The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print). Siberian tigers hunt bears. That’s how badass they are. Okay, but why should you read a book about a search for a man-eating Amur tiger, the world’s largest land predator, in the most remote parts of the earth? Because it’s one of the best damn books you’ll ever read, that’s why. And in the process, you’ll learn about Russian history, Communism, Russian-Chinese relations, Siberian tundra and taiga, tiger lore, perestroika, big cat physiology, the Afghan war, poaching, black markets, being a Russian nature warden, extinction, duty, vengeance and survival. Vaillant’s sorcery is in his ability to take you inside the head of the hunted villagers, the hunters, and the Amur tiger, as if you were there. The whole thing reads like a thriller, and yes, you will probably stay up way too late reading it. I came away with a deeper appreciation of the majesty of nature and our place in it as current top predator. 10/10
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (2014) by Peter Pomerantsev (ebook & print). A 21-year old Russian supermodel jumps to her death from her Manhattan balcony. A month later, another does the same. The owner of a successful chemicals factory is arrested by five black-suited goons inside her luxury gym and tossed in jail for 3 months for no stated reason. Eventually, the charge is revealed to be “making chemicals.” On a Saturday night in Moscow’s most exclusive nightclub, old, potbellied oligarchs audition young gold-diggers looking to score their next sugardaddy. Stories like these make “surreal” the perfect descriptor for this book. Pomerantsev, an Englishman of Russian extraction, is summoned to Moscow to make reality shows for a state-sponsored TV station. His deep access to the underbelly of Russian life makes for stories that are at turns darkly hilarious and utterly heartbreaking. The writing is sharp, witty and riveting, reading with the speed of a guilty-pleasure novel. Except that everything Pomerantsev recounts actually happened. 9/10
The Lessons of History (1975) by Will & Ariel Durant (ebook & print). I came to this via Ray Dalio’s Principles (also reviewed) in which he mentioned this as one of his favorite books. “War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.” Say what? Or: “Probably every vice was once a virtue—i.e., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.” If you spend 40 years of your life writing an 11-volume history of all civilization, you too may be able to come up with mind-blowing nuggets like that. In the meantime, we can read the Durants’ 128-page condensation of their masterpiece. 9/10
Transformational NLP: A New Psychology (2017) by Carl Buchheit and Ellie Schamber (ebook & print). This book begins with a comprehensive history of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, where you will find pioneering insights from Grinder, Bandler, Dilts and Steve Andreas. This leads into the exposition of Transformational NLP, as developed by Jonathan Rice and Buchheit himself. This passage about picking unsuitable partners summarizes a lot of its principles:
“The creature brain does not care whether or not the human brain is happy; it cares only about its survival in physical reality. In the remarkable non-logic of creature-level association, the terrible pain of abandonment (in this example) becomes necessary for continued survival precisely because it could have been fatal, but was survived. Because this terrible pain has been survived, it becomes an experience profoundly associated with survival, and actually becomes essential for future survival. Something that is essential for basic survival cannot be permitted to change even a little bit, so the patterning that controls it will be quarantined. Once it becomes quarantined, unless there is an unusually effective intervention, the patterning will never change. Consequently, the core decisions/ beliefs generated by this patterning will never really change, no matter what happens later. The person will go through his/her life both resisting and expecting abandonment, hoping and working for love while waiting to be unwanted and left.”
The book also offers deep insight into how to effectively heal the past: “The goal is to empower the client to view the past not as a fixed source of immutable loss, but rather as a dynamic wellspring of creative decision-making and learning.”
Carl’s been at this for over 30 years, so his observations and therapeutic strategies come from a deep well of experience. There are insights on every other page of this book that would take lifetimes to realize on one’s own. This is essential reading for therapists who want to achieve breakthroughs in treating clients or healing yourself. 8.5/10
Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong (2017) by Eric Barker (ebook & print). This book is so chock-full of useful information that I highlighted it over 200 times.
What do I like about it? First, it’s full of great stories that stay with you. There’s James Waters with his mental strategies that got him through Navy SEAL training, a Harvard MBA, and a White House job. There’s Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, the illegal Mexican migrant worker boy who became a world-renowned neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. There’s Spencer Glendon with the debilitating ulcerative colitis who became a world-class money manager anyway. Dozens of vivid, funny, inspiring stories of ingenuity, grit, and optimism here.
Second, Barker amply supports all recommendations with research findings. So you will learn fascinating, counterintuitive concepts from social psychology, behavioral economics, game theory, neuroscience, genetics and evolutionary biology. It reminds me of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, another great book that’s full of ingenious mindhacks.
Third, it’s full of usable unconventional wisdom. Were pirates the progressives of their day? Why do so few valedictorians become millionaires? Why do jerks succeed? (Hint: they ask for what they want and self-promote to their bosses.) No one book will turn you into an overnight success, but this one has a lot of signposts for living a happier, more fulfilling life. You’d be wise to read and share it. 9.5/10
Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection (2017) by Sharon Salzberg (ebook, print & audio). Salzberg is one of the pioneers to bring Buddhism and meditation to the West. With a voice like a wise, compassionate aunt we all wish we had, she conveys principles of lovingkindness, mindfulness and connection through stories and simple exercises. A centerpiece of the book is the RAIN protocol to handle negative emotions: Recognize it, Acknowledge it, Investigate it with a sense of openness and curiosity, and Non-Identify with it — it’s not you! This is not just one of the foundations of Buddhist psychology, but also of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — excellent life advice that totally works.
The exercises are not just effective but also easy to implement, e.g. for practicing lovingkindness, forgiveness, and handling anger. I felt their effects immediately and intend to incorporate some into my daily routine, like the one about extending love to neutral passersby.
And then there are the final five pages in which she summarizes the whole book. This was the most concentrated wallop of wisdom to hit my face in a long time. If you feel like you could use more love in your life, here’s the recipe book. 9/10
Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break (2017) by Rachael O’Meara (ebook, print & audio). Americans live amidst a culture of misplaced priorities. The richest country in the history of the world is also the only industrialized nation with no mandated paid maternity/paternity leave. Only 4% of companies allow extended paid leave. Work defines people’s identities, and overachievers believe that being busy is the highest virtue. Nothing could be more effective in self-inflicting misery. O’Meara exhorts us to pause and reconsider this mindset and its ramifications: how you got in this mess, how to get out of it, and what to do upon re-entry into polite rat-race society.
Things I like about this book: tons of case studies that you may identify with, including those from self-help luminaries like Gabrielle Bernstein and Danielle LaPorte; step-by-step instructions for initiating your pause; introduction to incredibly useful concepts like self-validated intimacy and strengths finding; great sections on meditation and digital detox; cool exercises, like the “ten-second micro-pauses” of taking 6 deep breaths or breathing into your palms; easy to read.
O’Meara has done a great service by highlighting the importance of taking a pause and providing the tools to make it happen. If you think you’re too busy to pause, that’s like thinking you’re too out-of-shape to exercise: you need this book, stat. I’m hoping this is the beginning of not just a good idea but a great movement to change people’s attitudes towards leading more balanced, happy lives. 8/10
Principles: Life and Work (2017) by Ray Dalio (ebook, print & audio). This is three books in one: memoir, life advice, and business advice. Dalio is the founder of Bridgewater Capital, the world’s largest hedge fund, which he started from nothing in 1975 to $150 billion in assets today, amassing a $17 billion personal fortune along the way. What impresses me about Dalio is that he arrived at his wealth mostly through very careful decision-making and self-observation, which he was then smart enough to encode as principles. That kind of meticulous thinking led to his firm foreseeing the crash of 2008 and even profiting from it. This book is the end result of those principles time-tested and market-validated over 40 years.
Dalio’s frank style of describing his triumphs and mistakes keeps this book from lapsing into self-aggrandizement. He’s hobnobbed with every major world player over the past 4 decades, making for some fun anecdotes. The work principles that have made Bridgewater famous worldwide for its radical transparency forms a firm foundation that many companies would be wise to emulate. 9/10
Open (2009) by Andre Agassi (ebook, print & audio). A friend loaned this to me when I was in Bali, and I read it in one sitting. André hated tennis. He nevertheless became the #1 player in the world. The coaching of his maniacal Persian dad, leaving school, joining the brutal Bollettieri Academy, acting out, pink mohawks, famous wives and girlfriends, insanely loyal friends and coaches, the relentless pursuit of excellence, Pete Sampras the eternal nemesis, depression, marriage, divorce, re-marriage — it’s all in here. Even if you didn’t follow tennis in his time, this is a rollicking, laugh-out-loud, poignant story. I also picked up a huge life-lesson from it: the best in the world become that way by having coaches. So glad I found out for myself why this book was so stupendously popular. 9.5/10
Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis (2017), by Annie Jacobsen (ebook, print & audio). Usually books about psychic phenomena either go full-believer or full-skeptic. Jacobsen, however, just reports on the stories and the evidence pro and con from interviews and declassified government documents, letting you make up your own mind.
Some of the characters are professional charlatans — albeit charlatans hired by British intelligence to successfully convince Rudolf Hess to fly to England to get captured (apparently the Nazis were suckers for astrology). Some, like Uri Geller, I couldn’t really figure out. Others are legitimate scientists who earnestly believed they could make headway in this field using the scientific method. These quixotic quests are fun to read, especially when you hear how much money the US government poured into it and how afraid they were of the Russians being ahead.
But the stuff that blew me away were the accounts of remote viewers who actually got results. I mean, in a trillion tries, no one should be able to close her eyes, enter a meditative state, and visualize the location of, say, Muammar Ghaddafi’s chemical weapon stash. And yet that’s exactly what some of these people did — repeatedly, with documentation to prove it. Some of the main players in the US parapsychology program have criticized this book for its cherry-picking and incompleteness. But no one has said that remote sensing doesn’t work, and nobody knows about the programs that have not yet been declassified. Possibly the most mind-bending book I’ve ever read. 8.5/10
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2005) by Jack Weatherford (ebook, print & audio). Seasoned historian Weatherford is Genghis Khan Fan #1, and his revisionist history painstakingly reconstructs Genghis’s milieu, upbringing, motives, conquests, and reign. Still keeping in mind that Genghis Khan was responsible for the biggest slaughter in world history — between 20 and 40 million people, depending on who’s counting — he did pioneer many advances during his rule: meritocracy over nepotism; religious tolerance; citizenship for conquered peoples instead of captivity or oppression; patronizing the arts and sciences; and crazy effective leadership. The impact of the man on world history was cataclysmic, and this eminently readable book brings you up to speed on him. I read it in both audiobook and ebook forms. Many big-name CEOs and entrepreneurs swear by this one. 8.5/10
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017) by Matthew Walker (ebook & print). This is easily the most important book I read in 2017. Why? Because there is nothing more important in your life than sleep. And Westerners (especially Americans) are chronically sleep-deprived, leading to unnecessary car crashes, illness, and depression. We also have terrible sleep hygiene. I’ve been researching this topic for my own book, so I know this is the only decent, up-to-date book out there on sleep. And it’s fantastic. Walker is a renowned sleep researcher himself at UC Berkeley, featuring some of his original findings in the book. All adults interested in their own health should read this. 9.5/10
Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power by Meghan L O’Sullivan (ebook, print, & audio). Main premise: the rise of unconventional energy sources in the US — shale gas and oil plus renewables — will reduce American dependency on foreign energy, tipping the balance of power away from the Middle East, Russia and China and back towards the US. As one would expect from a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, O’Sullivan’s research is meticulous in supporting her thesis. It’s an up-to-date account of the flow of global energy and its concomitant distortions of the fields of power and diplomacy, and a good complement to Daniel Yergin’s definitive The Quest (also reviewed here). O’Sullivan served as an advisor in Iraq under Bush II, so a lot of her observations on petropolitics are firsthand. Her political leanings may also account for her treatment of unconventional gas and oil (read: fracking and tar sands) as unalloyed boons, sidestepping their well-documented environmental hazards and unsustainability. 8.5/10
The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011) by Daniel Yergin (ebook, print & audio). Yergin is the pre-eminent scholar on global energy. Intimidated by the sheer bulk of his tomes (the other being The Prize, for which he nabbed another prize called the Pulitzer), I had avoided them till now. But the audiobook was a manageable way to digest this work piecemeal (also, you can’t tell how thick an audiobook is). It’s safe to say no other book has helped me understand global dynamics of energy and politics better than this one.
Yergin is a master storyteller, weaving together a compelling narrative out of the encyclopedic amount of data he covers — Saudi Arabia and ARAMCO, the Kuwait war, Iran, Angola, renewable energy, Russia, China, and scads more. His exposition on the natural history of the petrostate — a country rendered inherently unstable because of its heavily petroleum-dependent income — and the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez in Venezuela was particularly memorable. A contemporary classic. Read it to better understand your world. 10/10
Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) by Joshua Foer (ebook & print). I’m probably the last person on the block to read this, probably because I was already a student of memory techniques when this came out and had a feeling that this would be more story than instruction manual. About that, I was right. It’s a good yarn nevertheless, as Foer starts out as a rank beginner and ends up winning the World Memory Championship under the tutelage of Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke. It’s a pleasant entrée into the quirky and obsessive subculture of memory competitions — and also mnemonic techniques, if you know absolutely nothing about the topic. For the techniques, I recommend Tony Buzan’s Use Your Perfect Memory or Ed Cooke’s Remember, Remember: Learn the Stuff You Thought You Never Could. 8.5/10
Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull (ebook & print). This is the manual for building a great company. It’s also the tale of Pixar’s creation, growth, and well-earned triumph. Both a world-class computer scientist and illustrator, Catmull is a mashup of Steve Wozniak, Walt Disney and Gandhi, minus the annoying parts. Pixar arrived at its culture of collaboration, flat hierarchy and radical innovation through a lot of trial and error. And none of its success was pre-ordained: both Toy Story and The Incredibles, were stopped and completely re-done. The book is chock-full of pointers for storytellers, technologists and leaders who want to be world-class at their craft. Bonus: Catmull’s contrarian insider perspective on Steve Jobs, having worked with him for 25 years. 9/10
Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout and Thrive With the New Science of Success (2017) by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness (ebook & print). One of the best books I’ve read on improving personal performance. Full review upcoming. 9/10
The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) (2017) by Gretchen Rubin (ebook & print). As a rule, I am skeptical of personality profiles. None are scientifically validated, except for the OCEAN framework (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). The rest are fabricated from thin air with scant experimental support, especially frameworks like the Enneagram and the laughable Myers-Briggs inventory. Sure, you can ask people two questions, like “Do you like barbecued spare ribs?” and “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”, and end up with a 2×2 matrix that tidily divides up the population into 4 categories. But does that have any predictive value outside of a person’s tendency to attend or avoid barbecues with dogs at them?
This book is a follow-up to Gretchen’s last book, Better Than Before, in which she lays out the Four Tendencies that emerge from the answers to two questions: “How do you handle internal commitments?” and “How do you handle external commitments?” Good with both makes you an Upholder; bad with both makes you a Rebel. Obligers are good with external commitments but bad with internal ones; Questioners are the inverse.
The problem is that, depending on time of day, fullness of tummy, looming deadlines, who’s President, and how well last night’s poker session went, I will give different responses to Gretchen’s questionnaire. Sometimes, I’m an Obliger; other times a Questioner; and less often, a Rebel or Upholder. These are not hard-wired aspects of a personality encoded in genes, and to her credit, Gretchen does call them tendencies rather than traits.
Gretchen’s thoughts make up only about half of the book. The other half comprises quotes from her blog readers, talking about how the tendencies show up in their lives. That said, the book was hugely useful in one respect: it made me realize that I work much better when I have external accountability, like deadlines. That insight alone is fully worth 3 hours of my life and $15. 8/10
The Art of Seduction (2003) by Robert Greene (ebook & print). When this book first came out in 2003, I was hugely impressed by it. A grand tour of seduction through the ages, it brimmed with tales of chutzpah, daring and ingenuity from the likes of Cleopatra, Duc de Richelieu, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, and of course, Casanova. Ten years on, having created many books, courses and seminars on human courtship of my own, I am significantly less impressed.
First off, half the characters cited in the book are fictional. That means nothing that they did actually happened. Count Valmont of the Les Liaisons Dangereuses fame makes about five appearances, which is four too many for someone who never existed.
Second, all the real people in the book had a vested interest in exaggerating their exploits, because that’s what seducers do. So their stories aren’t credible either.
Third, a lot of these guys seemed to have unlimited cash and time on their hands. The Duc de Richelieu would buy the house next door to his object of desire and tunnel through a wall. Casanova spent all kinds of time and money to go to operas, masquerades, and exotic locales to ply his trade. These are not tactics necessarily available to the average 21st century day-job schmoe.
Fourth, nobody depicted in the book is alive. Is there not one person amongst the 7.5 billion living worthy of emulating, with verifiable stories and usable techniques? Note that Greene himself is a bit of a hermit. Not speaking from experience ultimately makes for a thin book, regardless of its physical heft.
If you are looking for an entertaining, philosophical read, this is a good one. And I love all the fun marginalia from classical literature, from Sappho to Ovid to Laclos. The 48 Laws of Power is still a classic, but if you’re looking for an instruction manual on seduction, you may want to look elsewhere. 7/10
A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (2017) by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman (ebook & print). Claude Shannon was an original genius. He basically came up with the science of information theory out of sheer nothing. Now, the entire planet runs on his brainchild. He also had a lot of fun thinking, tinkering, and teaching as an MIT professor. The authors are not scientists, so when it comes to the sheer poetry and chutzpah of Shannon’s science, they can only go so deep. Still, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read on one of the greatest unsung minds of the 20th century. 8/10
Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (1993) by William Ury (ebook & print). “The essence of breakthrough strategy is indirect action. It requires you to do the opposite of what you naturally feel like doing in difficult situations.” Ury, the grandaddy of the Harvard Negotiation Project, proposes a five-step “joint problem-solving” protocol as the way to get past no: “Only they can break through their own resistance; your job is to help them.” The steps: go to the balcony; overcome the other side’s negative emotions by listening to them; reframe the problem; build them a golden bridge; use power to educate. Also remember the five important points along the way to a mutually satisfactory agreement: interests, options for satisfying those interests, standards for fair resolution, alternatives to negotiation, and proposals for agreement. I highlighted 122 passages from this book, so there’s a plethora of practical wisdom here. 9/10
59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute (2009) by Richard Wiseman (ebook & print). Bonding over shared dislikes works better than discussing shared enthusiasms. Active listening does not improve relationships. Sit in the middle of a table to make a good impression. Rhyming persuades. Wiseman, perhaps the only person with the job title “Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology”, offers bite-sized, scientifically validated tips on happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, relationships, stress, decision making, parenting and personality. Fun, fast, stupendously useful read, written by a wise man indeed. 9/10
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio). Can I tell you how great this book is? I mean, did you ever wonder how a mixed-race South African kid ended up hosting The Daily Show? This book chronicles that astonishingly unlikely journey from the slums of Soweto where Noah’s mere existence was a crime, since whites and blacks weren’t supposed to talk, let alone have kids together. Growing up “colored” in apartheid South Africa where racism was the law of the land meant Noah fully belonged to neither the world of whites nor the blacks. But he knew how to hustle. His incredibly poignant relationship with his lioness of a mother had me crying more than once. Damn.
The audiobook benefits from Noah’s comic timing and dead-on rendition of myriad accents and languages. I laughed out loud many times; I don’t think I’ll every forget his story about DJing the bar mitzvah with Hitler (seriously). In the meantime, you and I have no idea how bad black South Africans had it — the shit is bananas. Hilarious, heartbreaking, uplifting and enlightening, this is one to nourish your soul. 10/10
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016) by Matthew Desmond (ebook & print) I am not the first person to call this a tour de force, and I won’t be the last. To write this book (which started out as his doctoral thesis), Desmond (a professor at Harvard and now Princeton) took it upon himself to live in the neighborhoods he studied: slums, ghettoes, and trailer parks in poor, dangerous parts of Milwaukee. What he found was explosive, eye-opening and heartbreaking. At the heart of urban America, a robust business model exists for landlords to systematically exploit poor tenants through legal loopholes. The result is an underclass trapped in cycles of poverty, drugs, malnutrition, poor health and crime. After reading this, it’s impossible to see America’s inner cities, law enforcement, and politics the same way. A well-deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. 10/10
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) (2008) Tom Vanderbilt (ebook, print & audio). I put traffic in the category of “the ubiquitous unexamined” — aspects of life that surround us so completely that we never bother to question how they work (electricity and water are two other ones). This long but eminently readable tome covers all aspects of traffic engineering, which turns out to be a serious science with huge explanatory power over our daily lives. He also does a fine job of describing the psychology of traffic, and why we are at our worst when driving. Stress levels of the average commuter match that of a fighter pilot! I have a much better understanding of the complexities of the urban environment. Although I may not have any less road rage than before, it feels nice to know where it comes from 🙂 8.5/10
Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break (2017) by Rachael O’Meara (ebook & print). Americans live in a culture of misplaced priorities. The richest country in the history of the world is also the only industrialized nation with no mandated paid maternity/paternity leave. Only 4% of companies allow extended paid leave. Work defines people’s identities, and overachievers believe that being busy is the highest virtue. Nothing could be more instrumental in the self-infliction of misery. O’Meara exhorts us to pause and reconsider this mindset and its ramifications — how you got in this mess, how to get out of it, and what to do upon re-entry into polite rat-race society.
There are tons of case studies that you may identify with, including luminaries like Gabrielle Bernstein and Danielle LaPorte; step-by-step instructions for initiating your pause; introduction to incredibly useful concepts like self-validated intimacy and strengths finding; great sections on meditation and digital detox; cool exercises, like the “ten-second micro-pauses” of taking 6 deep breaths or breathing into your palms; easy to read.
O’Meara has done a great service by highlighting the importance of taking a pause and providing the tools to make it happen. If you think you’re too busy to pause, that’s like thinking you’re too out of shape to exercise: you need this book, stat. I’m hoping this is the beginning of not just a good idea but a great movement to change people’s attitudes towards leading more balanced, happy lives. 8/10
The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good (2012) by David J Linden (ebook & paperback). “While we might assume that the anatomical region most closely governed by laws, religious prohibitions, and social mores is the genitalia, or the mouth, or the vocal cords, it is actually the medial forebrain pleasure circuit.” Thus begins this riveting account of how the human brain gets us in hot water. Prof Linden knows his stuff, and the explanatory power of this book about ubiquitous but perplexing phenomena like drug addiction, obesity, falling in love, and deer fighting over yellow snow (?!) is staggering. He explains the science with great clarity and humor without compromising the sophistication of the discourse. 9/10
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print). Along with Robert Greenberg, Sapolsky is The Greatest Lecturer Alive. Not only is he a straight-up genius pioneer in both neuroscience and primatology, but he’s also brilliant at explaining things in a way that is exciting, humorous, and accessible.
The core of this book is the answer to this question: Why did you do what you just did? Sapolsky goes back to the second before, seconds to minutes before, hours to days before, days to months before, and centuries and millennia before the behavior happened, examining what happened at the level of molecules, genes, cells, organs, organisms, societies and nations.
If that sounds like everything there is to know about being human, you would be correct. Neurotransmitters, hormones, dominance hierarchies, infancy, brain development, childhood, behavior, obedience, morality, metaphors, justice, war — it’s all in there.
At 800 pages, this is a substantial book that took me a month to get through. Even though Sapolsky’s writing is fluid and fun, I still had to read paragraphs several times to understand what was going on. Using the brain to understand the brain is pretty trippy business.
As one of the leading neuroscientists of our day, Sapolsky is in a position to debunk many popular misconceptions. Evolution doesn’t have to be slow; it can happen quickly. Testosterone does not cause aggression; it merely intensifies our predisposed behaviors. Oxytocin only makes you more warm and cuddly towards Us; it actually makes us more ethnocentric and xenophobic versus Them.
The richness of this book — the multiplicity of a-ha! moments, the wit, the fun factlets (re-feralized subway-riding Moscow dogs! ), the explanatory power — you just have to experience on your own. It’s a tour de force wrapped in a magnum opus of a masterpiece. Simply, the greatest book I’ve ever read. Get it to get you, human. 10/10
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016) by Tim Wu (ebook & print). Our lives are what we pay attention to, so “how we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.” Prof Tim Wu of Columbia (of Net Neutrality fame) takes us on a ride from the beginning of the attention economy to the age of social media. Benjamin Day, founder of the New York Sun, was the first to sell his paper at a loss to make it up in advertising revenue, figuring out that his readers were not his consumers but his product. The whole advertising and marketing industries originated in patent medicine and propaganda. Heck, all advertising used to be called propaganda. Wu covers a lot of fascinating ground here: the rise of radio and TV networks; war propaganda; Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary and LSD; video games and Facebook. This is a thorough history and cautionary tale about the hijacking of our attention by insidious commercial and governmental forces: “Technologies designed to increase our control over our attention will sometimes have the very opposite effect. They open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all.” 9/10
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017) by Adam Alter (ebook & print). While Wu gives you the sweep of history, Alter tells you what’s happening to you right now. Behavioral addiction is affecting millions, making Irresistible one of the most important books I read in 2017. So how do people get hooked? “Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” Remember that thousands of extremely smart, highly-compensated people are on the other side of your screen, thinking of ways of keeping you hooked. This book tells you how they do it. 9.5/10
Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (2013) by Mahzarin Banaji & Anthony Greenwald (ebook & print). How reliable is your own mind? Are you a nice person? Well, the way I phrase a question can dramatically change the way you recall an event. Self-proclaimed non-racists people turn out to harbor hidden biases against all kinds of races. And not only are men willing to take a 11% pay cut to have a male boss, but women are, too. Banaji and Greenwald are venerable professors of psychology whose work reveals our hidden biases owing to a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality. The authors have many tests in the book to reveal our own mind bugs in real time, making this a delightfully disturbing book. You can even take some free Implicit Association Tests online for fun. After reading this, you will know a lot more about how little you know yourself. 9/10
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (2016) by Ed Yong (ebook & print). Did you know that your right hand shares just a sixth of its microbial species with your left hand? Why is a third of human milk made of oligosaccharides that babies can’t digest? The microbiome revolution is upon us, which means it’s time to find out more about the tiny organisms that effectively run life on the planet. The degree to which humans and every other life form depend on microbes for their proper functioning is staggering. Microbes can alter our mood, quell autoimmune disease, soothe irritable bowel syndrome, and protect us against noxious invaders.
Yong, a multi-award winning science journalist, guides with a steady hand through the fantastically rich world of microbes, providing an accessible amount of detail spiked with occasional English wit. The science coming out of this field is upending long-held assumptions on a daily basis, 95% of which I never encountered in medical school. For example: “The immune system’s main function is to manage our relationships with our resident microbes. It’s more about balance and good management than defence and destruction.” The oligosaccharides I mentioned earlier are there to feed the gut bacteria with which a baby’s health is wholly intertwined. If you’re in the mood for a tour through an undiscovered universe that just happens to underpin your entire existence, this book’s for you. 9/10
Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal (2011) Oren Klaff (ebook & print). Although I can’t claim to have used this protocol to close an actual multi-million dollar deal yet, Klaff has, and with spectacular results. His distinction between hot and cold cognition is dead on: to persuade, you must communicate emotionally. His methods mesh with everything I’ve practiced and studied about persuasion and have the ring of truth. Highly recommended if your work involves any kind of sales. 9/10
Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies for a Better You (2016) by Prof Peter M Vishton (Great Courses). There is self-help mumbo-jumbo from self-proclaimed gurus with no credentials, and then there is scientifically-validated advice for changing your behavior from a tenured prof. This course is the latter. But how? “Want to curb a few bad habits? Try making a notebook entry every time you perform the habit. Have a big project and feel the urge to procrastinate? Do nothing for 20 minutes and you’ll feel ready to get to work. Come down with a case of the blues? Eat some fermented foods such as yogurt or sourdough bread.” Another outstanding course from The Teaching Company/Great Courses. 9.5/10
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way (1998) Ursula K Le Guin (ebook & print). “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” As a Tao Te Ching fanboy, I basically read every translation I can get my hands on (fortunately, it’s a short book). By her own admission, the late Le Guin did not know classical Chinese. However, she is a meticulous reader, and a master of nuance, making this a poetic translation that hews to the spirit of the book. You can’t do much better than this from Chapter 1: “So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.” A perennial treat. 9.5/10
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family & Culture in Crisis (2016) by JD Vance (ebook & print). “Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” After seeing this book on the bestseller shelf of every single bookstore for a year, I finally broke down and bought it, thinking it would provide some insight as to the weirdness of the 2016 US elections. That it did. Marine, Harvard Law grad and Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Vance is a native son made good. He turns a candid and unsparing eye towards his native Appalachia: the mix of tribalism, drug abuse, laziness, patriotism, and family loyalty that render the odds of upward mobility infinitesimal.
A good memoir/ ethnography gets you inside the operating system of its subjects’ minds; Vance does a decent job of that. This passage about working class whites’ inborn animosity to Obama was particularly enlightening: “Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.” This does not explain why they supported the next President so enthusiastically, who by those standards is even more alien than Obama. A good read nonetheless. 8.5/10
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (2017) by Seth Stevens-Davidowitz (ebook & print). Big data gives us four new powers: offering new types of data, access to honest data, allowing us to zoom in on small subsets of people, and the ability to run causal experiments. These powers can reveal peculiar patterns, e.g. when the author finds that the search term with the highest correlation with the unemployment rate is the name of a porn site (“Slutload”, for the curious).
Stevens-Davidowitz spins a compulsively readable yarn with scores of findings ranging from the merely counterintuitive to downright shocking, e.g. “if someone says he will pay you back, he won’t pay you back,” men worry a lot about their penis size, or the porn watching habits of women. There are specific linguistic markers that reveal if your date is into you, e.g. using the word “I” a lot (too many questions, on the other hand, are bad). All of this points to the previously squishy discipline of social science becoming more and more of a science — and one that can actually improve our lives. Loved it! 9/10
Soul Friends: The Transforming Power of Deep Human Connection (2017) Stephen Cope (ebook & print). Cope’s last book, The Great Work of Your Life, is one of my all-time favorites, which I buy in stacks to give away to friends. So I was eager to read his newest creation. The Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the Kripalu Center for over 25 years, Cope turns his learned, wise and compassionate mind towards the topic of deep friendship. He shares stories about friendships and mentorships of his own, as well as historical accounts from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Darwin, and Queen Victoria. In a world that seems to be too busy for authentic connection, Cope reminds us of the urgency and transformative power of deep friendship. So good. 9/10
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print). “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.” Tyranny is on the march not only in the US, but all over the world. Snyder reminds us that we’ve seen this movie before, and it does not end well — unless we get off our asses and do something about it. Let this book be your wake-up call. Prescient, cautionary, essential reading for our times. At 128 pages and less than $7, you cannot afford not to read this. 9.5/10
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013) by Michael Moss (ebook & print). Why does Big Food employs thousands of really smart people to figure out stuff like the “bliss point”, the amount of sugar, salt and fat in a food that evokes the maximum amount of pleasure in the eater’s brain? Because that’s how it can make its products addictive, just like heroin or crack. And from the ever-expanding waistlines of the American (and world) populace, their methods are working fabulously.
As someone in the health field, I thought I knew about this stuff. Oh no I didn’t. The incredibly devious, deliberate ways the food companies set out to addict everyone, regardless of health consequences, can only be described as evil. Because profits! As a result, Americans are in the midst of a health crisis unprecedented in the history of mankind, namely the obesity and diabetes pandemic. Read this book to arm yourself against the Nestles, General Mills, and Krafts of the world who have the determination and resources to make you and your family unhealthy. 9/10
Mark Twain: A Life (2005) by Ron Powers (ebook & print). It’s a commonplace that biographers fall in love with their subjects. Therefore, from the hundreds of thousands of archival pages Ron Powers had access to, he must have found it reaaally difficult to leave things out — like Twain’s daughter’s letters to her girlfriend. Which is why this biography clocks in at 737 pages, and took me a year to read.
The flip side is that this biography is comprehensive, giving a deep feel for the mind of Samuel Clemens and his times. Heck, you even get specific gestures he makes during lectures, and his precise delivery of a side-splitting joke at a dinner in honor of President Ulysses Grant. Today, we may not remember that Twain was the most famous person alive in his day, and the forerunner to the modern rock star, with all the requisite impulsiveness and petulance. He was also a serial entrepreneur given to hopeless schemes, a completely doting husband and father, and The Greatest American Writer. It’s a helluva life, and one definitely worth knowing about. Brave the slog and read it, especially if you’re a writer yourself. 9/10
Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy (2017) by Sadhguru (ebook & print). “The moment I realized that human desire was not for any particular thing, but just to expand illimitably, a certain clarity rose within me… My whole aim since then has been to somehow rub this experience off on other people, to awaken them to the fact that this state of joy, of freedom, of limitlessness cannot be denied to them unless they stand in the way of the natural effervescence of life.” Most Westerners have not heard of Sadhguru, but maybe they should. Think of him as an Indian version of the Dalai Lama who teaches yoga (the original stuff, not downward dog) instead of Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a profundity and simplicity to this book that can only come from someone who has lived its precepts. Personally not down with some of the supernatural bits (e.g. beware of stone deities at home!) and pseudoscience dietary advice, but otherwise one of the best books I’ve read on the practical spirituality of living a joyous, fulfilled life. 9/10
Money: Master the Game – 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom (2016) – Tony Robbins (ebook & print). Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m a big Tony Robbins fan. Although his style may seem hucksterish, he absolutely definitely positively gets results. This is his first book in over 20 years, and he’s done a lot of homework for it. The core of Tony’s approach is finding out the expert’s best practices, and then implementing them. So he found the most successful money people in the world — Ray Dalio, John Templeton, John Bogle, Carl Icahn, T. Boone Pickens, Warren Buffett, we’re talking trillionaires dammit — and extracted their best practices for us.
Problem: at 700 pages, it’s a bit of a brick, with a ton of information to sift through. But is your financial future not worth 12 hours of your concentrated attention? Yes it is. It’s not about the how of financial freedom, but also the mindset and overcoming your blocks. Be an investor, not a consumer! Harness the awesome power of compounding! Got this one for myself in print and ebook format, and I expect it will return the investment thousands-fold. Unless you already have more than a quarter billion dollars to your name like Tony, you should listen to him. 9.5/10
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2015) by Elizabeth Kolbert (ebook & print). Caves that recently contained millions of bats now have none — a fungus massacred them. All frogs are vanishing from the face of the earth. “A third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed to oblivion.” There have been five major extinctions on Earth, and we seem to be amidst the sixth one, largely created by humans. Kolbert of The New Yorker is the human reporting on this for the past decade with a sharp eye, steady voice, and muddy boot. Her unsentimental delivery makes the magnitude of the catastrophe hit you even harder when it finally dawns on you: we’re killing everything. This won the Pulitzer Prize, and may it win any and every award that will make kids better stewards of their only planet. May want to stop eating tuna and shark-fin soup. 10/10
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print). A good popular science book takes a complex topic and makes it accessible to a wide, non-technical audience. A great popular science book also makes the topic engaging, immediately usable, and a catalyst for finding out even more. This is one of the greats.
It turns that a lot of stupendously smart computer scientists have not just thought about certain everyday problems we have, but also came up with mathematically optimal solutions to them. There’s the explore vs exploit dilemma: at what point do you stop searching for a restaurant or date or job, and just settle on one of the available choices? For that, you use the 37% rule: if you’re considering 100 different options, when you hit #37, select the next candidate that’s better than all you’ve seen so far. That’s from optimal stopping theory. There are more: “Sorting theory tells us how (and whether) to arrange our offices. Caching theory tells us how to fill our closets. Scheduling theory tells us how to fill our time.” I feel like this book initiated me into a secret society that knows a lot more than me about the inner workings of the world. 10/10
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio). One day last year, while I was traveling in Australia, I thought to myself: “Y’know, self, you’ve led a fairly charmed life. You should read about some pain.” Thus started my Heartbreak Project, in which I took on books about the awful things humans have done to one another. This is definitely one of those books.
The plundering of the Congo and the subsequent massacre and enslavement of the Congolese happened on a scale that beggars the imagination, especially compared to how little Westerners know about it. 6-10 million Congolese perished. King Leopold had turned a country half the size of Europe into his own personal colony so he could fund his palaces and teenage whore-mistresses. If you go to Brussels today — Joseph Conrad’s “sepulchral city” from Heart of Darkness— pretty much every old building you see was built with Leopold’s Congo money.
There are legions of despicable characters in this story, amongst them Henry M. Stanley, the Welsh-American explorer famous for finding Victoria Falls and Dr Livingstone. But Leopold’s crimes were exposed only because of the insane bravery of a few heroes. Englishman Edmund Dene Morel, black Americans George Washington Williams and Wiliam Sheppard risked assassination and fatal tropical disease to expose the atrocities of the Congo and turn international sentiment against it.
This is holocaust-level stuff that very few people have heard about. The story will break your heart dozens of times, and also redeem and enlarge it. 10/10
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (2016) by William Finnegan (ebook, print & audio). New Yorker staff writer Finnegan is a master storyteller and generous observer of human nature. For years, he hid his surfing obsession from writing colleagues, fearing that he wouldn’t be taken seriously. Now the secret’s out, and thank goodness for that! If you’ve ever wondered why an otherwise sensible person would abandon home for foreign waves that could cripple or kill you on any given day, this book initiates you into that mentality. California, Bali, Australia, Portugal, South Africa — Finnegan covered much ground in his four decades of wave-seeking peregrinations, as well as the political strife in various hotspots of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I still may not risk snapping my neck to ride a wave, but I can better appreciate the impulse. Magisterial enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography. 9/10
Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortunes and Random Failures in Silicon Valley (2017) by Antonio Garcia Martinez (ebook & print). Silicon Valley is a small place, so it makes sense not to burn bridges. Garcia Martinez apparently does not give such fucks. A Wall Street refugee, he was brought into Facebook when it acquired Adchemy, his adtech startup, giving him front-row seats to the one of the most heated money grabs in world history. The author is clearly super smart and fully conversant in the languages of technology, finance, and business. His tone is knowing and acerbic about the bumbling and cupidity he witnessed. But any sane person’s would be. I lived in San Francisco from 2012 to 2017, and everything that he says rings true. He’s just the first person to call out the bullshit in print, e.g. Facebook, Google and Twitter are glorified advertising firms, not saviors of the world, and there’s a not a whole lot of real innovation happening in the Valley. Not surprisingly, very few people come off well (Paul Graham and Sam Altman of Y-Combinator are exceptions).
Garcia Martinez mitigates his hauteur by being equally savage on himself: “In contemplating an earlier version of yourself, you’ll realize that young and glorious you was in fact a total and complete fuckwit.” He’s also a damn good writer, pleasingly versed in literature and philosophy — and funny as fuck. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, and will be re-reading this one. 9/10
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2017) Michael Lewis (ebook, print & audio). So I’ve got this reading queue 120 books long, and then this book skitters along and skips to the front of the line. How? Well, it’s by Michael Lewis, and it’s about one my favorite scholars of all time, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and his collaborator and best friend, Amos Tversky. Who was I to resist? Also, I’d seen Lewis speak about the book live. I was toast.
The story reads like a love story between Danny and Amos, two utterly brilliant Israeli guys with diametrically opposed temperaments who somehow got attached at the hip. Kahneman was the soft-spoken introvert, often taking second fiddle to the brash Tversky, whom everyone regarded as “the smartest man I’ve ever met.” Man, what I would have given to listen in on one of their legendary rap sessions. Amongst their collaborations, they concoct Prospect Theory — basically, the Grand Theory of Human Foibles. This upends the whole idea of Homo economicus which is the basis of Western civilization (because surprise! humans are not rational), netting Kahneman the Nobel in economics. This counts as a major BFD because you may have noted that Danny is not an economist, yo.
Lewis weaves the science of their discoveries into the story of their friendship, military service, move to the US, collaboration, rivalry, and ultimate falling out. An engaging, touching and enlightening tale that explained the contents of Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (one of the greatest books of all time, which apparently DK did everything to avoid writing and thought was utter crap) into a third of the space while making it three times as fun. 9/10
In a Sunburned Country (2001) by Bill Bryson (ebook & print). On my way to Australia last year, I realized that the strategic information I had gleaned from the movie Crocodile Dundee was probably outdated. Bill Bryson to the rescue! This is my first book by him, and now I understand why his books are perennial sellers. Not only is he a riot, but he also provides useful and accurate information. I know this ’cause I asked actual Aussies about their country, and they all corroborated Bill. Loved it! More Bryson for me henceforth. 9/10