2019 Reading List- 25 mins
I love to read books but unfortunately I have not placed reading books as a priority during my university years. It is very easy to conflate technical growth with personal growth. Hence, this year, one of my New Year resolution OKRs was to expand my mental representation of the world by reading 26 books this year, a book every 2 weeks (Update: Managed to exceed this goal by 24 books). This list is a compilation of my progress so far and my personal review of their impact on me.
One disclaimer I would like to state about reading books is what Patrick Collison terms “Book-Reader-Fit”, which is that that a book’s impact and impression on you depends on where you currently are in your life. That is, a book that is currently a 2.5/5 for me may be a 4/5 if I had read it at a different stage of my life and vice versa. So these ratings that I have ascribed are not an absolute declaration of the book’s influence on me but rather how do they resonate with me as a 23-year old in his final year of his undergraduate degree.
Click here to see the entire reading list. The seven books that has had the biggest impact on me this year:
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Book List (50/26)
Educated: A Memoir
5/5: An extremely powerful story showcasing someone living with such an unorthodox family. The struggles between being part of their family against conventional societal norms. The transition between her two orthogonal worlds through the power of education was truly moving.
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
4.5/5: A detailed gripping account of such a complex and often misunderstood individual. To see all the failures and shortcoming of such a prominent and influential figure was quite revealing.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
4.5/5: A hilarious book striking a fantastic balance between humour, family, brutality, and finding your place in the world.
When Breath Becomes Air
4.5/5: This was quite a powerful memoir for me as death as reading about an individual who delayed so much gratification in awaiting a long term payoff suddenly faces the injustice of life being ended so early. This book has given me a new profound respect for the medical establishment. Some memorable quotes:
- Focus on the Present, Plan for the Future.
- When you take up another’s cross, you must be willing to sometimes get crushed by its weight.
- Death comes for all of us. It is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms.
- Life isn’t about avoiding suffering. The defining characteristic of an organism is striving.
4/5: This book gave me new perspective on Edward Snowden and the importance of whistle blowers in our system.
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike
4/5: Great inspirational American rags to riches story.
A Beautiful Mind
4/5: This book was great for romanticising a life in academia, something which I long considered. The book’s exposition on the beauty of pure mathematics and Economics was really inspiring for a Math major like myself. Furthermore, it was really interesting to see many famous and notable names pop up through the book (e.g. Neumann, Belman) and seeing a much more humane side to these giants in Mathematics. Would recommend to any STEM student.
3.5/5: Quite a revealing story into how flawed of an individual Steve Jobs was rather than the messianic figure people made him out to be. His short comings such as his anger, manipulative nature, and lack of empathy were fascinating but then it was also heartening to see his transformation after returning to Apple. A good example of how one of the most iconic figures meandered around for alot of his early life and then integrated that into his expertise at building a long lasting company.
Hashiru Koto ni Tsuite Kataru Toki ni Boku no Kataru Koto (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running)
3.5/5: A nice read on the daily routines and lifestyle of arguably Asia’s most prominent author. His book brings about a sense of calm in a world where it is so easy to get caught up with the daily hustle.
What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence
3/5: Reading about Schwarzman’s ideas of holding the highest standards for yourself and employees was something that has resonated for me. Some interesting quotes for his rules for life:
- “Never deviate from your sense of right and wrong. Your integrity must be unquestionable. It is easy to do what’s right when you don’t have to write a check or suffer any consequences. It’s harder when you have to give something up. Always do what you say you will, and never mislead anyone for your own advantage.”
- “Everyone has dreams. Do what you can to help others achieve theirs.”
- “It’s as easy to do something big as it is to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate to your effort.”
3/5: It was interesting learning about how to build a company culture where the business is all about creativity and how to effectively go about doing so. The discussions on the intersection of differential geometry and computational graphics were quite interesting.
3/5: This was a really fun read and felt like I was reading an adventure novel set in Silicon Valley. Whilst quite sarcastic and lewd alot of the times, Chaos Monkeys really taught me about alot of the absurdities that goes in these seemingly prestigious organisations and not to take life too seriously. Would recommend for aspiring high flyers in tech/startups.
Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s
3/5: A heartwarming story of a man who achieved so much success at an age where most people would start to think about retiring (50 years old). A true example of someone who finds meaning and enjoyment in their work.
The man who solved the market: How James Simons launched the quant revolution
2.5/5: The mathematician in me loved the higher-level mathematics discussed in the book. However, I felt that there were alot of times, it didn’t delve into the psyche of James Simons.
The Everything Store
2.5/5: An interesting exploration of the intense grit and tenacity of Jeff Bezos. Whilst there was some exploration of his decision making framework, I found that I was not able to take away much else. It was interesting to see in retrospect how insane it must have seen to people for him to leave his high-paying job in trading to start a website selling books.
That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea
2.5/5: Few take aways:
- You have to learn to love the problem, not the solution. That’s how you stay engaged when things take longer than you expected.
- “When you start a company, what you’re really doing is getting other people to latch on to an idea”.
- “Most business plans are a complete waste of time … So the trick is to take your idea and set it on a collision course with reality as soon as possible”.
- You can figure out the correct technology trend but not the timing.
- Tightly aligned and loosely coupled culture is the way to go for when you hire smart people in your company.
- Smart people will figure out tough problems.
Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
2/5: I didn’t particularly feel like I was given a close up look at Jack Ma nor felt that the book did justice to the remarkable work he has done.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
4.5/5: Extremely powerful book on understanding the plight of the lower socio-economic classes. Why do the poor spend their money seemingly frivolously? Finally, it really struck a chord in me on the importance of having a place to call home and lay down roots.
Talking to Strangers
4/5: Very interesting book and completely different to what I expected it to be about. The idea of the illusion of asymmetric insight, that is, we believe we understand others much better than others understanding us, was something quite interesting. That it is easy for ourselves in our ego-centric worldviews to underestimate the complexities of others. Furthermore, the notion of Default Truth Theory, that we operate within the world with truth being a default as it makes things easier for us made me alot more aware of subtleties of human interactions. In particular, we actually have a threshold of doubt required to be met before we believe that we are being lied to so that it is not actually the presence of doubt that makes breakaway from our default of truth but sufficient presence of doubt that makes us break out of truth. This and other concepts underly why it is actually so difficult for us to read and figure out strangers.
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics
2.5/5: I’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow last year and I found that to be a more interesting book on dealing with Behavioural Economics. I would suggest Kahneman’s book as alot of the content from Misbehaving can be found in Kahneman’s book whilst going into more detail. There were some interesting anecdotes in this book but nothing too memorable for me.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
5/5: This book was a game changer in helping me prioritise my life and HOW should I go about achieving my goals in life.
- Success begets more opportunities. This leads to the undisciplined pursuit of more and distraction from the essential and things that make you successful in the first place. This then leads to failure.
- Identify what is essential (5 things) and learn how to say no.
Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
5/5: This book has had alot of hype surrounding it and I can definitely see why. It challenges alot of conventional wisdom (my favourite type of book). Some key takeaways:
- Take time and accumulate range of experience and skills. Once you sample enough and feel like you know yourself well enough, go deep on an interest and get really good.
- Meandering around instead of specialising in the beginning is OKAY.
- Our work preferences and life preferences generally do not stay the same.
- Kind vs wicket environments explain why some things like chess and golf benefit from fast and early specialisation.
- Beware of premature optimisation for career. Better to choose from the best options you have. Our selves change dramatically over time.
- There is a famous study known as the Darkhorse study. Majority of successful people believe that their path was not the conventional path (can you see the paradox here). They worked on moment by moment mindset. They ask themselves: “Here’s who I am at the moment, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which opportunity is the best match now?”.
The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning
4.5/5: This may be quite biased as I am a massive fan of Scott Galloway but I really do appreciate his style of sarcasm. Whilst I do not agree with everything he says, there were quite a few interesting gems. Few takeaways from the book:
- When you are young, focus on zipcode and credentials. These two factors are the biggest predictors of success and wealth. Only a select few megacities are generating economic growth and just like playing against a better tennis player, rallying with the best will improve your game. These are hard to do when you’re older.
- Sacrifice balance when you’re young so you can have balance later (if you’re aiming to be in the 0.1%). This is to achieve financial stability and professional success early on.
- Following your passions is terrible advice. Most people do not know what their passions are. Find out what you’re good at and become great at it. As a result, you’ll earn status and money and will become passionate about your work over time.
- Don’t forget to enjoy time and activities with the ones you care about.
Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up
4/5: Reboot was a nice breath of fresh air seeing someone who has such an accomplished career talk about such personal and heartfelt issues. It is easy to get caught up in the everyday grind but this book really helped me to stop and reflect on why I do what I do. It is an interesting take on improving your leadership capabilities by examining yourself within as “better leaders are better humans and better humans are better leaders” which means that “leadership lessons, then, are, at their core, lessons in humanity”. A well executed example of radical self-inquiry.
The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
4/5: This was a good read in seeing how a modern polymath approaches his learning. Key takeaways from the book:
- Focus on the fundamentals and components first.
- Enjoy the learning process but also put your ego on the line. That is, it is okay to make mistakes.
- Two notions of development pyschology and learning. Entity theorists attributes success and failure to an unalterable level of ability. Incremental theorists argue that hard work can be mastered step by step. Be the latter.
- “The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort of safety.”
- Learn how to regain composure after a big mistake. It is very easy to spiral downwards after making a big mistake.
- Build a trigger. Learn how to turn yourselves on into a focused state for whenever you need it. This can be listening to a song that pumps you out or meditating.
3.5/5: The main premise of the book is to focus on developing a deep level of expertise and doing work that is considered to be “deep”, which usually coincides with work that can’t be easily replicable by others and adds alot more value, a skill needed to succeed in the modern world. The idea of blocking 3-4 hours of your day to focus on a single task with no distractions (e.g. friends) was immensely useful for helping my university studies by dramatically increasing the efficiency of my study sessions and giving me more time to focus on other aspects of my life. The reason that the rating wasn’t any higher was that I didn’t find the rest of the book that interesting after the sections mentioned above and found it to be repetitive. I would actually suggest that reading a summary of this book or just some of it would be sufficient in taking away the main messages of the book.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
3.5/5: The definitive book on the looking at the autotelic nature of work. Some key takeways:
- We enjoy ourselves when performing challenging activities requiring skills. You know the feeling of when you’re completely absorbed in something and can work away at it for hours? That is flow. Getting into flow constantly leads to happiness.
- Find tasks where you can see progress and receive feedback to help you achieve flow.
- The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
Measure What Matters: OKRs: The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth
3/5: John Doerr is a famous investor having backed the founders of Google, Amazon, Intuit and more. This book was a good insight for his advice on setting objectives and goals for organisations. I actually found that I was able to adopt this idea to my own personal life, by setting Objectives and Key Results to the goals I want to achieve. This is actually a concept that Doerr picked up from Andy Grove of Intel.
- An objective points us in a direction we want to go whilst Key Results are specific, time-bound, and measurable metrics to track our objectives.
- At Google, there are two types of OKRs. Committed and aspirational OKRs. Aspirational OKRs should generally only be 70% achieved as any higher means your OKR was not aspirational enough and any lower was delusional.
- OKRs allows us to focus on what matters, measure our progression to our goals, and stretch us.
Never Split the Difference
2.5/5: The main takeaways from this book for me are the notion of using tactical empathy to understand your counterparty better. Furthermore, instead of the traditional economic notions of negotiations being a rational process, it is in fact quite an irrational process. Finally, there are many different types of no’s and yes’.
Getting Things Done
2.5/5: The only real takeaway I got from this book was having a collection bucket and action list. That is, that our brain is terrible at storing information and hence the moment we have an idea/thought in which we need to recollect later on, WRITE IT DOWN IMMEDIATELY. Hence, having a collection bucket to collect these thoughts/ideas and then moving them to your action list when it is time to get things done. I didn’t find the other aspects of the GTD system that useful for me personally. I think personally I already have quite a strong framework in place to get stuff done that I am quite happy with currently.
Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ
2/5: Didn’t really help much with developing my EQ but definitely helped with understanding WHAT EQ is. However, the book influenced my view that EQ is something that you can actually develop with practice. Luckily, I was surrounded by amazing individuals at this time of my life when I was reading this book that really helped me to learn alot more about EQ and put it into practice.
The Art of Public Speaking: Lessons from the greatest speeches in history
1/5: Unfortunately, I found this course to not have improved my public speaking in any manner. Maybe I would have benefited alot more from doing a Toastmaster course. Susan Cain’s talks on the matter had a much bigger impact on me, most likely due to the fact that I am an introvert myself.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
5/5: All the hype around Sapiens should be redirected towards this book. This paints such an illuminating history of humankind from the perspective of debt and how it influences our financial system, customs, and norms. This book instantly dispelled numerous mental models I had about the world in the first 20 minutes of starting this book. Would recommend to anyone interested in Economics and history.
4.5/5: A nice concise and elegantly explained book on the history of philosophy, made quite accessible for a layman such as myself.
4/5: This was an extremely interesting read into how Silicon Valley can still get some things terribly wrong. In particular, to always have a grain of salt when listening to the supposedly game-changing opportunities happening in the Valley. The documentary was also a fascinating watch but the book was definitely better. Would recommend for those interested in seeing a darker side of startups and how important culture is.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
4/5: A great history account of innovation and technology in Silicon Valley. A must read for those in the technology field as you come to appreciate how many giants whose shoulders we stand on to reach the point we are at.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
3.5/5: There was alot of hype around this book before going into it and unfortunately I found it to be just okay. The beginning was quite slow for me personally but really picked up and got alot more interesting when looking at the 20th century. This is probably more reflective of my interests in 20th century history. I would probably revisit this book again in the future.
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
3/5: After interning at a bank, I found that there were quite a few sections that were quite ‘overhyped’ and drummed up to be bigger issues than they actuall are.
Guns, Germs, and Steel
2/5: Some key takeaways:
- It is ultimately geography that determines the differences between countries.
- The diversity and density of Eurasian populations created an immunity to germs that would later wipe out the more isolated populations of the Americas.
- Farming and domesticating animals provide social stability that is lacking in hunter-gatherer societies. Labor specialization enables certain groups to develop weapons.
- Major portions of Eurasia had a natural advantage in developing agriculture and domesticating animals because of geography and the presence of plants and animals that could be easily domesticated.
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep
5/5: My top recommendation on this list so far. One of the very few books to have truly changed my life. I used to be one of the staunchest advocates for burning the midnight oil continuously and had terrible sleeping/caffeine behaviour. Ever since reading this, I am now always aiming to get 8 hours of sleep a night, if not for my health but for my performance at work and studies. Furthermore, besides why we as an individual should sleep, it has quite alot of interesting commentary on the increasingly backward view we as society have towards sleep. I’d highly suggest combining this book with Deep Work if you want to increase your productivity tremendously, getting enough sleep to then do deep work. 100% recommend to anyone.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
5/5: Another book that has really changed my perspective on life. We all have a gift to get better through practice. We can reach expert level through deliberate practice. We do not have limits as the human body is remarkably adaptable and as we get better, our limits also grow. The main essence of this book is that underlying expertise is the notion of mental representations. That is, an interweaving web of knowledge and skills that we construct about topics. Through deliberate practice, we can develop our mental representations and hence develop expertise.
Moonwalking with Einstein : The Art and Science of Remembering
4/5: This was quite a fascinating book on memory. Whilst the memory techniques seemed quite disappointing to me (as they seem to be only useful for a few select task), the discussions on memorisation’s role in history and its scientific underpinnings was quite intersting to me. Some interesting points stand out to me. Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time and lengthens perceptions of our lives. So if you want a fuller life, create a denser network of memories. Expertise in a subject is a combination of having a vast amount of knowledge, an efficient memory pattern based retrieval and strong planning mechanisms in a given domain.
The Order of Time
- Time is not the same everywhere. It slows down when we are near objects with large mass.
- Time is a local phenomena. There is no such thing as time for the entire universe, time exists locally.
- Time does not exists when we are measuring things smaller than plank time.
- The second law of thermodynamics states that total entropy of a system can never decrease over time. Hence, whenever there is a way to tell the past and future in a system, heat is involved somewhere.
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
4.5/5: This book really did change my mind on the topic of psychedelics. The amount of current research being done right now on the potential medical use cases on guided psychedelic treatments.
Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
3/5: Few interesting points to take away:
- Nuclear energy has had alot of misconceived notions in public opinion. It provides cheap and clean energy. The only cost is the massive CAPEX cost to build a nuclear station.
- Getting rid of radioactive waste is a simple process for us to do now.
- You can’t have a nuclear explosion in a nuclear factory as the uranium used is not pure enough.
4.5/5: This is a fictional autobiography of Richard Wright and does an interesting job of incorporating the many different (horror) stories experienced by blacks in the South in order to convey a unified experience amongst their race. The sense of powerlessness is ever present since as a poor black boy, Wright’s expectations of life will always be greater than that of what the physical reality of the world can provide him. To read the internal experience and stories of his race rather than reading about facts made the struggles and plight of blacks in the South come to life for me.
3.5/5: Another typical Murakami book blending realism with fantasy. Really nice build up of the story arc and at the climax of the story, it was quite a page-turner.
3/5: A book that was attempted to be a work that is a separate artifice from the world through its attention to form. An interesting novel as Nabokov attemps to get you to empathise with such a despicable main character.
On the Road
3/5: A book based on Jack Kerouac’s own life and friends such as Allen Ginsberg. It was interesting when reading the background around the book on the Beat generation and the emphasis placed on human experiences. In particular, the graphic depiction of the human condition and attempts to record all facets of human experiences. However, the main character Dean Moriarty was an unlikeable character for me.
2/5: I personally found this book quite hard to read but although the thematic ideas of redemption and religion struck a chord.
The Tim Ferris Show
Joe Rogan Experience
How I Built This
Y Combinator’s Startup School
Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill’s Gates
The Game Changers
World War II in HD Colour
Simple Pleasures of Life
Shingeki no Kyojin
One Punch Man
Boku no Hero Academia
Hunter X Hunter
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood