Recommended Reading: Insights from the Last Few Years’ Books and Shows


Introduction

I’ve always been a slow reader. Someone once told me that was a “sign of genius”, and he was a journalist and book publisher, so I’ll take that one. The truth, though, is largely mired by laziness.

Then, nearly five years ago, I discovered audiobooks. Suddenly reading was something I didn’t need to make time for. I could listen to books when I was walking to work, washing-up, showering, working-out… in other words when I previously would have been wasting my brain. I feel like I got something from nothing, and if you can take one lifehack from this entire post that would be it: get into audiobooks.

…specifically, get an Audible account, pay a monthly subscription for credits (it’s cheaper), and set your play speed to 1.5x (unless it’s a dramatically performed book like a novel). You’re welcome.

I’ve been taking notes as I read (or listen, if you must), not just books but podcasts, articles, videos, etc. And you should be able to see most or all of them here: Footnotes, Reading & Inspiration

I’ve attempted to consolidate and summarise those notes in one place and give that insight to the world. It’s a messy, unplanned collection, heavily biased by specific things I was looking for at the time of reading (listening… whatever!).

With 107 points, perhaps the biggest set of notes I’ve taken for a single book was for How Google Works by Eric Schmidt. Yet I don’t remember it being a particularly insightful book. In fact, I’d forgotten I’d read it. On the other hand, some of my favourite books resulted in few notes being taken. There’s no correlate between quality or enjoyment and noteworthiness. So I’ve listed a few of my favourite reads from the last few years of auditory digestion.

Books

  • Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari. And his follow-up: Homo Deus
  • Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – Jack Weatherford
  • The Innovators – Walter Isaacson
  • Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink, Leif Babin
  • The Martian – Andy Weir

Podcasts

  • Radiolab
  • The Tim Ferris Show
  • Hardcore History
  • TED Radio Hour
  • The Infinite Monkey Cage
  • In Our Time
  • How I Built This

Navigating my Notes

Don’t expect all these notes to make any sense, they’re not supposed to. They were never written for a public audience, just noted down for myself as I read through the books they relate to.

The notes are riddled with spelling issues, weird little random characters and other errors, typically caused by being typed into my mobile with two thumbs while walking the street, or midway through a workout or washing-up or whatever. I make no excuse for them.

Some of my common abbreviations and shortcuts:

  • pp – People
  • [n?] / [?] – Unsure of the correct name or word.
  • [sp] / [s] – Unsure of spelling.
  • C6, 20’ – This kind of thing infers a chapter (6) and a time-point in the recording (twenty minutes). It seems that the chapter markers in an Audible recording don’t match the chapters in the text of the book so these codes refer to the recording, not the actual book chapters.

Better Business

Notes on how to build better organisations and be more successful in business.

  1. Build a culture and capability for innovation and creativity from the start, and protect it.
  2. Seek variety of inputs and connections in the network.
  3. Innovation shouldn’t be a vague idea or something nice to aspire to, there are models for innovation practice, applicable to different business stages and environments.
  4. Collaboration, like innovation, is not just vague. It can be supported by specific structures, attitudes, decisions, and the cultivation of an underlying culture.
  5. When big organisations work with / acquire small ones, they must allow the small one to exploit their resources until it is strong enough to give back.
  6. All projects should have a pre-mortem (especially defining worst-case disasters and working back from them) and a post-mortem.
  7. Give people autonomy and let them become leaders, connected by purpose, not reward or power. All employees should think and act like founders.
  8. Don’t take control, give it. Nurture leaders.
  9. Be open by default, not closed. Forget locking customers in and competitors out. Trade control for scale (like the internet itself). Being open (eg. Open source, compatible, etc) removes the fear of unfair advantage and demonstrates your dedication to building an entire eco-system and platform. Restricting information should be a conscious effort and have good reason. Stay closed (eg. Google search algorythms and Apple iOS) if you have a technical insight that will lead to an obviously better product.
  10. Maintain a scrappy, hungry startup culture.
  11. Hiring is hugely important. Get good at hiring and hire well.
  12. Teams are more powerful than people. Forge them with communications, mutual trust and shared purpose.
  13. The user/customer is everything, and everything should be built around them. Being market-focused or, better still, market-driven means installing systems and processes that constantly remind you that it’s the customer that defines the product, not the producer. There are no irrational customers, only lazy companies. Meeting (if not hearing about) the people you are trying to help massively increases results.
  14. Intrinsic motivation (eg. doing stuff because you want to) works, it drives self-development, while extrinsic motivation (eg. getting paid to do stuff, or doing it because you think you’ll get somewhere) doesn’t work, it can reduce development. Financial rewards can be far less positive than experiential rewards.

What Would Google Do?

The above title is the name of one of the books I read in the last few years but it’s also a nice catch-all for what seems to be a theme in my reading: apparently I’m a Google fanboy. Who knew? Something about the company’s mix of scrappy, geeky innovation, with its explosive growth and disruptive success, makes me look to it for ideas. So here are some notes specifically from Google-related content:

  1. All solutions are developed from scratch, better than the existing.
  2. Data wins arguments, not rank, tradition, “common sense”, etc.
  3. Engineers beat managers. >50% of people around the table should be experts in your products, not legal, financial, etc dominating the conversation.
  4. Assign 20% of time to innovation and open projects. Better, assign 70% to core activities/products, 20% to new/innovative stuff, and 10% to complete wildcards.
  5. OKRs (Objective & Key Results) is a good model for performance.
  6. People should aim their OKRs ambitiously and hope to score 0.7-0.8.
  7. OKRs should be public across the company.
  8. Now, more than ever, product excellent should be the focus of your efforts.
  9. Traditional knowledge workers are trained to be better managers, not creative technicians and broad people. Google call them “smart creatives”.
  10. Always hire people smarter than you. And hire learning animals who will be smarter in a few years. Most job ads seek relevant experience as priority. That’s precisely wrong. Seek learners. Make everyone a recruiter and go for best referrals by being very specific. About what you want, then get those referrals (and all candidates) objectively reviewed. Interviewers should include people who will work for you. Don’t let managers hire their own people.
  11. New business strategy/model: develop a strategy that consistently takes advantage of platforms to deliver great products. Use that strategy to attract smart creatives, then create an environment where they can succeed at scale.
  12. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
  13. Meetings should be a Hegelian dialectic: present thesis and have group posit antithesis. Don’t politic, use data. Don’t waste time on assumptions or details that can be tested (eg. What colour is best?).
  14. Staff performance follows a power law, not the normal curve. A tiny minority make the biggest difference – look at them, and help those down the curve to learn from them. Accordingly, pay unfairly, with huge rewards for the outstanding few. Make the best people teach. Performance scales linearly, teaching is geometric.

Key References:

  • Innovation and Entrepreneurship – Peter F. Drucker
  • The Innovators – Walter Isaacson

– Google-specific:

  • How Google Works – Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg
  • In The Plex – Steven Levy
  • What Would Google Do? – Jeff Jarvis
  • Work Rules! – Laszlo Block

Cognitive Models: Biases, Fallacies and other Idiosyncrasies of the Human Mind

I keep coming across these terms for the quirky ways our brains interpret the world and act upon it. Going through them serves as a kind of sense-checklist to avoid falling into some hidden traps that surround us as us storytelling primates try to navigate modern life. I’ve attempted to gather them here (with names where known):

  1. Survivorship Bias: overestimating your odds of success.
  2. Contrast Effect: we perceive value relative to comparisons, not as it actually is.
  3. Regression to the Mean: normal behaviour of fluctuating systems. rewarding good performance is fine but it’s statistical likely to be worse next time. Likewise punishing bad performance will seem effective because they’ll probably do better next time. Tell people that highly intelligent women tend to marry men less intelligent than themselves. They will automatically provide causal reasons but it’s just mathematical certainty. Depressed children who did X every day for three months got better. Meaningless statement without a control group. Depression is an extreme state.
  4. Endowment Effect: ownership, or near-ownership, raises perceived value.
  5. Loss is heavier than gain. Emphasising potential loss gets more action than equal reward.
  6. Self-serving Bias: eg thinking you change the bins more than you do.
  7. Hedonic Treadmill: always returning to your previous level of contentment after a good or bad thing happens. It suggests that everyone has a default level of happiness, fixed through life and largely created by their genes. This is one of my favourites.
  8. Cognitive Dissonance: stress of holding two contradictory views.
  9. Stage Migration: named when new cancer screening techniques found smaller tumours than before, thus expanding Stage 1 tumour range and raising that stage’s life expectancy.
  10. Effort Justification: overvaluing something based on effort invested in it.
  11. Placebo Effect: which is really about the effect of expectations.
  12. Affect Heuristic: unavoidably affected by emotions such as reaction to a smiling face or word like Luxury.
  13. Sleeper Effect: the argument fades slower than the source. If you disagree with someone at first their message may grow in credibility over time as you forget the context.
  14. Decision Fatigue: decision-making ability and willpower deteriorate throughout the day, between meals, throughout the week, etc. Budget them and be efficient with them.
  15. Deformation Professionelle: only seeing the perspective of your knowledgebase. Mark Twain: if your only tool is a hammer all your problems will be nails.
  16. Feature Positive Effect: more is given to present things than absent ones.
  17. The fallacy of the single cause: when something goes wrong, list possible causes, then poss causes of those causes, etc to create a network of causality. Then delete the ones you can’t feasibly change (like human nature).
  18. Fairness is reference-dependent. Imposing losses (eg wage cuts) is felt to be unfair. Imposing same reduction on future wages is seen as fair.
  19. Possibility Effect (eg. 0% to 5%): non-zero odds are psychologically significant even if they’re mathematically irrelevant. Likewise Certainty Effect (eg. 95% to 100%).
  20. Things like terrorism trigger an availability cascade, amplified by media, especially when associated to a common theme (eg busses, bins, etc).
  21. Broad framing – developing one single choice for multiple options combined. Eg. locking-in investments for the quarter – deliberately avoid frequent checking of progress to avoid loss aversion from small losses outweighing small wins. Instead, Broad Frame.
  22. Sunk Cost Fallacy: when things fail people tend to gamble further to save them.
  23. Preference Reversal: seeing options separately or together can reverse our opinion. Evaluating things jointly seems to be the answer.
  24. Duration Neglect: the length of experience of pleasure or pain is not nearly as significant as its intensity.
  25. The Focusing Illusion: nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you’re thinking about it.
  26. Miswanting: we are poor at Affective Forecasting (eg. thinking I will be happier if I live in the sun or get more money). – Goods and services like a new house or car lose their impact on wellbeing and we delude ourselves as to their long term benefits. Attention-holding pursuits like socialising and tennis have enduring benefits.
  27. Ego depletion: All effort – mental, emotional, physical, etc – deplete each other, reducing self-control. Concentration on task, and deliberate control of attention, both compound to deplete your resources. Limit your attention and decisions. However, unlike cognitive load (mental business), ego depletion can be overcome with effort. It draws glucose like physical exercise too so glucose can overcome it.
  28. Priming: one idea primes you for associated ones.
  29. Cognitive strain is good for focus, problem solving, avoiding errors, etc. While Cognitive ease is good for intuition and creativity. In other words, if you want to solve a narrow task, focus. If you want to be creative, relax.
  30. To create convincing messages, reduce cognitive strain. Eg. good legibility (fonts, language, etc); simple language, not complex; bold text and colours; make it memorable (eg written in verse, rhyming, etc); quote easily pronounced sources.
  31. Uncorrelate errors. Don’t let bias influence future judgements (eg crowdsourced decisions and estimates must be made independently before sharing or discussing).
  32. What you see is all there is: Our confidence in our beliefs is based on how good a story we can tell about what’s in front of us.
  33. The Mental Shotgun: we invoke several associated but potentially irrelevant themes at once.
  34. Intensity Matching: I feel x good about y pounds in cash. We use heuristics to make easy judgements.
  35. The affect heuristic: our emotions guide our rationality. You like it so you judge it to be better.
  36. The desire to create causal stories for events and information is hard to dodge. We are reluctant to accept the randomness of many things. We are good at handling stories with causal connections but not at statistical reasoning.
  37. Anchoring: our estimates of unknown numbers are drastically affected by being presented with a number before, whether or not it’s at all related. Anchoring can be reduced or removed by deliberately focusing on the opposite extreme or the other player’s potential loss.
  38. Availability heuristic: bias based on what is (or isn’t) available to you, eg personal experience, associated ideas, pictures, news, etc
  39. The conjunction fallacy: Less is More: probabilities are sum-like problems. If additional details are added, the probability must come down. Similarly, the halo effect is where an observer’s overall impression of a person influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that person’s character.
  40. Hindsight Bias: it’s hard to reconstruct previous opinions, after they’ve shifted – you are convinced you had the same view always.
  41. The illusion of validity: we have absurd confidence in stories we built from tiny evidence bases.
  42. The planning fallacy: we make unrealistic plans. Eg. domestic refurbishment typically costs twice the proposed cost.

Key References:

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  • The Art of Thinking Clearly – Rolf Dobelli
  • Drive – Dan Pink

Some Stand-out Quotes and Notes (About Anything)

  1. All humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone (Blaise Pascal – from The Art of Thinking Clearly).
  2. Stop reading the news, it’s bad for you. The best summary of this principle that I’ve seen was – with honourable irony – in The Guardian newspaper: News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier. It’s also no. 99 in the Art of Thinking Clearly. I think the author even states that it’s the most important of all the cognitive biases. He tells us to turn our back on news, explaining that, if 1bn people spent one hour consuming news about the 200 people killed in the Mumbai attacks, 2,000 lives were wasted.
  3. Economics is not the study of money but behaviour. (Drive – Dan Pink)
  4. Seek Force Multipliers, aka Archimedes Levers: the small changes or actions that make big differences. This relates to the 80:20 Rule, aka the Pareto Principle, that 80% of effects come from 20% of actions. This is where you get things like Google’s 20% Time (aka Google Fridays). This can also be 70:20:10, where the 10 is some exceptional case, such as real wildcard ideas. Google even used 70:20:10 to give the best projects to their top 20% performers, and fired the bottom 10%.
  5. Customers don’t buy products, they buy satisfaction. People don’t want 1/4″ drills, they want 1/4″ holes. (Little Black Book of Innovation)
  6. The knack of being a leader is to get people to follow you, sometimes to places they don’t want to go, by motivating them to share your mission. (Innovators – Walter Isaacson).
  7. (In relation to changing hierarchical organisations, such as the military, into decentralised networks with open communications and distributed autonomy) In this new paradigm – of Shared Consciousness and Empowered Execution – leaders have to change too, from controlling everything, to nurturing culture. More like gardeners than chess players. (Team of Teams – General Stanley McChrystal).
  8. No strategy is as valuable as talent. (How Google Works – Eric Schmidt).
  9. Lavish your people with information and give them space to think. “Power comes from knowledge shared, not knowledge stored” Bill Gates. Leadership is about optimal info flow. Default to open. (How Google Works – Eric Schmidt).
  10. “Two is one, and one is none” – heard from the Navy Seals.

Winning Traits of Successful People

One of the best ways to succeed at anything may be to model yourself on those already good at it. I’m trying to do this by learning about people who are successful in just about any way, not just in business but in health, happiness, art and so on. Over the last couple of years, most of this information has come from a single source: The Tim Ferriss Show. His podcast is less of an instructional manual than his famous books, it’s a long-running set of interviews with remarkable people where Tim asks them how they live their lives and think about the world. From dozens of interviews, there are some clear trends. Tim summarises his own trends in this episode too, and it seems he is now releasing a book along these lines: Tools of Titans. Here are a handful of mine:

  1. To be successful (in life, work, whatever), get yourself out of the way. Let creativity come through you, don’t let your fears or prejudices mislead you, build structure and rationality to follow.
  2. Time isn’t money. Consider time as your most precious commodity, worth more than money. Above a basic survival income, money won’t make you happier but time is precious and should be protected. Don’t let people eat into your time lightly, which happens by all sorts of means: emails, meetings, unnecessary bureaucracy and tasks, etc. “The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource” (Daniel Kahneman).
  3. Focus. Stop doing the things that waste your time – email, social media, meetings, side-projects, etc. – until it’s just you and the thing you need to make the change you want to see in the world. Just you, alone with your muse, “dancing with your fear” as Seth Godin put it.
  4. Journal, every day, preferably under the pressure of a public channel.

Military Thinking, for Business and Life

  1. Communicating relevant, timely information allows the commander to have a Common Operational Picture (ie. where and how everything is at any time in the field), and develop situational awareness for better decision-making.
  2. Commanders don’t issue orders. Subjugates don’t always take commands. Commanders lead.
  3. Whether they are above or below you, if you have a problem with someone, it’s your fault. Take ownership of the relationship, and you’ll get what you need when you need it. Take extreme ownership.
  4. Two is one and one is none“. Avoid single points of failure.
  5. Entrepreneurs are not so much risk-takers as very detailed and structured risk-mitigators.

Key references:

  • Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink, Leif Babin (Navy Seals)
  • Team of Teams – General Stanley McChrystal

A Couple of Big Ideas

  1. The world is getting better, not worse, in spite of the popular horror stories around us. At least, the world has been getting better consistently for the entire course of human history so it’s reasonable to hope for better things yet to come. This is true across just about every metric you might want to measure: violence, equality, living standards, etc. With the one big, looming exception of potential ecological disaster, the upward trend of human life seems to be a gigantic secret that the news media, politicians and our friends have failed to notice. We may be standing at the gates of heaven while staring at our feet in despair.
  2. Modern biology sees humans simply as a complex array of algorithms for processing data. The cognitive revolution allowed homo sapiens to overcome the old limits to their network size and structure by harnessing new data processing capabilities. Now that we are using technology to create better algorithms, and a richer network of nodes, artificial intelligence may know us better than we know ourselves. Then what status should we give it?

Key References:

  • The Better Angels of our Nature – Stephen Pinker
  • Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari. And his follow-up: Homo Deus

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