BR 204: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

Category: 1 – Read ASAP! (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

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.

BR 198: Einstein by Walter Isaacson

Category: 3 – SHELF it (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: I understand this book wouldn’t be for everyone. However, if you have any interest in science and the life and works of Albert Einstein, I’d suggest taking your time reading this one. The middle portion might get a bit boring. But, the end is worth it. Walter Isaacson takes his time to develop Einstein’s character. And, by the end, you realize that the time taken was completely worth it.

I began reading to understand Einstein the genius. And, I finished understanding Einstein, the wise human being. 🙂

Top 3 Learnings:

1. Einstein’s genius wasn’t about his brain but how his mind works. He was the true example of endless curiosity. You can imagine him as a kid lying sick and wondering about how the compass works and then wondering what it might be like to travel alongside a wave.

2. The most striking thing about Einstein was his wry detachment and equanimity. He never took himself or his work seriously. He may have blown hot or cold with his family when he felt confined. But, otherwise, he was a passionate and caring man who was adored by his colleagues. They hosted a wonderful 70th birthday ceremony where they spoke more about his character than his work.

He used his old age to defend the rights of those who were young and to use the luxury of his reputation to pursue his field theory. However, over the years, he relied more on complex math than the physics that had made him great. A part of his resistance was his now quaint refusal to accept quantum mechanics.

3.Is everything alright? “Everything is alright. I am not.” – he said to his secretary on his last day at the institute. 🙂 His “wry detachment” is evident.

Book notes here.

BR 193: The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zheihan

The accidental superpower, peter zheihan

Category: 1 – Read ASAP! (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

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.

BR 179: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Category: 3 – SHELF it (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: Malcolm Gladwell is a masterful writer and weaves together many stories into a compelling book that asks us to rethink our traditional ideas of what constitutes an advantage.

Top 3 Learnings:

1. You may be better off being a big fish in a small pond. More people get discouraged and depressed being average at a top institution.

2. David and Goliath was a mismatched battle. As a slinger, Goliath actually stood no chance.

3. There is such a thing as a desired level of adversity. That’s how character is built.

Book notes here.

BR 168: Mastery by Robert Greene

Category: 1 – Read ASAP! (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: A Robert Greene masterclass. Lovely mix of biographical stories wrapped within a compelling framework. A lot of the stuff isn’t new. But, the combination is potent.

Top 3 Learnings:

1. Mastery is a culmination of years of intense deep work. There is no easy way.

2. Apprenticeship is both awesome and dangerous. On the one hand, your learning curve speeds up with great mentors. However, very few mentors turn out to be large minded enough to “let go” – it is the typical bad parent problem all over again

3. Developing emotional intelligence is a useful tool to make sure your mastery gets the credit it deserves. This section spoke to me. I assumed I had high EI but had learnt from a relationship that that wasn’t the case. This chapter taught me one simple but critical lesson – stop listening to what people say. Instead, listen to what they do.

Book notes here

BR 167: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Category: 2 – BUY it! (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: If you have any interest in technology whatsoever, this book is a must read. Awesome awesome 140 odd year journey starting from when Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace conceptualized the modern computer.

Top 3 Learnings:

1. History favors writing about the individual but great innovations were always made by teams that worked incredibly well with each other.. and almost always built upon the good work done by many others.

2. A collection technology change makers have been at the intersection of the arts and sciences (e.g. Steve Jobs). The big learning here is that diversity of skills, interests, etc., are really productive. The greatest tech innovations have come about when diverse minds came together.

3. Artificial intelligence has always been two decades away.. (;-))

Book notes here

BR 132: The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

Category: 1 – Read ASAP! (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: This is the sort of history book I enjoy. Hot on the heels of “A Splendid Exchange” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” this book is fantastic for those interested in understanding the story behind the financial infrastructure that exists today. Given the increasing spotlight on financial instruments (thanks largely to their failure), this is compulsory reading for anyone interested in understanding the real “infrastructure” of our development.

Top 3 learnings:

1. The world would NOT be a better place without our financial evolution. Credit and debit are critical to the growth of economies, businesses, and are the foundation to economic progress. Finance has underlined the big shifts in our societies. For example, the era of colonialism (or the first attempt at globalization) was only made possible by financial innovation – the dutch VOC was the first “public” company with a swath of public shareholders. The British emulated the Dutch and did it better.

2. War is the mother of all things. War was the real reason behind financial innovation. The concept of the bond market was created to fund wars between Italian states, the stock market was invented for better success in colonial wars.. and finance also played it’s part by being the real cause for wartime success and failure. The British triumph against Napoleon and the defeat of the south in  the American civil wars were determined more by financial causes than any other.

3. Credit is critical for growth. The biggest benefit of the modern day financial system is that a larger proportion of the population are able to escape the clutches of loan sharks who charge interest rates upto 11 million percent and thus keep the poor poor.

Book notes here

BR 118: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Category: 3 – SHELF it (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: I am guessing the original (Chinese) version is one with stories behind the principles. My audio book was a short 1 hour 2o minute listen with a summary of principles. Thanks to the absence of stories, they didn’t really stick. Age old war wisdom though.

Top 3 learnings:

1. You only move as a general when your odds are favorable. Bravado is foolish. At every point, it’s about staying rational and improving your odds.  A general is not the same as warrior..

2. Everything in life is about a few basic things. 3 basic colors give rise to a whole spectrum of colors – similarly, war (and, as an extension, everything else) has a few very basic principles. Ensure you know them well.

3. Control of communication and discipline is incredibly important if managing large groups. “Never attack an army whose banners are upright.”

BR 91: The Lessons of History by Will Durant

Category: 2 – BUY it! (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: A truly fascinating read. I was debating whether or not to put this into Category 1. It just missed the cut.

The most fascinating thing about this book, for me, is that this is literally historian Will Durant’s thesis – a thesis of his life. Will and Ariel Durant try to put together the lessons they have learnt from all their studies and bring it all together brilliantly.

Top 3 Learnings:

1. Competition is a natural order. We only collaborate to compete better. The world is Darwinian. Character only arises once basic needs are met.

2. What was a great trait in the past is likely to be a weakness in the present. For example, a very virile brute of a man would have been THE asset in earlier times when physical survival and passing on your sperm mattered most. In today’s world however, he would just be a dumb mannerless brute.

3. Resources (like intelligence) are always scattered unfairly. As a result, a small proportion of the world will always control it. There is no such thing as equality in nature.

4. As a result, religion matters greatly because it is what ensures the masses keep faith. (Will Durant predicts a period of social unrest within decades because of falling faith in Christianity in the 1960s when this is written and my jaw dropped as I thought of the period of social unrest we are having right now)

5. Respect for tradition is something he feels he would take more seriously if he had to ‘do it all over again.’ It is the tension between youth and old age that advances our civilization after all and he acknowledges that as he’s getting older, he has increased respect for traditions.

Some of his observations and predictions are truly amazing. And as you can see from the extra 2 learnings, this was a fantastic book!

 

PS: It’s been a while since I’ve updated this. Lots of exciting books but a lack of time. More to follow..

BR 74: Worlds at War by Anthony Pagden

CategorySHELF it (All Categories are 1) Read ASAP! 2) BUY it! 3) SHELF it 4) SOMEDAY it)

Comments: Note – I couldn’t finish this book thanks to some corruption in the audio of the 3rd part. From my experience of 2/3rds of this massive massive book – it starts very well with fascinating insights about the greeks, the romans etc and then fizzles once it enters into the middle ages and become a collection of facts, names and dates.

The first part was excellent. The second part not-so-great. Still, likely a book worth reading if you love history..