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.
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.”
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:
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.
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 TheWisdom 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.
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.
From the title of this post, you might be thinking that I have a utilitarian view of reading. For the record, that is not true. By no means should you be looking at reading purely from a return on investment (ROI) standpoint. Reading is first and foremost a pleasure. That being said, a useful book is one of the best investments you can make. In fact, reading is one of the very, very few areas of life which offer the potential for 100x or higher returns.
There is so much knowledge just sitting there in books, waiting for someone who can communicate the ideas effectively and take them into the real world. In fact, a large percentage of the people we consider highly intelligent may just be more well read than us. Many of the problems that companies, governments, and individuals face on a regular basis have been in existence for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and have been solved over and over.
The clever innovator or highly accomplished consultant who can solve all your problems may just be pulling their solutions from a better set of sources (books) than you are. And those better sources are the reason they’ve been able to differentiate themselves and get out of the commodity workforce. It’s clear – books can give you a competitive advantage that few other things can. But it requires an investment of both time and money.
“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes”
I’m not recommending you starve yourself to read – we do have libraries after all. But if you want to buy your books (and I recommend you do), it isn’t too difficult to justify the investment. Because that’s what a book is – an investment.
Let’s assume that a book will cost you $15 (you can buy books for much, much less than that but I’ll save those tips for another post). If you buy three books per month, you’re spending $540 per year. If you choose your books wisely (which isn’t easy), you’ll get through 36 books over the course of the year – far more than the average person. Compound this advantage over a few years and you’ve pretty strongly differentiated yourself.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if just one of the books you read leads to an insight which results in your next company, a consulting contract, or a promotion at work. I’ve experienced this firsthand – a $12 book plus a few cold emails once led directly to a $10,000 consulting gig. There aren’t too many investments that can beat that ROI.
And therein lies the similarity to venture capital. Since books have the potential to lead to such high returns, you can afford to be wrong about books many, many times in your search to get it right. In fact, if I never again see a dollar of return from reading, the one consulting gig I earned covers the cost of over 830 books.
This is similar to (but even better than) venture capital economics. VCs fully expect a large percentage of their investments to go to zero. Their entire job is to find the one or two companies which will drive the returns of the entire fund. This means finding the company that can deliver the 100x return. The same applies to buying books. In my case, the ROI of that one book was 833X. While I won’t be competing with Andreessen Horowitz in the venture game any time soon, knowing that reading books can lead to huge payoffs helps me justify the amount of time and money I spend on reading.
Of course, not every book you read needs to get you a consulting contract or a new job. Some books, fiction or nonfiction, are just an absolute pleasure to read and have no (direct) impact on your earnings potential. If you’re fortunate enough to find one of these books, lucky you. They’re more difficult to find than the 100x return books.
Most business books are unnecessary to read if you’re reading to learn something. When I say unnecessary, I don’t mean the information provided in them isn’t helpful. I mean that there’s nothing you can find in those books that couldn’t be learned from a couple of blog posts. I notice this more with newer books than older ones but that’s probably because the older books that have survived and are read today actually have some worthwhile ideas.
Most business books simply repeat ideas that have already been talked about 100 times elsewhere. Now that’s actually fine – IF the book expands on those ideas with longer anecdotes and examples OR it organizes the information in a way that makes it more accessible to the reader.
For example, Traction does a great job of organizing information in an accessible format. Everything contained in Traction can be found online from various sources. The real value of the book and having it available as a reference is that it pieces together information in a coherent format that saves you time and energy. Last time I checked on Amazon, Traction cost $10.64 for the hardcover edition. Would I pay $10.64 to have this set of resources on my desk any time I want? Hell yea – and it’s sitting on my desk right now.
Another example of a business book worth reading is Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Ben’s been in the trenches with a few companies and has some amazing stories to share – I can’t recommend this book enough if you’re a founder or have any thoughts of becoming a startup employee or founder someday. The book is about 300 pages long but when I finished, I found myself wishing it was longer because the examples and stories were so good.
Benedict Evans and Chris Dixon have some pretty entertaining tweets about business books and I think they’re spot on, Benedict’s quote in particular. Business books make “business people” (whatever that means) feel productive and good about their reading time. Kind of like most self-help books, they’re written in a way that makes sense and has you nodding your head until you actually think about the application and you realize that you just read a bunch of fluff.
Last week, I read Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing, which was written way back in 1999. It’s a smart book and was definitely revolutionary when it came out but probably 75% of it was unnecessary. The entire 200+ page book is about the concept of getting permission from consumers to market to them with the prime example being email newsletter signups. Solid concept but not nearly enough detailed examples to warrant 200 pages. I saw the same thing while reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Another great concept but again, too much fluff.
While you shouldn’t categorically reject business books, be careful which ones you invest your time in. Often, you’re better off spending your time reading books about history, philosophy, psychology, or biographies if you’re reading to learn something. You’ll find that those are usually more relevant to solving your problems than business books are.