Tag Archives: Book Recommendations

The 2015 Farnam Street Members Book List

Today’s book list is based on recommendations by Farnam Street Members on Slack over the last few months. If you’re not familiar with it, our community on Slack is a discussion area for members, and one of our ongoing discussions is book recommendations.

We’ve compiled and organized eleven of their favorite choices, especially ones we haven’t seen recommended elsewhere. Enjoy!

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

“The book was initially intended to be a serious travel guide, with accounts of local history along the route, but the humorous elements took over to the point where the serious and somewhat sentimental passages seem a distraction to the comic novel. One of the most praised things about Three Men in a Boat is how undated it appears to modern readers – the jokes seem fresh and witty even today.”

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

“Haidt sifts Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions for other nuggets of wisdom to substantiate—and sometimes critique—with the findings of neurology and cognitive psychology.”

Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes, But Some Do by Matthew Syed

“Syed draws on a wide range of sources—from anthropology and psychology to history and complexity theory—to explore the subtle but predictable patterns of human error and our defensive responses to error. He also shares fascinating stories of individuals and organizations that have successfully embraced a black box approach to improvement, such as David Beckham, the Mercedes F1 team, and Dropbox.” (Pair with Mistakes were Made (But not by Me) by Carol Tavris to see how we rationalize our own mistakes.)

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer

“Gigerenzer’s theories about the usefulness of mental shortcuts were a small but crucial element of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink, and that attention has provided the psychologist, who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the opportunity to recast his academic research for a general audience. The key concept—rules of thumb serve us as effectively as complex analytic processes, if not more so—is simple to grasp.” (Pair with Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for a different approach.)

The Means of Ascent by Robert Caro

The second book in the Lyndon Johnson series, written by Robert Caro. This one tackles his service in WWII, building his fortune, and his 1948 election to the Senate, which Caro concludes that Johnson stole. Charlie Munger once commented that LBJ was important to study, simply because he never told the truth when a lie would do better. (Pair with the other books in the series.)

The Effective Engineer: How to Leverage Your Efforts In Software Engineering to Make a Disproportionate and Meaningful Impact by Edmond Lau

“The most effective engineers — the ones who have risen to become distinguished engineers and leaders at their companies — can produce 10 times the impact of other engineers, but they’re not working 10 times the hours.” Learn how a great engineer thinks, even if you’re not one yourself.

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jenny Uglow

“In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical.”

Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Sing

xn + yn = zn, where n represents 3, 4, 5, …no solution “I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” With these words, the seventeenth-century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat threw down the gauntlet to future generations.”  (Pair with Number: The Language of Science by Tobais Dantzig, about the development of mathematics over time by human culture.)

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by René Girard

“An astonishing work of cultural criticism, this book is widely recognized as a brilliant and devastating challenge to conventional views of literature, anthropology, religion, and psychoanalysis.”

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales 

“Survivors, whether they’re jet pilots landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier or boatbuilders adrift on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, share certain traits: training, experience, stoicism and a capacity for their logical neocortex (the brain’s thinking part) to override the primitive amygdala portion of their brains. Although there’s no surefire way to become a survivor, Gonzales does share some rules for adventure gleaned from the survivors themselves: stay calm, be decisive and don’t give up.”

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Written in the 1950s, an interesting look at how we present ourselves to others in social settings, using analogies from dramatic theatre. Reminds us of Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage.”

The Books That Influenced C. Roland Christensen

C. Roland Christensen
I thought C Roland Christensen’s response in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking was one of the more interesting. Christensen was a pioneer in the field of business strategy. We can also thank him for reviving the case method from the ancient Greeks.

In the preface to his response, he writes:

Here are the books—all old, dog-eared, reread and reread, little (no big fat volumes), most committed to memory—of my five-inch bookshelf. But they miss the greatest influence on this educator—Miss Adams, a seventh-grade teacher in Iowa City, Iowa. She introduced me to poetry, where the ultimate wisdom —the philosophy of life—is found. The first step in the development of an anthology was our study of “Miniver Cheevey” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. It is still exciting fifty-four years after that original encounter.

What Is History? by Edward H. Carr

Carr’s little book has a magnificent message—to live we must understand our historical roots. Carr gives us a way of
understanding the past so as to predict the future.

Can Man Be Modified? Jean Rostand

Rostand, a biologist, views man in a very human way, examines how science is impacting that basic humanness and then teases us with what he/she will be in future centuries.

How to Run a Bassoon Factory, or Business Explained by Mark Spade

Spade tickles the mind; with tongue in cheek, he describes business so that one laughs—even roars—at his chosen vocation.

The Insect World by J. Henri Fabre

Fabre looks at the smallest and lowest—insects—and shows us their great abilities—even wisdom. A constant reminder to look at the ordinary to see the extraordinary.

The Art of Scientific Investigation by William I. Beveridge

For the investigator, this little book is a gold mine of reflection and practical suggestion. He brings the power of scientific discipline to bear on everyday life.

Power Without Property by Adolph A. Berle, Jr.

The book raises fundamental questions about modern business organization and ownership. It outlines the quiet revolution which has changed the power bases of our industrial society.

Follow your curiosity, for more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, Thomas C. Shelling, Michael J. Sandel, Jerome Kagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and John Kenneth Galbraith.

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.

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.


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.

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.

The Books That Influenced John Kenneth Galbraith

PX 82-5: JKG 1961 Portrait

John Kenneth “Ken” Galbraith, was a long-time Harvard faculty member. By long time, I mean he was a professor of economics for over half a century. A prolific author, with about 4 dozen books to his name, he also published more than a thousand articles and essays. Among his most famous works was the trilogy on economics: American Capitalism (1952), The Affluent Society (1958), and The New Industrial State (1967).

In The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking, we can find the books that influenced him.

In the preface to his brief response, he writes:

I do not urge economics; others will do that. Instead I urge the enjoyments and enlightenment to which the well-seasoned economist and citizen of the future are entitled and which have brought both pleasure and reward to me in the past.

Then he goes on to name the books that gave him enjoyments and enlightenment in point form.

By Anthony Trollope:
Barchester Towers
The Last Chronicles of Barset
The Warden

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

By W. Somerset Maugham:
Of Human Bondage
Christmas Holiday

Gullible’s Travels by Ring Lardner

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

By Paul Scott:
The Jewel in the Crown
The Day of the Scorpion
The Towers of Silence
The Division of the Spoils

The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies

Follow your curiosity, for more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, Thomas C. Shelling, Michael J. Sandel, Jerome Kagan, and Stephen Jay Gould.