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BR 212: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

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Comments: A game changing book. It is long, dense and takes a while to get through. But, my oh my, it is worth it. I love books that look at all of human history through various lenses. This one tells the story of Homo Sapiens and beautifully weaves in all that is ugly, beautiful and miraculous all at once. It is the best book on history that I’ve read. A perspective changer.

Top 3 Learnings:

1. Fiction. Thanks to language, we were able to speak about abstract concepts and/or fiction. It is one of the unique aspects of our language and mental ability. This enables us to create myths and stories (religion, nationalism) that enables us to cooperate flexibly in large groups. These creative myths and stories dominate our life today – countries, religions and businesses are all myths that we buy into. And, it is this fiction that enables us to cooperate with each other.

Human to ape, we don’t differ by much. However, in groups, the difference is massive thanks to this ability to believe. “In 2011, The UN asked Libya to adhere to human rights. Of course, the UN, Libya and Human rights are all fictional.” :)

2. Agricultural revolution. The agricultural revolution is the world’s greatest fraud story. We didn’t domesticate plants. Wheat, Maize and Rice domesticated us. Domesticated comes from the Latin word domus which means at home. It is humans who stayed at home. And, not just ate – began eating a diet that wasn’t anywhere as nutritious since it lacked variety, had to work very hard to keep these plants happy and suffer if pests or the weather attached them. But, it helped us with one metric – multiplication. More people could be supported by agriculture under much worse conditions.

3. Industrial revolution and energy. The industrial revolution has really been about our ability to convert energy into forms we can use. Steam engine then oil enabled us to mass produce and ship raw materials around the world. The prime example of this is farming – especially animal farming. We mass produce animals like never before, subjecting them to horrible conditions that deprive them of all emotion or sensory stimulation. Like slavery, such cruelty is borne, not out of hate, but out of indifference.

Book notes here

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BR 210: Hunch by Bernadette Jiwa

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Comments: This is a really easy and fun read. Bernadette Jiwa makes the case that we all have it in us to be insightful. We just have to learn to notice more. It’s one of those positive books that you could just pick up and read on a Sunday afternoon and walk out feeling optimistic and better.

Top 3 Learnings: 

  1. Don’t underestimate the power of the hunch in today’s data driven world. Noticing is the key to finding breakthrough ideas in everyday experiences.
  2. Cultivate curiosity, empathy and imagination to be in touch with your hunches.
  3. Empathy is feeling with someone. Sympathy is feeling for someone.
3. SHELF it · Book Review Actions · Book Reviews · Creativity · Novel Concepts · Psychology

BR 208: Originals by Adam Grant

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Comments: Interesting book with lots of anecdotes from various experiments. After a very compelling start, I felt the book lost its way a bit toward the middle.

Top 3 Learnings:

1. Entrepreneurship is more about de-risking than taking risks. Keep testing the riskiest assumptions with simple experiments (We had interviewed Neil Blumenthal from Warby Parker in business school. This was a repeat of what he shared but powerful nevertheless).

2. Child prodigies rarely live up to their potential as they rarely learn to be original. Creative kids can often be trouble makers.

3. Vu ja de. So much of creativity is combining old ideas into new combinations.

Book notes here

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BR 205: Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

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Comments: Solid book. Lots of great stories and a compilation of powerful principles.

Top 3 Learnings:
1. A combination of many interesting studies and a long research project at Google determined that there is one attribute that all high performing teams share – they all enable psychological safety.

2. In all, it remains an intriguing thought: if you want to build a successful company, you should not seek to attract the biggest rock stars. Instead, a loyal orchestra of employees will perform better – provided there is a dissenting tone every once in a while, to keep everyone focused.

3. I found this story incredibly inspiring

Tetsuro Toyoda was visiting NUMMI (a plant in Fremont California that is a joint collaboration between Toyota and GM). He saw Joe, an assembly line worker, struggling to install a taillight. He kept imploring him to pull the Andon cord and stop the assembly line. After many attempts – “Joe, please,” Toyoda said. Then he stepped over, took Joe’s hand in his own and guided it to the andon cord, and together they pulled. A flashing light began spinning.

When the chassis reached the end of Joe’s station without the taillight correctly in place, the line stopped moving. Joe was shaking so much, he had to hold his crowbar with both hands. He finally got the taillight positioned and, with a terrified glance at his bosses, reached up and pulled the andon cord, restarting the line.

Toyoda faced Joe and bowed. He began speaking in Japanese.
“Joe, please forgive me,” a lieutenant translated. “I have done a poor job of instructing your managers of the importance of helping you pull the cord when there is a problem. You are the most important part of this plant. Only you can make every car great. I promise I will do everything in  my power to never fail you again.”

Next day, a dozen pulls happened. And in a week, a hundred. It still cost a lot but given the responsibility, employee motivation increased. Most productive GM plan. Absenteeism decreased from 45% to 3% and productivity soared. NUUMI was legendary.

Book notes here.

1. Read ASAP! · History · Novel Concepts · Technology

BR 204: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

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Comments: This is a book that takes 6 parts of modern life and shows you how they were fundamental in making modern life what it is. It changed how I saw the world.

Top 3 Learnings:

1. Most innovations occur in the adjacent possible. Few make seemingly impossible leaps. The popular theory is the genius theory of innovation. But, there are plenty of high IQ individuals. If there is a common thread, it is that they worked at the intersection of multiple fields. Ada Lovelace could see the future of computers as she lived at the edge of science and art. Staying within the boundaries of your discipline can enable incremental improvements – which are critical to progress. But, to make leaps, we have to travel across borders – sometimes geographical to be in a different environment and sometimes conceptual. These time travelers often have hobbies and interests in varied fields. This is one of the reason “garages” have such a symbolic role in innovation as these are peripheral spaces.

2. The power of accurate measurement of time is that measuring time is key to measuring space. Every time we glance down at our phone to find our location, we’re triangulating between at least 3 of 24 atomic clocks that tell us our location based on the measurement. And, these clocks have been made possible by scientific advances that led us from astronomy (sundials) to dynamics (pendulums) to electromagnetics (quartz) to atomic physics (atomic clocks)

3. Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. Instead, he invented something more powerful – a process of innovation. He brought together diverse teams, built the first global supply chain, mastered the art of public relations and product launches, embraced experimentation and incentivized his teams with stock options. This is a model that continues today.

Book notes here.

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BR 196: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

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Comments: I think I might have called this a “Priority 1” book if it wasn’t for business school. This was a very good refresher on how to think about predictions and data. As the ultimate data geek, Nate Silver does a very good job introducing us to the world of prediction and statistics.

Top 3 learnings:

1. Sometimes, predictions change the nature of the thing. If everyone is using an app that predicts highway x will have lesser traffic, everyone could end up on highway x.

2. Bayesian approach was to make a small prediction and keep improving on it. Probability was seen by Laplace and Bayes  as a step toward progress. Bayes theorem is concerned with conditional probability. Think probabilistically. Require you to accept that your subjective representations of the world are not truth.

3. Terrorist attacks are similar to earthquakes – high uncertainty. However, when you plot frequency and destruction wrought by terrorist attacks on a double logarithmic scale, it is a straight line!

The broken windows theory was embraced in the US despite limited scientific evidence perhaps because it is easier for police to imprison a 16 year old with drugs than solve a difficult crime.

Israel has taken the opposite approach – it treats small acts of terror as normal but has worked hard to eliminate large threats. Israel’s power law distribution curve looks different from what you might expect – due to their strategic choices.

Book notes here.

1. Read ASAP! · Book Review Actions · Book Reviews · History · Novel Concepts

BR 193: The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zheihan

The accidental superpower, peter zheihan

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Comments: This is a very powerful book. It is the sort of book that completely changes how you see the world. For example, I doubt I’ll ever look at a map of the world the same way again. It is also unlikely I’ll easily buy a story about how a country became a superpower. In this book, Peter Zheihan does a terrific job explaining why the world is the way it is from a geopolitics perspective. He, then, attempts to predict the future. You may not agree with his predictions. But, they are still worth listening to as they will likely help shape yours. In my case, I thought a lot of it was very prescient. I wish he’d been a bit more forthcoming about how we expected technology to change his assumptions though.

Top 3 Learnings:

1. Geography is the primary reason superpowers become superpowers. Typically, it is some combination of access to arable land, presence of internal waterways, and a location that isn’t easy to access that makes places superpowers.

2. Demographics are an important driver of economic growth. Kids and retirees drain economic resources. On the other hand, young adults make it consumption driven. And, older adults infuse a lot of capital. Thus, the majority group in the population drives the sort of activity in the economy.

3. The last few decades have witnessed unprecedented peace. That’s a result of an unusual move by “the accidental superpower” – the United States – to govern the world via free trade. However, this period is ending since the biggest reason for that pact was to keep Russia at bay. Now, with the absence of a cold war and the sheer expense to maintain this pact, it is perhaps only a matter of time before we see this pact (from the meeting at Bretton Woods in 1945) called off.

Book notes here.