I just finished reading The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention by William Rosen, and I enjoyed it a lot. It was quite a long book, and I expected it to be a history of the locomotive. While it did get to that point, the focus was really on the history of the science of invention in the Industrial Revolution, most notably of the steam engine and all its related "technologies." But in the words of Randy Pausch, that's just the head fake: what this book is really about is the most powerful idea in the world -- which is not the steam engine or one of the technologies but is in fact the idea of intellectual property and invention.
The book goes very deep into the physics that was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries and the individuals who made the huge advances, and it argues that it was Britain's nacent intellectual property and patent laws that properly incentivized individuals to invent and make the extremely drastic advances in productivity that the Industrial Revolution is known for. The idea that you should be able to benefit and own what you create, all the while sharing the benefits of your creation with society, is very powerful and is likely at the core of why America (originally a British colony) turned out to be such a fertile ground for the invention culture to blossom (as America continued to build on Britain's patent laws).
While this book is about the 1800s, the process of invention and tinkering that it describes is no less relevant for 21st century entrepreneurs.
As the author writes in the book, "the most important invention of the Industrial Revolution was invention itself," and understanding this process and how it was intentionally fostered and supported was the part of this book that I enjoyed most.
I just finished reading The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, who was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon working on virtual reality (and spent some time as a Disney Imagineer!). It was a bittersweet tale of a professor in the last few months of his life as he recounted his life's dreams and his preparation for leaving his wife and kids live their life without him. It was inspirational, funny, and thought-provoking, and I was impressed by the humanity and humility of such an intelligent, scientific man.
Below is the actual video of his lecture at CMU, and below that are my main takeaways and nuggets from the book. It's so wonderful that he could share such meaningful lessons with the world.
I heard about Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis on some blog post and thought it was an intriguing idea. I am typically optimistic and think there has been so much progress made in civilization, and I was curious to hear why the authors of this book were optimistic too.
The book was effectively a long catalog of many of the exciting technologies people have recently launched or are actively working towards across many fields such as robotics and medicine. It was nice from the one hand to hear about the many big problems facing the world and the different initiatives people are taking to fix them. But I found the book to be too descriptive of the current solutions and approaches, and so I think it will be quite dated in a few years. I would have preferred more detail on the actual problems because those are the entry points to real opportunities.
Even though I expected a bit more depth to the various arguments and less cataloging of examples, it was still an interesting read.
(It's been a wild and crazy busy summer for me, and the reading and all other hobbies have taken a toll. I'm now getting back into a better reading rhythm and hope to catch up soon.)
I've recently faced a number of personal and professional situations where people didn't live up to what they promised. To provide some tools and perspective for this situation, a colleague recommended I read Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and David Maxfield.
I had read their predecessor book, Crucial Conversations, and enjoyed that. This book was a nice build on the earlier one, and what I enjoyed most was the actual verbatim quotes and conversation snippets. I enjoy this sort of specific advice, with exact language that can be used in different scenarios, more than general, high-level advice.
One of my biggest takeaways is the CPR model of having accountability conversations. The first conversation should be about the content (C) of what went wrong. If the problem continues, the second conversation should be about the pattern (P). And the third should be about the relationship (R). But as I said, what I found most useful were the concrete examples of language for how to start these conversations and how to frame the accountability issues while maintaining respect and safety.
I just finished reading Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. I had it on my reading list for a while, and several people recommended it to me.
The book definitely was inspirational, and I liked many of its Zen-like lessons, such as about paying attention to life, being happy for no reason, and appreciating each moment you have. It also demonstrated the hard work it takes to make real change in life and the value of good teachers. The book reminded me a lot of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; the fact that the teacher was a gas station attendant and car mechanic must have been an implicit nod to the Motorcycle inspirations.
What I didn't like were the several totally magical/fantastical/shamanistic elements; if these were brought down to earth and reality and explained as simple visualizations rather than as special powers of the teacher, I think it would have made the book lose less of its seriousness and value. Overall though, I did enjoy it and got many good ideas, inspirations, and butt kicks out of it, so it was all good.
I remember reading and enjoying Montaigne's essays in high school French class. A lot of the Stoicism works I've been reading recently referenced Montaigne's essays, so I figured I'd revisit them again by reading How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.
She took an interesting spin on Montaigne by explaining how he was the first writer to write about his own inner thoughts and experiences and what it meant to be alive. This was something new for his time, so you could say he was like the first blogger (with a fountain quill). He wrote about himself so others could see themselves in him and understand humanity overall. He
dealt with with his own public issues by writing about his private life and wrote about commonplace things with simple titles, drawing lessons from everything around him. He also read a lot about others and tried to learn from cultures very different from him, which is very rare for someone living in the 16th century.
I thought the book was alright, but I found it to be too much about history and background and less about the essays themselves. Like Montaigne, the author of this book would frequently change the subject and write about things unrelated to each chapter's title (maybe that was on purpose to demonstrate directly Montaigne's styles). I would have preferred more discussion of specific essays and the lessons within them and deeper discussion of the title question, "how to live."
I finally got a chance to read The Fish That Ate The Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King by Rich Cohen, which Ryan Holiday mentioned a few times in his emails and posts. It was AWESOME.
It was such a fascinating rags to riches story about a Russian Jewish immigrant to America who through hard work and a detail-oriented, reality-based perspective built successful businesses. It was incredible to read how he shaped the world around him to meet his goals: overthrowing governments so they would not mess with his business, buying the same piece of land from two disputing owners to avoid bureaucracy and lawyers, and helping to create and protect the Israeli state through the guise of his banana business. It was also super interesting for me to hear about his life in New Orleans and his impact on the city, having visited NOLA a couple years ago for the first time.
This is not a book about bananas or pirates; it's a book about hard work, ingenuity, Jewish chutzpah, and the unwavering belief in one's own agency in the face of obstacles of any size.
I had a great time hosting Ryan Holiday for an Author Talk on his new book The Obstacle is the Way at Google. We talked about reading, media manipulation, Stoicism, entrepreneurship, and basically how to be an all around awesome person while getting through the requisite troubles in life. Ryan was humble and engaging, and many in the audience told me they were quite inspired by the talk.
I love language and psychology, and I had a book about cross-gender linguistic differences on my reading list for a while that I finally finished: You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen.
The book was written by a sociolinguist who studies the differences in the way people talk and how that impacts their relationships and work. She found that the differences between men and women are as vast as the differences between cultures across the world.
Her book featured analyses of transcripts of children speaking to each other, and I enjoyed this type of primary source evidence.
The main themes and my takeaways from the book are the following:
I found the book to be a bit long and drawn out, and many of the points sounded too much like generalizations. I would've preferred more quantitative information as well as information about the differences within men and women, as I felt like within each category there is a large range by which each person differs from the gender stereotype. Nonetheless, I didn't find myself disagreeing with her points, and I enjoyed the collection of stories and ways she mentioned the book's lessons can be applied to work and personal situations.
I'm a huge fan of Ryan Holiday's reading recommendations newsletter and his first book, Trust Me, I'm Lying. I was very excited to read his more philosophical third book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, and it turned out to be extremely easy to read, concise, and impactful.
Ryan uses his extensive research and reading experience to relate a large number of episodes where historical figures used the strategies of Stoicism to overcome the obstacles they faced. They didn't just overcome their obstacles; they used them to grow stronger and turned them to their advantage. For me this was the coolest takeaway of the book: that it can be (and probably should be) the obstacle that becomes the point of advantage and the source for creative solutions. I was struck by how many successful and pivotal historical figures, like emperors, presidents, inventors, and entrepreneurs explicitly cited Stoicism as their major philosophy.
There is a Russian proverb that came to mind when I read the book: "The smart one won't go into the mountain but will go around the mountain." In some ways this is supported by Ryan's book in terms of learning from one's mistakes and trying every possible solution to get to one's goal; in other ways, it is different from what Ryan teaches because many of the lessons in this book recommend specifically finding ways to lean into and flip upside down the obstacles in one's path so they become strengths.
These two types of advice are often hard to reconcile: some books recommend building up your strengths and focusing on your core competencies and passions, while other books recommend addressing your weaknesses and working hard to turn them into strengths. Even Ryan's book had lessons supporting both points of view, where some historical figures really reinvented themselves to address their weaknesses and others just focused on what they were good at. Ryan even touched on a similar point when he mentioned that there is this balancing act between persisting and banging on solutions that aren't working on the one hand and learning from one's mistakes and trying totally different things on the other. It's also not unrelated to the perennial pivot vs. persevere choice facing lean startups each time around the Build-Measure-Learn cycle.
Overall, I found the major ideas of Stoicism and the general attitudes of appreciating what you have, remembering your mortality, accepting what happens and making the most of it, and looking for the positive whenever you can to really resonate with how I view the world already. I found the book to be enlightening, thought provoking, easy to read, and lots of fun. I now feel really inspired to delve deeper into some of the primary Stoic texts and see how to integrate this philosophy into my own life even more.
Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Workweek, did an excellent interview with Ryan recently as well, which I recommend you check out if you want to learn more.