RECOMMENDED READING 2020
It’s Not About You: A Brief Guide — “Life is not about you. It’s about what you do for others. The faster you are able to get over yourself, the more you can do for the people who matter most. Yet external forces keep pulling you toward self-centered pursuits. From books pushing “happiness” to advertisements convincing you that consumption leads to adoration, these messages tempt you to focus inward. That is all a trap (and a load of crap).”
The Opposable Mind — Roger Martin talks about the value of integrative thinking and keeping the entire problem in your mind. “The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each. […]
Integrative thinkers don’t break a problem into independent pieces and work on each piece separately. They keep the entire problem firmly in mind while working on its individual parts.”
One of the keys to integrative thinking is the mindset that conflicting ideas, styles, and approaches are desired not feared.
Sources of Power — Gary Klein explains the recognition-primed decision model: “The commanders’ secret was that their experience let them see a situation, even a non-routine one, as an example of a prototype, so they knew the typical course of action right away. Their experience let them identify a reasonable reaction as the first one they considered, so they did not bother thinking of others. They were not being perverse. They were being skillful. We now call this strategy recognition-primed decision making.”
The recognition-primed model explains a lot of real world decision making and a bias toward action: You recognize a situation, iterate through courses of action (without formal analysis) until you hit the first workable option (this means you often don’t have to iterate through a lot of options), since you’re evaluating options one at a time for workability — you don’t compare and contrast the advantages or disadvantages of the alternatives. Once you have the first workable option you identify its weaknesses and avoid them, making it stronger. Then you act.
From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education — James Zull explains why action is the key to learning:
“The value of mindless action depends on chance. Our actions may lead us to something that we will think about and explore further, or they may lead nowhere. […]
Discarding infrequent or meaningless experiences and retaining frequent or meaningful ones puts experiential learning into gear. The journey has begun! The next step is to discard the randomness. Rather than hitting on good learning experiences randomly, we begin to select and copy specific actions. We begin to mimic. […]
Simple as it seems, action is the cause, vehicle, and outcome of education. Perceptions, thoughts, ideas, memories, and intentions are important, but they are not the end product. As we see in the next chapters, they are just middlemen in the transactions of the mind.
The value of action is not in what observers perceive, but in what the learner perceives about his or her own actions. Action is a test of learning, but only the learner can know the motive or the outcome of the tests.”
Good to Great — I love this short lesson from Jim Collin’s Good to Great: “Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems.”
The Biggest Bluff — “Most real-world environments are … “wicked”: there’s a mismatch between action and feedback because of external noise. Activities with elements of surprise, uncertainty, the unknown: suddenly, you’re not sure whether what you’ve learned is accurate or not, accurately executed or not. There’s simply too much going on. … But despite all this, one thing is undoubtedly true: while practice is not enough and there’s not even close to a magic number for its effectiveness, you also cannot learn if you do not practice. If you’re serious about thing—playing chess, writing a book, becoming an astronaut, playing poker—you have to learn the composite skills. No one is so naturally gifted that they can just get up and go. Even Mozart needed some lessons.”
We tend to think of meta skills as the skill. For example, we default to thinking that reading is a skill. But there is really no skill called reading. Reading is the meta-skill that results when you alloy other skills together. You need to know the alphabet, how letter form words, how words have meaning, how words together have meaning, and so on. So often we focus on the meta-skill and not the sub-skills.
Very Important People — “Free things are a clear marker of status in the VIP world. Free entry, drinks, and dinners signal recognition of a person’s social worth. “I always said, in nightlife it’s not what you spend, it’s what you get for free. That’s real power,” said Malcolm, the promoter I followed in New York and Miami. “You got a lot of money and you spend a lot, of course you get respect. But if you don’t spend a dime, that’s power.””
The Upside of Stress — Defining stress she writes: “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake. This definition is big enough to hold both the frustration over traffic and the grief over a loss. It includes your thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions when you’re feeling stressed, as well as how you choose to cope with situations you’d describe as stressful. This definition also highlights an important truth about stress: Stress and meaning are inextricably linked. You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.”
What should you do when you feel stress: “The first step is to acknowledge stress when you experience it. Simply allow yourself to notice the stress, including how it affects your body. The second step is to welcome the stress by recognizing that it’s a response to something you care about. Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? What is at stake here, and why does it matter to you? The third step is to make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress. What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values? […] When you feel your body responding to stress, ask yourself which part of the stress response you need most. Do you need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow? Even if it feels like your stress response is pushing you in one direction, focusing on how you want to respond can shift your biology to support you. If there is a side of the stress response you would like to develop, consider what it would look like in any stressful situation you are dealing with now. What would someone who is good at that side of stress think, feel, or do? Is there any way to choose that response to stress right now?”
Chase, Chance, and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty — “The younger the scientific field, the more it responds to the human, subjective elements of chance; the older, well-defined field has less room for open-field running, requires a more disciplined, objective conscious effort.”
Acting With Power — “In the theater, what it means to give a powerful performance is to accept and own the truth of what it means to be a human being: to be strong and weak, accomplished and fallible, powerful and powerless, all at once. This, actually, is the challenge that professional actors face every time they get in character. To play any part authentically, an actor must accept the character without judgment. And this is true for the rest of us as well. By accepting that each of us is all of these things, by learning to value all of these truths and show all of these sides of ourselves when appropriate, and by handling our mistakes with grace and equanimity, we become more resilient, less ruled by shame and self-loathing, and, ultimately, more powerful. Ironically, this is where authenticity comes from: not trying to be more yourself, but learning to accept more of yourself.”
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men — Perez examines how male bias often unintentionally creeps into the studies, systems, and algorithms used to collect data. She demonstrates how not factoring in women’s needs, their different bodies, and social roles leads to not only negative outcomes for women, but negative second-order effects that impact the environment and economic development. In clear examples, Perez argues that it makes no sense to treat men as the universal, when women make up 50% of the population. The book is also a stark reminder of how our algorithms as only as good as the data they have to work with, and that by not pursuing diversity in our data that reflects the actual diversity of humans we ultimately do everyone a disservice.
The Unthinkable — an exceptional book about who survives and who doesn’t in a disaster, Amanda Ripley writes: “[W]e flirt shamelessly with risk today, constructing city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines. Largely because of where we live, disasters have become more frequent and more expensive. But as we build ever more impressive buildings and airplanes, we do less and less to build better survivors. How did we get this way? The more I learned, the more I wondered how much of our survival behaviors—and misbehaviors—could be explained by evolution. After all, we evolved to escape predators, not buildings that reach a quarter mile into the sky. Has technology simply outpaced our survival mechanisms? But there are two kinds of evolution: the genetic kind and the cultural kind. Both shape our behavior, and the cultural kind has gotten a lot faster. We now have many ways to create “instincts”: we can learn to do better or worse. We can pass on traditions about how to deal with modern risks, just as we pass on language.”
Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder — “Indeed, our bodies discover probabilities in a very sophisticated manner and assess risks much better than our intellects do. To take one example, risk management professionals look in the past for information on the so-called worst-case scenario and use it to estimate future risks—this method is called “stress testing.” They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time.”
How To Keep Your Cool — I picked this up a few days ago after losing my cool. The book is a short selection of essays by Seneca for anyone trying to keep themselves in check. Seneca wrote them for Nero, who he was trying to influence.
The Secret of Our Success — If we stop to think about it, we humans seem to believe that our success as a species is on account of how smart we are, how well we can invent and innovate. But if we dig deeper, it becomes hard to reconcile the power of human smarts with how many people couldn’t survive in the forest for more than a couple of days. Thus this book presents a different take on the ingredients of our remarkable evolution. Henrich argues that it wasn’t our smarts that got us this far, but instead our unmatched ability for cultural learning. He effectively demonstrates that without the ability to pass on innovation, new tools don’t really get you that far. A very different look at humans which are, he concludes, a new kind of animal.
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain — “When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real—that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.”
The Way to Love — The most important things in life can be learned but not taught. “You can get someone to teach you things mechanical or scientific or mathematical like algebra or English or riding a cycle or operating a computer. But in the things that really matter, life, love, reality, God, no one can teach you a thing. All they can do is give you formulas. And as soon as you have a formula, you have reality filtered through the mind of someone else. If you take those formulas you will be imprisoned. You will wither and when you come to die you will not have known what it means to see for yourself, to learn.”
The Mamba Mentality — “If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it. A lot of people say they want to be great, but they’re not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. They have other concerns, whether important or not, and they spread themselves out. That’s totally fine. After all, greatness is not for everybody.”
The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom — “In your whole life nobody has ever abused you more than you have abused yourself. And the limit of your self-abuse is exactly the limit that you will tolerate from someone else. If someone abuses you a little more than you abuse yourself, you will probably walk away from that person. But if someone abuses you a little less than you abuse yourself, you will probably stay in the relationship and tolerate it endlessly.”
Colour Bar — This book tells the fascinating story about the disproportional impact of one interracial marriage on international relations and an entire country’s economic development. When the area now called Botswana was still a British Protectorate, the black heir to the leadership of the largest tribe married a white English woman. This act set off a series of events that teaches us a lot about the feedback loops and second-order effects of international politics. The marriage also instigated huge change in the region; a corresponding evolution that led to Botswana moving from being one of the poorest countries in the world to having the greatest and most sustained economic growth of any country in Africa.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy — Published ten years ago, this small guide to practicing Stoicism in the modern world remains popular and relevant as stoicism continues to proliferate across the personal development space. We often see it appear on recommended reading lists as the perfect book to read alongside the original works of Stoicism from the ancient world. Irvine’s guide is easy and enjoyable to read. It provides a solid introduction to the philosophy and then breaks down each of the tenets and explains how they can be applied in our daily lives. If you are new to Stoicism or remain unconvinced after reading the primary sources, this book might be useful.
The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Joseph Henrich) — Henrich, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University posits that humans dominate the earth because of our collective culture. Humans are successful as a species because of our ability to master the best of what other people have already figured out. We don’t need to learn everything from scratch, we can build upon the body of knowledge our culture has accumulated. Through the lens of history, biology, and evolutionary science, Henrich defends his viewpoint that “the secret of our success lies not in our innate intelligence, but in our collective brains ― on the ability of human groups to socially interconnect and learn from one another over generations.” This book will make you view human history in a different light, while reinforcing the importance of learning from one another.
Playing the Long Game: How to Create Long Term Success in a “Right Now” World — “Playing the long game is following the road less travelled by turning down what feels good now in favor of what we think will set us up for feeling awesome later on. We need to put up with criticism from those who are playing the short game and will tell us we’re boring or wasting our time.”