Life Hack Book Review #1 – On World Mental Health Day 2020

Today is World Mental Health Day and here’s what I found out.

According to WHO, one in four people in the world will at some point in their lives suffer from a mental or neurological disorder.

Think about that for a sec.

One. In. Four.

So in places like the United Kingdom where gatherings involving multiple households can’t be more than six (indoors or out) thanks to Covid, it’s for sure at least one person will have a mental disorder!

Same thing if you’re in Hong Kong and playing a game of mahjong, which requires four players.

Chilling don’t you think? I certainly think so.

As of now, some 450 million folks worldwide already have mental disorders, making this a leading cause of ill health and disability globally.

Here in my homeland, the numbers are a little bit better (one in seven) but not by much.

This is clearly a serious issue. And it made me wonder:

Who’s most at risk?

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

While the above-mentioned statistics have actually been fairly stable over the years, two recent trends in the past two decades did emerge in the course of extensive studies done.

One was that more were coming forward to seek treatment. The other was that more young people were being afflicted with mental health issues.

That second one was what raised my eyebrows.

One of the things I did when I became a dad was to marry my twin loves: reading and parenting. Since I had no good parenting models to follow while growing up, reading up as much as I could was my next best bet to nail the job of effective parenting.

Of late, my readings have led me towards books on how parenting in the US and elsewhere have done a number on kids in recent years. It’s made them less resilient and less ready to become full-grown responsible adults.

In exploring this trend of more young people being afflicted, I realised unconsciously my recent reading choices seem to share a common theme of mental grit and the development of what I call “thought tenacity” (Hmm can I patent that phrase? Haha!).

(If you’re interested to explore the topic of grit further, I would highly recommend the TED talk featuring researcher Angela Lee Ducksworth.)

Since these readings weren’t too far off from my blog topic today, I decided that maybe my contribution to building awareness for this day would be to undertake a “life hack” book review.

Or rather, a three-in-one book review, since I am now in the midst of reading these three interrelated publications simultaneously!

3-in-1 Book Review

Photos: Writer’s compilation from Google Images

Other than the fact I’m reading all three books now, I’ve a few other reasons why I find them relevant.


  1. …was published no earlier than 2015, ensuring currency.
  2. …targets parents and anyone working with the young.
  3. …brings to the table extensive & exhaustive research so we know it’s not fake news!
  4. …indirectly converges on the urgent issue of mental wellness, albeit from slightly different angles.
  5. …offers glimmers of hope to arrest the dangers plaguing our young people today.

It’s my hope that after reading this review, you’ll be keen to further explore these books, and more importantly, the topic of mental wellness. Especially if you know someone in your life that might need help in this regard.

Now this could take several minutes. So better grab a cuppa and get comfy before diving in!

“How To Raise An Adult” by Julie Lythcott-Haims (2015)

Key Message

Author Julie’s intent in writing this book shouts unabashedly from the book cover itself: Break free of the over-parenting trap!

Having been a freshmen dean at Stanford University for a decade, Julie’s witnessed over the span of her career a growing trend of parents exerting ever-increasing control over their kids’ academic, extra-curricular and even career progressions.

This increasingly ‘helicopter’ style of parenting (from authoritarian to indulgent) has bred a generation of young adults unsure of themselves and who, in their adult lives, show signs they are barely able to handle life’s ever-increasing demands.

The Result? Stress. Burnout. Poor mental health. Depression. Or worse.

Julie’s research into what brought about this trend of parenting fascinated me.

Apparently, sometime in the 1980s, the sceptre of child abduction awareness loomed ominous over the heads of many a parent in America. This came about because of a tragic abduction and murder of a seven-year-old boy Adam Walsh who was kidnapped in 1981 from a Sears department store in Hollywood Mall, Florida. This sad tale was later made into a TV movie, seen by no less than 38 million when it first aired.

Also, in 1983, the publication of a National Commission report called “A Nation at Risk” brought about another shift. The report highlighted how American kids weren’t competing well academically against their global counterparts.

The Result? More homework! And you don’t need me to tell you what that meant (and still means today), right?

Author’s Solution?

Thankfully, all’s not lost. Julie offers a few steps for both the parents and the young adults.

For the former, ideas range from finding like-minded parents to stand up to and push back against the culture of over-parenting, to seeking out experts and thought leaders like Lenore Skenazy and Jessica Lahey so parents needn’t fight this alone.

For the latter, ideas included taking better care of self by learning to say no, prioritising health and wellness, and making time for one’s most important relationships.

My Take?

While the case of over-parenting was well established in this book, I found the solutions for parents sorely lacking.

As a parent, I would have appreciated more direct and practical steps beyond what I thought were pretty obvious ones Julie mentioned. Obvious perhaps because here in Asia most educated parents are already well aware of the pitfalls of over-parenting and who need more proven solutions, beyond what Julie offered in her book.

Better yet if she could share evidence of well-adjusted kids parents who resisted the trend managed to raise. Of course, that might have required some longitudinal studies that could take a while.

In the meantime, this timely book at the very least brought to light this issue with well-researched evidence, so parents aren’t without a clue nor an excuse not to take steps to rectify the situation before it becomes irreparable.

“The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt (2018)

Key Message

If you thought the previous book was bad news, this publication takes the DEFCON alert a few notches higher!

Picture it: Campus students across America protesting guest speakers simply because they held different views. Now that may sound benign, until you realise that these same students were protesting even before the guest had accepted the invitation to speak.

And their reason for protesting?

They feared for their mental health, and that these guest speakers (“triggers”) would cause them and their friends to feel unsafe!

When I read that part, I did a double take. The country that for generations has been the beacon for freedom of speech is actually now doing an about-turn? This cannot be!

Yet, recent events in the States and other places (especially in the last four years or so, not to mention this pandemic election year) do seem to line up to what the authors Greg and Jonathan are asserting.

So why is this “coddling” of young American minds happening now?

Both writers brought up what Julie’s book mentioned too (over-parenting), as well as its accompanying acts of overprotecting and over-scheduling.

But they also point to several other problems, including the trends of social media and rising political maelstrom in America, with its ever-worsening polarisation and dysfunction. The rise in recent years of fake news, social doxxing, cancel culture and QAnon come quickly to my mind.

Author’s Solution?

At the start of the book, both authors point to three “Great Untruths” spread in recent times.

These were the Great Untruths of:
1. Fragility – “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”;
2. Emotional Reasoning – “always trust your feelings“; and
3. Us vs Them – “Life is a battle between good and bad people.”

Greg and Jonathan called these untruths “Great” because they contradict ancient wisdom and modern psych research on well-being, as well as harm individuals & communities who embrace them.

Solving the identified problems would require tearing down these untruths. To do so, both suggest, among other things:
1. Preparing “the child for the road” (and not the other way round);
2. Helping kids see that unguarded thoughts are our worst enemies, and so develop better social skills as well as apply the basics of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT);
3. Assist schools to oppose these three Great Untruths through things like endorsing the freedom of inquiry, educating for productive disagreement, as well as discouraging the use of words like ‘safe’ or ‘safety’ for anything other than physical safety; and
4. Limiting and refining screen time.

My Take?

For me, this book more closely connected the issue of declining mental wellness among young people with what’s brought it about, through extensive research targeting a broad spectrum of universities and campuses across the nation.

Both Greg (a First Amendment lawyer and head of FIRE) and Jon (a social psych professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business) are eminently placed to unpack for us this thorny issue. Their assessments and recommendations have certainly given parents and educators like me much food for thought and actions to consider undertaking.

So I’m definitely giving this book two thumbs up!

“Raising A Screen Smart Kid” by Julianna Miner (2019)

Key Message

While the previous book only mentioned briefly the problem of screen time, Julianna’s book is all about that, as the title clearly intimates!

In it, she eyeballs and identifies all the ‘ticking time bombs’ digital devices have brought into the sanctity of our homes. These include social media, video games, dating apps, online bullying and predatory activities and harassment. Even the always-on selfie generation (I’m looking at you TikTok!).

Taken altogether, these can form a heady concoction for any kid, and Julianna wants readers and parents to be armed with the fullest of knowledge with regards to all of these so we can take steps to mitigate their toxic influence on our young charges.

As parents and educators, failure to take copious notes of the digital tsunami that’s been storming into our lives again and again these recent times, and taking the necessary preventive steps, is simply a recipe for disaster for the young minds under our care!

Author’s Solution?

Julianna makes it clear that while digitalisation isn’t all bad since it’s brought many conveniences into our lives, we must nevertheless avoid its potential pitfalls both for ourselves and our children.

Her chapters are well laid out, exploring the above-mentioned time bombs and more, one at a time. Using both research and personal anecdotes from herself and others, she includes at the end of each chapter, checklists and ideas for what can help raise screen smart kids.

She offers lots of ‘ammo’ to take along to tackle the problems and I love her for that! I especially loved that she devoted a section to talk about the specific challenges of managing screen time when it comes to ASD kids, since I have one right under my nose!

One overriding solution to this whole mind-numbing conundrum is to keep conversations open between parent and child, and this is especially important for ASD kids like mine. Always set the info overload they’re getting online in an appropriate context so as to keep their experiences real and grounded.

For instance I loved it when Julianna opined in the book “Perhaps the Kardashians are not the role models our kids need.” *fist pump in the air*

My Take?

Of the three books in this review, this one offered the most personal and practical insights into the gnawing problem of excess device time for parents trying to wrestle their kids away from screens.

‘Personal’, because the author spoke openly of her own struggles as a mom and how there aren’t easy quick fixes to this difficult matter. Now I’ve always been more convinced and drawn to writers who don’t come across as smug know-it-alls. Instead, they openly share their own raw and unfinished journeys without being overly prescriptive or sagacious. I find that we can always learn more from “the flawed rather than the flawless”, and this was certainly the case here with Julianna’s book.

‘Practical’, because Julianna provides various checklists which are parked squarely in the realm of prevention, not cure. Again, that resonated well with me because I don’t think it’s ever a good idea in parenting to wait for the proverbial sh** to hit the fan before we do something about it. “Prevention is better than cure” is, after all, not just a line.

So, just like the previous book, this one definitely gets two thumbs up from me; more if I had more thumbs!

Okay I’m done.

Now go.


And, for yourself and your love ones, live (mentally) well today and everyday yah?

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