Epics

I’m currently in the midst of reading the incredible Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, and my mind went on a tangent (which is surprising to no one). I couldn’t help but compare it to other novels I’ve read, particularly those I’d describe as epics. 

I use the word epics but it’s difficult to know what exactly comprises an epic novel, as opposed to a regular one. Going further, it’s clear that there are certain stories which qualify as epics, regardless of form factor. I’m talking about books like The Count of Monte Cristo, movies like The Godfather, and TV shows like Breaking Bad. What isn’t clear, however, is what distinguishes these epics from “regular” novels, movies, and TV shows. 

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The Best Books I Read in 2019

I traveled less in 2019 than I ever have in my adult life and since I do much of my reading on trips (flights, trains, etc), I read a little less than usual.

That said, I still read some great books this year and my reading skewed more towards fiction than in the past. There’s probably an escapism lesson there but I’ll spare you. Here are my picks for the best books I read in 2019:

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The Laws of Human Nature Key Takeaways

The  Laws of Human Nature Key Takeaways

I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Greene’s work ever since his 48 Laws of Power was recommended by my boss back when I was a 19 year old intern at Booz Allen Hamilton. Greene’s books combine two of my favorite subjects – history and psychology – to give actionable takeaways that you can apply in your daily life.

The Laws of Human Nature is Greene’s long awaited book, his first since publishing Mastery in 2013. The book absolutely accomplishes what it set out to do, namely:

The truth is that we humans live on the surface, reacting emotionally to what people say and do. We form opinions of others and ourselves that are rather simplified. We settle for the easiest and most convenient story to tell ourselves.

[…]

Consider The Laws of Human Nature a kind of codebook for deciphering people’s behavior—ordinary, strange, destructive, the full gamut. Each chapter deals with a particular aspect or law of human nature. We can call them laws in that under the influence of these elemental forces, we humans tend to react in relatively predictable ways. Each chapter has the story of some iconic individual or individuals who illustrate the law (negatively or positively), along with ideas and strategies on how to deal with yourself and others under the influence of this law. Each chapter ends with a section on how to transform this basic human force into something more positive and productive, so that we are no longer passive slaves to human nature but actively transforming it.

The Laws of Human Nature key takeaways listed below are my personal favorites but this book has a ton in it and I suspect different things stand out to different readers.

You can also listen to our Made You Think podcast episode on The Laws of Human Nature below:

Here are The Laws of Human Nature key takeaways:

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The Hidden Life of Trees Key Takeaways

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben is an eye-opening read that will have you looking at the natural world in a completely new light. If you took high school biology, you probably learned that one characteristic of plants is that while they’re alive, they are static creatures. We were told that although they adapt to their environment, they live at a standstill in the same place for their entire lives. And they certainly aren’t communicators. Well, as you’ll learn in The Hidden Life of Trees Key Takeaways, trees are actually dynamic, social, and incredibly complex creatures. The Hidden Life of Trees provides an entertaining deep dive into the alien world of trees.

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Twelve Years a Slave Key Takeaways

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup has gained attention in recent years, thanks to the film adaptation, which won several Academy Awards. I personally loved the film and finally got around to reading Northup’s memoir, which happened to be available recently on Amazon Prime Reading for free. The book is absolutely phenomenal.

Twelve Years a Slave Key Takeaways outlines the key lessons I took from Northup’s memoir of his experience being kidnapped and made a slave in the Deep South. Northup’s account is particularly enlightening because he was a well-educated, prosperous individual in New York prior to his kidnapping and is able to convey his experience in great detail. When it was published, the book was a bestseller but unfortunately became unknown after the Civil War. It resurfaced in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement and has since become a prominent primary source for readers looking to better understand pre-Civil War America.

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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived Key Takeaways

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford is a well-written, entertaining book about the journey of humanity through time. Genetics is a topic frequently discussed in popular media, at least in part because it presents discrete variables (genes) which allow comparison between individuals on a common substrate (the human genome). However, as Rutherford so eloquently presents, popular genetics encourages many biological misconceptions that are oversimplifications, at best.

Here are my A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived Key Takeaways:

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Food of the Gods Key Takeaways

food of the gods key takeaways
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.

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The Elephant in the Brain Key Takeaways

The Elephant in the Brain Key Takeaways

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.

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Uncomfortable Reading

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.

*****

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Related reading: Crony Beliefs by Kevin Simler (Melting Asphalt)

 

 

Setting the Table Key Takeaways

Setting the Table Key Takeaways

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.

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