Books, Content, Learning

Inspiration Series: Books Worth Reading

It’s a common question I ask and hear others asking – where do get your information from? Obviously, most people get theirs from the news they read or listen to daily, but there is a general sense that this isn’t beneficial enough for understanding broader themes and ideas. In my view, the best way to do this is to consume longer form media, formulate ideas and then test them in the daily sphere of life. I’m always looking for great forms of long media to consume, be it books, podcasts, video channels or movies. In the following series I break down my list of most influential media – I would love to hear what you think, and to learn about some of yours in the comments.

Let’s start with the obvious category – books.

Most people that I know read quite a lot and I have also been trying to read at least one book a month for the past few years. However, I realised that this drive was leading me to read books without taking them in – a rather pointless endeavour. I would struggle to explain the main concepts after reading a book even having enjoyed it a lot.

As John Locke put it: “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours”.

My latest challenge is to be able to explain the ideas in each chapter/the whole book to someone as I go through it, or straight after. I find that this increases the chance of applying what I read to things I am looking at or thinking about in everyday life. I’m still not great at it, but I’m getting better. Alright then I’ll stop blabbering – here is my list.

Moral Animal – Robert Wright (1994)

Although written in 1994, this is still one of the leading books on evolutionary biology (not much has progressed since Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene strangely enough). It is a wide ranging and fascinating look at the impact that the hard wiring in our genes has on our everyday functioning.

The book also serves as a good background to Darwin and his theory, giving context to the impact of the theory in a more accessible way than On the Origin of Species (which I must confess, I haven’t been able to get through).

Wright is far from an advocate of our genes dictating our every move, or even that our instincts are morally acceptable. That being said, it is far easier to override some of humanity’s less flattering/appealing instincts when we know where they come from and what they are probably trying to achieve.

The Blank Slate – Stephen Pinker (2002)

Stephen Pinker is a Harvard professor and well known as one of today’s leading liberal intellectuals. Although best known for his latest book Enlightenment Now (probably because Bill Gates rates it as one of his favourites), I think The Blank Slate is extremely relevant in today’s times.

The book describes and argues against three broad claims, being (i) the human mind is blank at conception and all of our thoughts and views are formed through influences during our lives, (ii) humans are non-violent ‘noble savages’ by nature and are only corrupted by society and (iii) there is a ‘ghost in the machine’ in the form of an existential soul that runs independently of our functioning body.

Pinker backs up his claims with evidence and arguments as to why the claims are untrue (although some areas are impossible to prove/disprove), as well as providing strong historical evidence as to their conception and the dangers that holding each view can present. Applicable to a wide range of topics in everyday life, this is an extremely interesting read.

Zero to one – Peter Thiel (2014)

This book summarises a set of lectures that Thiel gave a class at Stanford (somewhat ironically given he is highly critical of the modern education system) and was put together by him and one of his students who took incredibly detailed notes of his lectures – then taking teacher’s pet to the next level by publishing a book with him. As a result it is short, sharp and to the point – you can easily read it in a weekend.

While the book is practical in the sense that it covers Thiel’s literal view of where he believes startups succeed, it is also a broader look at his philosophy on the types of markets and conditions that impact business confidence generally.

Known as ‘the most famous contrarian investor in Silicon Valley’, Thiel also clearly defines what he believes that being contrarian actually is, which I really enjoyed given everyone you meet claims to be a contrarian investor these days.

Becoming Steve Jobs – Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli (2015)

The lesser known Steve Jobs book written by Fortune magazine journalist Schlender who covered Jobs throughout his career and seemingly had a good personal relationship with him. Although I enjoyed Isaacson’s book, it does paint a picture of Jobs as someone who didn’t develop at all and remained stuck in his ways from age 20 through 50.

Schlender paints a very different picture and highlights the lessons Jobs took from his early failures to make a successful (although still very demanding) manager when he came back to Apple – Schlender argues that the young Jobs would have failed just as he did the first time if he had had the same attitude when he returned to Apple.

The favourite part for me was the lead up to the iPhone launch. It seems common wisdom that Jobs had some form of an epiphany and pulled the final vision of the iPhone out of his head while everyone else was still focused on Nokia style phones. The truth according to Schlender is very different and illustrates the importance of thinking broadly while making incremental steps in innovation.

The Innovators – Walter Isaacson (2014)

Great book on the history of technological innovation (largely in the United States). From Ava Lovelace first imagining a programming language to Bill Gates and Paul Allen’s building of Microsoft, it covers a wide span of technological innovation and gives good insight into what it took to get there.

The evolution of innovation is also clearly on display, from the days when it took place purely in the academic sphere, to Bell Labs leading the change into corporate driven innovation (similar to what we have today in the big tech companies) and the obvious conflict that goes with it.

I was fascinated to learn about the broad range of people who contributed to big innovations over time. For example, it often took someone with deep understanding in a very different field to break stasis in an area where they didn’t specialise  – makes a case for applying your expertise wider than in the narrow field where it is assumed only to be useful.

It is almost daunting to hear the advanced thoughts of certain innovators in their day, a good example for me being the Alan Kay and John McCarthy’s vision of computing from 1970 (they disagreed with each other while actually both being correct) – this being the time when only huge computers were available to the public. Kay saw a vision of personal computers being in everyone’s homes, and McCarthy believing consumers would instead have ‘dumb’ terminals in their homes connected to large mainframe computers that they would rent space from – foreseeing the cloud wave 40 years before it happened.

Leonardo Da Vinci – Walter Isaacson (2017)

A deep look at Leonardo da Vinci’s life through the detailed journals he kept (which he wrote backwards so as not to smudge the page like most lefties do when writing – amazing!). Isaacson does get a bit preachy, turning the end of each chapter into a self-help guide on how to live like Leonardo – I would advise skipping these bits if you just want to read about Leonardo himself.

Leonardo explored wide ranges of topics without being constrained by traditional views on any given subject. So much of his life is interesting, but some of the most memorable themes to me were:

  • His very visual understanding of maths used in his inventions – he loved geometry but couldn’t master equations and algebra (and may well have struggled at a modern school as a result);
  • He didn’t see the human constructed boundary between art and science and essential perceived them as one and the same thing;
  • He worked for the work itself. Unfortunately, the modern way of work is too often simply to get tasks done as quickly as possible in order to move on to something else, always chasing the next big thing. Leonardo epitomised the opposite, seeking depth and to develop the true essence of his projects, often struggling to ever truly finish his works (he carried the Mona Lisa around for 16 years and kept changing it until his death).

P.S. I would recommend getting any physical copy of this as there are many illustrations and artworks that aren’t easy to see on an e-reader.

Fiction books – Martin Amis/William Boyd

I really enjoy fiction works and see them in the same vein as sci fi movies. They’re not restricted by the realities of life, be it real characters and the facts of what they did, or the laws of physics. They can also get away with taking on more controversial topics through narrative without providing evidence or facing as stiff critiques as academics do. Humans tend to enjoy story telling as well (look at any good pitch deck or article – ‘tell a story’) so they’re often a bit more addictive and quicker reads.

William Boyd and Martin Amis are two of my favourite authors. Amis, like his father Kingsley, is incredibly talented and creative, pulling out some very wacky storylines, including my favourites London Fields and Money.

Boyd has told many stories focussing on a range of characters, from regular folk to spies in war, his characters are usually flawed in ways that everyday people are, and with very good writing they’re enjoyable and usually humorous as well. My favourites are Armadillo and Restless.

The Undoing Project – Michael Lewis (2016)

Most people will know Lewis for his famous books The Big Short and Moneyball, which were both really good. This book focuses on the relationship and work produced between Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and is likewise extremely interesting and resonated particularly strongly with me having studied economics and finance at university.

I have never read Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (embarrassing I know) and thus never appreciated how all the biases that we got given in list form to rote learn at university were developed, or how controversial they were when released. Their initial papers undermined one of the assumptions at the core of traditional economics – that of every player in the economy acting rationally at all times.

Lewis as always makes the book very accessible and takes what could be a boring topic and making it extremely interesting. I hear Kahneman is coming out with a new body of work in 2020 focussing on noise– should be one to look out for as well.

The First Tycoon: The epic life of Cornelius Vanderbilt – T.J. Stiles (2009)

I love business biographies. I find them far more valuable than general business books as you get to see how the business greats came to the theories they did, rather than just being told the characteristics of a theory and where to apply it. I also particularly enjoy the older ones which include the history and context of the time when the leader lived. Not only does this give a good history lesson, but also illustrates the waves that the leaders rode as part of their rise.

The Vanderbilt book gives a great look at a young Vanderbilt growing up and adapting from a time when general merchants ruled the business world, to the introduction of steam engines and railways – a crazy time for innovation in business. Other interesting themes covered are the invention of modern day money and the move away from gold (modern comparison to crypto), early corruption in New York between business and politicians (reference current day SA), the development of the modern company structure and finally the power of capitalism and its shortcomings viewed first in how fast the railway network spread across America vs the need for regulation when the railway barons started holding the economy hostage in personal disputes.

Antifragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012)

Best known for The Black Swan, Taleb is a sharp tongued writer who doesn’t mince his words when criticising industries that he thinks don’t add much value. Having read a few of his books I do find they cover similar material and thus wouldn’t recommend reading all of them.

Antifragile was my personal favourite and covers the structural issue of modern governments intervening when companies show stress and not letting them have their usual boom and bust cycles (banks especially) – his argument being far less damage is done in the long term when individual companies are allowed to fail. He brings in a wide range of examples from biology and business to prove his point.

Bonus: Bad Blood – John Carreyrou (2018)

To learn what not to do, you can’t only read about successful businesses. Bad Blood is a shocking story about Enron/Steinhoff style deception in the medical industry (or is this a good comparison – at least Enron/Steinhoff had a legitimate product at a stage), made more sickening by the fact that it wasn’t just investor’s money at stake, but medical diagnosis.

So this is my list. Please critique as you see fit, from individual books to glaring omissions. Otherwise, happy reading!

Cheers for now.

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