So what am I interested in? I decided to look back and try to find the commonalities between the most influential books I've read in the past couple of years. If there is one common thread, it is figuring out how people approach their self-actualization. They've all fed my emerging fascination with lifestyle choices and values:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Every amateur urban planner has probably read this one at some point. It totally changed the way I look at cities, particularly inner cities and older neighbourhoods. Self-actualization is reflected in where people choose to live (and why), the opportunities provided by those places, and how their location fits into their chosen lifestyle (work, relationships, leisure, consumer values, creativity).
The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What It All Means about Who We Are
This book rocked my world. At first it seems like the grossest generalization to claim that everyone in the continent could be slotted into a set number of predefined lifestyle clusters. Nobody likes to be typecast, and it’s hard to like the idea that someone could predict your political views, the kind of coffee you’re likely to drink, what kind of vehicle you drive, and a host of other lifestyle factors based on your zip code, which has been associated with one of these 67 clusters. But the arguments are convincing, and you start to see the power of the data. It simplifies the bewildering web of people’s choices (location, beliefs, what they buy) into something that rings true, without losing the details that you need to derive real meaning.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
I can’t believe the amount of data in this book showing how people’s values have changed over the last generation. It’s an amazing illustration of how individual choices and values seem to coalesce into a sort of collective consciousness. I wonder how today’s young people will view their roles as part of families, communities, and cities.
Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work
This one is most closely related to my work, offering a fascinating glimpse into the aspirations of teenagers over a five-year longitudinal study. It’s a testament to the power of the American Dream, with the vast majority of high school students expecting to earn four-year degrees, get professional careers, and enjoying an upper-middle-class lifestyle. But they have no clue how to go about it, and often have unrealistic expectations of their potential paths.
I've already shared some the impact The End of Work had on me recently. I think Rifkin should have called it The End of the Job instead. I don't see much evidence that people won't be finding and creating their own paid work and integrating that function seamlessly into the rest of their lifestyle, rather than selling half of their waking life to the same organization for years at a time.
Two more books certainly fit the mold as well, although I haven’t read them yet. I've been enjoying Richard Florida's Creative Class site, so I should probably read his book as well. Along similar lines, Pat Kane’s site has entertained me for the past year, and I’m looking forward to seeing his book in fall -- The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. Pat also recently linked to this one about the culture of overwork that looks to be worth tracking down.
So, self-actualization is one of the common threads. These books are all popularized social science, mostly based on original research into how people choose and arrange their lifestyles. There’s an important sub-theme centered on work and how people view their work in the context of their lives, balanced (or fully integrated) with creative pursuits, leisure and relationships. If you have suggestions for further reading in any of these areas, please let me know.
Update: Speaking of self-actualization, I've been exploring Maslow again, and I just finished re-reading Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (overview/review here) -- it should have been on this list originally because it was influential in my thinking years before, but I apparently forgot it. Flow a powerful theory that can be applied in all areas of life, and with special attention on meaningful work:
"Yet we can't blame family, society, or history if our work is meaningless, dull, or stressful. Admittedly, there are few options when we realize that our job is useless or actually harmful. Perhaps the only choice is to quit as quickly as possible, even at the cost of severe financial hardship. In terms of the bottom line of one's life, it is always better to do something one feels good about than something that may make us materially comfortable but emotionally miserable. Such decisions are notoriously difficult and require great honesty with oneself."