Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge by Terence McKenna is a book that’s frequently mentioned by experts in the psychedelic community, and for good reason. McKenna, a legendary writer and commentator on drug culture, was an ethnobotanist by training. In this book, he explores humanity’s ancient relationship with chemicals that alter consciousness, as well as the historical impact of drugs on Eastern and Western societies. Food of the Gods Key Takeaways will be focused on the major historical points as well as McKenna’s prescriptions but I highly recommend reading this book yourself to get the entire (complicated and entertaining) story.
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is a book primarily about how the human brain engages in self-deception to serve our own (sometimes ugly) motives. We’ll get deeper into The Elephant in the Brain key takeaways below but in summary, our brains have evolved to hide our own motives from ourselves. This may seem odd at first – isn’t introspection considered a good thing? The answer is clearly that it has been an evolutionary advantage to not fully understand our own motives. The purpose of this book is to shine light on the true motives behind many of our behaviors and social institutions – like school, medicine, government, non-profits, and more.
For those who prefer to listen to The Elephant in the Brain Key Takeaways, you can listen to our Made You Think podcast episode on this book below.
People have many different reasons for reading books. Some read purely for pleasure. Others read to expand their horizons and experience different perspectives. And some read for personal growth. These reasons are of course not exhaustive and often overlap.
Reading or not, personal growth requires getting out of your comfort zone. And though I suspect many readers would claim they are reading for personal growth, the reading choices many of us make seem to simply reinforce ideas and beliefs we already have. This is a version of confirmation bias and may be the adult version of carrying around a teddy bear or security blanket. Constantly reading books and articles we already know we will agree with feels good. It’s comfortable. It’s satisfying in the way a chocolate chip cookie is satisfying.
I’m a major believer in the power of books to transform beliefs and lives so it pains me to criticize anyone’s reading habits. However, in early 2018 I noticed this tendency happening more and more in my own reading. The articles and books I was reading had fallen into a predictable pattern. I wasn’t being challenged.
We’ve consciously been thinking about this phenomenon as we select which books to cover on Made You Think. For example, I’m a strong believer in the Lindy Effect but this belief was directly challenged by The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. Nat and I are both free market believers but we made sure to read and cover The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which promotes socialism and exposes capitalism’s shortcomings. And most recently, we covered The War on Normal People by Andrew Yang, which promotes universal basic income (UBI) as the solution to many economic and social problems facing the United States.
I won’t lie to you – each of these books was a challenge to read. But the challenge was enjoyable in the way a difficult workout is enjoyable. I could feel my mind getting back into the dialogue that takes place when you read an author who challenges your closely held (or perhaps, crony) beliefs.
And you know what else happened? Some of my beliefs changed! David Deutsch’s assertion that humanity can solve any problem given sufficient knowledge and wealth is incredibly uplifting…and turns out isn’t delusional (but you’ll have to read the book to find out why). Andrew Yang’s universal basic income proposal isn’t as crazy as it sounds and is far more doable than I had previously imagined.
If the purpose of your reading is to self-affirm, then by all means, read things you know you’ll agree with. But if your goal is personal growth, then picking up books you may disagree with is crucial. Embrace the discomfort and purposely read something today that challenges your closely held beliefs.
Related reading: Crony Beliefs by Kevin Simler (Melting Asphalt)
As I’ve dived deeper into the hospitality world because of Unlimited Brewing, I’ve found that I really enjoy reading books by folks in the restaurant industry. In particular, I’ve enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Work Clean by Dan Charnas, and The Kitchen and The Cook by Nicolas Freeling. While all of these books were entertaining and had great takeaways, the most immediately applicable takeaways were found in Setting the Table by restauranteur Danny Meyer, the entrepreneur behind Union Square Cafe, Blue Smoke, and last but certainly not least, Shake Shack. Without further ado, let’s get into our Setting the Table key takeaways.
Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life is the long awaited fourth installment of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto series. If you follow Taleb on Twitter or are familiar with his other work, you’ll be familiar with the central premise of this book, namely that there should be a symmetry between share of benefits and share of harm, and that there are asymmetries that exist in a variety of domains, but especially in politics and business. This is post is pretty long because there are just so many Skin in the Game key takeaways – this book is absolutely packed with insight.
It is not necessary to have read the rest of Incerto before reading Skin in the Game. If you are completely new to Taleb’s work, I would recommend starting with this book as it gives you his ideas and style in a narrative, entertaining format, as opposed to the mathematical plus narrative style of his previous books. That is because the SITG concept is more qualitative than other topics Taleb has discussed in the past. As Taleb himself says in the Introduction: “To this author, skin in the game is mostly about justice, honor, and sacrifice, things that are essential for humans.”
For those who would rather listen to Skin in the Game key takeaways, you can listen to a Made You Think podcast episode about this book:
Let’s get into the key takeaways:
Those of you who follow me on Twitter, listen to the podcast I co-host, or subscribe to my newsletter, know I’m a huge fan of Jordan Peterson’s work. Dr. Peterson, the author of 12 Rules for Life, is a controversial figure, to say the least and has come under fire primarily for his refusal to use certain gender pronouns, after being compelled to by Canadian legislation (Bill C-16), which he views as a violation of free speech. I will ignore that issue in this post and instead focus on Dr. Peterson’s work and book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Along with The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, and Nassim Taleb’s work, nothing has done more to evolve my view on religion than the lecture series Dr. Peterson has done on the psychological and metaphorical interpretation of the Bible. I’ve come to believe there is nearly limitless wisdom contained in ancient religious texts, perhaps not from the literal, materialistic viewpoint, but certainly their advice on how to act in the world rings true.
Dr. Peterson’s book is, in many ways, a distillation of his lectures on religion combined with his deep knowledge of psychology. Quite simply, this book is a must-read. Nat Eliason and I also did a Made You Think Podcast episode on this book, which you can listen to below:
The Way of Zen by Alan Watts is a book I had heard a lot about over the years but had never actually taken the time to read.
Similarly, the concept of “zen” is pervasive in popular culture yet I would argue that very few of us know what the word is referring to.
A quick disclaimer about everything in the key takeaways below: these notes are the parts of the book which spoke to me. I make no claims on it being a comprehensive overview of Zen Buddhism or of The Way of Zen. If the ideas below intrigue you, reading the book will give you a much better grasp of these (admittedly) difficult to verbalize ideas.
You can also listen to a deep dive discussion of this book from the Made You Think Podcast:
Key takeaways below:
I first came across Mihir Desai and his ideas when I encountered the transcript of his Harvard commencement speech on optionality. His speech (among others) helped inspire my Optionality Trap blog post. Mihir and I eventually connected via email and I learned that he had written what I now know to be an excellent book, called The Wisdom of Finance.
Finance is something I’ve had more than a passing interest in for the better part of a decade. Back in high school, I was pretty sure I wanted to go into finance. Even the 2008-2009 financial crisis did nothing to shake that belief. What did eventually shake it, however, was an Introduction to Mathematical Finance class, which I found to be so abstract and irrelevant to the “real world” that I eventually dropped both the class and the idea of studying finance altogether.
While reading The Wisdom of Finance, I re-learned why I was interested in finance in the first place – namely, its intimate connection to real, human problems.
As a side note: It’s always an awesome experience to read an author with erudition like Mihir Desai. I got something like twenty other book recommendations out of this book, many of them fiction.
Below are my key takeaways and notes from The Wisdom of Finance:
Disclaimer: When I first heard of The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber, I was extremely skeptical. I was catching up with my friend Spencer Whitman, who is the General Manager of Rent Jungle, and asked him if there’s anything he recommend I read as I embark on my journey of growing and scaling Unlimited Brewing Company. He immediately mentioned The E-Myth Revisited, whose title made me recoil in horror. My first thought was that this was some weird book about how the dot-com era was a fluke and that technology is overrated. Luckily, Spencer went on to explain that The E-Myth Revisited title stands for “The Entrepreneur Myth Revisited”, not the electronic myth. I immediately bought the book because I knew if I thought too much about the decision, I wouldn’t read it.
The E-Myth Revisited turned out to be one of the better business books I’ve ever read. Part philosophical treatise, part business advice, and part psychology manifesto, this book provides a whole new way to think about the personal development of an entrepreneur. Key takeaways are below.
Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High was recommended to me by my brother, Jay. Like many of us, I have a bad habit of shying away from confrontation and difficult conversations. It’s a natural reaction. Tough conversations are usually unpleasant and have the potential to escalate into full blown conflicts. But the truth is, by avoiding difficult conversations, we suppress disagreement and emotion until they bubble to the surface and blow up. Crucial Conversations provides a toolkit for those of us not naturally gifted at the art of handling difficult conversations.
Biggest Takeaway: Crucial conversations require finding “The Pool of Shared Meaning”
If there’s one thing to take away from this book, it’s the idea of creating a “pool of shared meaning” between key stakeholders. In their research for the book, the authors examined what unique conversational tactics are used by those who are more skilled at dialogue than the average person. Here’s one of their key findings:
People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool – even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs.
The pool of shared meaning is essentially where a group’s collective knowledge goes. When the group has more accurate or relevant collective information, they can make a better decision. And when people don’t feel safe or comfortable adding their opinions to the pool of shared meaning, it means people are operating with different information, which of course will lead to differences of opinion and conflicts.
Equally important, since by definition the pool of shared knowledge is shared, people are much more willing to follow through on whatever decision the group makes. As Samuel Butler once said:
He that complies against his will is of his own opinion still.
When a group needs to take an action, you don’t want to be using force or authority to convince them. It’s much better, both for long-term and short-term cohesiveness, for individuals to willingly go along with whatever the group collectively decides.
Start With Heart: The Mindset For Crucial Conversations
The first step to achieving the results we really want is to fix the problem of believing that others are the source of all that ails us. It’s our dogmatic conviction that “if we could just fix those losers, all would go better” that keeps us from taking action that could lead to dialogue and progress. Which is why it’s no surprise that those who are best at dialogue tend to turn this logic around. They believe the best way to work on “us” is to start with “me”.
The key framework here is to understand what you really want out of a crucial conversation, what you want for others, and what you want for the relationship moving forward. Once you’re clear on those things, it becomes a lot easier to operate with a cool head and take a skillful approach to crucial conversations.
Part of the reason this technique works so well is it allows you to hijack the normal physiological response to conflict. Normally, when engaging in crucial conversations, our body has difficulty distinguishing between a tough social encounter and a physical threat. Accordingly, blood will be diverted to your muscles and less will flow to your brain, leading your mental facilities t0 decline – at the worst possible moment! But by applying a logical framework and thinking about goals, your body realizes that this is not a physical altercation, and you’ll be able to think clearly.
Apart from the physiological benefit to using this framework, the other advantage is that by working on yourself first, you may find that you are the reason the conflict is happening! Taking this moment to stop and reflect can nip conflicts in the bud before they really escalate.
Getting Others To Share: AMPP Framework
It’s all well and good to understand the concepts above but without getting the other person/people to open up and share, there’s not really a “conversation” happening. The AMPP Framework shared in Crucial Conversations is a useful one in getting others to open up. You may already use some of these techniques but it’s useful to see the entire framework:
Ask to Get Things Rolling
This technique is simple – you just need to be willing to stop sharing your thoughts and step back to invite the other person to talk about their viewpoint. This far easier to say than to actually do in practice.
An example of asking: “I’d really like to hear your opinion on this.”
Mirror to Confirm Feelings
The main purpose of this technique is to convey to the other person that it’s ok to share their feelings. Conveying this doesn’t have much to do with the words coming out of your mouth. Instead, your body language, tone of voice, and attitude are going to give the other person the confidence to share their feelings with you.
An example of mirroring: “You say you’re okay, but by the tone of your voice, you seem upset.”
Paraphrase to Acknowledge the Story
Again, this technique will either work or fall apart based on your body language. Paraphrasing is exactly what it sounds like: repeat what you’ve heard in your own words to confirm you understand correctly. It also helps the other person see that you truly want to understand what they’re saying.
An example of paraphrasing: “Let me see if I understand this correctly. You’re saying….”
Prime When You’re Getting Nowhere
This is mostly a last resort technique but in cases where you’re pretty sure what the problem is, you can share your best guess as to what the other person is thinking. Crucial Conversations recommends you use this technique only when the other party still doesn’t feel comfortable sharing, even after trying all the other tactics. In my experience, priming can be pretty helpful – it shows the other person that you’re aware of what they’re feeling.
An example of priming: “Are you thinking that…”
Resolving Differences of Opinion: The ABC Framework
Differences of opinion are a fact of life. So how do we resolve them? The ABC framework is a good place to start:
This is something I can personally attest to: In many, if not most, disagreements with other people, I agree with 90% of what they’re saying. But in the heat of the moment, that 10% difference escalates into a standoff. The authors of Crucial Conversations are instead suggesting that you first find the places you and the other person agree. Which then sets the stage for…
Instead of looking for trivial differences between your opinion and the other person’s opinion, skilled communicators take the areas of agreement and build from there. For example, when the other person leaves out an element of the argument, an unskilled communicator will say something like: “Wrong. You forgot to include…” while a skilled communicator will say: “I agree. In addition, I noticed that…”. It’s so simple but this little switch takes a conversation from confrontational to friendly.
When there is a difference of opinion, instead of pronouncing the other person’s ideas as wrong or conveying your opinion as if it’s confirmed truth, it’s more effective to treat both opinions as two sides to a story. This can be conveyed through phrases like “I see things a bit differently”. Again, this invites others to share their opinions and test your ideas. While you may not ultimately end up agreeing, communicating in this manner creates a larger pool of shared meaning and a more productive conversation.