lighten the book's overall tone. Some books can come across as stiff and inaccessible, but Vengoechea's book breaks up any perceived monotony with infographics and drawings.

The real strength of this book is the content. Thorough, helpful and as mentioned, full of exercises and insight to better make us all better listeners. Everything starts with our mindset and how we approach each conversation. Do you find yourself stressing about the three things you need to say, or are you relaxed and ready to let the discussion flow as required while being mindful of your message? This all starts before the conversation even happens as we build our own awareness of how we interact with others.

Consider that our posture, our level of interest in the topic (can we shift to being more curious about the other person?), and our emotions at the moment all factor into how the conversation may go and something we need to think about before starting. Ximena distinguishes listening into the idea of surface listening and empathetic listening, which is a helpful distinction. Surface listening is us hearing the literal conversation but missing the emotional content. As Ximena writes, empathetic listening "is what allows us to be more effective listeners ... when we deliberately slow things down and seek to understand others' inner worlds."

She notes:

"One of the most common and easiest listening mistakes we can make in surface listening mode is to project our own feelings, ideas, or experiences onto others."

This is often where we lose track of our own conversations, a singular focus on what is going on inside our minds versus what the other person may be feeling. There are parallels to what we see in social media, where many "conversations" are two individuals speaking their one side. Imagine two individuals trying to connect in a way where understanding is the fundamental goal. Sadly, social media isn't designed for conversation; text limits, endless scrolling, and no incentive to connect (will we actually talk to this person again?)

I'm reminded of this quote from Sherry Turkle in her book Reclaiming Conversation:

"So we move away from the slower pace, where you have to wait, listen, and let your mind go over things. We move away from the pace of human conversation. And so conversations without agenda, where you discover things as you go along, become harder for us. We haven't stopped talking, but we opt out, often unconsciously, of the kind of conversation that requires full attention. Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt."

This book looks to not only reclaim conversation but strengthen the ways we converse. Understanding that being curious about another is our way in and recognizing that the emotional feelings of the other person are how we can genuinely connect. With this recognition comes the need to be humble. Vengoechea recognizes that humility can be one of our biggest strengths. Consider this easy to remember list to place yourself in the right mindset for humility:

  1. Let go of preconceived notions

  2. Leave judgment at the door

  3. Assume you are in the presences of an expert

How often are we crippled by our own preconceived notions? Why are we automatically correct, and why do we think we know this other person? As humans, we seem hardwired to judge quickly and move on. As these judgments solidify, we tend to apply them to everyone who comes into focus. Reminding ourselves this ahead of time can help to break down those barriers we may have erected.

This is an excellent book for anyone looking to strengthen their conversation skills and, ultimately, their connections. In a world where we've spent the last year working from home and conversing through computers, a book like this can help get those face-to-face conversations rolling again.


For a deeper look at Sherry Turkle's book Reclaiming Conversation check out this post here. Looking for something to boost your mindset before heading into those conversations? I'd suggest this post on Martin Seligman's book Authentic Happiness.

  • Writer's pictureSean

"Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brigest gems in a useful life." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you are new to the Books & Beers world, know that I often find myself wandering down the path of books about solitude, being alone, and boredom. Perhaps there is a sense of longing for younger days without being inundated with technology everywhere. To sit quietly in a room and rely on our imagination to find wonder in the world. A book called How to Do Nothing stands out to me and immediately goes on my list. Jenny Odell has written that book supporting the real world and ever-encroaching attention economy that prods at our defences daily.

As we take up the book, Jenny lays down the gauntlet of this encroachment as we all try to find our way through a real-life that now includes social media and perhaps a personal brand that many of us may not have been expecting.

"it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and affect the way we think about our offline selves and the places where we actually live."

As Emerson highlighted, the need for us to protect our spare moments is chipped away by devices that are insidiously capable of distracting us to no end. As Jenny noted, they are altering the way we think about ourselves offline as well. Have you found yourself impacted in your offline day-to-day life by this personal branding? In my case, there has been a definite change in how my vacations are planned, for example. Looking for beautiful bookstores and trendy breweries to visit may not have made my list six or seven years ago, and yet now I find myself picking locations that have both.

Is this a bad thing? This is perhaps a mundane example as it is something I enjoy but are these decisions at the cost of something else? Maybe I would pick a location with neither of these things but instead allow me to get out and spend time in nature. Odell's book focuses on this very thing. How do we peel ourselves away from our computers and devices while reconnecting with something that restores us? She spends time exploring the parks around her place while learning about their history and the small details that make them unique.

It is something I've been working on myself—the simple act of getting outside and going for a walk. Going for a walk and perhaps not being distracted by anything. Leave your phone at home and try to avoid the distraction, and watch what happens. What do you see? What do you hear? I'm actually finding it incredible the variety of birds that live close to my house and the ponds nearby; perhaps a hobby for when I get older!

Like many of these books, I found it particularly enlightening to match my own thoughts about the attention economy while weighing the irony of being someone who creates content online and tries to capture your attention. How do we find balance in this new world? How do I find balance? It requires us to think deeply about why we do what we do.

A few guidelines:

a) You have to understand the fundamental reasons why you are creating content.

Books & Beers grew out of a desire to learn photography and also sharpen my writing skills. As time progressed and gained traction, it now creates value for others by finding new books and new ideas.

b) You need to understand the nature of the attention economy and look deeply at the impact it may be having on your life.

How do you interact with social media? Are you someone who can separate your personal life from one online? Have you found yourself picking up unwanted habits as a result of social media? Perhaps you are shopping more often or find yourself feeling more down than usual after having just scrolled through Instagram or Facebook. These are the small things that chip away at our self-esteem and lead us astray in understanding who we actually are. Does the idea of taking a weeklong break scare you? It's nothing to be embarrassed by because many of us are in the same boat. It should raise the question as to why though, and what fundamentally are you fearful of. It's more than likely the idea of missing out on something.

c) Do I feel good about what I'm creating and why?

This is perhaps the most straightforward question to ask but the most challenging to answer. If you've spent some time thinking about the impact on your life, do you feel good about your social media activity? Do you find that overall it has improved your life? With Books & Beers, I can definitely say yes. The act of learning photography and long-form writing has been a huge outlet for my own creativity, something that didn't exist before this.

Another concern that Odell and I share is the polarization that social media seems to foster. She writes:

"I worry that if we let our real life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed - never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege."

Jenny goes on to recognize what Chris Bail also talks about in Breaking the Social Media Prism: "[the inability to publicly change our minds] is one of the things I find the most absurd about our current social media, since it's completely normal and human to change our minds, even about big things." Social media seems to have an innate ability to polarize people further. A conversation between two people face to face allows for more flexibility vs. a conversation that happens online where everyone can watch it unfold all while yelling themselves. As we become our branded identities, it becomes more and more challenging to change our views and beliefs. They become part of who we are perceived to be and thus who we are.

This book is a book for anyone feeling subtle anxiety about the world moving a bit too quickly and social media being part of the problem. It's a book that provides a prescription but ultimately forces us to ask ourselves what the best course of action is. Odell's own path may differ vastly from our own, but it eventually involves connecting with those parts of our lives that exist outside of a screen. You may enjoy being a creator, but it is essential to recognize the line between who you are as an individual and who the online persona is.


A few other posts you may find inspiring if you are interested in learning about social media and our place with it. A post on Chris Bail's Breaking the Social Media Prism. Roger McNamee's Zucked is an excellent look into Facebook and how our lives are being monitored for profit. If you want to make a big break then consider this post on Catherine Price's How to Break Up WIth Your Phone.

  • Writer's pictureSean

My first encounter with Sebastian Junger was through his book on philosophical look at belonging, Tribe. A book rich with stories on how belonging to tribes connects us to humanity and something deeper. In a similar style, Freedom delves into the idea of what it means to be free through Junger's own eyes and stories linked to his journey across the Eastern U.S.

Junger and three friends set out for the better part of a year travelling railroad lines across the East Coast, examing the land and people they encounter. His writing style has always exuded a sense of calmness, giving off an air of authority as he reflects on the journey he is taking and stories of the past. Junger looks back at Native Americans and their freedoms living off the land versus the slow creeping behemoth of settlers moving across the land imposing their own sense of freedom.

As Junger notes, the joke about freedom is that most forms of space are simply swapping obedience to one thing for adherence to another. Settlers believing their heading West to freedom, imposing it on the native population through violence, only to find themselves obedient to a government. Junger notes:

"...the inside joke about freedom is that you're always trading obedience to one thing for obedience to another."

It is a striking realization that much of what we do is out of obedience depending on how you look at it. Even the chase for financial freedom and independence is predicated on our obedience to a financial system that to some degree controls what we do. Perhaps the key is recognizing that there are layers of freedom and understanding what we truly value.

There is something about Junger's writing that I love. If I had one complaint, it's that the book is too short! The journey itself sounded fascinating as the small group of friends avoid police and strange characters while reflecting on their lives as individuals and meeting some interesting people along the way. I would have loved more stories of being on the road and those experiences in Junger's voice.

I'm reminded of Robert Moor's book On Trails in some respect. Robert brings a similar storytelling ability to the paths we walk in our daily lives. The railroad is yet another trail that some of us walk and constitutes one of the most extensive cross-country "trail" systems in North America. Consider this quote from Robert Moor with regards to super-thru-hikers (consider the Appalachian Trail thru-hike takes five months!) and perhaps what they seek:

"...out here, all alone, I caught a glimmer of the feeling these super-thru-hikers were chasing. It was the same feeling the early AT thru-hikers must have experienced: lonesome, uncertain, faintly electric. It felt like an adventure."

Reading those words felt similar to the experience I took from Junger's book as he describes the feeling of sleeping on alert. A sense of anything can happen and am I ready to respond in whatever way necessary?

As Robert Moor travels his own thru-hike, he reflects on the mental challenges that everyone faces on the road for prolonged periods: "We had each faced down the same Cerberus of loneliness, boredom, and self-doubt, and we had learned that the only solution was to out-walk it.

A reader should note that this book follows the journey that is also documented in the 2014 movie The Last Patrol. Although I don't think that takes anything away from it, the trip itself was made in stages. And on the last day of the journey, Junger notes: "The trip was over. I was 51 years old, I had no children, I was in the process of getting divorce." Suddenly, the link to what Robert Moor talks about is made clear. Perhaps Junger was out there facing his own Cerberus and dealing with it by walking it out.


Consider a brief look at Robert Moor's On Trails to supplement your reading of Junger with this post. Perhaps a reflection of a writer on the road is Travels with Charley written by John Steinbeck; I have a post here.


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