I first heard of Energy and Civilization by Vaclav Smil through a recommendation from Bill Gates. It ended up being one of the best and most insightful books I’ve ever read about energy. Smil starts from the earliest recorded human uses of energy and takes you on a journey through humanity’s ascent into higher and higher energy use (and related: higher levels of civilization).
This book can get technical occasionally, which I appreciated (thermodynamics was one of my favorite classes in college – nerd alert!) but those sections are easy enough to skip if you aren’t interested. While there are occasional technical/textbook-like sections, the writing style is much more entertaining and pleasant to read than a textbook. This Energy and Civilization key takeaways article is a very small sample of the rich information in this book – if you’re intrigued, I definitely recommend reading it for yourself.
And if you prefer to listen rather than read, Nat Eliason and I did a Made You Think podcast episode with our Energy and Civilization key takeaways:
The world lost a treasure when Kobe Bryant tragically died in January. Kobe’s book The Mamba Mentality is a fascinating look at his work ethic, worldview, and clear thought process. I can’t even imagine the future writing he would have been capable of had he lived longer. Here are The Mamba Mentality Key Takeaways.
I wrote a tribute to Kobe while lying awake in bed the night of his death, which you can read here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”