Whenever I read a book, I add it to the list below, give it a rating, and write up a brief synopsis describing the book and the insights it brought me. Is there a book you think I'll like? Let me know and maybe it will show up here soon.
Inspired by the Derek Sivers booklist.
The Rational Optimist
This is a book about the history of human prosperity. The books starts with ancient humans and walks forward in time, describing the breakthroughs that advanced human civilization. Some of these things were technologies (cooking, writing, the internet, etc), but the author really focused on practices like free exchange, specialization, and cultural evolution. The optimism comes from looking at the big picture—life for humans is much better today than it has ever been in the past and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to improve. There are a lot of people out there who get caught in a bubble of doom and have no idea that our current problems are just the latest in a series of crises that humans overcame. It’s easy to say “this time it’s different,” but this book gives you the evidence you need to believe otherwise.
4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
This was like a post-modern productivity book. Where a typical productivity book might give you tips on how to work efficiently, this book asks, “What’s the point of working more efficiently, if you’ll just be rewarded with more work?” In this way, it was more a philosophy book, asking the big questions behind our productivity obsession. True to it’s subtitle (“Time Management for Mortals”), the book described how our time-management behaviors are a byproduct of how we grapple with “finitude,” the reality that we are mortals with finite lifespans, that could end at any moment. It was honestly a very refreshing take on the topic. If you want to know more, check out this post summarizing some of the more interesting ideas from the book.
This is the third and final book in the “Three Body Problem” series (also called, “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”), by Chinese science fiction author Cixin Liu. The story follows humanity, navigating a cold-war existence with other alien lifeforms in a hostile universe. The story timeline jumps around a lot (thanks to hibernation technology and time dilation), which made it feel like five science-fiction books in one. Like the other books in the series, this one is packed with technology, philosophy, and periods of utter despair. The storyline was so baffling that I’d often find myself in disbelief, needing to share details with my family members. While the book had flaws (it was often disorienting and I had a hard time connecting with the characters), it was incredibly ambitious and a worthy conclusion to the series.
Discipline is Destiny
This is a book about temperance and discipline. Like Holiday’s other books, it pulls lots of examples from athletes, historical figures, and stoicism. And like his other books, this one found me at the perfect time, when I needed more discipline in my eating habits, my job, and my social life. I found myself applying it immediately. For example, one evening I decided to play a computer game once I finished the dishes, but because I turned on the audiobook while washing, I was able to summon the discipline to skip the game and tackle my to-dos instead. I hit inbox-zero for the first time in 6 months because of this book! I especially liked the sections on financial discipline and overcoming the body. While the book didn’t feel as tight or punchy as some of his other books, it changed my behavior and that’s a big deal. Definitely a good one to re-read periodically.
Just Keep Buying
Just Keep Buying is a personal finance book that covers basic topics for anyone trying to improve their financial literacy. It focuses on the fundamentals like earning, spending, saving, investing, and retirement. While the book was well-written, it fell short of my expectations. The title made me curious to learn about the book’s “big idea” only to learn that the “buying” concept was only discussed in one chapter. I also felt like the book tried too hard to sound unconventional, while giving fairly standard advice. Still, it would probably be a decent primer on personal finance, for someone new to the topic.
Project Hail Mary
Project Hail Mary is a “hard science-fiction” story, set in the present day, about a last-ditch effort to save humanity. I don’t want to say much else for fear of giving away parts of the plot that are much better discovered. Discovery is a big theme of this book. You, the reader, get taken along on a journey of discovery, joining Dr. Grace as he uses physics and biology to piece together evidences and find solutions to problems. If you liked “The Martian” (written by the same author) then you’ll love this. I certainly did.
I added this book to my list years ago, mostly because I have heard people quote it and I enjoyed Lewis’s other Christian-themed book, “The Screwtape Letters.” Apparently, “Mere Christianity” is based on a series of radio broadcasts that C.S. Lewis gave, explaining the fundamentals of Christianity. He approaches the topic as an intellectual which really appealed to me. For example, the first part of the book builds up a case for the existence of God from first principles (starting with universally recognized ideas of right and wrong). From there, he describes how Christianity provides a framework for personal transformation. Throughout the book, the explanations were accessible and fairly self-evident (unlike a lot of religious content that demands faith up-front). Some parts were a bit dated but overall it felt like a good primer, especially for the educated and skeptical.
Physics of the Impossible
This book looks at the technologies we see in science fiction and asks the question, “are these impossible?” To answer the question, the author evaluates each technology under the currently known laws of physics, sorting them into one of three categories: Class 1 impossibilities (do not violate the known laws of physics), class 2 impossibilities (possible in theory, but incredibly speculative), and class 3 impossibilities (violate the known laws of physics). These evaluations are very technical, diving into topics like energy physics, relativity, and multi-dimensional string theory. I loved it. I especially enjoyed it when my intuition was wrong (like how time-travel and multiverse hopping were more possible than perpetual motion machines or future-seeing). This book is a must-read for anyone who appreciates science-fiction and physics.
This book tells the story of the Skunk Works, the famous division of Lockheed-Martin that designed and built top-secret high-performance military aircraft for the US Government. Many famous military planes came out of the Skunk Works, like the U-2 spy plane, F-117 Nighthawk, and the SR-71 Blackbird. The book goes into great detail describing the development of each of these planes and many others. The stories were pretty incredible, like the challenges they had to overcome in designing the first ever titanium airplane. I knew the SR-71 was impressive before but this book made me realize how ridiculous it really was. The book also gave me a peek into the military industrial complex which gave me a bit more empathy for that world. A fun and interesting read, particularly for the engineering-minded.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Written in 1961, this book is the first “classic Sci-Fi” book I’ve ever read. It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians (fun fact: this was actually a plausible scenario when the book was written—speculation about intelligent life on Mars was common until 1965, when the Mariner 4 probe took the first ever close-up images of the planet). Anyways, the story follows Smith as he faces challenges trying to adapt to human society. The book had good parts, but it ended up being more social science than science fiction, which was kind of a bummer. When it ended, it felt like I had read a cultural commentary on monogamy. Definitely not what I was expecting, but interesting nonetheless.
Die With Zero
This book is about spending money to maximize life experiences. It argues that by saving too much, we postpone living our lives until it’s too late. The solution: aim to spend all your money before you die. I wanted to read it to challenge my worldview and it made some interesting points. Many people err on the side of retiring too late, exchanging valuable time for tiny risk reductions. Some things can’t be postponed, like experiences with older family members or activities that require you to be healthy. I was also intrigued by the idea that “you retire on your memories,” meaning, you’ll have a lot of time to think later in life, and good memories will keep you company. But instead of arguing for balance, the author tends to double-down on extreme positions and it weakens the book as a result. At times I caught myself laughing at how ludicrous some of his arguments were. In one case, he gets pedantic to make a point. In another, he tells a happily working friend that he needs to TRY HARDER to spend money (if you don’t want to, then do it until you do!). Ultimately, it felt like a devils advocate book: useful for questioning the dominant narrative but following it religiously could screw up your life. The core issue for me is that it all depends on a belief that satisfaction comes from consumption, which I simply don’t believe. I’m glad I read How to Live before this so I could put this advice in it’s proper context (one option among many, not better, not worse).
The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50
In this book, Jonathan Rauch describes an unusual finding by happiness researchers: on average, people’s self-rated happiness over their lifetimes creates a U-shaped curve (with the lowest happiness rating occurring in the middle of life). This finding transcends nations, cultures, and even species. What’s more, it persists when controlling for education, gender, wealth, or other likely factors. The book synthesizes research and personal interviews to find common symptoms (like feeling unaccomplished or ungrateful), possible causes (like a values shift or grappling with the constraints of mortality), and potential solutions (like finding peer groups and coaching). I especially enjoyed Rauch’s references to the Voyage of Life paintings (which I looked up online but somehow missed when visiting the National Gallery of Art). Despite not being this book’s target audience, I found it eye-opening and strangely reassuring. Bad times are coming but good times are coming too.
The Dark Forest
The Dark Forest is the science fiction sequel to Cixin Liu’s award-winning “The Three Body Problem.” The storyline picks up where the last one left off, with the people of Earth desperately trying to prepare for the invasion of a hostile alien fleet. This preparation includes the “Wallfacer Project,” a species-wide Hail Mary that gives a few remarkable people access to a massive amount of resources to plan a strategic response known only to them (thus keeping it safe from enemy surveillance). These plans, and how they shake out, constitutes the story. It was clever, gripping, and there were some great twists along the way (despite the pervasive sense of hopelessness throughout). The whole concept of “the Dark Forest” felt like a genuinely novel answer to the Fermi paradox and I think it’ll stick in my mind for a while. While you’d likely need to read the first book to not feel lost, I felt like the sequel was more focused and overall better all-around.
This book follows a week in the life of Jack Bolling, a 30 year old veteran and financial advisor who lives in 1950s New Orleans. The story essentially just narrates Jack’s inner thoughts as he goes about his mundane life, working, visiting the beach, going to movies, and conversing with his upper-class family. He’s generally aimless and he has organized much of his life around avoiding “the Malaise,” an depressive funk that lies ready to ruin his mood. By the time the book was three-quarters done, I realized that the whole book was going to be like this… trivial conversations with his aunt about how he doesn’t like fishing while he thinks about how similar he is to his father. Maybe this is one of those books where the sole aim is to transport you into a certain time and place, or maybe I’m too dense to understand the symbolism. Maybe I am Jack and I’m reading the book to escape my own Malaise and it’s not working. Either way, I’m giving it 2 out of 5 stars.
Courage is Calling
This is a book about courage. I started reading it just because it “was there” but it really drew me in. It had inspiring stories of people who took a stand and overcame great odds, but more than that, it forced me to look at myself. It made me want to be more courageous. Not just to stand up to threats, but to have uncomfortable conversations, to push to improve things at work when it’s easier to stay quiet, to keep working on myself, over and over, even when it’s difficult to see progress. The last chapter in particular felt important, breaking “the fourth wall,” a demonstration of courage in itself. I couldn’t help but think, “this is the book that the world needs right now.”
Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals
I picked this up because I wanted to read something by Tyler Cowen and it was highly rated. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. Listening to the audiobook felt like I was taking a 400-level philosophy class on economic growth. It spent a lot of time building an ethical and philosophical framework for growth, making the argument internally consistent, and discussing hypothetical edge-cases. Some interesting concepts emerged like the trade-off between present individual rights and future prosperity. I also liked the discussion around “Crusonia Plants” and Derek Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion.” That being said, most of the book felt like an attempt to persuade a certain type of person… like a philosopher who was morally opposed to economic growth. I’m not that person, so it didn’t end up doing much for me.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Science should be fascinating but modern textbooks somehow find a way to suck all the curiosity and fun out of it. At least that’s what Bill Bryson thinks, and this book is his attempt to write something better. In many ways, he succeeds. The book is approachable and occasionally entertaining as it hops from one scientific discipline to the other, explaining everything from the big bang to particle physics. Bill’s secret sauce is summarizing the topic, extracting out the interesting questions, and highlighting any sources of potential humor (the wittier the better, as Bill Bryson would). I would occasionally get tired of him walking down the timeline of influential scientists in a field, but overall it felt interesting enough to be worth a solid recommendation.
“Will” is an memoir on the life of Will Smith, written by Will Smith and his co-author Mark Manson. The book walks through Will’s life, including his childhood struggles and rise to stardom, with frequent digressions to reflect on lessons learned (the chapters have names like “Fear,” “Hope,” and “Purpose”). Its good material, but to get the full effect you have to do the audiobook. Will Smith himself is the narrator and he’s in full entertainment mode, laughing, yelling, building anticipation, and putting on a performance. He often pulls in music and audio samples, which creates some great moments along the way. My main criticism is that the book felt a bit premature (like the Elon Musk biography). I would have loved to hear more about “the slap,” his National Geographic series, and other ongoing projects. There were some uncomfortable moments here and there but overall it was a fun and entertaining experience.
A Deepness in the Sky
This is a science-fiction story set in the far future, after humans have learned to travel between stars and populate other words. The story follows two human factions that are both seeking to make first contact with the only intelligent non-human species to be discovered. As the groups jostle for dominance, we see a clash of technology, principles, and value-systems, with devastating effects. I loved how it wrestled with themes of freedom vs control, power and authoritarianism, and the consequences of obsession. Despite all the science and technology, the story is really about humanity. Very good science-fiction, for anyone who isn’t intimidated by a 600+ page book.
How to Take Smart Notes
This book is all about a note-taking process that claims to help you be a more productive and effective writer and researcher. The process uses a zettelkasten or “slip-box” as a tool for capturing ideas and linking them to each other. This produces a network of clustered ideas that allows research topics to emerge organically, as opposed to a more traditional system that requires you to predefine hierarchical topics and categories that risk becoming irrelevant over time. I liked the concept but I realized part-way through the book that this approach would have limited value to me personally since I don’t do much research-to-publish work. Ultimately, that drained my motivation and made it difficult to finish the book (thus, the 2/5 rating). That being said, the note-taking system was compelling and I’d highly recommend this book to anyone whose life revolves around research and publishing research. I may even adopt it to organize topics for my technical blog in the future (especially since there are several good zettelkasten-based note-taking apps out there, like Roam Research and Obsidian).
The Psychology of Money
This book is about how human psychology affects our personal finances, for better or for worse. I was half-expecting the book to be full of the same behavioral economics principles that I’ve read about in the past (sunk costs, loss aversion, etc). Instead, it felt like a fresh look at many of the financial situations and tradeoffs that I recognized in my own life. Several topics stood out to me, like: lifestyle inflation (and why it’s so difficult to avoid) and the importance of consistency (and the forces that prevent it). Building wealth seems easy in theory but we are unpredictable people living in an unpredictable world. This book felt like an approachable guide to understanding the forces at play.
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman
This was a collection of stories from the life of Richard P. Feynman, the famous educator and Nobel prize winning Physicist. The stories don’t teach you much about physics or share any life lessons. Rather, they give you an idea of Feynman’s life and character… and he was quite the character. He’s impish, opinionated, and brash, constantly playing practical jokes, pursuing his interests, and chasing women. The book was entertaining at times but ended up feeling like empty calories.
One Billion Americans
For those who follow global politics, the last several years have been full of discussion about the rise of China and projected decline of American influence. In this book, Matthew Yglesias argues that America needs to position itself as a counterbalance to China and that the way to do it is to grow its population to 1 Billion Americans. It’s a wild idea, but Yglesias makes the case that such a focused and ambitious national goal would push the country to work out solutions to longstanding problems, like reforming immigration, better supporting families, and improving transportation and housing. I don’t typically read these kinds of books but the audacity of its ideas was refreshing and the book was well-written. Very interesting and unconventional to be sure.
After recently watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood I was left with the thought that the world would be a better place if more people were like Mr. Rogers. This book, Nonviolent Communication, essentially teaches you how to do that… to become like Mr. Rogers. It centers around communicating in a way that identifies your feelings, expresses your needs, and authentically recognizes the feelings and needs of others. At first I was afraid that a book about communicating your feelings would be boring, but the writing was focused and relied heavily on stories and examples which kept me engaged. Most importantly, it opened my eyes to how badly I typically communicate… how often I respond thoughtlessly, my words laced with judgments and evaluations. It was an important wake-up call and one everyone should experience.
Cloud Atlas is something like a set of loosely connected short stories nested inside of each other. The stories are about as different from each other as can be. While they’re all fiction, they follow different characters in different times, using different narrative styles and genres. One moment you’re reading a series of letters from an early 1900s British composer, and then suddenly you’re in a murder mystery novel. It’s pretty disorienting (the first time the story switched, I thought my audiobook file was corrupted) but I started to get used to it. The book ended without tying things together clearly which made me think it was the kind of book that needed multiple readings to fully appreciate. It certainly felt like an author experimenting with the medium in a way that’s impressive to other authors (given the awards the book has received) without quite nailing the landing for mainstream readers. Interesting nonetheless!
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
This is a book about climate change and the solutions we’ll need to develop to prevent a climate crisis. Because climate change is happening, the book gives us a window into the likely future of R&D spending on energy, construction, transportation, food, and other foundational technologies. These technologies are super interesting to me because I feel like they have the biggest ability to impact people’s cost and quality of life. I expected some promising potential solutions (like batteries) but others were more surprising to me (like electric grid upgrades, better liquid fuels, and better fertilizer management). My interests lean towards the technology but there was also plenty of discussion about policy (which convinced me of the need to put a price on carbon). All these topics can be intimidating but Bill does a great job of breaking it down, using concepts like “the green premium” and “getting to zero.” Overall, very interesting, practical, and approachable.
How to Live
In ancient Greece, there were various schools (Stoics, Epicurians, Hedonists, etc.) each offering their own philosophy for how to live your life. This book is the closest thing I’ve found to a modern version of that. Each of the 27 short chapters makes a different argument for the right way to live. One chapter says “Pursue Learning.” Another says “Pursue Wealth.” One says to chase the future while another says to live in the present. The chapters blatantly contradict each other, and while your instinct is to ask, “so which one’s right?” the book’s ending gives you a better way to look at it (I won’t give it away!). I ended up buying the ebook and reading it slowly over the course of several months, taking dozens of pages of notes along the way. I felt like I was trying on each philosophy like an article of clothing to see how it fits. It was a lovely exercise, and one I’d recommend to anyone.
Anthem is a story set in a dystopian future where technology has regressed, standards of living have fallen, and people’s lives are micromanaged by an oppressive government. The story follows a street-sweeper who illegally pursues an interest in science, which leads him to discover the fallen state of his society. Like most dystopian political commentary, the scenarios are somewhat contrived, but it had some interesting features like the coded names, the prohibition of privacy, and the role of the word “I.” Even with the inevitable character monologue at the end, the book was quick and focused (which I appreciated). I’d say it’s a good option for someone who wants to try reading something of Rand’s without becoming mired in a never-ending mega-novel.
Player of Games
I listened to this as an audiobook because I needed something entertaining to pass the time during a long road trip. It’s a science-fiction story set in a far-future human society about a game-player who gets recruited to play games with a newly contacted alien species. The premise was interesting and the storyline felt easier to follow than “Consider Phlebas” (the only other book I’ve read in the series). The story had “Ender’s Game” vibes, which I appreciated. Overall, a nice way to pass the time in the car.
This book is a fantasy novel about a 43 year old man who dies in the first chapter, only to wake up back in 1963 inside his 18-year old body. With his memories preserved, he proceeds to relive his life a second time (until the process repeats). With each replay, he makes different choices, trying to correct past mistakes and live better. He spends a life pursuing wealth. He spends a life prioritizing family. He spends a life of hedonism and apathy. Each attempt reveals truths about living… how each pursuit creates tradeoffs and how our decisions often have unintended consequences. It’s a book that provides an entertaining story and a lot to reflect on when the story ends (especially if you’re going through a mid-life crisis, which I am definitely, probably, hopefully not).
The Code Breaker
This book is part biography of Jennifer Doudna (the Nobel Prize winning biochemist), and part history of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology (which has undergone rapid development over the past 10 years). The book dives into the world of biochemistry research, giving a play-by-play description of how CRISPR has developed, from the papers, to the patent wars, to the companies created to apply the technology. It’s a long book about a recent (and unfinished) topic, so while it felt excessively detailed at times, it also gave me a sense of awe at the biochemistry frontier that is just now opening before us. A nice book for the curious (and especially for students with an interest in doing biochemistry research).
In this book, two Navy Seals share share experiences from their deployment in Iraq, extract the lessons they learned about leadership, and explore how those lessons can be applied in business and in life. I liked how the book was heavy on stories, both from Iraq and business scenarios they’ve pulled from their consulting practice. While “Extreme Ownership” was only one of the principles they shared, it was a compelling one and its message of personal responsibility and empowerment ran throughout the book. I found myself taking notes after every chapter. Overall, it’s an incredibly solid book on leadership and I hope to revisit it in the future.
The Design of Everyday Things
I read this book because I wanted to know why its considered a classic in the field of design. Despite the casual title, the book was somewhat academic. It spent a lot of time defining industry terminology and breaking down the process of human-centered design. Along the way, it shared several examples of common UX issues (like oven controls and sink handles). Overall, it was a long read, but it felt pretty relevant (I read the 2013 revised edition which felt pretty modern). I’d have no problems recommending it, especially to somebody just starting out in the industry.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
I enjoyed reading “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” out loud to my kids, so I wanted to follow it up with the sequel. Like the original, the winding plot is unremarkable but that’s ok because it serves as the delivery vehicle for Adams’s trademarked humorous digressions. He explains time travel, the origin of man, and galactic politics, as only Douglas Adams can: with unfailing logic leading to complete absurdity. Also, Marvin really shines in this book. His misfortune of being left behind when the crew travelled billions of years into future is one of the funniest set-ups in fiction… one of the few moments that stuck with me 20 years after my first read of the book. Overall, a fun read, and just as good as the original.
How Will you Measure your Life?
In this book, Clayton Christensen (and his co-authors) take the business management principles that he’s developed over his career as a professor at Harvard Business School, and uses them as a lens for making life decisions. Early in the book, Clayton describes how several people in his HBS graduating class had achieved great salaries and titles over the years, but suffered from a series of failed relationships, or even ended up in prison. As a result, Clayton’s advice centers around helping people find meaningful work, build strong family relationships, and live with integrity. It was one of those books where as I was listening to it, I thought “I should be taking notes!” I was particularly impacted by the parts about investing in your children by creating a strong family culture. Overall, a very important book (especially for working parents), and one I hope to revisit in the future.
This is the first book in a science fiction series about a super-advanced human society. The concept seemed interesting to me, but this book spent most of it’s time following a band of space-pirates as they fly across the galaxy attempting to make a living in the midst of a galactic war. It took a while for me to get oriented in the setting, and while the story was certainly action-packed, I had a hard time connecting with the characters.
Poverty Proof: 50 ways to train your brain for wealth
I was expecting this to be a book about the mental patterns associated with poverty (scarcity mindset, etc), but I was wrong. It was more like a collection of principles, tactics, and mindsets to adopt if you want to get rich. The author is super direct about this goal. You’re trying to get rich. Period. Not “become famous” or “achieve a comfortable lifestyle.” I was pretty skeptical because this felt like huckster territory, but as the book progressed, I found myself nodding my head to a lot of the concepts. For example: “your wealth should always be used to generate more wealth,” and “don’t scale your standard of living with income.” I ended up feeling pretty confident that if someone followed all his advice, then yeah, they’d probably end up rich (but of course, it’s not always easy advice to follow). I feel like this is a great book if you want to understand the game. Then, once you understand it, you can decide how committed you are to playing it.
This book is an autobiographical memoir of Phil Knight, focusing on the history of Nike, his footware and athletics company. It begins with just an idea from a college student and follows his burgeoning shoe startup as it fights for survival all the way to its IPO in 1980. The quirky story grabbed my attention. The team was so eccentric, so obsessive. Over and over, the company could have been wiped off the earth, but every time they narrowly escaped disaster. It’s funny… they never had trouble selling their shoes. It just goes to show that the world is chaotic and business is hard, even when your product is in demand.
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
This is a biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, as written by Richard Bushman a professor of history at Columbia University. I became interested in the book because of its reputation for being exceptionally honest and unbiased in its treatment of a controversial figure. While reading, several things stuck out to me. Between the poverty of his childhood, the health challenges that afflicted his family, and the persecutions of his critics, Joseph’s short life was a struggle. Yet despite it all, he remained singularly focused on building a society of people who sought a closer connection to God (it turns out that 1840’s frontier America was an exceptionally difficult time and place to do it). Joseph’s remarkable claims were polarizing and his personal flaws left many disillusioned. But his singular vision drew thousands to his cause, and created a legacy that continues beyond his death and into modern times.
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
This book describes the history of Bell Labs and the people who worked there. I picked up the book as a recommendation, and I didn’t really know the historical significance of the labs, which set me up for some surprises. Bell Labs played a huge role in the advancement of information technology in the 1900s. The labs started at a time when invention was largely trial and error (think, “Edison’s 1000 attempts to build a light bulb”). By hiring scientists to do fundamental research, they made a ton of discoveries and then applied them towards their business of building out a world-wide communications network. The labs produced 9 Nobel Prizes, and dozens of inventions (like the transistor, laser, fiber-optics, cell towers, and Unix), before the break-up of the Western Electric monopoly led to the labs decline. The book didn’t provide much as far as personal takeaways go, but it was a nice read about an interesting topic.
The Phantom Tollbooth
I first read this book about twenty years ago and wanted to read it again to my kids. I remembered it being good, but re-reading it as an adult blew me away. It has a fun story, an original setting, and clever characters, but where it really shines is the wordplay. The author creates an entire world out of double-meanings, personifications, and literary devices, which is equal parts awe-inspiring and laugh-out-loud funny. Every scene twists your perspective, from the boy who grows downward (from his final, eventual, height), to the island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping). It’s as if Alice fell down the rabbit hole, only to land in a Shel Silverstien world. I had a lot of fun remembering the scenes I had forgotten and catching all the clever references I missed the first time around. I especially loved the poignant bits of wisdom carefully placed among the puns. What an incredible book.
The Manager's Path
This book walks through some common career advancement paths for people in the tech industry (based on the author’s experience climbing the management career ladder while working at Rent the Runway). I read it because I wanted to get some perspective on these kinds of roles and I heard that the book was a good read both for managers and non-managers alike. Overall, it did a great job of describing each of the roles and brought several unexpected insights along the way.
A Random Walk down Wall Street
Today, it’s fairly well accepted that the best way for most individuals to build wealth is to regularly invest in a diverse set of low-cost index funds over long time periods using tax advantaged retirement accounts. But there was a time when those ideas were fairly heretical. This book, originally published in 1973 (before Vanguard created the first Index Fund), was one of the first to make a comprehensive case for passive, diversified, long-term investing, in a world full of stock brokers and analysts attempting to beat the market. The author uses academic ideas like the Random Walk Hypothesis and the Efficient-Market Hypothesis to support his case, and provides case-studies and counter-arguments for seemingly every alternative investing approach. The book was exhaustive and clearly written for someone who needed convincing (in other words: not me). So while the writing was entertaining and updated for modern times (I read the 12th edition), I still struggled to work through the 12+ hour audiobook.
The Call of Cthulhu
This book is horror-fiction, which is a genre I’ve never really read, but I wanted to try it out after reading H. P. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page. I picked this book specifically because it’s the origin of a creature called Cthulhu, which keeps reappearing in other works. First off, I want to say that I loved the idea of this book. The first paragraph seriously gave me chills. As the story progressed, I was kind of disappointed to see it turn more into a more typical monster story (though Cthulhu is way more interesting than Godzilla or The Blob or whatever). I really wanted more of that “mental horror as a consequence of actually seeing reality for what it is” stuff. There were moments of that, but ultimately it left me wanting more.
A Short Stay In Hell
This is a short story about a faithful Mormon man who dies and finds himself condemned to Zoroastrian hell (it turns out that Zoroastrianism was the one true religion—who knew). But instead of burning in fire and brimstone for eternity, he is sent to a library containing every possible book and told that he can only leave when he finds the one that contains his life story. It was a fascinating premise. The story grapples with infinity in both time and space, raising questions about about life, hope, and purpose, and then leaving you alone to wrestle with the implications. I’ve never quite read anything like it.
Stillness is the Key
I picked up this book because Ryan Holiday wrote it, and I really liked his other books. In this one, he writes about the importance of seeking out stillness in our lives. All too often, people are willing to sacrifice inner-peace in their pursuit to perform at the top of their field. Ryan’s message is that you don’t have to. It’s a false dichotomy. Throughout the book he shares stories about Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, and others who paid a heavy price because they neglected the need for stillness. He makes a good case for the importance of sleep, routines, solitude, and balance—pursuits that we trivialize at the cost of our own peace and fulfillment. Overall it was an important book and one that I’m glad I made the time to read.
We are Legion (We are Bob)
My friend recommended this book to me during a conversation about science-fiction. It didn’t disappoint. The story follows a guy named Bob, who earns a bunch of money, signs up for a service to have his head cryogenically frozen upon death, and then promptly gets hit by a truck. When he awakes in the future, he has to learn how to navigate a new world full of geo-political changes, technological advancements, and opportunities to explore the galaxy. The story was witty, and the audiobook narrator did a great job handling all the characters and portraying their sense of humor. I may have to check out the sequels.
Chop Wood, Carry Water
The book follows the fictional story of a man training to become a Samurai archer, and the lessons he must learn in order to become great at his craft. As he faces various obstacles, his Sensei, Akira, gives him the advice he needs to overcome and achieve his goals. The story is fiction, but its purpose is to teach the reader about the mindsets that lead to success. The biggest lesson was the importance of loving the process and letting the results emerge as a byproduct. I also enjoyed the points around visualization, patience, and rest (the stuff I probably need to work on the most, myself). Overall, it was very stoic, and an excellent reminder of some timeless ideas.
The Mom Test
I’ve read a couple of books about product validation, but this is the best one I’ve read so far. Its advice makes so much sense, and yet it’s so uncommon. Want to validate your product idea? Then stop talking about your product! Talk to potential customers about their lives. They shouldn’t even know they are in a meeting! Avoid mentioning your idea or discussing hypotheticals about the future. If you find yourself in pitch-mode, or on the receiving end of a compliment, you’ve lost. The book was chock full of stuff like this… very simple principles that make it impossible for you to get bad information. Plus, Rob does an amazing job with the audiobook. It’s super casual, as if you’re talking to a friend (exactly the vibe you’re aiming for in validation conversations). I wish I would have read this years ago.
Talking to Strangers
I’ve enjoyed a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s work (both his books and his podcast), so when I heard he had a new book, I checked it out. It was a little different than his other books. It wasn’t really a “journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood.” It was more like “Malcolm Gladwell’s take on several of the most controversial news stories that ran over the last 5-10 years” (think, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, Brock Turner, and Sandra Bland). That’s not necessarily a bad thing. His take is nuanced, and it connects these stories in interesting ways (specifically, how they all rely on people failing to accurately assess strangers). But personally, I’m not really interested in disecting the news. I found a few interesting ideas, like “default to truth” (and its consequences). Also, the format of the audiobook was similar to his podcast, which was unexpected and kind of amazing. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t a good fit for me.
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
This book takes a look at human decision-making through the lens of computer science. Often, this means taking a scenario (like buying a house, scheduling an appointment, or planning a trip) identifying its parallels to computer science principles, and showing how to find an optimal solution. In other cases, it looks at computer science topics (like sorting, caching, and overfitting), and uses them as analogies for understanding the world (like how human memory “declines” with age). One of my favorite concepts came from the techniques that computer scientists use to handle unsolvable (aka intractable) problems, like solving a simpler version of the problem, or deliberately finding a speedy solution at the cost of some accuracy. I wasn’t expecting this, but the book gave me a ton of useful computing-based mental models, such as exponential backoff, the Copernican Principal, mechanism design, and more. Highly recommended for those interested in computer science, or for anyone looking for new ways to understand the world.
How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems
In this book, Randall Munroe (the author of XKCD) uses physics and first-principles-reasoning to answer a bunch of how-to questions. The questions range from the innocuous (“How to Throw Things”) to the delightfully impractical (“How to Build a Lava Moat”). To answer each question, Randall explores them from every possible angle… especially the ridiculous angles that nobody reasonable would ever consider. For example, in exploring “How to Cross a River,” Randall mentions swimming, but spends much more time seriously evaluating options like jumping it with a car, freezing it, boiling it, and rigging up a series of kites to carry you across. This book is the spiritual successor to What If, in that it’s fun for all ages and has a tendency to produce absurd scenarios. You get this sense that Randall is just following his own insatiable curiosity and we get the privilege of coming along for the ride.
Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon
You’ve never heard of the story of Apollo 8. Almost nobody has. I certainly hadn’t. And that’s pretty remarkable, considering that many Apollo program veterans, including Neil Armstrong, considered it to be perhaps the most daring, risky, and ambitious mission of the Apollo program. This book tells the story of that mission, its astronauts, and the divided nation that it helped unite, as America won back the lead in the space race. A really fun read, especially if you’re into this kind of stuff, like I currently am.
In this book, Cal Newport discusses how digital apps and devices rob us of our attention, making us scattered, anxious, and ineffective in our work and our lives. In response, he a proposes a philosophy for helping us take back control: Digital Minimalism. You could summarize this philosophy as “selectively adopting only those specific forms of digital media that directly support your values.” He’s not prescriptive about how to do this. He shares tons of approaches people have taken, from tweaking their notification settings, to completely downgrading to a “dumb-phone.” I enjoyed his sections on the usefulness of solitude for working through problems, and the idea of optimizing for conversations over surface-level messaging.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin is one of those quintessential American figures, so it seems like there would be dozens of biographies of him out there. The truth is, there really aren’t that many… probably because he wrote his own (and who has the audacity to try to out-write Ben Franklin, on the topic of himself?). Ben’s autobiography was published over 200 years ago, so I was worried that it would be difficult to understand. It really wasn’t that bad. Ben was ambitious, but it took several tries before he achieved financial success. Once he did, however, he spent the rest of his life pursuing a mix of productive hobbies and public service (which, I admit, made me feel a bit jealous). The book meanders a bit in his later years, but many of these details helped paint a picture of his world (like negotiating with Quakers or arguing in favor of the smallpox vaccine). Overall, the book gave me a sense that Ben Franklin was just a regular person who worked hard, got lucky a few times, served in his community, and somehow ended up on the $100 dollar bill.
The Introvert Entrepreneur
This is a book about how to cope and thrive as an Introvert Entrepreneur. It took a while for me to warm up to it… I struggled to identify with its stereotype of an introvert and its stereotype of an entrepreneur (Ha ha! Business!). The book was at its strongest when it deep-dived on strategies for introverts in common small-business situations, like sales, networking, and public speaking. It made me realize that by reframing these activities in terms of your strengths, you see all sorts of ways that introvert tendencies are an incredible advantage. For example, strong listening skills and non-superficial 1-on-1 interactions results in great networking. The Obstacle is the Way!
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I read this book as a teenager and decided to go through it again, this time, reading it aloud to my kids. Nobody reads this book for its storyline, which is fairly forgettable. They read it because of the absurdity. Adams has created a ridiculous universe, and while it’s a source of great entertainment, it’s also similar enough to our own universe to serve as a clever commentary on our lives. Elon Musk called this book, “The best philosophy book ever,” so it was good to take a second pass through it to see what other lessons I could discover.
This Is Marketing
So much of marketing today is noise, interruption, and force-feeding people your products. In this book, Seth Godin describes another way… one where you take a stand, tell your story, find your people, and tell everyone else, “it’s not for you.” It’s a way to make marketing that is generous and authentic. Now, those who have read Seth’s blog and other books will recognize many of the ideas here. The real value here is that Seth has pulled all his marketing wisdom together into one cohesive work. While he can still be abstract at times, this book doesn’t assume you’ve read his other stuff. I’m thrilled to have a modern Seth Godin book on marketing that I can recommend to newer readers without reservation.
Beyond the 12-factor App
When I first needed to build a backend for a web application, I leaned on the 12 Factor app methodology (details here), as a guide. It’s a set of best practices for building apps that can scale on cloud-computing infrastructure. This follow-up book reviews the original 12 factors and adds three more: Telemetry, Security, “API first”. It was all good… nothing ground-breaking, but a useful reminder nonetheless.
Will it Fly
This is a sort of workbook for internet entrepreneurs on how to find and validate a business idea so you don’t waste a bunch of time building something that nobody wants. In it, Pat pushes you to do the work of talking to people, gathering feedback, and selling pre-orders before you spend your effort building. The book is very prescriptive and really gets into the weeds. That’s great if you are validating a business idea as you read it, but if you’re just hoping to get an overview on the topic, you’re eyes will glaze over from time to time (like when he’s describing how to format your research spreadsheets). That being said, I’m glad I read it and I’m expecting to come back to this book the next time I’m seriously evaluating an online business idea.
This book argued that when you want to persuade someone, the actions you take before your “pitch” are incredibly important… perhaps even more than the pitch itself. It was a great topic to explore, but I struggled with the delivery. Lots of the examples were academic, like exposing a person to a word or concept before giving them some sort of test, and seeing how they performed (boosting their confidence improves performance). I liked his assessment of cliffhangers, and was amused to see him attempt to employ them in his writing, with mixed success. The book meandered quite a bit, revisiting ideas from the author’s first book “Influence” and taking a self-serving tangent into ethics. The book had potential, but it ended up feeling a bit disjointed and dry.
This book wasn’t what I expected. Its story follows the careers of some architects in New York City, each one with their own distinctive motivations. As we follow these motivations to their inevitable conclusions, we explore the dramatic social lives of these people, complete with intrigue, manipulation, infidelity, and selfishness in various forms. The last 10 percent of the book turns political, presenting a literal “case” for the independence of man against socialism. I didn’t mind the exploration of those ideas, but I didn’t care for all the drama. It reminded me why I prefer non-fiction.
In this book, Nassim Taleb coins a term, “Antifragile,” to describe things that benefit from volatility. During extreme events, fragile things break, and robust things survive, but antifragile things thrive. Examples of antifragility are abundant in nature, like the immune response and the survival of a species (read: evolution). In light of this fact, Taleb embraces natural solutions, like free markets, minimalist shoes, gut instinct, free weights, traditions, paleo-style diets, and old books (see: the Lindy effect). Likewise, he condemns naive interventionism in its many forms, like overmedication, GMOs, the federal reserve, academic research, corn-syrup, bank bailouts, centralized governments, trans fats, globalism, elective surgeries, and tooth brushing. It soon becomes clear that Taleb’s views of morality are connected to fragility, as he spares no time calling out specific industries and people (labeled “fragilistas”) who produce fragility or transfer it to others. Overall, I found several ideas compelling. One interesting property of antifragile systems is that their strength depends on fragility at lower layers. For example: when an extreme weather event eliminates 80% of a species, the weak individuals (fragile) are removed from the gene pool and the species (antifragile) comes back stronger. Another interesting idea: traditional religions are a product of cultural evolution, and thus their practices are woven with features that make our societies less fragile. While the book has good ideas, it’s also fairly long and unfocused, meandering through a variety of semi-related topics while relying heavily on terminology from Taleb’s other books.
The Greatest Salesman in the World
I found this recommendation in a book-list I had written in a planner nearly 10 years ago. The book tells the fictional story of Hafid, a camel-boy in ancient Israel who wants to become a wealthy merchant. Through a series of unusual events, he acquires a set of ancient scrolls containing advice for becoming the greatest salesman in the world (the “scrolls” are included in the book, making the book one part fictional story, one part business-self-help book). The significance of the scrolls becomes clear as Hafid’s story ends up interfacing with biblical events in some surprising ways. Overall, it was bit cheesy (to be expected for a fifty-year-old book called “The Greatest Salesman in the World”), but I ended up impressed by how clever and memorable the story was.
I hadn’t read this since high-school but I remembered liking it and wanted to give it another pass. It’s a short story about a group of farm animals who rise up against their human owners and take control of the farm. Despite the animals’ utopian aspirations of equality and common rule, some animals claim positions of influence and things start to go south. It’s a cautionary tale of the corrupting influence of power (with obvious applications to human society). In reading, I was struck by how gradually their society transformed… how each small step away from their utopian vision seemed fairly reasonable until suddenly you realize they’re sliding uncontrollably down the slippery slope. I was also forced to reflect on Boxer’s motto “I will work harder.” As someone who values work, it made me see the perils of working harder inside a system with broken incentives. It’s truly remarkable that Orwell could package all these lessons into a story so simple that a 8-year old could read it.
The Obstacle is the Way
In this book, Ryan Holiday draws on the principles of Stoicism to share an approach to dealing with obstacles, be they physical, mental, or emotional. Instead of learning to patiently bear our obstacles, he shows how we can flip our perspective and see them as our advantages—secret weapons we can leverage to accomplish our goals. And this isn’t just pitching positivity. He digs up dozens of examples where historical figures used their obstacles to achieve goals they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to accomplish. This book impacted me greatly because I read it just as I was facing an obstacle of my own, and it helped me see the opportunities I was overlooking. I had put it in practice and seen the results even before I finished the book! If that wasn’t enough, the book is short, structured, and easily digestible. I loved every minute of it.
This book is essentially the personal journal of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In it, he gives himself advice for improving his thinking and behavior. It’s pretty stream-of-consciousness but there were some common themes he kept returning to, like how to not take offense, and not becoming preoccupied with his reputation, legacy, or death (#RomanEmperorProblems). It was a difficult read but I was able to pull out a few gems I found useful. For example, he says that instead of spending our effort satisfying our desires, we should seek to eliminate them. Perhaps the thing I liked most was feeling like I took a time machine into the brain of a person who lived nearly 2000 years ago, and seeing that this person was thoughtful, intelligent, and concerned about many of the same topics people still struggle with today. You start to realize that people weren’t stupid back then. Many were brilliant. And yet, the Roman Empire still fell. It goes to show the importance of robust systems over geniuses when it comes to building things that last.
The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck
There was a lot to not like about this book. It employs this schtick of dropping F-bombs all over the place to 1) make its self-help advice more interesting and digestible, and 2) demonstrate the author’s commitment to not caring what other people think. It felt contrived and I probably would have stopped reading except a couple of his ideas really made me think. For example, “choosing your problems.” He explains that we often pursue goals (like wealth or relationships), to try and escape our problems. But escaping problems is impossible. Even if we reach our goals, we just exchange one set of problems for another. So instead of pursuing outcomes we expect will bring us happiness, we should identify the problems that we enjoy solving the most and design our lives around that. It’s a great example of inversion. Overall, the book definitely wasn’t my style but it still contained some good ideas.
Guns, Germs, and Steel
This book looks at the development of human society with the goal of explaining why some groups grew, advanced, and conquered, while others did not. The author’s big claim was that all advantages can be reduced to environmental factors, and that theories ascribing advantages to superior genes are false. To show this, he takes you on a tour of the world’s cultures exploring the effects of climate, continent shape, local geology, the presence of wild plants and animals, and many other factors, looking for common threads. From these foundations, he showed how small initial advantages (like agriculture, writing, and centralized governments) can compound to make some societies unstoppable. The book had this ability to ask—and then answer—all these great questions that I never knew I wanted answered, like, “Why was the exchange of nasty germs between the Americas and Europe so unequal?”, “Why should microbes evolve so as to kill us?”, and “Why were most big wild mammal species never domesticated?”. The parts on plant and animal domestication were particularly interesting. I loved learning about the mechanisms involved, and experiencing this paradigm shift of realizing that everything we currently eat has been transformed beyond recognition. The book’s biggest flaw was it’s length. It’s a tome, and it can be quite academic at times, going into exhaustive detail on tribes in New Guinea, with relatively few insights to show for it. That being said, it gives you this sense that there’s a unifying theory of history, which is totally worth the effort.
Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
The big idea in this book is that people produce results when they are held accountable (aka. when they have “skin in the game”). Taleb then explains how some professions consistently deliver value because this accountability is structurally built into them, while others, lacking accountability, are plagued with superficiality. In business, a company that fails to please it’s customers dies. Conversely, a macroeconomist’s theories can’t be proven true or false, so their career becomes a game of persuasion and politics (which produces little external value). Then, in classic Taleb fashion, he uses these points as ammunition for an epic rant where he lambasts journalists, academics, researchers, politicians, economists, gender studies majors, and pretty much anybody else who doesn’t meet his standard for statistical rigor. He blows right past passive-aggressive to full-on aggressive. It’s not quite my style but I enjoyed the ideas he shared along the way.
The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
In this book, Kevin Kelly explores the technological trends he expects to continue and expand in the future. Rather than predict specific inventions, he discusses high-level trends (like sharing, filtering, remixing, etc), and explores what life in this future world might look like. He describes a world where everyone is hyper-connected, content is deeply interlinked, and technology can predict your needs and provide solutions on demand. This book was written four years ago, but I can already see these trends emerging today.
United: Thoughts on finding common ground and advancing the common good
I broke my rule on avoiding political stuff to read this political biography of Cory Booker, US Senator and former mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Cory is remarkable because of the hands-on way he governs. As mayor, he personally lived in Newark’s poorest high-rise apartment complexes, in an attempt to personally feel the pain points of the people he served. His active style of governing included being first on the scene when there was a shooting, running into a burning building to save his citizens, and personally responding to requests on social media, promising to get a pothole filled or a downed tree removed. This book got into many of those stories, and explained how his background and values informed his commitment to serve in this way. It also touched on some of the issues he felt most passionate about, from environmental issues to America’s prison crisis. Overall, it was an inspiring and thought-provoking read.
The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal
In the professional world, they talk a lot about time management but in the athletic world, people focus a lot more on managing their energy. In this book, the authors make a solid argument that focusing on energy is the best way to reach high-performance no matter what type of work you’re doing. The two big ideas that stood out to me was 1) creating rituals and 2) leaving time for recovery. I confess, I’ve often under-valued recovery and reading this helped me see that recovery is when most of the growth happens. It’s easy to devalue recovery when we don’t do it because we can’t see the benefits we didn’t gain. I plan to be more intentional about this in the future and I have this book to thank for the new perspective.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
This book seemed to be polarizing so I wanted to read it and see why. The best way I could describe it is one guy shares his personal philosophies about life in a format that is structured like self-help but delivered like a sermon. He talks a lot about the human condition and makes a ton of references to classic literature, influential psychologists, political movements, and Christian theology. He’s very direct, which kept me engaged, but I’m sure it could be off-putting to some. I enjoyed thinking about his idea that chaos is the default and that it’s much less remarkable than order is. This was a paradigm-shift for me. He uses this idea as a foundation to explain why life can be so challenging and how difficult it is to get your life, family, and mental health in order. It also provides a foundation for gratitude, which I appreciated. You can take or leave his opinions on hot-button social topics, which is undoubtedly where the polarization comes from. The book was a bit long and indulgent but presented some thoughtful perspectives nonetheless.
On Writing Well
I listened to the abridged version which was short and sweet. The main idea is that good non-fiction writing needs to be simple and easy to understand, no matter who the audience is. The author encourages you to dump the passive voice, avoid cliches, get rid of most adverbs, embrace quotes, and choose simple Anglo-Saxon nouns over longer Latin nouns (like those ending in -ion). Lots of great advice here!
In this book, James Clear provides a guide on how to effectively build habits that change you into the person you want to be. His writing is approachable, practical, and wonderfully succinct. The book reinforced concepts I’ve long appreciated (like environment design and compounding benefits) while introducing me to several new ideas. I particularly liked his discussion of one-time choices that bring recurring benefits and the 2-minute rule. I’ve read about habits before but this book exceeded all my expectations. I couldn’t stop talking about it to family and friends… it’s probably the best book I’ve read in years.
This was an uncomfortable read. Yuval is brilliant at what he does, but what he does in this book is dispassionately deconstruct every modern framework and philosophy held by humanity. Nothing is spared: religion, liberalism (which he considers a religion), capitalism, individualism, human rights, and more. For one example, he takes Humanism (this idea that Humans are fundamentally different than other animals) demonstrates how foundational it is to human society, dissects it’s assumptions, and then describes how technical advances over time will increasingly expose it as a convenient myth. In his vision, our evolutionary history will drive us to pursue immortality and happiness, but not only will we fall short of both goals, we will undermine our belief systems one by one until we are circumvented by the algorithms we’ve created to serve us, and end up a passing ripple in the cosmic data flow. Oof.
Thinking Fast and Slow
“Thinking Fast and Slow” was one of the more popular books on behavioral economics to come out in the past 15 years. I only really read it because it was on my list and I didn’t have anything else to read. It was well-written, although long (over 500 pages), and fairly academic. I liked how it explained regression to the mean. I could have done without the detailed descriptions of all the betting experiments demonstrating minor variations of biases like loss-aversion. While not the fault of this book, I’ve come to realize that I’m getting bored of reading about behavioral economics, and I should probably move on to other topics.
The Three-Body Problem
I read this because of a recommendation and because it had been translated into several languages (usually a good sign). It didn’t disappoint. The book explores several ideas that I found super-interesting, like “what would life look like if it evolved in a solar system with three suns?” I wasn’t too thrilled about the narrative style, which left me disoriented and occasionally bored when it delved into excessive historical background (the audiobook doesn’t really seem to get started until you’re two hours in). Regardless, the plot was interesting, the science was heavy, and the story was engaging enough for me to finish the book in three or four days.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
This one has been a long time coming and, honestly, it exceeded expectations. Lots of self-improvement books focus on shortcuts, cliches, and clever life-hacks, while others uncover the difficult truths of reality and challenge you to change your character. This book was in that second category. Because of its focus on principles, the “7 Habits” can improve all aspects of life, from career to parenting. The habits are: 1) Be Proactive, 2) Begin with the End in Mind, 3) Put First Things First, 4) Think Win/Win, 5) Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood, 6) Synergize, and 7) Sharpen the Saw. All were great topics, but I especially liked “seek first to understand”. In fact, while reading, I started noticing how the conflicts around me were all rooted in misunderstandings that would be resolved if the parties truly listened to each other. If you want to read books that shift your paradigms, you’ll love it.
Fooled by Randomness
This book contains the musings of a professional investor who uses unconventional strategies to succeed over the long term. His big idea is that randomness governs many (if not most) outcomes, especially in investing. The illusion of cause-and-effect is usually a result of human biases, statistical oversights, and tendencies towards pattern matching. He succeeds by exploiting human overconfidence and winning big when other investors lose big. Professional investing isn’t really an interest of mine and while I liked his ideas, I struggled with his writing. Taleb comes across as condescending, obsessed with social status, and generally insufferable. I may read his other books but I wouldn’t want to be roommates with the guy.
In this book Ed Catmull tells the history of Pixar and how they maintain the creative culture needed to consistently produce breakout animated films. The story was way engaging; I loved the examples he shared of issues they had in their movies during production and how they went about transforming them into the films I knew and loved. He also makes some great points about the importance of candor and trust, describing how they developed these qualities and used them to help turn around Disney’s failing animation studio. A great read all around.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
This is basically a biography of all the influential people in the history of computing crammed into one book. It was great to finally get the backstory of all these names I hear so often in my industry, from Ada Lovelace to Jimmy Wales. The number of people featured made it feel like a whirlwind tour but the benefit was that I could clearly see the common threads of modern innovation. Most notably, that the true innovator isn’t the first to invent but the first to successfully bring the innovation to market. This is usually accomplished by a team of passionate people with complementary skills (think Jobs and Wozniak), rather than a lone genius.
This book is about how the internet changed the media landscape such that “interruption marketing” (think TV commercials and banner ads) don’t work anymore. Instead, the author proposes we embrace “Permission marketing,” by providing so much value to our customers that they give us permission to connect with them. This new model brings a whole new set of challenges but also a ton of opportunities to build trust and loyalty. This Seth Godin classic was short, sweet, and incredibly relevant despite being nearly 20 years old.
Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing out of Sync?
This book is about old companies trying to adopt the “new marketing” (online marketing) and how they often fail. Seth Godin argues that these attempts are like taking meatballs and putting them in an ice-cream Sunday. It just doesn’t work. Seth continues by sharing examples of how internet-native companies succeed with online marketing, making the point that older companies should reinvent themselves to fit the “new marketing,” instead of the other way around. This book is over 10 years old now and it felt pretty dated but it was an interesting peek into the time capsule.
The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding
This book is about what makes a brand strong. For each branding principle it shares real-world examples. Some examples haven’t held up well over time (like all the praise for Toys R Us). I got the sense that the book was targeted towards marketing VPs of huge companies. The book made a few interesting points about brand dilution and first-mover advantage, but it ultimately wasn’t that relevant to me and was therefore pretty forgettable.
The Icarus Deception
This book is classic Seth Godin. In it, he recounts the classic story of Icarus, explaining that one part of the story is often forgotten: in addition to being warned not to fly too high, Icarus was also warned not to fly too low. According to Seth, ‘flying too low’ is the far greater danger for modern creatives. The book continues by providing advice and encouragement to those taking risks, making connections, and creating “art” (which he defines very loosely). It’s a solid read if you like Seth’s other books.
To Sell is Human
This book discusses how changes in the world have changed the profession of sales. For one thing, everyone’s in sales now because whether you’re a writer, project manager, teacher, or doctor, you need to be able to persuade, negotiate, and sell your ideas. Another point is that the traditional (and stereotypical) approaches to sales simply don’t work as well in today’s world. People are more informed, more connected, and more suspicious than ever before. The most successful salespeople of today are those who listen, serve, and value long-term relationships (instead of pushing to close single transactions). This book was right up my alley and I appreciate the perspective it gave me.
This was my first time reading Gary Vee. I was hesitant because I’ve seen bits and pieces of his stuff online and his style didn’t really appeal to me. But I gave it a shot and honestly I found it pretty useful. First, it’s clear that he walks the walk, and I respect that. But the big takeaway I got from the book is to not overlook social media. Social media allows you to build an audience and a relationship with that audience, which can give you a huge advantage over the big faceless incumbents you are competing with. However: you can’t be faceless. You have to be real, authentic, and incredibly dedicated. Good things to consider.
Eat that Frog!
The subtitle is “21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time”. There’s some good stuff in here for sure. One example: because we will never finish everything, we should learn to be ok with leaving the low-value things undone. Another one: a productivity-win brings confidence which results in more productivity (whereas, a productivity-failure brings shame which results in less). The biggest takeaway for me is that much of the work in being productive must be done before you even start working. That’s being well rested, eating well, exercising, planning your day, turning off your phone, silencing notifications, and getting hyped. The book has some hyperbole here and there but it’s otherwise pretty good.
The Passionate Programmer
This is the career book I never knew I needed when I got into programming. It’s full of great perspectives, each one written succinctly and highlighted with examples. Some of the examples are a little dated (lots of references to Java) but, if anything, that shows how timeless the advice is. Several of my recent blog posts were inspired by things I read that just “rang true” to me. I expect to recommend this book to other developers in the future.
This is a short, fictional story of a boy who leaves his lifestyle as a shepherd to search for a treasure, learning a series of life-lessons along the way. It’s a popular book, and I can kind-of see why. Throughout his journey, the boy reflects on topics like fate, choice, and wisdom, which gives it a feel similar to “The Little Prince.” The story has a lot of religious and mystical overtones, which I enjoyed until they became a bit overbearing. Overall, not a bad book.
Building a Storybrand
This book is about how to effectively talk to customers about your products (a surprisingly difficult thing to do well). To do this, we need to understand how stories work. All good stories have a familiar arc: a hero in pursuit of a goal encounters obstacles along the way until they meet a guide who helps them overcome the obstacles and reach their destination. Everyone, including our customers, sees themselves as the hero of their own story. So to get their attention, we have to think about how we fit into the customer’s story, and position ourselves as the guide that will help them reach their goals. It’s a clever analogy and a great framework for seeing the world from the customer’s perspective. It really felt foundational.
Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth
If you’re at an early stage company that needs help getting customers, read this book. It takes the whole vast universe of sales and marketing and distills it down into 19 marketing channels and a framework you can use to figure out which ones you should focus on. There’s a lot of ways you could get customers but this helps you prioritize the most promising ones, validate them with data, and double-down on the ones that deliver results. What’s more, the book pulls in experts to explain each channel and share stories of how they got results using it. “Traction” was great all-around and you can expect to find me recommending it to others in the future.
Anything You Want
This is a short, engaging book covering the story of Derek Sivers’ business CDBaby, and the unconventional principles that fueled its success. One of the key points is this idea that your business is your own little world where you make all the rules. Instead of pattern-matching with what you think a typical business should look like, do whatever you think will make your customers happy. A great read about business creativity and questioning convention.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
This is basically a book for Silicon Valley CEOs about the challenges of growing and managing a fast-moving technology company. I didn’t realize how focused it would be on CEOs… it goes into great detail on things like hiring, firing, and organizational structure (drawing heavily from Ben’s personal experiences). Still, it was entertaining, and I enjoyed his perspectives. My favorite concept: Salespeople make sales, developers make products, and CEOs make decisions. A CEO must be able to make great decisions quickly and without much research, or the company will come to a grinding halt.
Stumbling on Happiness
I thought this would be a book on “how to be happy” but it wasn’t. It was all about the human biases that affect our happiness in unexpected ways (for example, the flawed way we reconstruct memories). The book was witty, scientific, and right up my alley. The biggest takeaway for me was to always favor action over inaction, because humans seldom regret taking action, even when the outcome is demonstrably bad. Our minds bend over backwards to find positive outcomes for our past actions, which is why you hear so many people say things like “If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t change a thing”. The opposite happens for inaction… we regret it instead of justifying it. Fascinating stuff.
The Ultimate Sales Machine
I wanted to read books on sales, and I found this one recommended a lot. While some things made me a bit uncomfortable, it was a good window into the world of corporate sales and it gave me a data point for how some sales teams become very successful. A lot of this was aimed at large corporate sales teams (and thus didn’t really apply to me), but there were plenty of good principles to glean.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
This was not the book about Benjamin Franklin I wanted to read. It started to give me an idea of his character, but ended up glossing over the first 70 years of his life in the first quarter of the book. The rest of the text was spent documenting his contribution to the American revolution in great detail. I’m sure there’s a place for that, but it’s not what I was expecting (especially after reading Isaacson’s comprehensive biographies of Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci). Given how many questions I still have, I’m planning on holding out for another biography on Franklin that covers the man more to my satisfaction.
Leonardo da Vinci
I really enjoyed getting to know Leonardo over the weeks it took to go through this book. The man had an insatiable curiosity, which fueled his inventions and discoveries, but he was also flawed. His notebooks were packed with discoveries that ended up needing to be rediscovered (some hundreds of years later) just because he didn’t get around to publishing them. In fact, “not getting around to finishing things” was a hallmark of da Vinci. The book spent a great deal on his painting which was difficult to appreciate via audiobook, but enlightening nonetheless. What a man.
The 48 Laws of Power
This book wins the award of “most likely, of all the books I’ve read, to be found in the forbidden section of the Hogwarts library”. It’s formatted as an advice book but I was shocked at how unashamed it was in giving advice like “Conceal your intentions” and “Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.” It backed up this advice with real-life examples, which were interesting, but were often hundreds of years old. My take: tactics like these may have worked in the past but if you try to pull this stuff in today’s hyper-connected world, you’re going to get eaten alive. There were a couple of gems, but overall the book was disgusting.
David and Goliath
This is a book about underdogs, but mostly about how the narrative around underdogs is all wrong. Gladwell’s big idea is that the strongest opponents are weak by definition, and “underdogs” have incredible advantages. David beat Goliath because of his size, not in spite of his size. In classic Gladwell fashion he explores the concept through a series of stories while resisting the urge to tie everything together into a single unified theory. It was a good read that came at the perfect time for me.
The Magic of Thinking Big
This is one of those classic “millions of copies sold” self-help books written in the 1950’s, so you should prepare to suspend some judgement on how dated/cheesy it is. With that in mind, I really enjoyed it. It had a lot of good things to say about the attitudes that leaders adopt. And honestly, I simply enjoyed having a daily stream of positivity as part of my morning routine. I could feel it improving my attitude and it helped me realize how harmful it is to constantly expose myself to the negativity of the news cycle (and my twitter feed). Part of thinking big is managing your attitude, and one of my big takeaways is to be more deliberate about that.
As a Man Thinketh
It’s been 10 years since I last read this book, and I knew it was short so I decided to give it another spin. The name comes from the Proverb: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he”. The book simply expands on that principle, discussing how a habit of correct thinking can produce positive results in your life. At this point in my life the idea is no longer novel, but the book remains a nice brief introduction to the principle.
The Master Key System
This book is straight up weird, but I kind of liked it too. I picked it up because it was referenced in this amazing podcast interview with Terry Crews. Ostensibly, it’s a self-help book with a focus on how to use thinking to create your reality, similar to “Think and Grow Rich” or “As a Man Thinketh” (so far, so good). But unlike those books, this one was abstract, dense, and lacking narrative… kind of like reading Proverbs or the Tao Te Ching. It also had this air of metaphysics about it, using self-defined laws to reconcile elements of Christianity with empiricism (with mixed success). Overall, it had some great gems but it was definitely unconventional.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
It seemed like everybody whose book recommendations I trusted was recommending this book, so I decided to read it. Overall, it was pretty good. It introduced some fascinating ideas, like the idea that humanity has periodically fallen into species-wide traps that are inescapable only because they are favored by natural selection (like the agricultural revolution). I enjoyed the parts about early humans the most. In general, the author was great at looking at humans as if from the perspective of some alien observer, which allowed him to make all sorts of surprising observations.
The Lean Startup
This book is popular in entrepreneur circles, so I’m glad I got around to reading it. Its big thing is applying the principles of Lean Manufacturing to entrepreneurial startups (with an emphasis on software companies). The book was way more methodical and scientific than I was expecting. It’s basic promise was that building a successful startup doesn’t have to be just luck… that it could be systematized through experimentation, iterative learning, and strategic pivots. You could get really deep into implementing these approaches, but even if you don’t, the concepts are great mental models for developing anything new.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
I read this right after Walter Issacson’s “Steve Jobs” and it was interesting to compare Musk with Jobs. Both have brought huge advances to their industries by being relentlessly focused, hiring the best in the world, and providing a vision that captivates the public. Neither were motivated by money… they wanted to build a better world. The book shines as it shows in gut-wrenching detail what awful struggles Musk had to go through through to bring his companies to life. The biggest issue with this book is it was written too soon! History continues to be written, and Musk moves so fast that it’s clear that the book was dated within a year of its writing. A more complete biography will be written one day, but in the mean time, this one was pretty good.
This is the canonical Steve Jobs biography, and it didn’t disappoint. Steve had such an extreme personality that he almost seemed like a caricature. I got the impression that Jobs could just have easily turned out an erratic homeless man as the founder and CEO of Apple. Following a character like that, as he transformed one industry after another is quite the journey. A fantastic read all around.
Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness
This book has been on my radar for a while but when I heard that Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize, I decided to just read it. It talks about decision architects (the people in charge of setting up systems where other people have to make decisions), and how they can thoughtfully design those systems to produce better outcomes. With this framework they propose solutions to dozens of tricky problems across education, goverment, healthcare, and more. It gave me a sense of how underoptimized most of the systems in the world are… and how most are the way the are only because nobody has come up with anything better.
There’s nothing remarkable about a brown cow, but if you saw a purple cow… now that’s something worth talking about. In this book Seth Godin explains how selling products the old way (getting an ordinary product and spending piles of money on advertising it to the masses) doesn’t work anymore. Instead he directs his readers to ingore the masses, focus on a niche, be polarizing, and more. My favorite insight: the opposite of “remarkable” is not “bad”… it’s “very good” (since even “bad” gets people talking). This book is a classic and despite being written over 15 years ago, its principles are more true than ever before.
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
This book was all about going to battle in the world of ideas, and how to make your message potent and profitable. It contained tons of real-life examples, and I really enjoyed the demonstration of how perception is reality. Another interesting point: once a competitor owns an idea in the minds of people, it’s gone. The only thing you can do is use it against them. The book was certainly a bit dated, and it mostly applied to huge mass-market products (not really my thing), but it was still an interesting read.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
In this book, Peter Thiel talks about technology, human progress, and what it takes to create an innovative and successful company. It’s short, (around 200 pages) and filled with his experiences distilled from his 30 years in the tech industry. One big point: just about everyone is focused on incremental change, but incremental change is not enough to create the types of technology revolutions that really change the world for the better. Also, it turns out that revolutionary progress is where all the serious profits are.
This book is called Overlap, because it talks about shifting your career by “overlapping” what you currently do with what you want to do. It spends a lot of time giving guidance around starting an entrepreneurial project, based on the experience of the author (who has done it a number of times is his life). The author shares a lot of experiences which gives him credibility. Not everything applied to me, but many parts rung true and I enjoyed reading it.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
Have you ever bought something only to later wonder why, when you didn’t even need the thing? We are always being persuaded to do illogical things, and this book digs into the specific techniques that “Compliance Practitioners” (think Marketers, Sales People, Activists, etc.) use in order to influence our thinking and judgement. It’s chock full of great examples (like tupperware parties, suicide cults, hazings, and tip jars), and important principles (like reciprocation, social proof, authority, and scarcity). Despite the usefulness of the book, it took me a while to work through it. My mind was on other topics, so I think the timing just wasn’t quite right. If you’re interested in the topic, though, I do recommend it.
This is a short book by the folks at 37 Signals on smart principles for building a web application. It talks about product design (“build less”), product roadmaps (“plan less”), programming (“write less code”), copywriting (“write fewer words”), staffing (“hire less”), and more. As you can see, the major theme is to stay lean and do less unnecessary work. I ate it up. It’s an older book, but the concepts are ageless. You can buy a physical copy, or download the e-book for free online.
A short, free, online book, full of advice about starting a company. The focus leans towards Silicon-valley-esque venture backed technology companies, but there’s lots of wisdom that applies to all sorts of companies. It reads like a document that has been ruthlessly edited until there is no superficial filler content remaining; Every sentence is meaningful and intentional. A great read if you are in the startup world, or interested in it.
If I Knew Then
This book is subtitled: “Advice on careers, finance, and life from Harvard Business School’s Class of 1963”. It seemed like a clever idea for a book, and I always like hearing the perspectives of those who are near the end of their careers and lives. The main takeaway for me was: nothing will bring you more satisfaction than strong relationships with family and friends. Also, career success can be a worthy pursuit, as long as it is kept in perspective. The book is printed, but you can also read the whole thing online (which is what I did).
This book discusses when to quit, and when to keep pushing. It’s short, memorable, and wise. So often we hear the quotes about NEVER, EVER, QUIT, or we hear the contrarian pop-pieces about “actually, winners quit often.” This book straddles the divide and discusses the whole topic with the attention and subtlety it deserves. Simply fantastic.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
This is a biography / self-help book by Scott Adams, the artist behind the Dilbert comic strip. In it, he talks a lot about failure, and setting up systems for learning from it. His way of thinking through problems with optimisim, pragmatism, and questioning made a lot of sense to me. Not everything in the book is gold, but overall I was impressed with it.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of the science fiction I’ve read recently, so when Bill Gates recommended this book, I picked it up. I was excited because it seemed similar to the Martian – a terrible disaster occurs in space and humans must use a lot of ingenuity (and technology that could exist today) to preserve human life. I was not disappointed either. I loved the storyline, the detailed technical challenges, and seeing what humanity might look like when projected into the future from an odd set of initial conditions. The only downside was that the book was so long. There were a number of parts that dragged on and subplots that I could have done without. That being said, I’d find myself recommending it to others with little reservation.
This book is all about one idea: that we live in a world of distraction, and thus, if you cultivate the ability to focus and do deep work, you will be able to outperform your peers. That concept rings true to me and was communicated clearly throughout the book. I went through the book rather slowly because it was a lot to digest and wasn’t the most entertaining of topics, but I still loved it. This book is like vegetables for your brain.
Content Strategy for Mobile
I read this whole book on a series of flights to/from a web conference. It was a good book, but I wasn’t the intended audience. If you manage a content heavy website and would like to know how to think about your content with all the constraints that come with mobile, then yeah, definitely check it out.
A mission to the surface of Mars is interrupted when a dust storm forces the astronauts to evacuate back to Earth, leaving behind Mark Watney a crewmate lost in the storm and presumed dead. When Mark comes to, he finds himself alone in a battle for survival on a planet that’s hostile to human life. The book had everything. A likable character, a gripping story, and no cheap tricks. Every detail was approached scientifically, forcing Mark to hack the available technology and calculate his way to a plausible rescue. The book was impossible to put down.
Ready Player One
Somehow, this book managed to mashup a futuristic world centered around immersive virtual reality with an entourage of 1980s gaming nostalgia. The storytelling was good, and I found myself drawn into it, despite the fact that I knew I wasn’t the optimal reader. If you were about 10 years older than me and in the gamer/D&D scene, then you’d find this book impossible to put down.
This book discusses how small iterative “bets” can lead to discovery and innovation, citing examples across several industries. The concepts were solid and the stories were good, but there’s nothing revolutionary the book or concept. It’s basically another name for agile product development and other lean methodologies that have been the standard practice in Silicon Valley for the last 10+ years. If you are in an industry that doesn’t already work like this, then there’s a lot to learn here. If not, then I’d recommend something else.
What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
This book is a collection of blog posts, each one using math, physics, and chemistry to answer highly absurd questions. For example: What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light? (Hint: It’s not pretty). It was entertaining, and even educational. I wish my high school physics teacher taught like this. As a bonus, most of the posts are available to read online at what-if.xkcd.com.
A Guide to the Good Life
This book is about ancient Stoicism, and the benefits of applying its principles to modern life. It’s concise and well-written, but most importantly, it’s a pragmatic argument for adopting a life philosophy instead of running on evolutionary autopilot (which invariably results in a lifetime of insatiable appetites). If that sounds interesting to you, then check it out.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
I think that somewhere out there, there is a science fiction book about a non-dystopian post-scarcity society that I would find absolutely phenomenal. This wasn’t it. Oh, the book had interesting parts–I liked the discussion of this future society, and how their advancements had impacted the fundamental elements of life, like love, death, money, entertainment, and social status. Ultimately, though, this discussion took backstage to a plot-line about a feud between competing coworkers at Disneyland, which was difficult for me to take seriously.
The Mythical Man Month
The best way to describe this book is “one man’s reflections on how difficult it is to accurately predict how long it will take to build a very large software project.” He uses a lot of examples from building operating systems in the 70 and 80s which made it difficult for me to relate to, especially when he gets technical. Still, it was valuable to get a sense of how difficult these kinds of problems are, and see some approaches to handling it.
Designing for Emotion
As a Mailchimp user, I know firsthand how good Aarron Walter’s work was, so it was with high expectations that I read this book. It did not disappoint. We all know about companies or that just feel fresh, cool, and interesting, but we often don’t realize how much intentional design work goes into every customer-company interface (including the website) in order to build that impression. Walter explains how to build these impressions, and uncovers the principles of psychology and human behavior that we must understand in order to do so. Great book.
Who Moved My Cheese?
I read this whole book over my breakfast one morning before work. It uses a story about mice in a maze to teach some lessons about the human tendency to resist change. Along the way it offers some principles to follow in your own changing situation. I enjoyed it. It was short, simple, and memorable.
Don't Make Me Think
If you weren’t aware, this is THE authoritative book on web usability, and has been for over 15 years. You’d expected it to feel rather dated, but I was pleasantly surprised by how applicable everything still is. In some ways, I felt like I had already read it, because so many of his ideas have influenced the practice of good web design over the years. Things like sticking to design conventions, eliminating unnecessary words, and proper visual hierarchy were welcome reminders to me. In short, this is still a good (and short!) foundational book on web usability.
So Good They Can't Ignore You
This book seeks to answer the question, “How do you get into a career that you love?” To do this, Cal builds a novel framework for thinking about about work, one where instead of pursuing your passion, you focus on building skills. In doing so, you collect “career capital” that you can exchange for progressively more control and mission-driven work over the years. I’ve got to say, this approach just clicked with me, tying together a lot of loose concepts in my head. Fantastic book for people starting their careers. I wish I could give it 6 stars!
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
This book is about the power of online collaboration and its impact on business and society. The premise of this book is solid but I was cringing all the way through it. It was dry, repetitive, outdated, and full of buzzwordy jargon. To quote another reviewer, it was “full of consultantese”. To be fair, I (as a web developer) am probably not in the intended target audience, nor was this book designed to be relevant 10 years after it was published. Regardless, I can’t, in good conscience, recommend it.
The Bootstrappers Bible
This is a free Seth Godin ebook (download here) on the topic of creating a business. It was a short read, with a smattering of advise on various business fundamentals. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “bible” but it definitely had some gems. For example: Do not ignore the money. You have nothing if you don’t survive. No money, no business. Another one: Don’t try to innovate on the business model (there are plenty of other places to innovate, so you should stick with a proven model).
This book provides an no-nonsense approach to running a modern business… one that rightfully questions the industry’s antiquated traditions (like resumes, estimates, and endless meetings). This new approach describes a world where financing is plan Z, press releases are spam, and employees are trusted, given autonomy, and told to go home at 5pm. The principles both make sense (I found myself nodding with nearly every page) and they work (Their company has annual profits in the millions). It’s like the anti-Dilbert. I don’t think I could praise this book enough.
The Power of Habit
This book looks at the science and psychology of habits and how they shape our lives. The idea that you can control your habits, essentially defining what your own cognitive autopilot looks like, is pretty powerful. The stories were entertaining, although they were a bit disjointed and it tooks some acrobatics to connect them back to the main message of the book. Many concepts, like keystone habits and the cue-routine-reward loop, made for great takeaways.
This book provides a framework of guiding principles for software development and does so with a high concentration of wisdom per sentence. Instead of getting caught up in implementation details or specific languages, it looks at the big picture: Why are we making software in the first place? What makes us successful? How do we make good decisions? It cuts to the core of the issues, distilling out concrete principles and exposing developer fallacies along the way; I was very pleased with the result. If you’re a web developer, this is a great no-nonsense read.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and it's all small stuff)
This little book is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of techniques on how to stress less and live better. Each technique provides small ways to choose patience, tolerance, empathy, and compassion, over the stress-inducing alternatives. Peace and balance may not be celebrated as American virtues (like, perhaps, independence and hard-work), but maybe that’s why books like this one are so important.
The War of Art
Steven Pressfield writes about the challenge of producing creative work, including the foes we must overcome and the allies we must recruit. Perhaps it is most famous for it’s identification of the resistance… that tendency in all of us to postpone, procrastinate and find every reason to prevent ourselves from finishing the work. I felt like some parts were gold, and other parts weren’t. A good read nonetheless.
A Walk in the Woods
This is a fun little story about 2 guys and their (mis)adventures hiking the appalacian trail. Along the way, the book folds in the story of the trail itself, which illustrates the tension between the nature and civilization throughout its history. The story brings a mix of insight and deprecating humor, making it a fun read.
The Little Prince (English Translation)
This is a short, fictional story of a boy who leaves his home on a small asteroid and goes exploring, visiting other “planets” (including Earth), and meeting various people. What makes the story interesting is how he learns about each creature he meets and assesses their priorities and lifestyle with a child-like perspective. In this way, The Little Prince brings fresh insight to topics like love, loss, friendship, vanity, selfishness, and fickle human pursuits. It was a nice short read, with a lot of richness and symbolism… definitely worth your time.
This book provides a framework for decision making, helping its readers to avoid the fallacies us humans are prone to make. The stories embedded in the narrative weren’t bad but the book was ultimately forgettable. In fact, a few months after finishing it, I forgot that I had read it, and I subsequently checked it out from the library a second time! Maybe it would have been more memorable if I had read it while grappling with a big decision. Whatever the reason, the book failed to have an impact on me.
The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
This is a book about an incredible shift that quietly took place at the turn of the century when web technology enabled the world to collaborate on an unprecedented scale. This led to the uprooting of many established business models, which gave way to a wave of efficiency and globalization. I found it very relevant, even 10 years after it was written. It’s a big book, and it covers every thing from open source, to supply chains, to Al Qaeda, but it went by quickly because I really enjoyed it.
Brain Rules is a book about the human brain. In it, the author proposes suggestions on how we can better learn, function, and thrive, based on research takeaways from the field of neuroscience. He effectively walks a delicate line between between losing the reader by getting too technical about the science, and not building up enough support for his claims. Major takeaways: It’s really important to get enough sleep, repetition is critical in memory, and most teaching and learning isn’t effective (though there is lots you can do to improve that).
Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard
Change is hard, so what do you do if you want to instigate a change? That’s the topic of Switch. Chip and Dan Heath use the analogy of a rider sitting a top an elephant walking down a path, saying that in order to change course you need to direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path. In this analogy, the rider represents our logical selves, the elephant, our emotional and instinctive selves, and the path our environment. The authors provide the reader with tools for assisting all three parties in making the switch, no matter what kind of change you are trying to make. I could talk about it for hours, so needless to say, I thought it was fantastic.
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
This book is about snap judgments. It discusses how, in many cases, the conclusions made from snap judgments can be more accurate than those made through a long and thoughtful process. Like Gladwell’s other books that I’ve read, it was full of interesting stories from an entire spectrum of human experience. Also like his other books, the stories weren’t cohesive, came to all sorts of different conclusions, and didn’t leave me with any grand takeaways. The result was an interesting book on an interesting topic that failed to inspire me or expand my vision.
So, this isn’t pop-psychology, or a business book, and it certainly isn’t on the NY Times bestseller list, but if you’re into software project management methodologies and you haven’t heard of Kanban, this book is for you. It explains how the Kanban system used by manufacturing organizations to control the flow of physical parts can be translated to the software industry. The big take-away is that by using a “pull” system and keeping work-in-progress limits, you never have people overloaded with work, and you never have idle developers. It’s hard to make this kind of material riveting, but he did a good job of making it understandable.
Getting Things Done
This book outlines a framework for managing everything you have to do in your life, touting benefits like increased productivity, and reduced stress. It’s promotes getting lists of poorly defined tasks out of your head, breaking them down into actionable items, and placing them in a trusted system that you review regularly. The book gets into the detailed steps of how to set up such a system in your life, which I really liked. Some people swear by the methodology so I decided to give it a try. Already, I can see improvement–the part about managing inboxes is already paying dividends (my gmail inbox is empty at the end of just about every day now). We’ll see how it continues to work going forward.
Designing for the Web
This book does a good of teaching the principles behind thoughtful web design. Its focus on the fundamentals allows it to remain relevant despite the speed and which the industry moves. It covers a little bit of everything: color theory, typography, white space, grids, and more. The author has classical design training, and perhaps that contributed to the slight tone of superiority, but all in all I thought it was pretty good.
Never Eat Alone
This book discusses techniques for networking in the business world. I expected it to be filled with sweeping generalizations and business platitudes, and while there was a bit of that, I found it to be quite tactical. It discusses things like staying in touch, connecting people to each other, and being a source for good content. Nearly all the material is brought from personal experiences of the author, which made it read almost like a autobiography.
Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?
This book is all about how to make yourself into an indispensable employee, no matter what line of work you are in. I gotta tell you, I was so excited to read this book that perhaps I expected too much. Don’t get me wrong, the book was a good read and it hammered home some solid principles (like the importance of being an artist, spending emotional energy, and overcoming the lizard brain) but it was hard to distill those principles down into concrete steps. Seth even mentions how abstract it is and then punts the responsibility, saying that only you can figure out how to apply the principles in your situation. The result was a good book that missed a good opportunity.
Stop Stealing Dreams
In this book, Seth Godin looks at how the current education system has failed to keep up with the transformational changes in our world. In the modern economy, any piece of information can be accessed in two clicks. Outsourcing is an easy and effective way of getting work done. Large, loosely organized networks of people are doing better work for free than armies of highly paid employees of structured businesses. With this in mind, Seth writes a series of insights and suggestions on how our education should be adapted to better prepare the youth of America for a very different job market than the one their grandparents went into.
The Hunger Games
I don’t often do fiction but I listened to this Audiobook because I had to drive 13 hours straight in a car without dying of boredom or falling asleep. I was hoping I would be able to get lost in the story and the time would fly by and I was right. It was a good story in a great setting with a lot of action and cliffhangers. While I quickly got tired of the awkward romance that seemed to drag on and on, other parts of the storyline made up for the loss.
Good To Great
This is an excellent, data-driven book on what small things separate the great companies (consistent, high-growth, market leaders) from their mediocre competitors. Many of the concepts – getting the right people on the bus, pushing the flywheel, level 5 leaders, etc. – easily translate towards success in any team effort, whether it be in business or not. A lot of the winning formulas fly in the face of transitional management behavior, but at the same time, they simply make sense. With the conclusions clearly backed by evidence and concepts that are easy to grasp, the result is a solid and enjoyable book.
This book discusses the irrational things that humans do everyday. While the premise sounds great, the book failed to deliver. I loved the concept, and select parts of the book, (like how we are often lured by the concept of ‘free’, to make poor choices) but my expectations were high and the book failed to “WOW” me. The tie to behavioral economics was weak and the author used an appeal to shock value that was rather unpleasent. To the author’s credit, I felt his assumptions (and conclusions) were interesting and backed by adequate research.
Made to Stick
Everybody has something to say but saying it does nothing if your audience doesn’t remember it. Made to Stick revolves around what makes an idea “sticky,” or unforgettable. In this book, the authors spend time looking at the the stickiest messages: urban legends, radio jingles, unforgettable advertisements and more. Their question is, what separates the glut of forgettable messages with those that you can’t get out of your head? Through their research, they find a set of principles that can make your message stick with the audience, whether you are a marketer, educator, manager, or parent. This book is stellar and using its principles to make my own messages sticky has been invaluable in my life.
The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything
This is a fun little book about separating out the things start-ups should focus on from the things they shouldn’t bother with. With a premise like that, it’s easy to see why this book would be invaluable to entrepreneurs with limited time. The book was good, with my only regret being that it zeroed in on business startups, leaving no room to extrapolate out principles for “anyone starting anything” (as the book’s subtitle claimed to do).
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Drive is an excellent book about how we can motivate ourselves and others. Through a series of examples and studies, Pink finds three high-level factors that are exceptionally motivational: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Is money a motivator? Yes, but not in the way you might think. Much like Malcolm Gladwell’s books, this book uses interesting stories to explain key concepts. It also has a great workbook at the end which shows businessmen, teachers, and parents how to apply the principles in their lives. Watch this for a sample of the content.
The Jackrabbit Factor
This is a short, casual book that questions the assumptions of the majority of people pursuing a career. It uses a fictional story to make an argument for going against the conventional money-earning process and building your own career as an entrepreneur. I thought it was decent. You can download it legally for free here (though I’d recommend using a disposible email address if you don’t want spam).
This is a phenomenal book on how to choose a career. It is extremely detailed, giving you every step you need to take to find your passion, discover how to get paid to do it, qualify yourself for it, and then land a job. That being said, I am certain that this book is not for everyone. It’s written as a workbook that explains clear principles and then loads you up with tons of exercises and homework. If you aren’t willing to do the work on the side, don’t even bother. If you are (and you ought to be, as you will likely be working for the rest of your life) then there is no better book for reaching that goal.
Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science
When I moved across the country, I kept my most valuable possessions and sold everything else that wouldn’t fit in my car. This is one of the few books I kept. Naked Economics is an attempt to teach a refresher on the basic principles of economics in the context of relevant examples and current events. It had an ambitious goal: to explain economics simply, without using a single diagram. It succeeded and I am a huge fan. If you are planning on living, working, and voting in the modern economy (which all of you are), then you owe it to yourself to read this book. Twice.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
This book is a basically a parable – a fictional story that teaches a message about the many ways that dysfunctional teams fail to succeed. The excellent thing about this book is that it hits the nail directly on the head. Everybody has been on a dysfunctional team before, so as you read, you clearly recognize the issues as they come up. The book adds value because as an observer, the reader can step outside of the situation and see how the issues can be corrected. It’s the best book on teamwork I’ve ever read.
The Tipping Point
This is by far my favorite Malcolm Gladwell book. In it, he looks at what causes something to, for lack of a better phrase, “go viral.” As a subtle distinction, he isn’t just looking at the content… he’s looking at the networks. He finds that the ability for an idea to “tip” and spread has a lot to do with the people who pass this idea around. For a fledgling idea, certain type of people – connectors, mavens, and salesmen – can have a huge influence on whether it takes off or languishes in irrelevance.
A Whack on the Side of the Head
This book is pure silliness, printed and bound. The author discusses how our brains get stuck in a rut, and how the only way to get out is to break free of the norms of thought. The book teaches the principle by explaining the concept, then sharing puzzles, ideas, exercises, jokes, and the most fantastic, shamelessly nonsensical illustrations you’ve ever seen. It really is a fun read. For a sneak preview of the content, check out this post I wrote a while back.
Man's Search for Meaning
This book is the true story of Victor Frankel, a doctor, psychologist, and holocaust survivor. The story itself is good. Like other such books, it teaches the reader about conditions in concentration camps and about the will to survive. However, this book rises above the others because of the lessons he distills from the story on human nature. They are influenced by his experience, his education, his studies, and his attitude. The result is a eye-opening book that won’t leave you feeling down when it’s over. I think you’ll like it.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
This book is the ultimate classic and if you read it, you’ll instantly know why. The advice makes a whole lot of sense. There are no shortcuts to building strong relationships. It boils down to having a good attitude, seeing the good in people, smiling, remembering others, learning names, actually listening, and in general, looking outside yourself. The tactical way that these concepts are taught makes this book THE go to reference for just being a better person. Highly recommended.
Outliers: The Story of Success
In this book, Malcolm Gladwell asks the question: what makes people successful? He then investigates the lives and backgrounds of winners in many fields like academics, sports, business, and entertainment. While his final conclusion was somewhat underwhelming (lots of things make people successful) I credit Gladwell with bringing forward some unexpected findings and turning them into a cohesive narrative. Definitely an entertaining and engaging read.
The E-myth Revisited
A short and famous book on entrepreneurship. The value in this book is that it effectively cuts to the heart of some subtle challenges in entrepreneurship: the myth of entrepreneurial grandeur, balancing of roles in a business, optimizing your workflows, and measuring what matters. While there are some gold nuggets of wisdom in the book, I found the narrative hopelessly cheesy, with more than a couple awkward moments. Still worth a read but not the “bible” of entrepreneurship I was expecting.
Driven: An Autobiography
This book is an autobiography of Larry H Miller, a guy who rose from an auto parts clerk to become one of the most influential businessmen in Utah, mostly due to his insatiable drive to succeed on his own terms. As it walks through his business milestones (opening a car dealership, designing the Delta center, owning the Utah Jazz), you see his idiosyncrasies and how they impact his work and his family. The book is both an inspirational ode to diligence and a cautionary tale about obsession. It’s often hard to tell the difference between the two.
No More Dreaded Mondays
If you hate Mondays, then you probably aren’t doing what you ought to be doing with your life. And you can fix that. This is the message of “No More Mondays.” The book spends a lot of time encouraging unsatisfied readers to take control of their lives and do the work that they want to do. The message is one of empowerment: don’t let fear of change, or doing something different prevent you from choosing a better course for your life. It was an enjoyable read.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
This book takes a deep dive into the world of engineers who use nature as their inspiration for groundbreaking design. Even today, most manmade designs and materials are inferior to things that commonly occur in nature: spiders silk, chloroplasts, beetles wings, lotus leaves, and many others. The ability to replicate these natural designs could solve the world’s energy problems, build optical computers, grow organs, create materials that heal themselves or surfaces that never get dirty, and launch satellites at a fraction of the current cost. The author goes straight to the scientists taking on these challenges, resulting in an substantial book that is both fascinating and rich in detail.
The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need
This book gives a nice grounded approach to investing. Coming from an author who’s seen it all, the book is refreshing in that it rejects the get-rich-quick approach to investing and focuses on the simple aspects that matter over the long term. It’s a good book for learning a bit about investing while keeping a conservative perspective about the whole thing. The author also has a sense of humor, which is always nice.
The Total Money Makeover
Dave Ramsey is the king of no-nonsense tough-love financial advice and in this book he zeros in on people who are in debt. The book charts a definitive course on getting out of debt… if you are man enough to take on the challenge. If this were a book on losing weight, it would be about eating less and exercising more and it would actually work. This ought to be required reading for anybody who takes out a loan of any sort.
The Audacity of Hope
I enjoyed this book. Obama brings you along on a tour of his life from his childhood in Hawaii to his work as a community organizer. He’s just as good of a writer as he is a speaker and he makes a strong case for his vision of America and American identity. Overall, the book comes across as personal, approachable, and positive.
The Millionaire Next Door
One of my favorite books of all time. It looks at the wealthy in America and makes some startling conclusions. Most people who look wealthy, actually aren’t (a trend they playfully call “big hat, no cattle”). Unlike these people with big houses, nice cars, expensive tastes, and no money (yes, you heard me right), the truly wealthy in America live rather inconspicuous lives. The book discusses how these people live, where they live, what they buy, what they don’t buy, how they spend their time, and how they invest.
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
If you are the kind of person who finds math interesting and likes the experience of having your mind expanded and warped (I suspect there aren’t too many of us out there), then you’ll love this book. It’s a short, playful, story of a world where the inhabitants are all shapes living on a two dimensional plane. Throughout the story, the 3D reader begins to effectively understand the perspective of a 2D shape. The experience of hopping through worlds of various dimensions actually teaches mathmatic principles leading up to extrapolating out concepts of higher dimensional planes. It’s incredible that such concepts can be taught in such a short and simple book. Brilliant. By the way, the book is not a romance in the modern sense and it is in the public domain. Read it online here or download it for free here.
This short book (in the public domain – download it for free) is a very readable parable about an underdog who demonstrates what it’s like to be determined to succeed. It’s an age-old story of how nothing is more powerful than a motivated person who is driven to keep their commitment, no matter what. If you want to be invaluable, read this book, and train yourself to be like that person. Period.