Summer Reads for the Curious Mind

summer reading list

Out of the 44 books I read from January to June, here are the 7 that resonated with me the most. (For the curious see the 2012, 2013, I can’t find the 2014 edition.)

  1. Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference — This book is an invitation to be curious, build character, and make better choices. Very much in line with the Farnam Street ethos — so much so that I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements. It belongs on your shelf next to Seeking Wisdom.
  2. Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation — If I could encourage you to look into one thing to think and focus better, this would be it. This is an enormously powerful little book that will help you focus your mind, open your heart, and think with more insight. It’s short enough to consume over a glass of wine (or two) on the patio and simple enough that you’ll want to put it into practice.
  3. The Lessons of History — A concise book of lessons drawn from the survey of history. The book comes highly recommended by someone I met at the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. I can’t believe I haven’t read this before. I’ll be re-reading this a few times and I’ve started listening to the audio version in the car as well.
  4. The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship — A beautiful and thought-provoking book that argues we should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. “Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.”
  5. How to Get Lucky: 13 Techniques for Discovering and Taking Advantage of Life’s Good Breaks — Some people are luckier than others and it’s not always by chance. Lucky people tend to position themselves in the path of luck. They take risks but not stupid ones. They know when to give up on love, stocks, and even opinions. A great read.
  6. Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Businessman — a short, yet important, book that I wish more people would read and think about. (You can find a pdf here.) In a nutshell the book represents the mindset that “avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.” It’s amazing what we see when we focus on the obvious insights that we’re missing because we’re trying too hard to grasp the esoteric.
  7. The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere — An excellent counterbalance to our endless diet of movement and stimulation.

Leave a comment below and tell me what you’re reading.

The Wisdom of Seneca: A Lawyer’s Advice For Life In The Fast Lane

Marble Head of a Philosopher
Marble Head of a Philosopher

Seneca is best known for his pithy wisdom that helps us rethink our own perspectives on life. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (around 4 B.C.—A.D. 65) was an insightful lawyer, senator, philosopher, and playwright.

“Philosophy,” writes Tom Morris in The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results, “in the hands of a thinker like Seneca, is an eminently practical enterprise.”

It has theoretical underpinnings, to be sure, but its ultimate goal is to inspire us to proper achievement and good living. The philosopher is a physician of the soul, whose advice aims at spiritual health and happiness. Like physics, philosophy seeks to understand the most ultimate realities with which we have to do. Yet, unlike physics, the philosophy most true to human nature gives us not technical terminology and news of marvels outside the ken of our normal experience, but rather reminders of what lies right in front of our eyes, or, if we are perceptive, inside our own hearts.

Philosophy has been called “common sense in dress clothes.” It can show us something we had already suspected or known. Many people, however, question the point of telling us things that we already know.

Seneca, in The Epistles provides a great answer:

People say: “What good does it do to point out the obvious?” A great deal of good, since we sometimes know facts without paying attention to them. Advice is not the same thing as teaching. It just gets our attention and wakes us up, and concentrates our memory and keeps it from losing its grip. We otherwise miss a lot that’s right in front of our eyes. Advice is, in fact, a sort of exhortation.

Phil Jackson, the championship basketball coach, draws on insights from philosophy and the importance of what commands our attention in his two books Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior and Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.

Tom Morris sums up Seneca’s view that philosophy, at its best, “focuses our attention on things that might have eluded us because of their very familiarity, reminds us of important truths that we need to act on, and then goads us into action as well.”

InThe Epistles Seneca writes:

Whatever is good for us should be discussed often and frequently brought to mind, so that it may be not Just familiar to us, but also ready for use. Remember also that in this way what is clear often, becomes clearer.

In The Stoic Art of Living, Morris writes:

Seneca developed wisdom about prosperity and successful living that resonates with some of the best contemporary thought concerning happiness and the good life. His nuggets of advice often help us to understand more thoroughly any insights we might already have managed to grasp about true success in life. What is clear becomes clearer, and deep realizations that might have remained unarticulated are suddenly sparked into consciousness as we read his words. He provides us with elements of a life guidance toolkit that display a logical unity, a form of inner coherence, and a tremendous usefulness for anyone living in tumultuous times.

Seneca, himself, reflects on the role of good advice in The Epistles:

The soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice, as a spark fanned by a gentle breeze develops its natural fire. Virtue is aroused by a touch, or a shock. In addition, there are certain things that, although they are already in our minds, are not all ready for use, but begin to function easily as soon as they’re put into words. Some tilings lie scattered around in various places, and it is impossible for the tin practiced mind to arrange them in a proper order. We need to bring them, into unity and Join them, so that they can be more powerful and more of an uplift to the soul.

The human mind is often like a cluttered attic. There is a lot of good stuff in there but it’s organized poorly so we can’t find or use much of anything. And because we pack so much in there our understanding gets confused. Organizing this mess is too much. Part of Seneca’s wisdom is he pulls away the clutter and throws it out, revealing the knowledge that we already have.

Morris writes:

The power of Seneca’s advice lies not just in its universality of application, but in its ability to spark us and fan us into flaming action, guiding that action from within our own hearts, and moving us out into the world. It can help bring into powerful unity the various insights and habits for successful living that we already have picked up along the way, and it can give us fresh perspectives on what it takes for satisfying, sustainable achievement in our world. Seneca himself would certainly remind us that it is not just the nuggets of wisdom themselves, but how we apply them, that is the ultimate aim of philosophy.

An insight, however, needs to be applied in the context of life.

Seneca maintains: “It is not enough, when a man is arranging his existence as a whole, just to give him advice on the details.” And he later reminds us of the symbiotic relationship between learning and living.

Virtue depends partly on training and partly on practice. You must learn first, and then strengthen what you’ve learned by practice.

This is important because sometimes things get difficult. In Moral Essays, Seneca insists

I need to remind you, over and over, that I am not speaking about an ideal wise man to whom every duty is a pleasure, and who rules over his own spirit, imposing on himself any law he pleases, while always obeying what he has imposed, but I am talking about anyone who, with all his imperfections, desires to follow the perfect path, and yet has passions that often are reluctant to obey.

In The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results, Morris sums this up best:

If we truly desire to live good and happy lives, we qualify as fit pupils for this philosopher. And with all the troubles we inevitably face in the world, we need this lawyer of life to help defend us against the many forces that would imprison us. If we listen well, and put into practice the best of his counsel, we can liberate our selves to be our best and feel our best in all that we do.

Still curious? Check out Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero.

Attentional Blink

Despite my experiments with meditation, I have difficulty focusing on my breath if I take a few days off meditating or yoga. The world is distracting, there are texts coming in, fire trucks going by, an ache in my back, and an itch on my nose.

This, however, is the way we move forward. After a few days of regular meditation, I’m back. My ability to concentrate and focus becomes so much higher. I read with greater ease and retain more information.

This passage by Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, talking about attentional blink, is worth flagging.

… different types of attentional training affect the brain and behavior in different ways. Practices that feature neutral, single-pointed concentration, such as mindfulness meditation, particularly improve your ability to focus as you go about your daily life. ‘Attentional blink’ experiments suggest why. If you’re shown two letters flashed a half-second apart in a series of twenty numbers, for example, you’ll almost certainly see the first letter but miss the second one. The glitch is caused by ‘sticky’ attention, which keeps you glued to the first cue, preventing your from catching it the next time. After three months of breath-centered meditation, however, you’re able to ‘let go’ of the first letter quickly and be ready to focus on the second.

No mere psych-lab curiosity, the blink research, which offers yet more proof that the world you experience is much more subjective than you assume, has important real-life implications. Even when you think you’re focused on what’s going on, these data show, you miss things that occur in quick succession, including fleeting facial and vocal cues. … ‘Sensitive attention is a key substrate of successful social interactions, and the consequences of missing that kind of information can be quite significant.’ Indeed, research done by Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, shows that slight, rapid changes in a person’s expression are highly meaningful, if unspoken, indications of what’s really on his or her mind. Most people don’t read these cues well, he finds, but attentional training can greatly improve this interpretive ability.

Because the blink phenomenon has long been regarded as relatively fixed, the fact that it can be modified helps prove that attention is indeed a trainable skill.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is filled with tips and strategies on how to improve your ability to concentrate and pay attention.

Books Everyone Should Read on Psychology and Behavioral Economics

Psychology and Behavioral Economics Books

Earlier this year, a prominent friend of mine was tasked with coming up with a list of behavioral economics book recommendations for the military leaders of a G7 country and I was on the limited email list asking for input.

Yikes.

While I read a lot and I’ve offered up books to sports teams and fortune 100 management teams, I’ve never contributed to something as broad as educating a nation’s military leaders. While I have a huge behavorial economics reading list, this wasn’t where I started.

Not only did I want to contribute, but I wanted to choose books that these military leaders wouldn’t normally have come across in everyday life. Books they were unlikely to have read. Books that offered perspective.

Given that I couldn’t talk to them outright, I was really trying to answer the question ‘what would I like to communicate to military leaders through non-fiction books?’ There were no easy answers.

I needed to offer something timeless. Not so outside the box that they wouldn’t approach it, and not so hard to find that those purchasing the books would give up and move on to the next one on the list. And it can’t be so big they get intimidated by the commitment to read. On top of that, you need a book that starts strong because, in my experience of dealing with C-level executives, they stop paying attention after about 20 pages if it’s not relevant or challenging them in the right way.

In short there is no one-size-fits-all but to make the biggest impact you have to consider all of these factors.

While the justifications for why people chose the books below are confidential, I can tell you what books were on the final email that I saw. I left one book off the list, which I thought was a little too controversial to post.

These books have nothing to do with military per se, rather they deal with enduring concepts like ecology, intuition, game theory, strategy, biology, second order thinking, and behavioral psychology. In short these books would benefit most people who want to improve their ability to think, which is why I’m sharing them with you.

If you’re so inclined you can try to guess which ones I recommended in the comments. Read wisely.

In no order and with no attribution:

  1. Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions by Gerd Gigerenzer
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
  4. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by Robert H. Frank
  5. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
  6. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
  7. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  8. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers
  9. The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by John Coates
  10. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford
  11. The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant
  12. Poor Charlie’s Almanack
  13. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions by Robert H. Frank
  14. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
  15. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha
  16. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
  17. Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans & Oscar Zarate
  18. Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent by Garrett Hardin
  19. Games of Strategy (Fourth Edition) by Avinash Dixit, Susan Skeath & David H. Reiley, Jr.
  20. The Theory of Political Coalitions by William H. Riker
  21. The Evolution of War and its Cognitive Foundations (PDF) by John Tooby & Leda Cosmides.
  22. Fight the Power: Lanchester’s Laws of Combat in Human Evolution by Dominic D.P. Johnson & Niall J. MacKay.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership

How many of today’s problems are the result of leadership?

What’s lacking, the author of The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership argue, is the lack of real leadership.

Here the problem may lie with a lack of deeper, broader insights, the kind of insights that technical skill alone does not confer— the ability to see the big picture, to connect with members of the organization, to foster a meaningful and productive work environment, and to steer the corporate ship through the challenges of highly competitive markets and new technologies.

***

What is leadership?

The authors define the term “leadership” in a way that that differentiates their “interpretation from the offhanded views that too often distort the word’s meaning.”

It is the assumption of the authors that leadership is an uncommon composite of skill, experience, and ripened personal perspectives. It is, of course, the last of those elements that sets the real leader apart from those who simply “run” organizations. Ripened personal perspectives are an essential ingredient in a leader’s efforts to develop and articulate a sound corporate vision. Real leaders, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, see things more rapidly than does the typical executive. At least in part, their insights are a reflection of an “inner” clarity that allows for fuller concentration on the challenges at hand.

This is why leadership cannot be “done by the numbers,” why those who have failed to comprehend the motivating subtleties in their own lives are unlikely to achieve the status of “leader.” Simply put, only those men and women who have cultivated a care fully conceived philosophy of life are ready and able to exhibit the kind of workplace mastery suggested by the term “leader.” Now for some, invoking the term “philosophy” in this context may seem strangely out of place. To one degree or another, we all have been conditioned to believe that philosophy is at best a kind of noble laziness, a speculative exercise devoid of concrete benefit. Yet it may be that many of the inefficiencies and failures that plague our managerial environments are ultimately related to an inadequate consideration of what philosophy has to offer.

***

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership

1. Know thyself. Understand your inner world, your bright and dark sides, your personal strengths and weakness. Self-comprehension is a fundamental precondition necessary for real leadership.

2. Office shows the person. The assumption of authority brings out the leader’s inner world. It reveals whether the leader has undergone a process of honest self-discovery that allows for the productive application of power.

3. Nurture community in the workplace. Community development and positive sentiment are virtues leaders must nurture by providing the right support, guidance, and incentives.

4. Do not waste energy on things you cannot change. Do not waste resources and energies on things you cannot control, and therefore, cannot change.

5. Always embrace the truth. Effective leaders should always embrace the truth, always encourage candid criticism throughout the organization, be skeptical of flattering appraisals, and never let authority place a wedge between them and the truth.

6. Let competition reveal talent. Nurture an environment that can use the forces of competition constructively, create a platform that releases the ingenuity and creativity of your employees in pursuing corporate goals and objectives, identify subordinates who use competition as a constructive force, steer away from subordinates who use competition as a destructive force.

7. Live life by a higher code. Dedicate yourself to a higher standard of personal conduct; don’t harbor ill-will toward those who offend; be ready to assist those who are in need without asking something in return; remain calm in the face of crisis; dedicate yourself to principle without compromise; earn the trust, respect, and admiration of your subordinates through your character, not the authority conferred upon you by the corporate chart; turn authority into power.

8. Always evaluate information with a critical eye. Don’t rely upon old premises, assertions, and theories. Develop a critical mindset that accepts nothing at face value, certify the credibility and usefulness of critical information, analyze the con text that produces critical information and the messengers who convey it, and never rush to judgments.

9. Never underestimate the power of personal integrity. Personal integrity is a critical asset for real leadership. Always set an honorable agenda, adhere to a code of professional conduct, never try to justify dishonesty and deceit, rather “fail with honor than win by cheating.”

10. Character is destiny. True leadership is ultimately traceable to factors of character and personal integrity; much of what is called “destiny” lies in our hands, not in mysterious forces beyond our control.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders is a worthy read for anyone looking to embark on a journey of critical self-examination. You’ll learn form the revered anctiel thinkers like Aristotle, Hesiod, Sophocles, Heraclitus, and Antisthenes.

Rory Sutherland Offers 4 Interesting Reads

Rory Sutherland

I asked Rory Sutherland (Vice Chairman: Ogilvy & Mather) what books stood out for him last year. I’ve had the privilege of chatting with Rory a few times now and I think you’ll agree, like most farnamstreeters not only is he exceptionally smart but he’s an awesome person.

I think you’ll enjoy his reply:

Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions is a wonderful book; the concept of defensive decision-making which he describes within it is alone worth the cover price. As an additional bonus, you get a very valuable lesson in the interpretation of statistics, a field of mathematics which – I think it is now almost universally agreed – is given too little time and attention in schools.

Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley et al, is a wonderfully broad book – but built around a single insight. That, just as apparently self-interested acts can have benign consequences, the reverse is also true. We tend to think that altruism is something to be maximised – but in fact it needs to be calibrated. A very important book.

Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is an excellent book from someone who seems to understand what Fitzgerald called “the whole equation” of a business: in this case it isn’t movies but technology. A very enjoyable book of just the right length.

Finally I immensely enjoyed the manuscript of Richard Thaler’s upcoming book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. I have not laughed so much in ages as when reading his chapter describing how the Economics Faculty of the University of Chicago tried to agree on the allocation of offices in their new building. No, it did not go well.