Personal Development

Review: Just Tell Me What I Want

Cover of "Just Tell Me What I Want," featuring the title in a dark gray box on a background of palm trees and flamingos
Image from Sara Kravitz

Title: Just Tell Me What I Want: How to Find Your Purpose When You Have No Idea What It Is

Author: Sara Kravitz

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Gendered language, Christianity

Back Cover:

This book is for anyone who has ever been told to “follow their bliss” and then immediately wanted to punch that person in the face. Maybe you feel like you should have things figured out by now. Maybe you think things should be better, but you don’t know how to get started. Maybe you would love to work really hard toward something, but aren’t totally sure what that something is.

What if there was actually a way to get you pointed in the right direction? And what if it didn’t involve someone telling you to “follow your bliss”?

This book will:

  • give you concrete tools to figure out what you want
  • help you take steps toward a life that you actually want to be yours
  • help you understand that everyone feels this way at some point, but you don’t have to feel this way forever
  • not tell you to follow your bliss

Change can be scary. Change can feel risky. But taking a chance is always worth it. This book will help you take the right steps for you to figure out what you want.

Review:

This is going to be a short review, because this is a pretty short book.

I found a free copy somewhere, picked it up because I was bored at work, and was honestly unimpressed with chapter one. It was boring and unspectacular, and I almost stopped reading.

But I’m glad I continued, because the rest of the book was pretty good.

Let’s be clear – it doesn’t exactly tell you how to figure out what you want. But it does give you some techniques for figuring out what you don’t want, which is a step in the right direction. It talks a lot about feeling out what’s not right for you and understanding that you have options, which is a great thing to talk about. And it’s also pretty inspiring.

There were a couple things that bothered me about it, though. One was that there was a surprising amount of swearing. Most of the time swearing doesn’t bother me, but in this case it didn’t fit with the tone at all and I think it would have read better if there wasn’t swearing. The other thing that bothered me was a few mentions of God in a Christian context. This may not bother everyone, but I wasn’t expecting it and I wasn’t a fan.

I want to say more about it, but there’s not much more to say. It was good. It had some good tips. There also wasn’t a lot that I hadn’t already heard before. It was a lot better than I expected, but still not fantastic.

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Personal Development

Review: Braving the Wilderness

Cover of "Braving the Wilderness," featuring a few pine trees in front of a light blue sky
Image from Brené Brown

Title: Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

Author: Brené Brown

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Fatphobia (mention)

Back Cover:

“True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.” Social scientist Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, has sparked a global conversation about the experiences that bring meaning to our lives—experiences of courage, vulnerability, love, belonging, shame, and empathy. In Braving the Wilderness, Brown redefines what it means to truly belong in an age of increased polarization. With her trademark mix of research, storytelling, and honesty, Brown will again change the cultural conversation while mapping a clear path to true belonging.

Brown argues that we’re experiencing a spiritual crisis of disconnection, and introduces four practices of true belonging that challenge everything we believe about ourselves and each other. She writes, “True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism. But true belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity. It’s a personal commitment that we carry in our hearts.” Brown offers us the clarity and courage we need to find our way back to ourselves and to each other. And that path cuts right through the wilderness. Brown writes, “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”

Review:

I am a huge fan of Brené Brown, so much so that this book make my top 5 anticipated reads of 2018. I was especially excited because it talks about belonging, which – as someone who feels like the misfit in most situations – promised to be really helpful for me.

And overall, this was a solid book. I just had one major issue with chapter four, which made me put down the book for a little bit – but I’ll get to that.

Brené starts by talking about disconnection, how it’s a basic human need and modern society is very disconnected. She also talks about the “wilderness,” which is basically her conception of a place where you’re authentically yourself and radically vulnerable and open to connection with others. Then she goes into four steps her research has found to move towards that wilderness:

  1. People are hard to hate up close. Move in.
  2. Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
  3. Hold hands. With strangers.
  4. Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.

Chapter four was the first step: “People are hard to hate up close. Move in.” And I agree with her idea here, which is that if you make the effort to truly understand where people are coming from and what they believe, it’s hard to hate them. My problem was that she brought politics into it, and she’s definitely coming from a white moderate, “let’s all be friends” view. Which, on one hand, I understand. If you’re privileged like she is (white, straight, cisgender, rich, Christian), it can be easy to want to get along with everyone because politics doesn’t affect you a lot. But if you’re queer, a person of color, poor, Muslim, or any other variety of minority, politics has the potential to affect you a lot. I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t bother trying to understand someone with different politics from you, but in the age of neo-Nazis who want people dead for being black, queer, Muslim, etc., safety is more important than understanding. Despite what Brené Brown says, it is not necessary to attempt to understand people who want you dead.

Beyond that one problem, though, I didn’t have issue with the book. Brené goes on to talk about setting boundaries and standing up for yourself while still being vulnerable, avoiding black-and-white thinking and searching for the gray areas, avoiding superficial and negative connections based on mutual dislike, and the power of seeing people in person. There are a lot of good and applicable ideas that inspired me and made me want this “true belonging” that Brené talks about.

This one of those books where I feel like I’ll have to read it a couple times to fully … I don’t want to say fully understand it, because I did understand it, but I guess fully acknowledge and understand how I can apply this to my own life. Even though I definitely disagree with Brené’s politics, I still think this is a very worthwhile book.

Did Not Finish, Personal Development

Review: Enough Already!

Cover of "Enough Already!" featuring a picture of the author below red text on a white background
Image from Peter Walsh

Title: Enough Already!: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You

Author: Peter Walsh

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: None (that I found)

Back Cover:

Does it seem like everything is moving so fast these days you can barely keep up? Do you sometimes feel that your life is spinning out of control? Most of us are so overwhelmed by the stuff in our daily lives — work, bills, family commitments, demands from our kids’ schools — that we rush from person to person and place to place. For many of us, life feels completely out of balance because we give one area of our lives too much attention and the other areas nowhere near enough. This crazy imbalance and the resulting stress and unhappiness you feel are the clutter that Peter Walsh wants to help you tackle in “Enough Already!: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You.”

Peter examines the six key areas of your life — Family, Relationships, Work, Health, Money, and Spirituality — and shows how these unique parts of your life are so interrelated that if just one is cluttered, that clutter will creep into the other areas and throw your life off balance. He then offers a step-by-step plan that helps you acknowledge and address the emotional and mental clutter that holds you back from living the richly fulfilling life you deserve.

Read to: CD 2 of 5

Review:

This book just advertised itself as something it wasn’t, that’s the long and short of it.

It’s all about mental clutter, right? I assumed clearing mental clutter would involve tools like mind mapping, stream-of-consciousness writing, meditation, and that sort of stuff applied to different areas of your life to help you calm your mind.

Nope. I got through the section on relationships and part of the section on jobs, and it basically operates on the premise that all bad things are clutter. Communication problems? Clutter. Don’t like your job? Clutter. Negative emotions? Clutter. Which really felt like a major stretch – I always interpret clutter as “too much stuff taking up space,” not as “anything that is bad.”

It felt like Peter Walsh really wanted to write a life advice book, but he’d already branded himself as an organization person, so he decided to reinterpret life problems as clutter so he could write his life advice book without going off brand.

And honestly, it wasn’t even that great of life advice. The relationships section was all about communicating with your partner (not even how, just that you need to) and compromising, and didn’t even touch on friendships, relationships with family, or anything outside romantic relationships. When I stopped at the career section, it was going through the generic advice of “think about what you want your career to be, not just your job” and leave your job if you hate your boss.

This book is utterly unremarkable and, in my opinion, pretty much useless. It’s not really a book about decluttering your mind, it’s a slightly-worse-than-mediocre general life advice book that only gives broad, sweeping overviews of narrowly-defined areas of your life. In short, it’s not helpful and just plain bland.

Personal Development

Review: Blink

Cover of "Blink," featuring lower-case blue text on a white background
Image from Library Dude

Title: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Police violence, ableism

Back Cover:

Blink is a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant – in the blink of an eye – that actually aren’t as simple as they seem. Why are some people brilliant decision makers, while others are consistently inept? Why do some people follow their instincts and win, while others end up stumbling into error? How do our brains really work – in the office, in the classroom, in the kitchen, and in the bedroom? And why are the best decisions often those that are impossible to explain to others?

In Blink we meet the psychologist who has learned to predict whether a marriage will last, based on a few minutes of observing a couple; the tennis coach who knows when a player will double-fault before the racket even makes contact with the ball; the antiquities experts who recognize a fake at a glance. Here, too, are great failures of “blink”: the election of Warren Harding; “New Coke”; and the shooting of Amadou Diallo by police. Blink reveals that great decision makers aren’t those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of “thin-slicing” – filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.

Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology and displaying all of the brilliance that made The Tipping Point a classic, Blink changes the way you understand every decision you make. Never again will you think about thinking the same way.

Review:

This book had some issues.

I was actually moderately excited to read this book. I’m not the biggest Malcolm Gladwell fan, but I love the idea of thin slicing (when your mind comes to a subconscious conclusion from small bits of information) and was excited to learn more about it.

But this book was simultaneously mostly useless, revelatory, and deeply offending.

Let’s start with the relevatory part. It had the same problem as every Malcolm Gladwell book I’ve read, which I just now identified three books in: he sets up a great idea (“how to make good snap judgments,” “how things become popular“) and then instead of actually talking about how (or even why), he just gives example after example. If you want to get the “how” or “why” from it, you have to tease it out from his examples – if you can.

That’s why I described this book as “mostly useless” – in the beginning, the book said you would learn how to make better snap judgments and when not to trust those initial instincts, and then ends with the conclusion “your first impression is good except when it’s not.”

Once I identified Malcolm’s problem, though, I did manage to tease out the main idea – snap judgments made by someone who has a lot of knowledge and understanding about something (e.g. art experts, marriage psychologists) are usually pretty accurate, and snap judgments made on something you’re not an expert in are informed by biases and prejudices. Which is actually good information. Trust your gut if you know a lot about the topic, examine your biases if you’re not. But you’ll only discover that if you read between the lines.

Now let’s talk about the “deeply offending” part.

Towards the end of the book, Malcolm talks about the shooting of Amadou Diallo (a black man) by four (white) police officers. It’s in the section on reading faces, and his point is that the policemen were not experienced enough in reading faces to make the snap judgment that Diallo was terrified, not dangerous. He completely dismisses race as a factor in the shooting, which annoyed me. But that wasn’t really the offending part. Malcolm called the moments when your body is affected by adrenaline and you can’t think clearly or make good snap judgments as “temporary autism.” Which is ableist and extremely offensive (this is speaking as an autistic person, and my autistic fiance concurred).

The idea of this book was good. And once you manage to read between the lines to what Malcolm is actually trying to say, it has a solid conclusion. But it also has issues. Really big issues. And honestly, you can sum up what you get out of the book in one sentence: “If you’re really knowledgeable in an area, trust your gut; if you’re not knowledgeable about it, examine your first impression for hidden biases.” You don’t need to sift through three hundred pages of examples just to get to that.

Personal Development

Review: Essentialism

Cover of "Essentialism," featuring a scribbled mess of lines on the left side, with an arrow pointing to the right, where the word "essentialism" is surrounded by several shaky circles.
Image from Greg McKeown

Title: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Author: Greg McKeown

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

The Way of the Essentialist involves doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution.

The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s not about getting less done. It’s about getting only the right things done. It’s about challenging the core assumption of ‘we can have it all’ and ‘I have to do everything’ and replacing it with the pursuit of ‘the right thing, in the right way, at the right time’. It’s about regaining control of our own choices about where to spend our time and energies instead of giving others implicit permission to choose for us.

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown draws on experience and insight from working with the leaders of the most innovative companies in the world to show how to achieve the disciplined pursuit of less.

By applying a more selective criteria for what is essential, the pursuit of less allows us to regain control of our own choices so we can channel our time, energy and effort into making the highest possible contribution toward the goals and activities that matter.

Essentialism isn’t one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything. It is a discipline you apply constantly, effortlessly. Essentialism is a mindset; a way of life. It is an idea whose time has come.

Review:

I wanted to love this book. I really did. It came highly recommended by most of the personal development blogs I follow, and essentialism sounded like an extremely valuable mindset. But this was probably the most underwhelming book I’ve read this year. Which is strange to say, because overall, this wasn’t a bad book. In fact, it was rather good. But I personally got nothing out of it.

Michael Hyatt is a leadership/intentional living/productivity/platform-building blogger who I’ve been following since 2010(ish). Essentialism came out in 2014, so I have to believe that Michael Hyatt either knew Greg McKeown or discovered the same principles on his own, because reading Essentialism was like reading Michael Hyatt Condensed.

Almost nothing in this book was new information to me. From focus to prioritizing, doing only the things that let you make your maximum contribution, even the power of sleep – all of it was stuff I’d heard before from Michael Hyatt. Which was disappointing. I’d expected there to be some overlap (after all, I first heard of Essentialism on Michael Hyatt’s podcast episode that had Greg McKeown as a guest), but I didn’t expect that much.

It was good information and valuable insight into living and making your greatest contribution. The idea of cutting everything nonessential out of your life, focusing only on what’s important at the moment, and giving the majority of your energy to what will make the most impact are all good ideas. And I love that the book is practical, with lots of tips and suggestions for how to prune your life down to “less but better” it promotes (and strategies for not saying yes to too many things).

Essentialism is very black-and-white (both figuratively and literally – section introductions are white text on black backgrounds and all the illustrations are bold black lines on empty white sections). You’re either a productive, focused essentialist or an unproductive, unfocused nonessentialist. Which does actually make sense with what the book is talking about, but as someone who has to work hard to avoid black-and-white thinking in real life, it felt a little strange. Again, not a criticism of the book itself, just something that didn’t work for me personally.

This wasn’t a bad book. On the contrary – if you’ve never heard of Michael Hyatt, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a great book on living with less, but better and having an overall more fulfilling life where you can make greater contributions to whatever work you do. But there’s so much overlap between this and Michael Hyatt’s principles that I got nothing out of it. Personally, it wasn’t for me. But it’s still completely worth a read (assuming you’re not as much of a Michael Hyatt fan as I am, that is).

Personal Development

Review: Rising Strong

Cover of "Rising Strong," featuring dark blue text on a light blue and white background
Image from Brene Brown

Title: Rising Strong: The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution

Author: Brené Brown

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

Social scientist Brené Brown has ignited a global conversation on courage, vulnerability, shame, and worthiness. Her pioneering work uncovered a profound truth: Vulnerability—the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome—is the only path to more love, belonging, creativity, and joy. But living a brave life is not always easy: We are, inevitably, going to stumble and fall.

It is the rise from falling that Brown takes as her subject in Rising Strong. As a grounded theory researcher, Brown has listened as a range of people—from leaders in Fortune 500 companies and the military to artists, couples in long-term relationships, teachers, and parents—shared their stories of being brave, falling, and getting back up. She asked herself, What do these people with strong and loving relationships, leaders nurturing creativity, artists pushing innovation, and clergy walking with people through faith and mystery have in common? The answer was clear: They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.

Walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Our stories of struggle can be big ones, like the loss of a job or the end of a relationship, or smaller ones, like a conflict with a friend or colleague. Regardless of magnitude or circumstance, the rising strong process is the same: We reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling; we rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth; and we live this process, every day, until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness. It’s the process, Brown writes, that teaches us the most about who we are.

Review Trigger Warning: Death mention

Review:

After finishing the awesomeness that was Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, I was thrilled to find Rising Strong as an audiobook, too.

The actual book part of the book was pretty short, which normally would annoy me but this time it didn’t. Brené starts with outlining the process she’s determined for how to “rise strong” after a fall or emotional setback. The process is actually the subtitle of the book:

  1. The Reckoning (recognizing you’re feeling an emotion and getting curious about why)
  2. The Rumble (letting yourself feel that emotion and deal with it)
  3. The Revolution (distilling the “key learning(s)” from your experience and becoming a better person)

She devotes about half the book to talking about those and how you do them, and the other half to examples. Which was actually a really good idea, because the process can look different for different people in different situations, and sometimes it’s just plain hard to recognize. She uses both her own examples and the examples of other people, which is cool.

She also introduced some other really cool concepts, like the Shitty (or Stormy) First Draft to help you “rumble” with emotions, and brought her research on shame into a lot of it. (I’m just going to have to read the rest of her books to find out more about her research.)

I can actually say one thing about this book that I haven’t been able to say about any of the other self-help books I’ve reviewed here – this process works. While I was reading (well, listening) to this book, a friend of mine died. And working through the process that Brené outlines in this book helped a lot with dealing with the emotions from that.

Overall, this book is amazing and it works. I definitely plan to make my fiance read it. And it’s one of the few books that I actually plan to buy and keep on my shelf and reread periodically.

Personal Development

Review: The Power of Habit

Cover of "The Power of Habit," featuring red text on a yellow background and black human silhouettes running on a red hamster wheel
Image from Charles Duhigg

Title: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do

Author: Charles Duhigg

Genre: Self-Help/Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: Descriptions of medical procedures (surgery)

Back Cover:

In The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize–winning business reporter Charles Duhigg takes us to the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. Distilling vast amounts of information into engrossing narratives that take us from the boardrooms of Procter & Gamble to sidelines of the NFL to the front lines of the civil rights movement, Duhigg presents a whole new understanding of human nature and its potential. At its core, The Power of Habit contains an exhilarating argument: The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, being more productive, and achieving success is understanding how habits work. As Duhigg shows, by harnessing this new science, we can transform our businesses, our communities, and our lives.

Review:

I picked this up for several reasons:

  1. It was an audiobook and I needed a new audiobook to listen to on my morning commute
  2. That library branch’s selection of audiobooks is mostly religious so my selection was limited
  3. I had a vague feeling that I’d seen it somewhere before and that maybe it was on my to-read list (I checked later, it wasn’t)

But either way, I picked it up and listened to it, and I’m glad I did.

The concept is really fascinating. Charles breaks down habits – how they form, why they form, and how you can change them, looking at psychology and research. And it all made a whole lot of sense.

There are three parts to the book. The first one is on individual habits. This is where Charles lays the foundation for the book – the cue-action-reward sequence that forms habits, how habits can be changed by recognizing cues, changing the action, and getting the same reward, and examples of everything from recovering alcoholics to weight loss to stopping smoking. This part was immensely valuable, completely fascinating, and, best of all, backed up by science (including psychology and neurology).

The second part, on corporate habits, wasn’t quite as good. Sure, it had its interesting facts, but it felt more illustrative than prescriptive – by that point we already know the framework, so it seemed more like it was just using examples to explain how habits work inside companies. Which wasn’t necessarily bad – it just felt like a downgrade after how awesome part one was. Although if I were a business leader, I might find this part more valuable than I did.

The third part, societal habits, is where the book really started to fall apart. It never really explained what a “societal habit” looked like, and with a lot of his examples – like the Montgomery Bus Boycotts – it felt like it was really stretching to make habits the root cause. You don’t learn much that’s useful and there’s not really a good way to apply it to anything.

And as a rather irritating aside, Charles has a habit of jumping between examples – spend a few minutes with this guy, then jump to this lady over here, then this other guy, and now we’re back with the first guy’s story … It all made coherent sense and the transitions weren’t bad, it just got on my nerves because I kept thinking an example was done and nope! We’ll come back in two chapters or so.

Overall, this is an incredibly useful book. Even if you get nothing out of parts 2 and 3, part 1 is valuable enough that it’s still completely worth the read (or listen, in my case). And if you decide to read it and completely skip part 3, I won’t blame you.

Personal Development

Review: Daring Greatly

Cover of "Daring Greatly," featuring a gray background with sideways text that transitions from yellow to green to blue
Image from Brene Brown

Title: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Author: Brené Brown

Genre: Personal Development

Trigger Warnings: None

Back Cover:

Every day we experience the uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure that define what it means to be vulnerable or to dare greatly. Based on twelve years of pioneering research, Dr. Brené Brown dispels the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness and argues that it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage.

Brown explains how vulnerability is both the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief, and disappointment, and the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation, and creativity. She writes: “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.”

Daring Greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where “never enough” dominates and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there’s a far greater risk of getting criticized or feeling hurt. But when we step back and examine our lives, we will find that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as standing on the outside of our lives looking in and wondering what it would be like if we had the courage to step into the arena—whether it’s a new relationship, an important meeting, the creative process, or a difficult family conversation. Daring Greatly is a practice and a powerful new vision for letting ourselves be seen.

Review:

You know those books where the author is talking about something you shouldn’t do and you think, oh, I don’t do that, but then the book keeps smacking you in the face until you realize that you actually do? Yeah, this was one of those books. With several different concepts.

But the good part is, this book doesn’t just smack you with how you’re screwing up – it provides ideas, tips, suggestions, and ways you can practice being better and living more authentically. Which is the second thing I love about this book. It’s so practical. Coming from an academic researcher, you might expect otherwise, but this is no theoretical construct – well, it is, but there’s also practical steps and commitments and ways to apply the theory. (I have a huge Thing about information being practical, so that gave it major points.)

It’s also super encouraging. The whole book is full of hope and “you can do this” and all the ways life is going to be so much better and real awesome when you’re vulnerable.

Brené is open about her struggles with these concepts. She shares her failures, screw-ups, and moments she just plain could have done better. Which makes this book feel a lot more real. Brené isn’t preaching at you, she’s leading you, saying, “I figured this out and here’s how it’s changed my life – here’s how it can change yours, too.” And I think that’s great.

A review really can’t do justice to this book and the hope and advice and vulnerability contained in it. It’s great advice for relationships. It’s great advice for parenting. It’s great advice for leading. It’s great advice for life, really. And as I listened, I realized that one of the reasons my fiance and I have such a great relationship is because we’d unconsciously discovered a lot of these principles.

Seriously, read this book. And maybe buy copies for other people. I know I intend to make my fiance read (or listen to) it at some point. And I definitely plan to read more of Brené Brown’s books.