Books Worth Reading 2019

In 2019, nine books made the list, covering idea generation, breadth of skills, and pop-intellectualism:

  1. The Origin of Wealth

    Your shirt was not designed; it was evolved.

    • A conceptually brilliant, hefty academic book that shows how Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is also applicable to products and the economy.

      We are accustomed to thinking of evolution in a biological context, but modern evolutionary theory views evolution as something much more general. Evolution is an algorithm; it is an all-purpose formula for innovation, a formula that, through its special brand of trial and error, creates new designs and solves difficult problems.

    • Touches on a theme also in Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma”: disruptive versus evolutionary innovations. Times ebb and flow between spurts of divergent ideas, only to see a handful succeed and consolidate in a period of convergence.

      This book will argue that wealth creation is the product of a simple, but profoundly powerful, three-step formula—differentiate, select, and amplify—the formula of evolution.

    • Unfortunately, too heavy a read for most. The world would benefit from a concise Gladwell-ized version of the material. Heavy on economic theory and its comparison to other economic models.

    • Touches on the deeper meaning of wealth, that’s often overlooked. Wealth is not just about how much money you have, but what your money can buy.

      But it is not just the absolute level of income that makes New Yorkers so wealthy; it is also the incredible variety of things their wealth can buy. Imagine you had the income of a New Yorker, but you could only spend it on things in the Yanomamö economy. If you spent $36,000 fixing up your mud hut, buying the best clay pots in the village, and eating the finest Yanomamö cuisine, you would be extraordinarily wealthy by Yanomamö standards, but you would still feel far poorer than a typical New Yorker with his or her Nike sneakers, televisions, and vacations in Florida. The number of economic choices the average New Yorker has is staggering. The Wal-Mart near JFK Airport has over 100,000 different items in stock, there are over 200 television channels offered on cable TV, Barnes & Noble lists over 8 million titles, the local supermarket has 275 varieties of breakfast cereal, the typical department store offers 150 types of lipstick, and there are over 50,000 restaurants in New York City alone.

      Thus, the most dramatic difference between the New Yorker and Yanomamö economies is not their “wealth” measured in dollars, a mere 400-fold difference, but rather the hundred-million-fold, or eight orders of magnitude difference in the complexity and diversity of the New Yorkers’ economy versus the Yanomamö economy.

  2. Range

    • A fantastic, pop-intellectual book that advocates the long term benefits of a broad skillset; namely creative integration.

      Individual creators started out with lower innovativeness than teams—they were less likely to produce a smash hit—but as their experience broadened they actually surpassed teams: an individual creator who had worked in four or more genres was more innovative than a team whose members had collective experience across the same number of genres. Taylor and Greve suggested that “individuals are capable of more creative integration of diverse experiences than teams are.”

    • Range shows the diminishing returns of a deep skill set, and how Malcolm Gladwell’s 10k hours is only potent in “kind” learning environments.

      Kahneman was focused on the flip side of kind learning environments; Hogarth called them “wicked.” In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.

  3. Lateral Thinking

    • After stumbling on a now favorite blog post about Nintendo’s Product Philosophy, I became obsessed with Lateral Thinking. In the blog post, and how it’s often referred to in casual conversation, Lateral Thinking involves taking an idea that’s prevalent in one vertical, and applying it to a new one. i.e. The Z thumbstick in the Nintendo 64 controller took the joystick from arcade games and applied it to consoles.

      You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper. Vertical thinking is used to dig the same hole deeper. Lateral thinking is used to dig a hole in a different place.

      With vertical thinking one has to be correct at every step, with lateral thinking one does not have to be

    • After further reading, I have come to understand Lateral Thinking as introduced by Edward de Bono. Often oversimplified to a brainstorm session, Lateral Thinking is a philosophy and thought process used to shake up existing patterns or assumptions, with the goal of coming up with new ones.

      Vertical thinking is selective, lateral thinking is generative

      The purpose of thinking is not to be right but to be effective. Being effective does eventually involve being right but there is a very important difference between the two. Being right means being right all the time. Being effective means being right only at the end.

    • Simple way to practice? Clever analogies.

      Description is certainly the easiest setting in which to practise lateral thinking because there is always some result. [i.e. Sports analogies used to describe business]

  4. A Technique for Producing Ideas

    • A 46 page book where author James Webb Young reversed-engineered his capacity for ingenuity, so that others could replicate his success.

      an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

    • Best described by a twist to Steve Job’s quote:

      Good artists copy; great artists steal [and add it to something else].

    • I’m always a sucker for a concise “Elements of Style” type of book.
  5. Mindset

    • A fantastic, behavior-changing book advocating the growth mindset, and how to apply it to one’s life.

      Benjamin Barber, an eminent political theorist, once said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures….I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.”

    • Breaks down the differences between fixed and growth mindsets, and how we all have both. Illustrates the power of a change in perspective. Focus on the journey of growth, rather than a destination of either success or failure.

    • Adding ammunition for my battle against the philosophy of the “easy A”, where one drops a real challenge to pad their stats, the author debunks the myth that your IQ is fixed and can’t be improved:

      Wasn’t the IQ test meant to summarize children’s unchangeable intelligence? In fact, no. Binet, a Frenchman working in Paris in the early twentieth century, designed this test to identify children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that new educational programs could be designed to get them back on track.

  6. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

    The Sputnik was more than a shock to American national vanity: it brought an immense amount of attention to bear on the consequences of anti-intellectualism in the school system and in American life at large. Suddenly the national distaste for intellect appeared to be not just a disgrace but a hazard to survival.

    • Trump’s election and the resulting change in America’s image triggered some personal introspection, which led me to this book. Rest assured, America has seen much of this before. What remains to be seen is how technology will affect it.

      Anti-intellectualism was not manifested in this country for the first time during the 1950’s. Our anti-intellectualism is, in fact, older than our national identity, and has a long historical background.

    • An incredibly prescient book that shows this populist movement isn’t entirely unique in history, and, like so much of America, is the result of a swinging pendulum, a recurring ebb and flow.

      An examination of this background suggests that regard for intellectuals in the United States has not moved steadily downward and has not gone into a sudden, recent decline, but is subject to cyclical fluctuations; it suggests, too, that the resentment from which the intellectual has suffered in our time is a manifestation not of a decline in his position but of his increasing prominence.

    • What is intellect? Critical thinking for the sake of critical thinking. Anti-intellectualism should not be misinterpreted as the love by or of idiots, nor should it be conflated with anti-intelligence. Businessmen, advocates of outdated ideas, and champions of pragmatism exercise anti-intellectualism, sometimes correctly so.

      Quite the contrary: just as the most effective enemy of the educated man may be the half-educated man, so the leading anti-intellectuals are usually men deeply engaged with ideas, often obsessively engaged with this or that outworn or rejected idea.

      Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines. Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole.

    • A heavy academic read, that won’t be finished by most who start it.
  7. Talking to Strangers
    • Another Malcolm Gladwell journey that helps to analyze some of the more modern catastrophes in social judgement, ranging from Sandra Brand to Amanda Knox. Using current events and case studies to illustrate a particular facet of global human judgement, he explains our inefficacy at talking to strangers because of three verticals:

      1. Defaulting to truth.
        • Defaulting to skepticism would lead civilization to a standstill. Progress favors trust.
      2. Illusion of Transparency.
        • We all think we can read people, but we can’t.
      3. Coupling of thoughts to actions or presumptions.
        • In SF and Seattle, suicidal thoughts lead to jumping off a bridge. Will removing the bridge just lead people to find other ways of suicide? Many studies say no.
        • Do we subconsiously couple an image, item, race, religion to an assumption? Like a car with green tree air freshener probably being used by someone who smokes Cannabis?
  8. Unlimited Memory

    • Written by an International Grandmaster of Memory, Kevin Horsley walks through techniques for improving your memory.
    • Shows how to leverage your Visual IQ in creative ways, even if what you want to remember is auditory or text.

      As neuroscientist John Medina says, “Hear a piece of information and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”

    • I’m honestly surprised this wasn’t covered with more emphasis in middle school and highschool. Maybe it was and I ignored it.

      “Interest level is measured by how much you remember.” ~ Philip A. Bossert

  9. Measure What Matters

    The practice that molded me at Intel and saved me at Sun—that still inspires me today—is called OKRs. Short for Objectives and Key Results.

    • Insightful book about the goal tracking and managerial process used to help align goals horizontally (at different levels of seniority) and vertically (across roles and functions).
    • A mix of case studies and how-tos, John Doerr walks you through implementing your own OKRs in your org.

      Many companies have a “rule of seven,” limiting managers to a maximum of seven direct reports. In some cases, Google has flipped the rule to a minimum of seven. (When Jonathan Rosenberg headed Google’s product team, he had as many as twenty.) The higher the ratio of reports, the flatter the org chart—which means less top-down oversight, greater frontline autonomy, and more fertile soil for the next breakthrough. OKRs help make all of these good things possible.

    • Interesting tidbit on the personalities sought by old school Intel:

      At Intel, Andy recruited “aggressive introverts” in his own image, people who solved problems quickly, objectively, systematically, and permanently. Following his lead, they were skilled at confronting a problem without attacking the person. They set politics aside to make faster, sounder, more collective decisions.

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