What Does It Take to Be Better Than Before?

Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

In the warm, practical style that her fans have come to expect, Gretchen Rubin explains why habits matter, and how to make them work for you, in her new book, Better Than Before. Rubin begins by breaking people down into four groups: upholders, obligers, questioners, and rebels, providing checklists to help you decide where you fit in. She then goes on to delve into the psychology of habit formation, peppering her personal narrative and a good dose of self-help with quotations from the likes of St. Augustine and Benjamin Franklin.

Better Than Before is light but inspiring reading for anyone who wants to adopt a few new good habits, or discard some bad ones. If you’re like me, you’ll be very glad to have Rubin’s book in your hands, and equally glad that she isn’t your neighbor or sister, and that she hasn’t set her sights on your dietary habits. While the author often comes off as judgmental or meddling, her keen awareness of these traits in herself makes her more likable than you might expect.

Despite a tendency toward repetition, Rubin’s prose strikes a nice balance between engaging, informative, personal, and practical. Readers who loved to hate the author of Happier at Home–who spent a lot of time yelling at her kids and often came off as stingy with her money and her affection (she doesn’t like buying gifts and had to make an effort to kiss her husband before he left for work)–will likely find more common ground with the voice behind Better Than Before. Here, we get a glimpse of the author as committed friend, sister, and daughter, someone so passionate about exercise that she buys her sister a treadmill desk, and so intent on the benefits of de-cluttering that she spends hours cleaning out a friends apartment, only to realize that clutter doesn’t really bother him much. One gets the feeling that Rubin really likes to help people, and that all that busy-bodyness comes from a genuine mix of passion and compassion.

Readers who started their own happiness projects after reading The Happiness Project are likely to enjoy Rubin’s latest effort. While there is something slightly grating about the author (she hates travel and interesting food, repeatedly refers to her penthouse as an “apartment,” and never misses an opportunity, in any of her books, to remind readers that she once clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), there is something inspiring about her as well. Although it sounds like a line from a bad romcom, she really does make you want to be a better version of yourself. If it’s any indication of just how practical this book is, I’ve already started keeping track of three new habits, and I’ve even started researching DIY treadmill desks.

Crown. March 17, 2014. ISBN 978-0385348614

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of six books of fiction, including Golden State and The Year of Fog. Visit her at michellerichmond.com.

5 Great Books for Grads

Estartupofyoumily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online, by Daniel Post Senning
Because every grad could brush up on his or her manners before heading out into the job market or onto the college scene. The Post Institute’s answer to all things digital, from the etiquette of sharing to the proper way to text, not to mention when it is, and isn’t, okay to pull out your cell phone. Do you know a grad who texts through dinner and posts everything on facebook? Do him a tremendous favor; buy him this book.
Open Road, April 2013, ISBN 978-1453254950

The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
A smart guide to thinking of yourself in entrepreneurial terms, by Linked-in co-founder Hoffman. A good eye-opener to the possibilities of forging connections, adapting to the demands of changing economic landscapes, and thinking big in an extremely competitive world.
Crown, Feb. 2012, ISBN 978-0307888907

Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, by Anne Truitt
If they are fortunate and hard-working, students graduate from college with the tools they need to tackle the job market. But do they know how to be true to their own vision as artists and individuals? The antidote to all the business, networking, and social media talk that bombards us at every turn, Daybook is a thought-provoking memoir about living the artistic life. Written over a period of seven years, as the artist sculpts, creates, and watches her own daughter become a mother, Daybook is a call to the quiet life from which some of our best efforts spring.
Scribner, Oct. 2013, ISBN 978-1476740980

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by Mario Livio
A brief history of inspired stumbling that shows that some of the biggest advances come from thinking, trying, screwing up, and thinking again. Through the lives of five remarkable scientists, Livio reminds us that the best discoveries do not always come from a plan, and that when we go off track, we can accomplish the extraordinary.
Simon & Schuster, May 2013, ISBN 978-1439192368

A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
A long haul of a book, about ambition, writing, love, parenting, failure, and many other things. Because sometimes we all need to slow down and think. Read an in-depth review of A Man in Love.
Archipelago, May 2013, ISBN 978-1935744825

Review by Michelle Richmond, author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and two other books of fiction