As I don’t have time to do full write-ups on everything I get through, here is just a brief few comments on the books I chose to read in 2018 and the key things I want to remember of them. Roughly in the order I would recommend them for general consumption…
2. Poor Charlie’s Almanac, Charlie Munger
An amazing read, in echoes of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richards’s Almanac, full of down to earth wisdom and common sense, not to mention that this should be compulsory reading for anyone in the investment field.
The single biggest concept is the idea of being well acquainted with the core mental models used in a wide variety of disciplines, and then be able to apply those in other situations in a methodical way. This is perhaps the best articulation of the multidisciplinary approach to which I aspire.
The incredible moments for me are his insights into psychology. Many of these are now better understood with progress in modern behavioural economics, but Charlie Munger was years ahead in figuring out a lot of this for himself. He also makes some astute observations about the current state of psychology which, relative to many other sciences, seems in its infancy.
3. The biography of Benjamin Franklin: an American Life by Walter Isaacson
I had no idea just how prolific a thinker, scientist and statesman/politician Benjamin Franklin was. This book gives a real sense of that. Standout thoughts for me:
- He was in many senses the ultimate pragmatist, choosing what was useful over ideology over and over again
- His basic industriousness and strong drive towards practical daily work
- His own awareness of his fallibility, while striving towards this industrious ideal
- His role as a scientist and his curiosity about the natural world, including much around an understanding of electricity, inventing descriptions such as battery, positive, negative, charge etc.
- His role as a printer, the power of the media in influencing society’s direction and thoughts
- His passionate forming of societies to further all sorts of ends, and his ability to network
- The interplay between aiming to find a diplomatic solution versus knowing when to take a stand. The role he played in the founding of America and its independence from Britain was quite incredible – from diplomacy to the leading of militias. And while this happened over much of his life, he achieved the majority in his last 10 years from the age of 65 to around 75.
- He was instrumental in writing of, and was the only common signatory to the Declaration of Independence, the peace treaty with Britain (and with France) and the US Constitution. He was instrumental in forming a governance system that would bring the various independent states, into one United States, and in creating the two chamber structure of the Senate and the House.
- The contrast between his pragmatic beliefs in “salvation by works” and a frankly not very deep religious conviction, versus Jonathan Edwards’ thinking, a leading Christian spiritual thinker of the timewho emphasised salvation by grace and grace alone, which I find spiritually curious.
4. Consilience by Edward O. Wilson
His key concept is the unification and “consilience” of all fields of knowledge, the natural sciences, social sciences, art, spirituality and religion, with a scientific underpinning. The book was helpful to me in several ways:
- In furthering this idea that what are traditionally thought of as separate fields of enquiry, are in fact highly related; and understanding one, may lead to deeper understanding of another.
- Along side this, is the observation that most people become specialists in one area and few are the generalists making connections across what are considered separate areas of expertise. There is great opportunity for those willing to span the fields.
- The idea of deeply rooted genetic origins to some of our cultural- and spiritual practices, and that our minds grow in a cultural context as part of a communal mind.
- He was quite prescient in his insight that it would be the development of our understanding of the mind, that would become a connecting force across many of these areas.
- The idea of social- or collective-Darwinism, the importance of culture in creating cohesion, that group cultures can evolve and individuals may subserve their needs to the group in order to ensure its survival.
- This then leads to discussions of the social sciences from evolutionary biology to economics to psychology and hence onto art, ethics and religion.
- While many may disagree, I found he had a positive light on spirituality and religion in the sense that, it is necessary for the effective organisation of our cultures
- He is again prescient in looking forward at issues like gene therapy and environmentalism
This is an intellectually exhausting read, with many concepts tightly packed and demanding language, so I would recommend it if you are interested in the idea of reconciliation as the basis for all forms of human knowledge; but be prepared to put the effort in.
5. Deep Work by Cal Newport
An easy read and some good practical advice too which I will be applying in the coming year to try and improve my productivity and general focus. (I have put out a separate post summarising my takeaways on this book.)
6. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
This book has been hugely helpful in understanding our family’s internal motivations and drivers. The world can be split into two types of people: those who believe in personality types and those who don’t! Jokes aside, personality types can be useful mental models. Rubin develops a mental model of what motivates people: are we driven by what others expect of us, or are we driven internally by our own expectations, do we balance other people’s and our own expectations or do we reject all expectations – those arising from within and those of other people? Which of these types is dominant, has a great deal to say about how we approach life, and what approach in work or relationships will be effective in motivating in specific situations.
In our experience her mental model was highly descriptive of the different members of our family. Each of the four different ‘types’ she describes is a good fit to one of the four of us. It’s been very helpful in understanding what approach to take in working with one another. Recommended for anyone in a relationship or parenting, struggling to make things work better.
There is too much to distil into one summary but a few of the key highlights and takeaways for me include:
- What I have seen is that the happiest people discover their own nature and match their life to it.
- Two worthy life goals: meaningful work and meaningful relationships
- Embrace reality, see it as it truly is, and deal with it
- Love your mistakes and learn from them. pain plus reflection = progress
- Weigh second- and third-order consequences when making decisions
- Have good mental maps (to help you understand the world), humility and open mindedness (to know you don’t have all the answers and be open to other’s solutions)
- Understand your own ego barrier, preventing you from understanding or accepting your weaknesses and blind spots, versus your executive function, a higher level ‘you’ that wants to make the right decision – these are in conflict.
- A concept of believability: weighted decision making I think is very powerful – weight the opinions of those with proven track records and who are most expert. This is a better model than either consensus decision making or dictatorial decision making. One of the most important decisions you can make is who you ask the questions of.
- Other people genuinely see the world very differently from the way you do. Sincerely believe that you might not know the best possible path. You must suspend judgement and empathise to properly evaluate another person’s perspective.
- Decision making is a two step process. Take in all the relevant information, then decide.
- Thoughtful disagreement is an art: how to be both open minded and assertive.
- Everything looks bigger closer up, and ‘new’ is overvalued relative to ‘great’.
- Navigate levels effectively, high, intermediate, detailed. Synthesis requires back to the big picture, not getting lost in the detail. Simplify. It takes a genius to make it simple.
Work principles (a few of the many he suggests)
- Organisations consist of people and culture
- An idea meritocracy = radical truth + radical transparency + believability weighted decision making
- You have to be able to put your honest thoughts on the table, have thoughtful disagreement and abide by agreed-upon ways of getting past disagreement
- Be loyal to the common mission, not to anyone who is not operating consistently with it
- Create a culture where it is okay to make mistakes but unacceptable not to learn from them
- Get in sync
- Don’t leave important conflicts unresolved
- Once a decision is made everyone should get behind it, even if individuals still disagree
- Who is more important than what, hire right: for values, then abilities (ways of thinking and behaving), then skills (learnt tools), pay attention to track record
- Don’t tolerate problems
- Diagnose problems and get to their root cause
- Evolve the machine
- Have good governance
My suggestion for using this book in a business context (after you have understood the big principles and concepts) is, if you have a specific set of challenges you’re facing there will probably be a section of his book that applies to that. See if applying them in your situation would be helpful. There is way too much to hold it all in mind, at once.
- Politics and the rise of populism
- The rise and impact of Artificial Intelligence
- Issues around education, truth and fake news, power
- The development of secular spiritualism
- The workings of the mind and our understanding of it
I put out a separate post on this book too picking up on the themes of Artificial Intelligence and its increasing impact on work and the world, and on decision making psychology. A relatively accessible read with a bonus for anyone interested in the chess itself.
10. The retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce
(Again, one I have done a separate blogpost on.) Articulate, and well-written, this is an excellent read for anyone wanting to understand the changing political landscape and rise of populism.
11. The Psychology Book (published by DK)
Psychology and the way our brains work has been an increasing area of interest for me both professionally and personally. I believe that psychology and the mind is going to be greatest and most important frontier on which we will make progress over the coming decades. I see its relevance everywhere: in interpersonal relationships between adults, both personal and professional; with children, as parents; in the aged; in the rise of interest in meditation and self help, in the rise of mental health issues amongst friends, colleagues and our community, and in my own self. I think mental health will become bigger than physical ailments as the frontier to address of human suffering. And compared to many of the other sciences it is its infancy, only just emerging from the dark ages. The subject it is studying is the most complex machine ever devised, the human brain. And studying cognition as opposed to the physical brain, is one of the most difficult things to do scientifically because most of it is happening in our heads, which to date are not terribly transparent to scientific inquiry.
However as one approaches this subject it’s inevitably starts off as very confusing, with lots of different terminology and theories, and everyone appears to think that their theory is the perfect one to address your current situation. In the words of Charlie Munger, “to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. In an attempt to try to make some sense of the cacophony of theories and approaches I am trying to get a more global picture of the field of psychology, this book by DK has been immensely helpful. It summarises the key ideas that each major psychologist contributed to the field and its helping me create a mental map of the different approaches and lineages we know of to date.
12. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
This was my fiction read of the year, a wonderful yarn combining the modern history of cryptography from World War Two through to today (slightly before the advent of crypto currency). It’s a bit long and some descriptions of less relevant facts can go on for a while but it’s a good nerd’s adventure, and he certainly knows his facts when it comes to cryptography.