Talking to Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell

malcolm gladwell talking to strangers

Subtitled: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know

What can I possibly say about Malcolm Gladwell that hasn’t already been said? You either love him or hate him and I’m in the camp that really enjoys his books and podcasts. While I don’t always agree with him, I do appreciate how he brings a different perspective to topics. Talking to Strangers feels a lot like his Revisionist History podcast. It begins and ends with the case of Sandra Bland, while taking a detour in the middle to discuss the different ways where we go wrong when humans interact with each other.


When the pros get it wrong – Gladwell discusses the history of Adolph Hitler and how many European leaders completely misread and misunderstood the rising leader, much to the detriment of the continent. He also brings to light how the CIA was continuously outwitted by Castro and the Cubans.

Defaulting to truth – Why is it that we can’t pick up on the Bernie Madoff types that scheme people out of millions or Larry Nassar types that abuse so many? The author makes a case that we generally have a high threshold for detecting when things are amiss.

Misreading – We like to think that we can get a good read of others, but there are many times where this goes wrong. And when it goes wrong it can lead to disastrous results and huge mistakes like the Amanda Knox case.

Coupling – Are places and actions more connected than we assume? There are important lessons we can learn from this regarding things like suicide and crime.


I’ve read most of Gladwell’s books and this one is near the top. Some parts seem forced as I’m not sure all of the contents really fit, but I don’t mind the meandering style. There are some takes in this book that I’m sure will be seen as controversial, but that is what the author does. If you haven’t read a book by him yet, this probably isn’t the best one to start with. All in all, I liked this one, the various case studies in it, and the perspective Gladwell brings. I’ll put it on the recommended list.

For all things Gladwell, head over to his website here. There, you’ll find ways to purchase his books and listen to the podcasts.


Maybe You Should Talk to Someone – Lori Gottlieb

Lori Gottlieb book cover

Subtitle: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone tells the story about how the process of mental health therapy works. It is written in a narrative format where the author (who is a psychotherapist) shares her personal story of getting help, intermixed with stories of several of her patients. It is an honest look at how the stories we tell ourselves can shape our lives and relationships, for good and for ill. This book also illustrates how finding healing is a journey that never travels in a straight line.


I’m going to flip things and do the recommendation part first. I really liked this book overall and think that it will help a lot of people to see how powerful that therapy can be to change lives and find healing. Hopefully, it will also help to de-stigmatize therapy for some who have outdated views such as the misconception that therapy is for weak people or only for those with severe mental illness. The narrative format makes for easy reading and helps illustrate how therapy works without getting overly technical or heavy on clinical jargon. Those looking for a book more truly focused on therapy (less personal narrative/memoir) should check out “The Examined Life” by Stephen Grosz instead.

Instead of the usual breakdown of topics and themes, I wanted to share some quotes and therapy pearls of wisdom from the book. Lines without references are quotes from the author/book.

Quotes and Therapy Pearls of Wisdom

“Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch” – James Baldwin

One of the most important steps in therapy is helping people take responsibility for their current predicaments, because once they realize that they can (and must) construct their own lives, they’re free to generate change.

Most big transformations come about from the hundreds of tiny, almost imperceptible, steps we take along the way.

The most important factor in the success of your treatment is your relationship with the therapist, your experience of “feeling felt.”

Therapy can’t help people who aren’t curious about themselves.

Happiness equals reality minus expectations.

So many of our destructive behaviors take root in an emotional void, an emptiness that calls out for something to fill it.

“The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.” – Andrew Solomon

Regret can go one of two ways: it can shackle you to the past or serve as an engine for change.

Sometimes “drama”, no matter how unpleasant, can be a form of self-medication, a way to calm ourselves down by avoiding the crises brewing inside.

Avoidance is a simple way of coping by not having to cope.

Not speaking about something doesn’t make it less real. It makes it scarier.

There’s no hierarchy of pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked, because pain is not a contest.

You can’t get through your pain by diminishing it…You get through your pain by accepting it and figuring out what to do with it. You can’t change what you’re denying or minimizing.

Maybe we all need to doubt, rail against, and question before we can really let go.

“The nature of life is change and the nature of people is to resist change.” & “The more you welcome your vulnerability, the less afraid you’ll feel.” – Wendell

You can learn more about the author and this book on her website. Here’s a link to the Wiki page for this book.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – Jonathan Haidt

righteous mind jonathan haidt book cover

What is the basis of morality and how does it influence our worldview?

In “The Righteous Mind”, professor and researcher Jonathan Haidt takes on the tall task of explaining how morality works, it’s possible origins, and how it directs us as individuals and cultures. He shows how humans are inherently moral creatures, but what typically divides us is how we view and interpret morality. This isn’t a fluff, pop-science book, it is a refreshingly honest look at the complex issues we face, done in a way that is far different than the heavy partisan takes out there.

Okay, with that intro bit out of the way, I feel like I need to say that you should just get this book and read it. I’m going to talk about some of the themes, but it won’t do a good enough job of capturing the nuance, important connections, and reasoning that this book excels at. And by nuance, I don’t mean in a “I’m afraid to talk about the issue directly so I’ll fill this space with complex and/or pedantic arguments detached from reality” type of nuance. I mean a focus on important subtleties regarding personality, cultural worldview, and definitions of morality. The author does a great job of breaking down some incredibly complex issues in an incremental way and provides the research to back up his reasoning.


Intuition comes before reasoning – The rider and elephant analogy helps to show how we like to think of ourselves as rational human beings who follow logic and principles, but we don’t work that way.

Morality isn’t just about harm and fairness – Professor Haidt shares his personal stories about how he came to see the importance of stepping outside of his moral matrix so that he could understand other moral foundations.

Moral Foundations Theory – “There are (at least) six psychological systems that comprise the universal foundations of the world’s many moral matrices. Here’s a handy summary from the wiki page on MFT:

  • Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm
  • Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating
  • Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal
  • Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate authority; opposite of subversion
  • Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation
  • Liberty: opposite of oppression

Morality binds and blinds – Humans are both selfish and groupish by nature. The mental imagery the author uses is that we are 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee. He also suggests how religion played a crucial role in human evolutionary history, enabling us to “transcend self-interest and become simply part of a whole.”

The reasoning behind our political and religious differences – Morality binds us together and we easily fall into groupish behavior and righteousness. This binding process blinds us from our weak spots and can cause us to be unable to understand how anyone could possibly see things differently.


I can’t recommend this book enough. It covers a lot of ground (research, psychology, history) without turning into an abstract/detached textbook. The author does a great job of mixing in personal stories to help illustrate points and admits to his own blind spots/weaknesses. It’s very refreshing to read a book that addresses such hot topics in an evenhanded way. Time will tell if moral foundations theory holds up, but it definitely goes a long way in helping to understand how good, well-intentioned people can view and experience the world so differently.


I’m going to add some of the most interesting quotes from the book here, but please know that there’s a much deeper context here. So I really recommend reading the book to be able to grasp the big picture and context of each quote.

“We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feeling drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult – but not impossible – to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations.”

“We may spend most of our waking hours advancing our own interests, but we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply part of a whole. It’s not just a capacity; it’s the portal to many of life’s most cherished experiences.”

“Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.”

“Anyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another.”

“We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.”

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

“If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you’re bound to misunderstand it…religious practices have been binding our ancestors into groups for tens of thousands of years.”

“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story: every culture bathes its children in stories. Among the most important stories we know are stories about ourselves…Life narratives are saturated with morality.”

“When asked to account for the development of their own religious faith and moral beliefs, conservatives underscored deep feelings about respect for authority, allegiance to one’s group, and purity of the self, whereas liberals emphasized their deep feelings regarding human suffering and social fairness.”

“The various moralities found on the political left tend to rest most strongly on the Care/harm and Liberty/oppression foundations. These two foundations support ideals of social justice, which emphasize compassion for the poor and a struggle for political equality among the subgroups that comprise society.”

“If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communistic revolutions usually end up in despotism…Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predation of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”

Learn more about the book and author here. Here’s a link to the Wiki page for the book. Lastly, here’s that link again to learn more about Moral Foundations Theory.

The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You – Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.

elaine aron highly sensitive person book cover

An explanation of sensory processing sensitivity, a temperament/personality trait

In this book, Dr Aron identifies and explains what sensory processing sensitivity (a highly sensitive person) means and what it looks like in the people who have this trait. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are easily overstimulated and often misunderstood in our current culture that idealizes extroversion and constant stimulation. According to the author, HSPs comprise approximately 15-20% of the population. Could you or someone you know be included in this?

From the author’s website:

  • Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
  • Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
  • Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
  • Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
  • Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
  • Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
  • Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
  • When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?

There is a self-test available on her website for those who answered yes to many/most of the above question.

Topics Covered

Introversion vs sensitivity – Dr Aron talks about the differences of introversion and high sensitivity. They are not the same thing, though there are areas where they can seemingly overlap. Extroverts can be highly sensitive, for example.

Response to stimulation – HSPs are very sensitive to stimulation. This often means that they quickly get tired in high stimulation environments (like a group gathering in a crowded restaurant with music playing and many people talking at once) a need to get away to recharge. Stimulation can come from any of the senses, but especially through sights and sounds.

Highly sensitive people feel like outcasts – A common feeling among HSPs is that they are fatally flawed. They have a trait that isn’t appreciated in our modern age, even looked down upon. They often avoid high stimulation group activities due to their trait and can end up as loners because of this.

Benefits of high sensitivity – HSPs can greatly benefit from this trait in creative and artistic professions. They tend to be highly intuitive and empathetic. While this can cause trouble in some careers and relationships, in the right setting it can be a fantastic gift.

Practical wisdom for HSPs – This isn’t just a theoretical or abstract book, it is full of practical wisdom and therapy/counseling activities that you can do to help identify the problem areas in life and what you can do about it. Each chapter ends with follow up questions and thing you can talk about with your counselor or therapist if you decide to seek professional help for any issues related to this.


I really enjoyed this book. Partly because I identify as an HSP and I have HSPs in my family. It really helps to explain personality and temperament beyond the typical, stereotypical definitions of introversion. This book could also be really helpful for people who don’t have this trait but have a loved one or family member who does. It’s easy to misinterpret the actions of someone without understanding what is going on inside them. Once you have a better understanding, it can help decrease resentment and hard feelings. I also recommend it for people who work in the service industry, especially healthcare. If 1/5th of your clients/patients have this trait, you really should learn more about it and how you can best connect with them.

Find out more about the book on Dr Aron’s website. Here’s the Wiki link to learn more about sensory processing sensitivity.

How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan How to Change Your Mind book cover

What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

In this book, journalist Michael Pollan explains the history, science, and research of psychedelics as well as his own personal experiences. It is part science book and part personal journey/memoir. Pollan clearly has his biases when it comes to spiritual and mystical matters, but he does his best to set these aside (along with his neurotic tendencies) in exploring new ideas. This following quote from his website sums it up well:

But what I didn’t expect when I embarked on this journey was for it to result in what is surely the most personal book I’ve ever written. I like to immerse myself in whatever subject I’m reporting—whether that means buying a steer to understand the meat industry or apprenticing myself to a baker to understand bread. What began as a third-person journalistic inquiry ended up a first-person quest to learn what these medicines had to teach me about not only the mind but also my mind, and specifically about the nature of spiritual experience. This book has taken me places I’ve never been—indeed, places I didn’t know existed.

Michael Pollan – website


The cultural history of psychedelic substances – Many cultures throughout history have incorporated psychedelics into aspects of religious life and spiritual practices. Mr Pollan traces the history of some of these in various indigenous cultures.

Early scientific research on psychedelics – The history of LSD and the promising research on it for treating mental health conditions, substance abuse, and more in the 1950s and 1960s.

Countercultural revolution and the fallout – Timothy Leary and the culture wars are discussed and how this lead to political fallout and the abandonment of research on LSD and other psychedelic substances.

Transcendent experiences – The author explains the renewed interest and research on psychedelics and his own experiences under the influence. This is where the book shifts a bit from strictly science journalism into a more memoir-style.


I really liked this book. It will likely inform and challenge you. The author clearly has his own biases about spiritual and mystical matters, but he’s willing to explore areas that he once completely neglected. I give him major credit for that. He’s also a talented writer, so it’s not a difficult read or overly scientific. It’s definitely appropriate for the Eclectic Reading List.

You can learn more about the author and this book on his website. Here’s a link to the Wiki page for this book. Below is a video from a presentation at Google about his book and the topic of psychedelics.

Featured image from Penguin Random House.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma – Bessel van der Kolk

the body keeps the score book cover

Exploring the neuroscience of the brain-body connection in mental health

In “The Body Keeps the Score”, Dr Bessel van der Kolk shares what he’s learned as a researcher and mental health professional in caring for patients who have experienced trauma. The author covers the medical history of how we have treated those dealing with mental health conditions, what we’ve learned along the way, and he shares many patient stories that help to illustrate the topic.

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably
​the single most important aspect of mental health;
safe connections are fundamental to
meaningful and satisfying lives.”

“Neuroscience research shows that
the only way we can change ​the way we feel
is by becoming aware of our inner experience
​and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” ​

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Trigger warning: this book doesn’t go into graphic detail, but it does cover topics that may be disturbing to some readers who have experienced trauma. For example, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are discussed, as is addiction and self-harm.

Topics Discussed

Adverse Childhood Experiences – also known as ACEs and discussed in a previously reviewed book Supernormal – are traumatic events or lived experience of abuse and neglect throughout childhood. The higher your ACE score, the more likely you are to develop chronic conditions (mental and physical) later in life. Dr van der Kolk pays special attention to how this relates to psychiatric diseases like PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

The Science of Trauma – Dr. van der Kolk goes over the history of how our understanding of trauma has changed over the years, including the neuroscience of how the brain processes threats, danger, abuse, and trauma. The development of advanced imaging techniques (fMRI and PET scans) has allowed scientists to see which parts of the brain are over or underactive during various mental states.

Treatment Options For Psychiatric Disorders

Talk Therapy – the ability to talk about our experiences and problems has been shown to help many people. Perhaps the more studied of these is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but there are many others that are covered in the book.

Yoga – connecting with your bodily senses in a meaningful way is what yoga is all about. This is a way to integrate physical activity into healing the mind.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – this type of therapy uses eye movement while processing negative events from your life (trauma) and the feelings and emotions connected to it.

Internal Family Systems – also known as Self Leadership, is a system of therapy that helps you to look at how your conscious mind is a collection of sub-personalities. IFS can be used to evaluate each perspective/personality in the system and address negative, harmful, overly critical, or violent ones. (I didn’t do a very good job of explaining it here, which is why you should read the chapter about it!)

Neurofeedback – this type of treatment uses electrodes on your head to detect the electrical signals happening in your brain. With these on, the patient then goes through guided imagery to learn how to engage parts of the brain that are helpful for focusing attention, calming anxiety, and processing emotions.


This is a really, really important book that I highly recommend. I appreciate how the author explains the science and research while mixing in patient stories to help illustrate the concepts and topics. Some of the patient stories were too painful for me to read and I’m guessing that anyone with a history of trauma or abuse may have a similar experience. I especially recommend this book to anyone who works in healthcare and for those who have friends or family that have experienced trauma.

You can find the book on Amazon here. Click this link to go to the author’s website.

Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience – Dr Meg Jay

book cover supernormal childhood resilience

Why are some people more resilient than others, despite childhood adversity?

Supernormal, by Meg Jay, Ph.D., is the best book I’ve ever read on the topic of resilience. We live in a culture where “hustle” and “grit” are buzzwords used by many to draw attention to themselves or show how productive they are. But resilience is often misunderstood. Is it a character trait, something you’re born with? Or is it an adaptive response to what you’ve experienced?

If you’re interested in understanding the social determinants of health and the long-term effects of childhood trauma (adverse childhood experiences), this is a must-read book. I’m really tempted to copy and paste a lot of info here, but I’ll restrain myself and stick to the main highlights.

What are ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and why are they important?

If you’re not familiar with the ACEs data, you can read more here. In summary, the more adverse childhood experiences you have, the more likely you are to face multiple chronic conditions – both physical and mental. An adverse childhood experience can be a single event, such as witnessing or being the victim of domestic abuse, or it can be something more continuous, like living with a parent who has a substance abuse problem. ACEs are more common than you might think, with up to 75% of the population having experienced at least 1 of the criteria and up to 40% with 2 or more.

The best part of this book is how Dr Jay provides a case study example, from her clinical expertise, on the most common (and detrimental) experiences that people face and how it tends to shape their life. Data can sometimes be impersonal and it can be easy to gloss over statistics. The author does a great job of helping you to see and feel what abuse, neglect, and trauma does to the soul of a child. It is both powerful and painful.

Trigger warning: As a heads up, some parts were a little too much for me. If you’ve experienced some of these things, it may be the same for you.

What makes someone resilient?

According to Dr Jay and other researches, many resilient people don’t consider themselves as being resilient. Being resilient doesn’t mean that you no longer have problems, it’s something you learn how to do to adapt when bad things that happen. Pain and struggle are almost always part of the untold story of adversity and resilience.

At some time or another, we all learn how to cope with difficulties in life. Some coping skills are very helpful and healthy, but some are detrimental.

“one of the single best predictors of good adjustment after adversity is having external support.”

Resilient people are more adaptable and “adoptable” per the author. This means that while they might not have family support, they are able to find external support through teachers, coaches, or mentors. They often learn how to develop skills (and a personality) that helps them be better received. Healing is always found in community, of one type or another. Loneliness and isolation are dangerous.

Many people find that their trauma is transformed when they actively serve others through volunteer work, support groups, or other services. This is what the author calls “altruism born of suffering.” There are many emotional, mental, and physical benefits to serving others. Many resilient people feel compelled to help others who have been through similar situations and traumas. In turn, they unexpectedly find healing in themselves at the same time.

What makes a life well lived?

According to Dr Jay, what’s the single best predictor of a life well lived, of well-being in adulthood? Love. Here’s a great quote to close this post regarding love and when we need to “reboot” our lives after hardship.

“Part of the untold story of adversity and resilience then is that, for many, love is the greatest reboot of all.”

You can learn more about Dr Jay and this book on her website. You can find her book for purchase on Amazon here.

Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl

Does life have meaning, even in the worst situations?

This is the story of Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor. Not only did he survive, but he came away from that unimaginable horror with a profound sense of love, compassion, and significance. He would go on to teach that suffering is a normal part of the human condition. We can’t avoid it. In fact, there are a lot of things that will happen to us that are completely out of our control. But we do have one thing that we can control – how we choose to respond. How you choose to respond is the key to growth. Continue reading “Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl”