2015 was my best reading year yet. Partially because I discovered a handful of authors who I expect I’ll be tracking for years to become.
However, my biggest reading win was that I broadened my perspective from the business-book-only approach I took in 2013 and 2014 to a lot of adjacent domains: writing, investing, science, finance, sociology, and military strategy among others.
2015 was also my best year in business. I don’t believe the two are coincidental. Many business books encourage narrow thinking: using your scarce time and energy chasing marginal gains instead of looking for big wins in the “adjacent possible.” The adjacent possible, a theory from Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is the idea that your next big breakthrough is probably in an industry just outside your own.
Bill Gates shares an example:
“In the 1870s, a French doctor, Stephane Tarnier, saw incubators for chicken hatchlings at the Paris Zoo and hired the zoo’s poultry-raiser to build incubator boxes for premature newborns at his hospital.”
A zoo is not an entirely random domain for a doctor, they’re both taking care of living creatures, but different enough to bring in a fresh big idea. If you’ve been focused on business books to the exclusion of everything else, here are ten impactful books to start exploring your adjacent possible.
Liar’s Poker and The Big Short by Michael Lewis – “Lewis is God” was the one line response I got to an email I sent a friend about Michael Lewis’s recent article in Vanity Fair. Malcolm Gladwell has called Lewis “the finest storyteller of our generation” and I have to agree. The storytelling in this duo masterfully illustrate the absurdity that is Wall St. They are two (of very few) honest accounts about how high finance works: mostly through backchannels and it’s most profitable products: functional embezzlement, fraud and theft.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – A delightful discourse on writing and the lessons it can teach us about life. Lamott’s insightful use of analogy and metaphor had me smiling and laughing the whole time I read and and taught me a lot about writing as a craft and what it means to be a writer. Here’s a taste “E. L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.”
Waking Up by Sam Harris – The subtitle “Spirituality without Religion” pretty much sums it up though “Spirituality without the woo-woo” would be an apt subtitle as well. Harris combines his neuroscience PhD with decades spent meditating to explore questions such as: What does it mean to be “spiritual but not religious?” Is there a neuroscientific basis for the self? What does the latest research in neuroscience tell us about spirituality? What is the nature of consciousness?
What Technology Wants By Kevin Kelly – Kevin Kelly is a technology savant. In What Technology Wants, Kelly frames technology as a force which was born in the Big Bang and traces it forward to present day, identifying the characteristics of the force as revealed by it’s history and projecting a vision for where it will lead us in the future. The chapter on how the Amish relate to technology (test everything for second and third order effects before adopting it wholesale) is both memorable and practical.
Status Anxiety by Alain De Botton – My first Alain de Botton book and one which will lead me into more of his back catalog over the next few years. The premise of Status Anxiety is that it’s only as the West has become more meritocratic over the past couple centuries (and particular the past couple decades), status anxiety has become more and more oppressive. He quotes from a 16th century French author who used the metaphor of a human body to describe society – The king is the head, the army the hands, the serfs the feet. Under this metaphor, no serfs felt anxious for being serfs. Feet don’t become hands, they’re born feet and they stay that way.
However, the modern career ladder has created the notion of mobility. If Oprah can go from a impoverished, painful childhood to being “Oprah,” it suddenly creates anxiety in everyone else – “It’s possible and I’m not doing it so there’s something wrong with me.” In the second half of the book, De Botton proposes ways to redefine status and escape the catch-22 – bohemia, art, philosophy, politics and religion. It struck me that most of the people I know have solved status anxiety by simply redefining it in a new way. Driving a cheap car and baselining to reinvest in your business the first few years is high status among most of my friends.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn – This is the book which inserted the now-cliche term “paradigm shifting” into the popular lexicon. Kuhn examines how great advances in Science actually occur and why most people doing science aren’t working on anything that could actually lead to meaningful progress. Along with reading The Organization Man, this book really solidified in my mind the importance (and difficulty) of seemingly radical individualism and contrarian-ism to big breakthroughs.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – A delightfully irreverent history of humanity. Harari starts the book by framing all previous histories of humanity written as extraordinarily self-aggrandizing because they’ve all been written by humans. What would it look like if another species wrote a human history?
Harari proceeds to march through a history of homo sapiens opening cans of worms and dropping them for consideration along the way: Nazism is a more evolved humanism, there’s a stronger-than-popularly-believed scientific basis for racism, and colonialism was inseparable from the progress made by the Scientific Revolution.
What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan – I’ve heard both Tim Ferriss and Nassim Taleb recommend this as a must-read book for any investor. Moynihan traces the story of an Jim Paul who built up millions through a series of fortunate outcomes and proceeded to lose it all by believing he was smarter than the market.
Paul and Moynihan use the story to teach the margin matrix: difference between right (it made money) and correct (it was a smart investment).
Certain to Win by Chet Richards – Chet Richards was a student of John Boyd, the U.S. air force colonel who changed the way the Department of Defense thought about military strategy post WWII when large, powerful armies suddenly started falter again small, insurgent forces (The US in Vietnam and USSR in Afghanistan being two examples).
Boyd wrote the new rules of warfare and Chet Richards spent his career translating them into business. In Certain to Win, he lays out those new rules, explaining why “small is the new big” and how business leaders can adopt the principles that the U.S. military has used to successfully combat insurgent forces.
The Defining Decade by Meg Jay – Most Baby Boomers got married young, started careers young and have pushed their kids to “not rush” as a way to avoid some of the mistakes they feel they made. Jay argues that trend has gone too far and that by not getting serious about your health, career and relationships until your thirties has profound long term implications. What you do in your 20s will compound for the rest of your life, making it the “defining decade” of your life. I smugly breezed through the “take your career seriously” and “go to the gym” chapters until the relationship chapter hit me like a brick to the face and caused me to get serious about companionship as part of a meaningful life and a skill set that has to be cultivated.
Did you read anything in the past year that had a big influence on you? Let me know in the comments, I’m always looking for recommendations!