While writing (books, journals, blog posts etc) is really good fun reading provides me with just as much as joy. Learning from other’s ideas and mistakes is priceless. I read a lot, 50-60 books a year (especially on this sabbatical trip we started in 2018).
I carry hundreds of books on my iPad but only took three physical books with me: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the Durants’ Lessons of History and the Tao Te Ching. I find that I refer back to selected chapters of these books fairly frequently. The classics never go out of style as they say (plus they are also short and small and don’t take up too much luggage space…).
Anyway, with that intro, below is a selection of books with a few highlights and notes that I read in 2018 and also some from 2019. I hope you’ll enjoy them.
Business and investing
Laszlo Bock – Work Rules: Great book about what went into creating the working environment at Google (it goes way beyond the bean bags and free food) and the new rules in the relationship between employees and employers. Few notes:
“If you trust that people will behave right they will.”
“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” – Zechariach Chafee
“An MIT study looked at two Nike factories: factory A gave employees more vacation, included them in setting production targets, let them form teams, decide which processes they want to have, stop work if there is a problem. Factory B employed strict controls. Factory A produced 2x, made more money and at 40% lower cost vs factory B.” [paraphrased]
Robert Cialdini – Influence: This is not a new one but I love to re-read this book every few years. So much wisdom on human psychology and how ideas spread.
George Samuel Clason – The richest man in Babylon: Classic but I never got around to reading it until now.
Pat Dorsey – The little book that builds wealth: This book is all about moats (if that doesn’t get you excited I don’t know what will). Not in a garden landscaping or military history sense rather what helps some businesses protect their economic ‘castles’ from competitors (as popularised by Warren Buffett). He refers to four moats in particular:
- Switching costs: If the cost for a consumer to switch from one company’s products or services to those of a competitor is greater than the benefit from doing so (or benefits are uncertain).
- Network effects: Network effects occur when the value of a product or service increases with the number of users.
- Cost advantages: Important to analyse the source to understand sustainability.
- Intangible assets: Brands, regulatory approval or patents.
Peter Drucker – Managing Oneself: annual re-read. Still great!
Seth Godin – Linchpin: Mr Godin is one of the most prolific writers of our time and I try to read most of the books he publishes (his daily blog https://seths.blog is also a must). Few highlights from Linchpin:
“If you are not doing as well as you hoped perhaps it’s because the rules of the game were changed and no one told you.”
“The difference between a successful artist and a failed artist happens after the idea is hatched. The difference is the race to completion.”
“Our sanitised society hasn’t figured out how to get rid of fear so we channel it into bizarre corners of our life. We check Twitter because of our fear of missing out, we buy expensive handbags for the same reason, we take a mundane job due to our fear of falling out as a map maker and we make bad financial decisions because of our fear of taking responsibility for our money.”
“If you give your boss/spouse/partner the gift of art, insight, initiative or connection, she’s less likely to shop around every day looking to replace the commodity work you do because the work you do isn’t a commodity.”
Joel Greenblatt – You can be a stock market genius: Really good book with a bad title. More seriously, it’s a brief history of how Mr Greenblatt became a very successful investor through his practice of ‘special situations’ investing that is now, in the age of unlimited money supply, almost non-existent. Great book for beginners and experienced investors alike.
John Mackey – Conscious Capitalism: This book is partially the story of Whole Foods (for more on that you can also listen to this How I Built This podcast with John Mackey) and his framework for how companies in the ‘business 2.0’ era should look and behave. Plenty of food for thought.
“With strong hired leaders at the helm, many large companies increasingly came to be seen as being run more for the benefit of managers than for shareholders. This led to the shareholder rights movement, one of the consequences of which was to start rewarding CEOs heavily for increasing the stock price. CEOs went from being quite modestly paid to receiving exorbitant salaries and large amounts of stock options. The rationale was to give managers strong incentives to become personally wealthy by increasing the stock price of the company. Thus, we went from military-style leadership to “mercenary leadership.” Such leaders manage by the numbers, often viewing the business as an abstraction. They usually have no passion for any particular business, nor do they necessarily enjoy the exercise of power for its own sake. They are hired guns who seemingly possess the ability to spur companies to perform at a higher level and thus increase their market value. However, such leaders usually operate with short time horizons and tend to largely disregard the interests of stakeholders other than shareholders, because their own personal wealth is tied to the share price.“
“Conscious Capitalism has four tenets: (i) higher purpose, (ii) stakeholder integration, (iii) conscious leadership, and (iv) conscious culture and management”
“Purposeful companies ask questions such as these: Why does our business exist? Why does it need to exist? What core values animate the enterprise and unite all of our stakeholders?”
“Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence was once challenged by a history professor, who cited his “knowledge of history” to argue that Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence would never work. Gandhi replied, “Sir, your job is to teach history while mine is to create it.”
“No one is forced to trade with a business. Customers have competitive alternatives in the marketplace, team members have competitive alternatives for their labor, investors have numerous alternatives to invest their capital, and suppliers have plenty of alternative customers for their products and services. Investors, labor, management, suppliers—they all need to cooperate to create value for customers.”
“Envision a business that embraces outsiders as insiders, inviting its suppliers into the family circle and treating them with the same love and care it showers on its customers and team members. Imagine a business that is a committed and caring citizen of every community it inhabits, elevating its civic life and contributing in multiple ways to its betterment. Imagine a business that views its competitors not as enemies to be crushed but as teachers to learn from and fellow travelers on a journey toward excellence. Visualize a business that genuinely cares about the planet and all the sentient beings that live on it, that celebrates the glories of nature, that thinks beyond carbon and neutrality to become a healing force that nurses the ecosphere back to sustained vitality.”
Tony Robbins – Unshakeable: This is a condensed version of his epitome titled Money. Plenty of practical advice for someone just starting out with investing. My favourite was chapter 2, which dealt with the cost of not being invested in the market (and trying to time it). As an investor I’m conscious of this but a reminder is always helpful.
“The greatest danger is being out of the market. From 1996 through 2015 the S&P returned 8.2% p.a. but if you missed the top 10 days your returns would have been only 4.5% p.a. If you missed the top 20 it would have been 2.1% p.a. If you missed the top 30 your returns would have been 0. A JP Morgan study found that the 10 best trading days happened within two weeks of the 10 worst.”
Peter Thiel – Zero to One: No introduction required I believe. One more book I just got around reading. There is a fantastic collection of class notes that form the basis for this book available here.
Andre Agassi – Open: One of the most honest and ‘personal’ biographies I read in a good while (clue is in the title…). His vulnerability, openness about his parents, losing against Sampras, training etc was unlike many biographies hence I can highly recommend this one.
“After years of hearing my father rant at my flaws one loss has caused me to take up his rant. I’ve internalised my father (his impatience, rage, perfectionism) until his voice doesn’t feel like my own, it is my own. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day I can do it all by myself.”
“How lovely it is to dream while you are awake! You must dream all the time and say your dreams out loud and believe in them.”
Nellie Bly – Around the world in 72 days: In 1889 Nellie Bly, then a journalist, suggested to his superior that she’d attempt to turn the story of Around the World in 80 Days into reality. This was well before the days of Internet (heck even the modern telephone), remote working and budget flights. An utterly inspiring story of adventure and bravery! She did indeed complete the journey in 72 days and en-route got to meet Jules Verne, the author of said book.
Larry Brilliant – Sometimes brilliant: The title of the book is a play on the author’s last name who is a hippie, doctor, spiritual explorer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and a key person in the eradication of the devastating small pox disease in India. The book tells the story of his journeys through Europe and the Orient with the Woodstock crowd (such as Wavy Gravy) and his career with the WHO in India. It’s a very inspiring read, even if you are not a spiritual person. Here is a great interview with him.
Jason Garner – And I breathed: Story about the life of a Live Nation executive turned spiritual seeker. I really enjoyed reading it and there was a lot of wisdom in it.
“The words ‘I don’t know’ don’t signify ignorance, rather the vulnerable truth that allows us all to learn together.”
“I don’t meditate to escape the world. I meditate to fill myself with the love and awareness to face the world.”
“Meditation is a slow dance with your soul.”
We define success by how hard we struggle and how much money we make and then we wonder why life’s so hard and we’re never truly happy.
Chris Hadfield – An astronaut’s guide to life on earth: This is a fantastic read not just for someone interested in space but also for biography enthusiasts. What I appreciated the most is that the book wasn’t a romanticised fantasy with space rather an honest, first-hand account of what it is like to train for and participate in a space mission (hint: it’s very similar to any significant endeavour in life but in a zero-gravity environment). Two ideas that stuck with me:
“The cowboy adrenalin seeking test-pilots die early. If you need adrenalin to keep you in the game that will cause your downfall. Instead what you need is measured, complete understanding of what might happen and how to mitigate the risk. You are not trying to impress anyone but stay in the game.”
“Over the years, I’ve realised that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”
[He said at first, on a new team or in a new situation, his main goal is to avoid being a net negative contributor. Rather, he seeks to be a ‘zero’.]
“If right out of the gate you look to be a plus one, the veterans will be jealous, and wonder “who does this guy think he is.” Instead, win their confidence and trust by being a zero. This means pulling your weight, humbly showing up, not trying to be in the spotlight, doing your job professionally, asking questions, and learning the ropes. In time you will earn people’s respect and can move from zero to plus contributor and someone that others will want to follow. This may be the longer play, but it’s far more effective to winning confidence in the long run.”
Peter Kaufman – Poor Charlie’s almanac: An investing and business coffee table book? Is that possible? Well, why not? Mr Kaufman does a wonderful job of collecting Charlie Munger’s thoughts and ideas on life, business, investing, parenting, law and so on. Fantastic to refer back to it every few years.
Edwin Lefevre – Reminiscences of a stock operator: Oh, what a Wall Street classic. This book has probably trained more traders and speculators than anything else out there.
David Michaelis – Schulz and peanuts: I think it’s OK to admit that I’ve been a huge fan of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Peanuts. These stories were fantastic to read and watch as a kid (certainly for someone behind the ‘Iron Curtain’) but it was only later that the beauty and complexity of the stories and characters were revealed. Many great children’s book writers (such as A. A. Milne who wrote Winnie the Pooh) take their inspirations from their struggles with relationships, life situations and choices and translate them for children in their wonderful stories. This biography, similar to Agassi’s, is also very revealing and shows the complexity of Schulz’s character. It does a superb job of juxtaposing his creativity with (what seems like) a complicated family life and relationships. Long one but highly recommend it.
Mike Oldfield – Changeling: I remember the first time I heard Tubular Bells in our childhood living room. Wow! What a unique sound. I think it’s been burned into my head. The book tells the his story coming from humble beginnings, the release of Tubular Bells, interaction with the Virgin Group and his later years and experimentations. Great read if you’ve been a fan of his music.
Jim Rogers – Investment Biker: I’ve read this book many years ago and re-read it again on our sabbatical break. Would be great to make an updated version of this. A documentary?
Sam Zell – Am I being too subtle?: I thought this book, about his decades of experience as an entrepreneur and investor, was very helpful. It is really about risk management. Few highlights:
“The quality of the decision is directly correlated with the simplicity of the decision.”
“How to invest in EM: (i) never go into a country without a partner – can they protect you and do they have enough skin in the game, (ii) follow themes: 1997 in Mexico has gone through the tequila crisis, slowly recovering and close to achieving investment grade rating (there’ll be no other time in a country’s fiscal life when it’ll be so disciplined than being 1-2 years away from investment grade rating) and (iii) every investment needs to have an exit.” [paraphrased]
“We went to China when capital was scarce and our partners knew how to speak English. We left when it reversed.”
“Nobody has ever gone broke by taking a profit. I’m not too worried about the upside but pay huge attention to the downside. All of my mistakes came from underestimating the downside.”
“The definition of a partnership is when you share the same risk. That creates a lot of comfort.”
Psychology, philosophy and spirituality
Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingston Seagull: The seagull version of the Matrix. Who knew that you can illustrate human stupidity and ignorance by using seagulls as an example. Great little book for self-reflection on conformity to social norms and expectations.
Peter Bazalgette – Empathy Instinct: The book presents a vast collection of recent research on empathy and while not meant as an in-depth exploration or critical evaluation of the topic I did find it to be useful.
“The task for art to accomplish is to make that feeling of brotherhood and love of one’s neighbour, now attained only by the best members of society, the customary feeling and instinct of all men.” – Tolstoy
“You can’t love someone without imaginative sympathy, without beginning to see the world from another point of view. You can’t be a good lover, a good artist or a good politician without this capacity. Show me tyrants who have been great lovers.” – Julian Barnes
Barbara Coloroso – The kids are worth it: I first heard about her work through the Farnam Street podcast and proceeded to read her book. Some takeaways:
“If you spend your weekends in outdoor activities with your children instead of sitting in front of the TV, the chances of your children becoming couch potatoes when they grow up are slim – not nonexistent, nut slim. If you take good care of yourself, your children will probably take good care of themselves. If you make disparaging comments about people in your community because of their race, religion, gender, or physical or mental ability, you are teaching your children intolerance, bigotry, and hatred. If, in your words and your actions you demonstrate tolerance, acceptance, and kindness, your children will tend to do the same.”
“There are three kinds of families: brick-wall, jellyfish, and backbone. What distinguishes them is the kind of structure that holds them together. A brick-wall is a nonliving thing, designed to restrict, to keep in, and to keep out. In brick-wall families, the structure is rigid and is used for control and power, both of which are in the hands of the parents. A jellyfish had no firm parts at all and reacts to every eddy and current that comes along. In jellyfish families structures is almost nonexistent; the need for it may not even be acknowledged or understood. A backbone is a living, supple spine that gives from and movement to the whole body. In backbone families structure is present and firm and flexible and functional. […] Brick-wall and jellyfish families, although at opposite extremes, tend to raise children who know what to think but not how to think or feel, and who lack a sense of a true self.”
“When children are rewarded or punished, what is often lacking is any constructive feedback on what they are doing. Without the feedback, they will find it difficult to develop a strong sense of self; they will become hyper-vigilant or hyper-critical, or self-absorbed. Feedback enables kids to look at their expression of feelings, their behaviour, and their deeds honestly and realistically.”
“Threats, punishments, bribes, and rewards keep control in the hands of parents and give children the message that “I, as an adult, can and will make you mind,” often with the rationale “for your own good.” The goal is instant obedience. Rather than seeing children as unique individuals with the right to express their own needs and have them respected, parents who consistently employ these tools tend to see kids as people needing to be shaped and made to behave in the way the parents want them to behave. Children have a difficult time becoming responsible, resourceful, and resilient if they are controlled, manipulated, and made to mind, robbed of their autonomy and denied opportunities to make choices and mistakes. They cannot develop a sense of inner discipline if all of the control comes from the outside.”
Another great writer on this topic is Shefali Tsabary. Her recent talk on Mindvalley completely resonated with my wife and I. What would you say to the following question – is parenting a selfish or selfless activity?
Anthony De Mello – Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality: This book is a beautiful collection of spiritual wisdom written by a Jesuit priest from India. His delivery is more blunt than Alan Watt’s but the depth of his message is inspiring (he also happens to have a great sense of humor).
“Think of some people you’re living with whom you want to change. You find them moody, inconsiderate, unreliable, treacherous, or whatever. But when you are different, they’ll be different. That’s an infallible and miraculous cure. The day you are different, they will become different. And you will see them differently, too. Someone who seemed terrifying will now seem frightened. Someone who seemed rude will seem frightened. All of a sudden, no one has the power to hurt you anymore.”
“Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of “I”; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.”
“Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you. You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? `He is to blame, she is to blame. She’s got to change.’ No! The world’s all right. The one who has to change is you.”
“Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It’s irritating to be woken up. That’s the reason the wise guru will not attempt to wake people up. I hope I’m going to be wise here and make no attempt whatsoever to wake you up if you are asleep. It is really none of my business, even though I say to you at times, “Wake up!” My business is to do my thing, to dance my dance. If you profit from it, fine; if you don’t, too bad! As the Arabs say, “The nature of rain is the same, but it makes thorns grow in the marshes and flowers in the gardens.”
Joshua Foer – Moonwalking with Einstein: The topic is all about the role (and gradual decline) of human memory. In the beginning of the book the author starts out as a complete newbie in the world of masters of memorisation. Besides the funny stories and odd memory palace items this book is full of useful tips and strategies for improving your memory. If you liked this you can also check out Jim Kwik’s work on the same topic.
William Irvine – A Guide to the Good Life: Classic in the Stoic philosophy library.
“Stoic philosophy is like a fertile field: logic being the encircling fence, ethics the crop and physics the soil. Why worry about the soil and why build a fence unless a crop will result?”
“Make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure.” – Seneca
“Rather than working to fulfil whatever desires we find in our head, we need to work at preventing certain desires from forming and eliminating many of the desires that have formed.”
- We should become self-aware.
- We should use our reasoning ability to overcome negative emotions.
- If we find ourselves wealthy we should enjoy our affluence but not cling to it. As we enjoy we should contemplate the loss of it to make us appreciate it even more.
- We should form and maintain relations with others but be careful who we befriend.
- Learn to deal with insults and annoying people.
- Two principal sources of unhappiness: our insatiability (desires etc) and tendency to worry about things beyond our control.
- Engage in negative visualisation and practice voluntary discomfort.
Erling Kagge and Becky L. Crook – Silence: In the Age of Noise: The author is a Norwegian explorer, someone who has conquered both Poles unsupported. This short book is a wonderful exploration about why silence is essential to our own sanity in the age of cacophony. I’d highly recommend reading it.
Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, fast and slow: I find that I tend to re-read sections of this book every year but last year I managed to read the whole thing itself. Few notes to self:
- System 1: operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
- System 2: allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of system 2 are often associated with the subjective of agency, choice and concentration.
- System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated but it does not allow for information it does not have (e.g. New York, crowds, wallet -> people would highly associate it with pickpockets).
- System 1 is radically insensitive to both the quality and quantity of information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.
- System 2 is more of an apologist for the emotions of system 1 than a critic of those emotions, an endorser rather than an enforcer.
- System 1 is not prone to doubt. It suppresses ambiguity and spontaneously constructs stories that are as coherent as possible.
Gary Klein – Seeing what others don’t: One of the best books I read last year. The subtitle of the book is ‘the remarkable ways we gain insight’ and true to this the book walks through a number of case studies – ranging from fantasy baseball, through forest fire-fighting to the discovery of the DNA structure – and describes how and why only a few people connected the dots while they’ve received the same information as many others.
“That’s one of the criteria for insights: that others with the same information somehow miss the discovery
Eventually I was able to sort these 120 cases into five different strategies for gaining insights: connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions, and creative desperation. Did the incident rely on a person making a connection? Did the person notice a coincidence as a trigger for the insight? Was the insight triggered by some curiosity—an odd fact or event? Did it depend on seeing a contradiction? Or was the person stuck, desperately seeking some way out of an impasse?”
“Pearl Harbor was so shallow that the admiral in charge of its defense didn’t believe the Japanese could attack the American ships with torpedoes dropped from airplanes. The torpedoes would get stuck in the mud. Apparently, the navy officials who knew that the Japanese had developed shallow-water torpedoes never bothered to pass this information on to the Pearl Harbor.”
“If we want to increase our own insights, we should know about the different paths: the contradiction path, the connection path, and the creative desperation path. The magic of insights stems from the force for noticing connections, coincidences, and curiosities; the force for detecting contradictions; and the force of creativity unleashed by desperation. That magic lives inside us, stirring restlessly.“
Dalai Lama – Little book of Buddhism: If all spiritual authors wrote like the Dalai Lama I think spiritual and philosophical books would get a better reputation (apart from being too ‘woo-woo’). Few of the notes I took:
“Some people who are sweet and attractive, strong and healthy, happen to die young. They are masters in disguise teaching us about impermanence.”
“In the beginning of Buddhist practice, our ability to serve others is limited. The emphasis is on healing ourselves, transforming our minds and hearts. But as we continue, we become stronger and increasingly able to serve others.”
“Do your best and do it according to your own inner standard – call it conscience – not just according to society’s knowledge and judgement of your deeds.”
“But the root cause of our pain and suffering lies in our own ignorant and undisciplined state of mind. The happiness we seek can be attained only through the purification of our minds.”
Lars Muhl – The Seer: One of the many books in my spiritual work and exploration. It is the account of the author’s spiritual journeying through Europe. Many points to reflect on:
“It takes humour to be a spiritual person. Humour is elegant. It transforms and opens up. Sarcasm, however, freezes up and closes. Sarcasm is just an extension of the smallness of limited man. Humour comes from the heart.”
“I sat down at a table in an espresso bar and wondered why we are so busy that we don’t notice what is going on around us. In 50 years all these people would be gone or be in nursing homes thinking back over their busy lives, while the train station would be just as filled with people, the only difference being that it would be other busy people. And when they were gone, others would follow. The stage set would outlive the actors, the extras and the stars in an everlasting staff turnover, one team after the other.”
“A good writer, poet, painter, musician, filmmaker, singer or dancer is an interpreter of the universal language, the impressionable language, words, pictures and music that move. It is not their inspiration, not a gift for their personalities, but something they are obligated to interpret and to pass on. Then it becomes beautiful. The Seer sees – and moves. The painter paints out of the universal, not out of himself and not for his own sake or for the sake of money. Leonardo da Vinci was formidable. He was able to transform things in the same spirit as he received them. He was the mouthpiece of visions. It was a kind of clear-sightedness. He understood that it was his task to develop a prophetic sense.”
“Death is not death. It is the liberation of everything you have thought in a lifetime. That is what death is.”
Helen Pearson – The life project: I find longitudinal studies fascinating. You observe one person, one country, one subject for a long period of time, collect a bunch of data points and based on that you can draw pretty accurate conclusions and make what-if scenarios. This one is a study of human development for over 70 years. The book tells the story of creation of the first cohort studies in Britain in 1946 when thousands of newborn babies were included in an experiment to track various aspects of their lives (health, family, education, career progress etc) to draw conclusions of how their circumstances influence the outcomes. Some points to note:
“Children born into the most disadvantaged circumstances tended to have difficult lives from that point on, gradually racking up behavioural problems, illness and poor results in school.”
“Typical achievers had parents who were interested in their child’s education (e.g. wanted them to stay in school) and had aspirations for the future. Achiever kids had ambitious schools behind them. An achiever child was also less likely to have difficulties at home e.g. sick parent, unemployed father or separated parents. Achievers tended to live in areas with access to opportunity. A typical achiever was more likely to want to compete and were often more determined to escape into better circumstances.”
“Performance gaps between rich and poor emerged at a shockingly young age and then quickly widened over time. A suggestion to close this gap was to do before school (health, early education and family support). Good parenting can offset some of this gap.”
“Earnings of children were fairly tightly correlated with those of their parents. In large part the child’s income could be explained by their parent’s income.”
“Impacts of divorce could be seen on children’s cognition and behaviour before their parents actually divorce.“
Jordan Peterson – 12 rules for life: I don’t think this needs any introduction. Besides the book I also completed with Self-Authoring exercise. It’s a very detailed journaling exercise meant to help make sense of past/present events, plan for the future and control the narrative in one’s own head about themselves.
Seung Sahn – Dropping ashes on the Buddha: This book was phenomenal. A no-nonsense (if that’s possible) book written by a Buddhist teacher in the late 1970s as his American students first encounter Buddhism. In parts it is absolutely hilarious.
“Somebody comes into the Zen center with a lighted cigarette, walks up to the Buddha statue, blows smoke in its face, and drops ashes on its lap. You are standing there. What can you do?” This is a problem that Zen Master Seung Sahn is fond of posing to his American students who attend his Zen centers.”
“The Great Way is not difficult if you do not make distinctions. Only throw away likes and dislikes, and everything will be perfectly clear.”
“So if you are thinking, words are very bad. But if you are not thinking, all words and all things that you can see or hear or smell or taste or touch will help you. So it is very important for you to cut off your thinking and your attachment to words.”
“Zen teaching is like a window. At first, we look at it, and see only the dim reflection of our own face. But as we learn, and our vision becomes clear, the teaching becomes clear. Until at last it is perfectly transparent. We see through it. We see all things: our own face.”
Michael Singer’s Untethered Soul and Surrender Experiment: I try to read either (or both) books every year. The Untethered Soul is more the practical how-to guide, while the Surrender Experiment is the story of what does it mean to live in surrender. Last year I also completed his online course, Living from a Place of Surrender, which was phenomenal. It’s a total of 8-9 hours but goes way deeper than the books. Highly recommended.
Alan Watts – Out of your mind: If you haven’t read or listened to too much of this self described spiritual entertainer’s material either this book or one called The Book are a great introduction. This in particular is a wonderful collection of 12 of his teaching sessions. The core message of the book is that we are all living in an illusion (call it the Matrix if you are a Neo fan or water if you are a DFW fan) but the premise is not to make you stop participating in it rather to help to wake you up. He often said that in order to come to our senses we sometimes need to go out of our minds. This book helps you do just that.
“As long as we can be taunted by death we can be ruled. We can be ruled via the fear of death.”
“Zen is spiritual ophthalmology, so that you can see clearly.”
“When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.”
“On hierarchy: one cannot be the teacher if there are no students.”
“So long as there’s a certain uncertain outcome in a game, that is a good game. Chaos never completely wins it just gives order a good run for its money.”
Marianne Williamson – Return to Love: If you are familiar with A Course in Miracles you’ll probably most likely know this book which she refers to as the ‘cliffnotes to the Course‘. This book is one of the classics and a great start to a deeper exploration of the Course. She wrote her famous quote in this quote, which has often been attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
P.s. on the attribution, in hindsight, the thing I find it odd that somebody attributed the words gorgeous and fabulous as coming from Mandela.
Yoganada – Autobiography of a Yogi: I normally read 2-3 books at the same time but with this one I just found that the deeper I got into the book the less I wanted to spend time on other topics. I found a very deep sense of peace as I read about his journey as a yogi and eventual growth into a foremost spiritual teacher. This book is a fantastic resource of Hindu spiritualism, the Gita, Vedas and so on. Yogananada writes with such clarity, depth and humor that the book has become a must to re-read every year (in fact I’m about to start a second read). Apparently, Steve Jobs devoured Yogananada’s teachings and towards the end of his life carried only one book on his iPad. This one. It was also arranged that this book was given out as a present to the attendees of his memorial service (Marc Benioff explains it here).
“The root cause of dualism or illusion of MAYA, whereby the subject (ego) appears as object; the creatures imagine themselves to be creators.”
“As all things can be reflected in water, so the whole universe is mirrored in the lake of the Cosmic Mind
Die then!” This alarming counsel split the air. “Die if you must Mukunda! Never admit that you live by the power of food and not by the power of God! He who has created every form of nourishment, He who has bestowed appetite, will certainly see that His devotee is sustained! Do not imagine that rice maintains you, or that money or men support you! Could they aid if the Lord withdraws your life-breath? They are His indirect instruments merely. Is it by any skill of yours that food digests in your stomach? Use the sword of your discrimination, Mukunda! Cut through the chains of agency and perceive the Single Cause!”
“The body is a treacherous friend. Give it its due; no more,” he said. “Pain and pleasure are transitory; endure all dualities with calmness, while trying at the same time to remove their hold. Imagination is the door through which disease as well as healing enters.”
“Conserve your powers. Be like the capacious ocean, absorbing within all the tributary rivers of the senses. Small yearnings are openings in the reservoir of your inner peace, permitting healing waters to be wasted in the desert soil of materialism. The forceful activating impulse of wrong desire is the greatest enemy to the happiness of man. Roam in the world as a lion of self-control; see that the frogs of weakness don’t kick you around.”
“Lahiri Mahasaya often said: ‘If you don’t invite God to be your summer Guest, He won’t come in the winter of your life.”
“Blessed is the man whom the Lord doth test, Doctor! He has remembered now and then to put a burden on me!”
Gary Zukav – Seat of the soul: This book was one of the first ones in the popular media to write about the principle of intention. As Zukav writes, “every action, thought, and feeling is motivated by an intention, and that intention is a cause that exists as one with an effect. If we participate in the cause, it is not possible for us not to participate in the effect. In this most profound way we are held responsible for our every action, thought, and feeling, which is to say, for our every intention.” Using the power of intention properly is a wonderful idea, however these days it has become the new-agey or woke replacement word for ‘goal’, without much consideration for its true meaning. The book is a great reminder of that.
Niall Fergusson – House of Rothschild (volume 2): If history, politics, war, finance are your thing you’ll enjoy this book. The author has reportedly received in-depth access to family archives so he does a great job of capturing what made this family so powerful through generations.
David Graeber – Debt: The author is an anthropologist and in this book explores debt in relation to barter, marriage, slavery, war, law and religion etc and argues that credit came before money, as it was just simply a way of settling debt. Big history books often carry with themselves the danger of hindsight bias and fitting the narrative to the outcome, especially if they come with an agenda, but I found many ideas here that contributed to my knowledge of the development of modern financial system.
“We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money.“
“If history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt—above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”
“Historically, war, states, and markets all tend to feed off one another. Conquest leads to taxes. Taxes tend to be ways to create markets, which are convenient for soldiers and administrators.”
Benjamin Roth – Great Depression, a diary: At the start of the period, which we now call the Great Depression, a steel-town lawyer began to keep a frequent diary on how this real economic calamity (not a 20% drop in the stock market) affected people’s livelihood, their families and their prospects. This was a fantastic first-hand account.
“The collapse of so much commercial activity strained the banking system in the United States and abroad. Banks had overextended their loans, and the rate of nonpayment was putting pressure on the supply of gold. In December 1930 the Bank of the United States (a private bank with no actual government status) collapsed in what was the largest bank failure in U.S. history at the time, freezing some $200 million in depositors’ funds. Similar collapses took place in Austria and Germany in mid-1931. Because the world banking system is always interconnected, and because world currencies at the time operated on a gold standard with only a finite amount of gold in the world, it was inevitable that these failures would hit very close to home for Roth and his neighbors, with devastating effects on businesses and the real estate market. By the time 1931 came to a close, several major countries had been forced to take their currencies off the gold standard.”
“A Senate investigation of the most powerful institutions on Wall Street in determining the cause of the stock market collapse of 1929 was well under way by June 1933. The probe would continue into 1934 under the direction of Ferdinand Pecora, an assistant district attorney from New York who would eventually go on to become chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The vigorous interrogation of the most powerful bankers and brokers of the era, from J. P. Morgan Jr. to Charles Mitchell of National City Bank, revealed an embarrassing breadth of underhanded financial practices by the nation’s wealthiest financiers, from skipping out on paying income taxes on bonuses to tampering with stock market pools.” (My comment: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…)
“Prof. [O. M. W.] Sprague (formerly of Harvard) resigns from the Treasury and in a scathing letter made public criticizes the President’s monetary policy and calls on the public to fight for sound money. The issue is becoming clearly defined and he may be the leader needed to crystallize public opinion. Three years ago Sprague resigned his professorship at Harvard to accept a position as monetary advisor to British gov’t at $40,000 per year. When U.S. went off gold standard he accepted the call to the U.S. Treasury as a patriotic duty and at a yearly salary of $6,000. Since then his advice has been ignored and the only honorable thing left to do was to resign. Roosevelt studied economics under him at Harvard. His resignation is the big news of the day. This leaves the Treasury in full charge of men sympathetic to present monetary policy.”
“We can formally and officially announce that the depression of 1929 has ended,” declares Roth on January 2, 1937. Retail stores in downtown Youngstown teemed with shoppers buying new clothes and home furnishings. Gleaming new autos crowded the roads. Youngstown steel mills operated at 80 percent capacity. The town’s commercial real estate rental market was strong, and many personal and auto finance companies had sprung up again, poised to approve new loans for consumers. Plus, the stock market was bullish, enjoying a steady rise since March 1935. Even Roth’s diary writing tapered off after May 1937. When he picked it up again in October, however, he described a very different picture: “I have made no entry for several months because business seemed to be normal,” penned Roth on October 12, 1937. “About six weeks ago, however, the stock market had a bad break and since then it has gone steadily downward with hardly a pause.”
“Talked with Al Wechsler this morning. He is manager of a ladies dress shop. Says that they have had the biggest Christmas season in their history. It is a pretty blue Christmas for the lawyers and other professional men. Merchants and industrialists have reaped a harvest, the laboring groups have received good pay and bonuses and have promptly spent it all on consumer goods, stock market speculators have much to be thankful for, bonuses and dividends have been poured out—and yet very little of this good fortune has touched the professional group.”
Richard Solomon – Chinese Political Negotiating Behavior: Fantastic historical account of the US-Chinese relationship and useful to read in the current context of the “trade war”. This is a now-declassified CIA document on negotiating practices. Fascinating historical read. From a New Yorker piece: “Solomon, whose study was later declassified, noted that some of China’s most effective techniques were best described in the nineteenth century, when a Manchu prince named Qiying recorded his preferred approach. “Barbarians,” Qiying noted, respond well to “receptions and entertainment, after which they have had a feeling of appreciation.” Solomon warned that modern Chinese leaders “use the trappings of imperial China” to “impress foreign officials with their grandeur and seriousness of purpose.” Solomon advised, “Resist the flattery of being an ‘old friend’ or the sentimentality that Chinese hospitality readily evokes.” (Henry Kissinger, he wrote, once gushed to his hosts, “After a dinner of Peking duck I’ll agree to anything.”)”
Books I read (or about to read) in 2019
Harriet Beinfield – Between heaven and earth: I’ve experimented a lot with alternative medicine in my life (mom, if you are reading it was all legal…). It started as a kid with my grandparents practically forcing herbal medicine down my throat for which, in hindsight, I’m grateful for (felt very different at the time though). Despite these early experiments I only recently got exposed to using Traditional Chinese Medicine on a recent trip to China. So, in order to learn more and to embark on my typical rabbit-hole journey I picked up a few books on the subject. This book, written in the 1990s, does a fantastic and detailed job about illustrating the history, theory, methods and application of TCM. Highly recommended as an introductory book to TCM.
Robert Cialdini – Pre-suasion: Follow up to Influence. Finally getting around to reading it.
Steve Hagen – Buddhism, plain and simple: I came across this book a few months ago in Bali (I know, I know…) and read it over the Christmas holidays. Like most books about the topic it talks about awareness (and being awake) but this is one of the few that does it very clearly and succinctly. This review comes from Robert M. Pirsig the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, another classic, which I completely agree with: “This is the clearest and most precise exposition of Buddhism I have ever read. If you’re looking for enlightenment rather than just scholarly knowledge, you’d better read this.”
David Halpern – Inside the nudge unit: I really enjoy reading about human psychology and biases. One of the best resources I found over the years that applies these principles to the real world is the Nudge Unit (known more formally as the Behavioural Insights Team) in the UK. They do excellent work and run in-field experiments ranging from government decision making to reducing rent arrears. Their annual report is always a great read.
Walter Isaacson – Einstein: He is known for very detailed and thorough biographies and this on one Einstein, written in 2007, does not disappoint. Only 1/3 way through but the level of depth he was able to get access to is phenomenal.
Ichiro Kishimi – The courage to be disliked: This was recommended to me by a friend, so I’m excited to check it out. The premise of the book revolves around the idea that we are not determined by our experiences rather the meaning we give them (this was the topic I was exploring in my own book as well) and told as a conversation between an angry student and a patient teacher.
Hyeonseon Lee – The girl with the 7 names: Gripping story of a brave girl who left North Korea and eventually found home in South Korea. This book tells her story of initially escaping to China, being interrogated by the police, working in Shanghai, finding love and almost losing her family in Laos after an escape operation went bad. The title refers to ‘7 names’ as she had to change her name that many times when she moved to a new place and created a new identity. Imagine what would that do to your own psyche.
Greg Mckeown – Essentialism: This book was recommended to me by a number of people I respect so look forward to diving into it. His recent interview on Tim Ferriss’ show was very helpful.
Shaquille O’Neal – Shaq Uncut: This was a very good and easy read about Shaq’s life in and outside of basketball. I really appreciated the stories that are lesser known about his life, such as finding it very hard to fit in as a tall guy (I had difficulties myself in school), the strict home he grew up in, college years and so on. I also appreciate him because he was one of the few early professional sports players that figured out what to do with their earnings rather than just blowing it away. Here is a video about why and how he hired a financial advisor and his very simple but instructive financial advice for new professional players.
Chris Patten – First confession: Hong Kong has been very close to my heart for more than 10 years (I studied there, met my wife there, got married there and spent an awful lot of time there) and very much enjoy reading anything about the city. The author is a UK politician but more interestingly was the last governor of HK until the handover in 1997. The story is part memoir, part history book and reflection on the British political scene.
Shonda Rhimes – Year of yes: Very honest autobiographical book from the creator of Grey’s Anatomy. Easy read but I really enjoyed it. There is a great TED talk which sums up the book and she also gave a fantastic commencement speech a few years back at Dartmouth. Check it out.
David Robertson – Brick by brick: If you liked playing with Legos as a kid (you know you did, no need to hide it) you’ll love this case study type book about how the brand came back from a near-miss with bankruptcy. P.s. Lego, as a private company, publishes the kind of annual report that puts a lot of public companies to shame.
Thomas Stanley – Millionaire next door: I got his other book, the Millionaire Mind, for my birthday when I turned 18 years old and let me say that it was a huge eye opener for me. I recently got to read this one (which was the author’s first book, published in 1996), which hones in on seven traits that showed up in their work as they researched millionaire households in the US. Millionaire Next Door was really about highlighting the difference between the ‘balance sheet’ and ‘income statement’ rich. His second book, the Millionaire Mind, covered more of the mindset, ideas and believes that enabled the people he researched to attain and maintain their wealth. I enjoyed reading both.