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What most people tell me when they first lay their hands on English Mastery (but also, to some extent, Speaking Mastery and Gaining Momentum) is that they really like the book because it does not strike them as your usual “coursebook” for students of English. It doesn’t strike me that way, either.
Of course, it is meant to help students in their advanced English journey, with (literally) hundreds of exercises, tasks and activities to provide them with enough practice in the different skills they need to become competent at, and make them ace that English test. I also tried to include thought-provoking texts, articles and references to make the lessons more dynamic, fun and engaging.
But, ultimately, English Mastery is my personal homage to the books that changed my life and that anyone who entertains the idea of personal growth, self-improvement and who is committed to pursuing a meaningful, righteous life should check out. And by the way, props to Audible or audiobooks in general (no affiliation with Amazon whatsoever here; in fact, quite the opposite), because being the insufferable live wire that I am, it would have been impossible to consume all the invaluable knowledge contained in them, had it not been for the possibility of listening to them while going for strolls, walking my dear buddy (RIP) or driving to work.
These ten (tried to boil them down to the most life-changing) books had a profound impact on me and propelled me to the pursuit of meaningfulness, righteousness, rational thinking and a sense of purpose. And I think it is fair to give credit to them, so that anyone who is intrigued by some of the many fascinating ideas and topics discussed throughout the pages of English Mastery can quench their thirst for more inspiring (and hopefully life-changing) wisdom. Read all of these. Eventually. And thank me later.
- The Laws of Human Nature (Robert Greene, 2018)
I remember that a couple of years ago, my colleague Brittany (one of the ladies gracing the cover of Gaining Momentum) asked me whether I had read “Mastery” by Robert Greene (yes, even the title of this advanced English book has been inspired by Mr. Greene). I struck her as a particularly industrious guy, with a solid work ethic and she thought that I would really enjoy reading that book. I had not read “Mastery“, but I had heard of it through Mike Matthews’ podcast and his dissection of that book really aroused my curiosity. But back then, I didn’t go out of my way to find it (Back then, I hadn’t heard of Audible, either). At the beginning of 2020, however, I had the opportunity to discover “The Laws of Human Nature“, which had been published just two years before. Green had already become a household name with his best-seller “The 48 Laws of Power” (another wholeheartedly recommended read), but being into psychology (I’m a graduate in psychology, actually), the topics found in “The Laws of Human Nature” engrossed me from the get-go. Human nature and behavior has practically not changed since the beginning of times, notwithstanding technological advances. Envy, passive aggression, conformity and a pathological right to belong, or vanity and narcissism are as old as humankind itself. All these flaws, vices and urges are analyzed in this masterpiece, and embodied by historical characters who are chosen as archetypes of the behaviors being dissected. But don’t be fooled and think it is just a captivating read. It is an invaluable life manual. If (for reasons unknown) you can only read a book in the next months, make sure it is this one. Life is too short to invite the wrong people into it. Learn how to spot them.
2. The Obstacle is the Way. The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity into Advantage (Ryan Holiday, 2014)
Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty confident this was the book which kickstarted the whole Neo-stoic movement in the 2010s. Soon a legion of authors rode on the coattails of Ryan Holiday‘s debut and tried to out-stoicize each other. Don’t get me wrong, props to David Goggins, Jocko Willink or any other tough ex Navy seal who has been interviewed by Joe Rogan. These people have walked the walk and their experiences and testimonies are, indeed, inspiring (they have surely gone through more difficult stuff than most of us), but literature-wise, they cannot hold a candle to American Apparel’s ex CEO-come-author, Ryan Holiday (by the way, this guy’s a full decade younger than yours truly, talk about achievement). And he did it first, anyway. What is then, the essential idea found in “Obstacle is the Way“, which makes it such a fascinating read? Well, it is RELENTLESSNESS. Humans are wired to the path of least resistance, so avoidance of suffering and adversity is deeply ingrained in us. But, what if we contemplated setbacks, hindrances, misfortune, mishaps and even tragedy as a source of learning? What if the scars we carry are actually badges of this struggle otherwise known as life, betraying a toughened and resilient (yeah, clichéd) personality? What if instead of shunning difficulties, we actually embraced them? What if every time we fell, we rose stronger? What if obstacles were THE WAY?
3. Deep Work (Cal Newport, 2016)
Unit 2 of English Mastery (“The Pareto Principle“) deals with the topics of careers and success, failure, but also time management and productivity. There are three main resources at our disposal: energy, time and attention. The way we spend those is going to make a world of difference in whether we attain our goals or not, and ultimately, in the type of life we end up living. And in today’s world, where we are bombarded by constant stimulation and instant gratification (in the shape of emails, adds, entertainment, social media, twinkling notifications from a bazillion apps, instant messaging, polarizing news, politics, what have you…), it is extremely challenging to remain focused, impervious to distraction, and get work done. And I guess that the concept of “being productive” or “getting stuff done” might not exactly enthuse the “you only live one, so why bother“, laid-back, slack-ish type of dude, and even strike them as something rather materialistic and superficial. You know, the hustle-culture kind of thing. Ok, I get it. But if you really want (for whatever reason) to create something of actual worth and make a difference in the world (note: any person who devotes their life to helping others- nurses, doctors, teachers, soldiers, fire fighters, etc.- is INDEED making a difference), you need to embrace deep work. There is shallow work and there is deep work. With the former, you can afford to go through the motions (as many people do at work, when they find their jobs uninspiring), but with the latter, you cannot. Really compelling work (anything involving creativity, music, literature, dissertations, works of art, design, etc.) are going to demand your undivided attention and focus. In the span of two years, I managed to write and publish three books, launch my own website and start-up, do a ton of blog writing, along with being a full-time teacher and head of studies at the school where I work, while not disregarding my personal, social and family life and fitness, either. And I’m not a prodigy or a genius, nor am I someone gifted with an abnormally high IQ. I am pretty sure I took some valuable lessons from Cal Newport’s book. We tend to underestimate the things we can achieve, provided we focus on the important and ignore the inconsequential, unimportant, trivial stuff. Time, not money, is the MOST valuable asset we have. It is almost CRUEL to waste it.
4. The Millionaire Fastlane (MJ deMarco, 2011)
Horrible cover, I know. And a very misleading title, too. With a title like that and a cover like that, this one reeks of scam. Hold on. I am confident you have heard the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover“, right? Well, I cannot think of an actual book where that saying is more fitting than this very one. No, it won’t give away the hacks and tricks to get rich by investing in crypto nor will it teach you how to come up with your own Ponzi scheme and deceive others, like an A-hole would do. Not at all. It is instead the ULTIMATE guide to entrepreneurship. And it is EXTREMELY inspirational. A work that from the get-go points at the perils of consumerism (study case A: “sidewalkers“), but which also casts doubt upon the idea of a life of sacrifice, thriftiness, stinginess and miserliness, in the hope of- someday– retiring relatively well off (study case B: “slowlaners“). There must be another way. But wait, “how dare you suggest that chasing financial independence and wealth are noble pursuits? Did you not know that money is evil?” Oh, yes, right. You convinced me here. Well, I have a suggestion for you, my friend: if money is so evil, then walk into your boss’s office and ask him not for a raise, but for a reduction of your salary. That will make you much more righteous. Only when you have done that, will you be in the position of lecturing anyone. For the rest of you, unhindered by such self-righteousness, please don’t skip this one.
5. Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude (Napoleon Hill & William Clement Stone, 1959)
This book is the oldest one in this list, and probably the one that feels more outdated. But it- along with its predecessor, “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill- was the work which arguably kickstarted the whole self-improvement, self-help genre, and while some sections in the book do, indeed, read corny (be forewarned, some passages sound dangerously close to Scientology!), the ideas of “maintaining a state of burning desire“, “what the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve” or the concept of “positive mental attitude” itself remind me that our state of mind, and our attitude to the world around us is one of the few things we can actually control. This book certainly helped me when I was going through one of those low moments after a sports injury, and apathy, anger and disappointment were starting to take over my feelings and thoughts. I needed a good kick in the butt and a different outlook. Reading (well, listening to) the stories of people like Samuel B. Fuller, who managed to overcome abject poverty with sheer determination in 1930s America (being a black man, that was no mean feat in that time), inspired me and reminded me of the old “every cloud has a silver lining” adage. If this guy managed to not be limited by his extremely difficult circumstances, I had no right to complain.
6. The Evolution of Desire. Strategies of Human Mating (David Buss, 1994)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or so we have heard for a long time. Is the idea of “attractiveness” and therefore, romantic and sexual attraction, something totally subjective? Are there, instead, some trends, tendencies and rules involved? Is there such a thing as the “science of attraction“? If there is, this work is the closest attempt that I know which gives evidence of the different aspects (appearance, height, status, intelligence, personality traits, sense of humor, attire, kindness…) that influence sexual attraction between and within sexes. This compelling research is based on cross-cultural studies and the results and trends herein found tend to be irrespective of cultural background, socio-economic circumstances or sexual orientation. And when differences do exist and can be attributed to said factors, they are fairly well documented, linked to anthropological science, and explained. No hysterical hyper-ventilation, nor red-pill backlash or incel-induced resentement here, just the cold hard facts based on a myriad of studies and which should be contemplated from a detached, non-emotional perspective . And in no moment is it implied here that one is rendered unlovable for not conforming to certain standards. However, reading about some trends that prevail should not offend or infuriate us. That, I believe, only reveals a wee bit of insecurity. I, for instance, am not particularly tall by European standards (5’9″-5’10” actually), and being aware that height ranks high in attractiveness does not bring me down in the least. I guarantee you that you won’t see me crusading against the tyranny of tall-ism. Apparently, being tall implied being aware of predators in the past, thus ensuring a greater likelihood of survival, or capacity of protecting one’s offspring. It is not surprising that these primal perceptions (aka “pure biology”) are still ingrained in humans, a few millennia later.
7. Overcoming Gravity (Steven Low. 2016)
“Your body is your temple”. “Exercise is not a punishment for what we eat, but a celebration of what our bodies are capable of“. I’ll spare you the umpteenth corny quote, but you get the point, don’t you? I read somewhere that the French philosopher Descartes and his theories on the mind-body dualism had done a great deal of harm to people’s mindset and attitudes towards physical exercise (or just “movement”). Like the idea is that you can either cultivate your mind (which would put you in the, say, intellectually competent category) or cultivate your body (that’s only for wannabe athletes, jocks, meatheads and chads, i.e.: rather uncouth individuals, who are not parangons of wisdom and virtue and want to compensate for their lack of education and intellect by growing huge muscles, right?). Well, if you didn’t get the irony, you should, because this way of thinking is as simplistic as it gets. We all should- in my opinion- aspire to be well-rounded and cultivate different facets and skills. And I can guarantee that bodyweight training (from “gymnastics” or “calisthenics” to Yoga) requires a TON of mind and body control. Gymnastics (probably the most underrated sport ever) in particular is especially humbling (it requires YEARS of dedicated training and discipline) and never fails to amaze me. And come on, it amazes you too. You could watch the gymnasts pulling off those crazy, incredible feats in the Olympics and say “meh, that does not impress me much”, but you would be lying. Yes, you are impressed.
This book dissects the different gymnastics exercises and moves which blow everyone’s minds and details an actual plan and strategy to eventually get close to pulling them off. Make no mistake: as I said, this sport is humbling to the point of being ungrateful. You need consistent dedication, practice, and applying the right strategy, too. After years of training, I myself got to do some of these moves: the handstand hold, the muscle up, the human flag, a partial iron cross, or handstand push ups. I got to do them, but not to “own” them: some time off, a summer break or a slight injury would undo most of the progress made and force me to go back to the drawing board and start (almost) from scratch again. Yes, it is that humbling. And the thing is that this is analogous to anything that we are trying to learn, achieve or master. From our English skills, to cultivating healthy, harmonious relationships, anything that matters is a) not going to be easy (nobody wants easy) and run on autopilot, and b) is going to require consistency and commitment.
However, back to the topic: this book and its subject (gymnastics and bodyweight training) are a reminder of what the human body can do. To let it deteriorate and decay due to total inactivity is going to be our personal choice.
8. Get in the Van (Henry Rollins, 1994)
In unit 8 of English Mastery (Amusing Ourselves to Death), part 3 is titled “Human Movement. Fighting and Violence. Law and Order“. What is the point of including a topic about something as contemptible as violence, which most of us abhor? Well, because the fascination that it seems to arouse in people (think of WWF, MMA, action movies, video clips and other forms of entertainment which rely heavily on violence) has always intrigued me. And my psychologist side is also curious about phenomena such as the mob mentality, mass behavior and about how people can react really irrationally in certain circumstances. We like to think of ourselves as fully evolved individuals, but some of these primal urges still lurk underneath our more polished surface.
I recently saw a documentary on Netflix called Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, about a music festival where different circumstances (heat, drugs, scarcity of drinkable water, sanitation deficiencies, aggressive music…) aligned and made people go apeshit and want to destroy, pillage and burn everything in their path. And the same happened- I was there– in Spain, during the Festimad 2005 fest. Exactly the same. I contemplated the whole thing with a mixture of bewilderment and dismay. Why on earth were people so bent on behaving so reprehensibly? Was it the music which unleashed this unhinged brutality?
This brings me back to this book, actually an audiobook (I’m not sure whether a paperback version exists) which relates Henry Rollins‘ 5-year stint (1981-1986) with the punk rock band Black Flag. Here, Rollins details each and every one of the shows he played with the band, and how the kind of behaviors above mentioned would repeat over and over. Fights in the pit, people being stabbed, mauled or killed, riots between the audience and the police, people heckling the band members, antagonizing them, even trying to attack them… Henry Rollins, however, was not exactly a pushover and wouldn’t hesitate to fight back. After finishing the book, it is almost disheartening to think that probably humans are doomed to this vicious urge to inflict violence (in any form, from physically hurting others, to trying to cancel and destroy others’ reputations for thinking differently, or throwing insults on Twitter) upon other people.
I am a pathological optimist, and honestly think that humans appease these primitive behaviors as societies develop and become more civilized and educated. But, I don’t know, maybe these urges have adopted more sophisticated forms. What do you think?
9. Finding Flow, the Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, 1997)
Everyone has heard of the concept of “mindfulness”. And the idea of being present, engaged in whatever we are doing, from working to conversing with friends and loved ones is something that everyone acknowledges as a virtue, right? But it is so damn difficult! The concept analyzed in Flow brings to mind some ideas already mentioned in the review of Deep Work, but these books are not interchangeable by any means.
Flow is more about learning to fully immerse in what you are doing and falling in love with it. This is especially challenging when the task we are doing is cognitively demanding. It can be pretty intimidating to even embark on a task that cannot be approached in a half-assed, semi-automatic manner. But once that spark is ignited and we get in the “flow channel“, we learn to isolate ourselves from distractions and really appreciate and even enjoy the work (or whatever activity) we are doing. Hours can go by and we are still engaged, fired up by the excitement that the task itself arouses.
The work that stems from these moments where we find “flow” seems to be really compelling and unique, too.
10. Company of One. Why Staying Small is the Next Big Think (Paul Jarvis, 2019)
This choice is a really personal one. And, just like the previous book, a reminder that disproportionate ambition, lack of focus, and the shiny object syndrome that many wannabe entrepreneurs reveal ends up destroying any options of creating something of worth which actually offers value to other people. It is a warning cry against the mindset of “more, more, more” and the “next big thing“. Also, an ode to a more personal and personalized approach to “business”. By wanting to move onto the next hack, dig the next goldmine and make more money, many times quality work is disregarded, not to mention customer service.
And even though it is evident that associating with the wrong people can be extremely detrimental, if those people are not on the same wavelength, “Company of One” does not worship individualism. The idea of “think win-win” (that is, look out for others’ interests as much as for your own personal ones), elaborated by Stephen Covey also resonates here.
I may have had my share of letdowns when starting the Breakthru project, and had to deal with some shady people and naysayers, too, but for the most part, I have nothing but gratefulness for the generosity that I have encountered: encouraging students, teachers who would provide me with feedback of all kinds, EOIs which agreed to “pilot” the books in their nascent form, great professionals who humbled me with their craft, the selflessness shown by my buddies Elena, Hanny, Sarah or Brittany when agreeing to collaborate with me in different ways. This may be a company of one, but for sure I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, had it not been for all of you. Thank you!