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:
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.
If this is your first time visiting my site, there’s something you should know: I love reading. As subscribers of my monthly reading recommendation newsletter know (if you’re not a subscriber, what are you waiting for?), I have an eclectic taste in books. My recommendations run the gamut from psychology and war history to novels and science or math books.
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.
There’s a quote I love by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Erasmus that really drives this home:
“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.
In 2014, I made it a goal to re-dedicate myself to reading. I read a ton growing up but for the past 6-8 years, I probably read less than 10 books per year outside of class. The books I recommend below were all personally transformative for me in one way or another. As with any book, the influence the books below had on me was based on a combination of things including what was going on in my own personal and professional life as well as what was happening in the world at the time.
This is not a ranking list so the books are presented in no particular order.
I really, really wish I had read this book before starting my undergrad degree in engineering. Throughout college, I felt frustrated about the theoretical focus of engineering education. I fall more on the visual learner side of the spectrum so learning about chemical engineering was particularly difficult (it’s hard to picture molecular interactions). The times I felt most comfortable were when a previously discussed concept was physically shown in a lab class. As my friends from college are very much aware of, I was pretty outspoken about my frustration with the curriculum and the way engineering was being taught.
This book dives right into the engineering education issue and so much more. It’s told in a narrative format about a father-son, cross-country motorcycle journey that’s filled with flashbacks and self-discovery, but most importantly, goes into the philosophy of the relationship between art, science, and practical application. I have to credit this book for finally “connecting the dots” for me between the classroom engineering concepts I learned at CMU and the real world around me.
This was a quick but very influential read. Anyone who has tried to build, write, or create anything will appreciate Pressfield’s book, which basically boils down to how to recognize and conquer The Resistance, something we’ve all felt when doing something necessary but difficult.
There aren’t many people more creative than the Kelley brothers, who helped found and lead IDEO, the world’s leading design consultancy. The biggest takeaway for me was that creativity is something we all possess. Some of us just lose confidence in our creativity while growing up. Perhaps we were told we can’t draw or that we were analytical or that we were athletes and so stopped exploring our “creative side”. I read this in tandem with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and found the two to be very much related. This book is the reason I decided to take my first acting class and then helped me find the confidence to think I could be decent at it.
Can’t believe I didn’t read this book until this year. If you’ve had moments of doubt about your life’s direction (whether personal or professional), this book will literally feel as if it’s written for you. Read it.
Side note about Paulo Coelho: some people get put off by the religious (Christian) nature of his writing. Whether you consider yourself religious or not (I’m personally not religious at all), his writing is still inspirational and provides guidance with the existential questions of life.
I’ve gotten really interested in the sharing economy this year (also known as the 1099 economy or the Uber economy) and this was the best book I found about the young industry. The book was written in 2010 (before the whole Uber craze really took off) so it’s amazing that so many of the predictions in here are spot on. Bostrom’s analysis and thinking around the whole space are great in terms of giving you a complete picture into the trends and forces causing “on-demand” and “sharing” services to explode in popularity today. The coolest takeaway from her analysis of the sharing economy: it’s really a move away from the unnatural “largeness” of 20th century corporations and a return to the more local economies of the past (and hopefully future).
If you’re interested in the sharing economy, you HAVE to read this book.
Hands down the most creative book I read all year and possibly in my entire life. The book has 10 “first chapters” of stories intertwined with a love story involving…you! It sounds bizarre but it’s so engaging and I wasn’t able to put it down once I started.
The book was originally written in Italian (Italo Calvino was Italian, in case you couldn’t guess that from his name) and reading this really made me wonder what, if anything, was lost in translation. The English version is so great, I can’t even imagine how good the original was.
Whether or not you’ve read the Blake Masters class notes from Thiel’s Stanford class, this is an interesting and important read. Regardless of if you agree with his politics, there are few people out there like Thiel and his contrarian thinking definitely gets you thinking outside the box. I personally don’t agree with 100% of his views but his thinking is presented in a readable, accessible manner that had (and still has) me looking at the world with a renewed desire to solve big, meaningful problems
Taleb is a genius, plain and simple. I wrote about his work earlier this year and his writing has been hugely influential in crystallizing my thoughts on risk. Just as importantly, his work is hilariously written and somehow manages to make 3 books about a “boring” topic like risk impossible to put down.
While I chose to feature The Black Swan, the other 2 books in the series are Fooled by Randomness and Antifragile. They can be read in any order but I would recommend starting with The Black Swan, then moving to Antifragile (my favorite in the series) and then finishing with Fooled by Randomness if you’re still interested.
Warning about Taleb: He’s EXTREMELY opinionated, which leads to some amazing and entertaining writing but can also piss some people off. If you read his books and end up falling into the pissed off group…can’t say I didn’t warn you.
Directly related to Taleb’s work is World War Z. The zombie infection outbreak is a great, thankfully fictional, example of a Black Swan event. I also happened to read this around the time of the ebola breakout so that probably played a part in making this so memorable for me.
I was a huge fan of the movie too but the book is very different. The movie was told from one person’s point of view while the book is basically a series of recollections from various points in time during the outbreak and war, with no central character.
This year I got interested in learning more about Stoic philosophy. I’ve never been one to “sweat the small stuff” so Stoicism made intuitive sense from the beginning. The coolest thing to me was reading Meditations and literally seeing a Roman emperor struggle with the same things I do on a daily basis – namely, knowing that the world isn’t perfect and adapting my attitude to make sense of and operate in that world. Learning about Stoicism also played a big part in helping me come up with my morning routine.
So those were the top recommendations from my 2014 reading. If any of these books look interesting to you, definitely make the time to read them. Also, if you have a Goodreads account, let’s connect there.
I’m always on the lookout for more to read so definitely send your recommendations my way!