Book Recommendations

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Author: Walter Isaacson

Popular images of Benjamin Franklin often center on three items: the bifocals, the kite, the key. Curious, I read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin a few years back. Franklin’s honesty sparked my real interest in the U.S. founding father. Did you know he began his professional life by running away as a teenager to Philadelphia?

But I always need more data. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life provides a much more thorough and (naturally) objective look at Franklin. Written by Walter Isaacson, onetime president of CNN and author of books on Leonardo DaVinci and Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life renewed my appreciation for Franklin’s journey from humble tradesman to American Founding Father.

Beyond the trivia and anecdotes, one would expect reading of a life as full as Franklin’s, a number of themes stuck with me well after I’d turned the last page on Isaacson’s biography.

  • Accomplishment. Franklin is a shining example of just how much one can accomplish in a single lifetime. Starting as a teenage runaway, he progressed his career from apprentice to printer to publisher to franchisor. This is all before he turned to politics! During this pre-political life, Franklin was especially frugal, focused and diligent in his work. I like to think of his journey as a roadmap.
  • Decision-making. To make difficult decisions, Franklin wrote pros and cons for each choice on a sheet of paper. He’d then cross equivalent items from each column until it was clear which was the winner. This approach sounds quaint today, but perhaps only because such pro/con lists have become ubiquitous. I wonder if Franklin’s lists were novel in the 18th Century? In any case, Franklin’s lists align with what I believe about human psychology and cognitive bias: as a tool, formal processes improve our decision-making quality.
  • Virtues and habits. In his autobiography, Franklin describes his youthful quest to live a more virtuous life. At age 20, he chose 13 virtues that “at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable.” He chose to rigorously practice each in sequence, rather than all at once. By dedicating a week to each virtue, Franklin practiced each of the 13 virtues four times in a year. Did he ever achieve them all? Not permanently. I imagine his “virtue practice” helping, though, informing the difficult situations life would later throw in his path. (For thoroughness, Benjamin Franklin’s 13 necessary virtues were: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility.)
  • Optics. Franklin recognized the value of appearance when dealing with others. Not just physical appearance, but “inward appearance” as well—the appearance of having virtues. Isaacson’s text illustrates: “Even after [Benjamin Franklin] became successful, he made a show of personally carting…rolls of paper…down the street to his shop, rather than having a hired hand do it.” In Franklin’s own words: “I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances of the contrary.” Today, we refer to this as “optics.” Though I once detested the idea of acting for the sake of appearances, I’ve since learned, like Mr. Franklin, the importance of considering how our actions appear to others.
  • Socialization. While establishing himself in Philadelphia as a young tradesman, Franklin founded a club called the Junto (also known as the Leather Apron Club, for he and his fellow tradesmen wore leather aprons for work). He wanted Junto members to help one another—mutual improvement. He recruited diverse members and created fairly comprehensive rules governing their meetings and debates. “The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.”
  • Profitability. I’d heard of Poor Richard’s Almanack, and even own Poor Charlie’s Almanac (an homage centered around the life and wisdom of Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger). I learned part of Franklin’s motivation in publishing Poor Richard’s (and perhaps his primary motivation) was to create regular income for his print shop, much like the “recurring subscription revenue” that today’s Netflix’s and Pandoras and Blue Aprons chomp at the bit for. Somehow I had completely missed the profit motive at first look.
  • Mixed motives. Speaking of profits, Isaacson describes one of Franklin’s guiding beliefs: that he could do well while doing good. Mixing personal profit and public benefit completely aligned with Franklin’s values. As an example, Franklin thought issuing paper currency would both help the local economy and also provide work for his print shop. He saw such situations as win-win, rather than as conflicts of interest. Franklin isn’t necessarily wrong here, but mixing private profit and public good can be a slippery slope. It’s advisable to have sober outsiders help judge specific situations.
  • Imperfections. Speaking of motives, Franklin didn’t always pristinely rise above reproach. He lobbied for the job of Colonial Postmaster General, coveting the income the job provided. While in England he petitioned for assignments and grants to raise his personal wealth. Popular history likes to scrub the dirt from men like Franklin; I see Franklin as a reminder that humans are inherently imperfect and self-interested and to keep our nature in mind when evaluating myself and others.
  • Avoiding jealousy. Franklin invested much of his time building organizations around causes (library, fire brigade, militia, college, etc.). His energies benefited Philadelphia and its people, while also providing Franklin endless opportunity to build relationships and grow his social circle. He quickly learned he had more success soliciting others when acting as a representative of a group, rather than acting as an individual. “He found that people were reluctant to support a ‘proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation.’ So he put himself ‘as much as I could out of sight’ and gave credit for the idea to his friends.”
  • Pseudonymity. Possibly related, Franklin preferred writing under a pseudonym. He didn’t merely append fake names, though. He invented whole characters and assumed wildly differing voices. For example, Franklin often wrote as Mrs. Silence Dogood, an acidly funny middle-aged widow. Franklin shared gossip as Busy Body and Alice Addertongue. And of course, he created Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanack fame.
  • Generalism. The book Range extols the value of multidisciplinary knowledge for invention. Franklin provides a wonderful example of this Range. Printing work in the 1700s was demanding and technical. Franklin not only learned but excelled at printing. Simultaneously, he learned the craft of writing and became one of the Colonies’ best writers. He was also an inventor, having created lightning rods—savior of many properties—bifocal lenses, and a novel musical instrument called the glass armonica. I like to believe that each new dimension reinforced the others.
  • Budget vs costly meals. Young Franklin was vegetarian out of frugality, learning to stretch his budget by avoiding meat. He abstained from drinking, mostly for the same reason. As he aged and earned, though, Franklin ate enough meat and drank enough wine to earn himself gout.
  • The wrong side. Benjamin Franklin was decidedly human and imperfect. One could rightfully take issue with his treatment of his immediate family, including his estranged son and wife, as well as his grandchildren. In his later years, he was inconsistent to the point of hypocrisy about frugality, depending on who he spoke with. He long stood, as did many Founding Fathers, on the wrong side of slavery. Only over many years did he slowly turn to abolition. He also practiced nepotism, benefiting both his illegitimate son and his son-in-law.
  • Struggle and setbacks. Franklin achieved much during his life, often through perseverance and struggle. In his five years as an agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly in London, he failed to achieve most—if not all—of his aims. Similarly, as an agent for a handful of Colonies abroad, he struggled for 11 years to keep the Colonies and the Crown in good standing. He was tolerated yet thoroughly snubbed thanks to his status as a colonist. He did not realize and come to terms with this reality quickly.
  • Francophile & Franklinphiles. The French favored Franklin. He parlayed his status into a treaty with the French king. He strategically developed strong relationships with the French government and leveraged his status to the States’ advantage when needed. It was Franklin who first earned financial support and military resources for the Colonial forces. Franklin built such a strong rapport with the French that the relationship survived even when the US negotiated a settlement with the British behind France’s back, despite agreements to the contrary.
  • Globetrotting. Franklin only spent 9 of the last 33 years of his life in the Colonies he helped solidify: the last five of his life, and two short stints previous. He carved out a comfortable life for himself living in both England and France.

Writing down this list, as incomplete as it is, sheds even more light on Franklin’s rich life. We have so much to learn from his experience. Benjamin Franklin exemplified the growth mindset and continually worked at bettering himself and his abilities.

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Flow

Flow audiobook cover art

Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I accidentally read a self-help book and I liked it. We’ve all heard of the ‘flow state’ by now, right? It’s the state of mind where you’re fully immersed in the task at hand and everything else drifts away.

After watching Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk, I decided to read his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It wasn’t offered as an audiobook, but something called Flow (Audiobook) by the same author was. So, I found myself listening to a 90’s self-help book originally made for cassette tapes.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research on happiness included over 8,000 interviews that led him to an understanding of what he calls flow. He found eight common factors that describe flow:

  1. A clear goal: Knowing what you want to do in any given moment.
  2. Feedback: You need to be able to tell if you are getting closer to your goal or not.
  3. Challenges match skills: Not too easy, not too difficult. Pursue attainable but challenging goals.
  4. Concentration: Split attention merges into a single beam of concentrated energy.
  5. Focus: Disappear into your work or activity.
  6. Control: Feel that you can be in control of your actions and experience.
  7. Loss of self-consciousness: You are so involved, committed and concentrated that you forget yourself.*
  8. Transformation of time: Time seems to adapt itself to your individual experience.

Logically, if you believe flow is the best way to experience happiness and fulfillment, you’ll want to maximize the amount of time you spend in that state. To do that, you could engineer areas of your life to fit the factors above. That’s Csikszentmihalyi’s premise, and he provides tactical and actionable advice on how to make it happen in the settings of work, leisure, and maintenance (all the non-work and non-leisure stuff that you just have to do).

Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t spend much time explaining the scientific process of discovery that led him to these eight factors of flow. In fact, he simply states that he’s been studying it all his life in various ways and has reached these conclusions. While I’d wager the conclusions are “more likely true than not,” I wish he had explained the evidence for each more thoroughly.

I won’t attempt to summarize all of the advice the author has for reaching the flow state as often as possible. My takeaway, in short, is to try and engineer scenarios where you can influence the first four factors, and hope that the last four line up as a consequence.

To maximize my time in flow, I can work to set goals and subgoals for my activities. Those include morning routines, commutes, meetings, leisure time, and even meal time with family. I can engineer those goals to provide feedback to me and to make them appropriately challenging.

I can also work to control my environment, making it one that helps me heighten my concentration on the task at hand and reduces opportunities for distraction. Csikszentmihalyi recommends a consistent process that helps ramp into a flow state. He describes this as “ready-made routines as part of a repertoire to get you into the flow state automatically.”

I’m excited to put this learning into practice!

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*I’m continually amazed at how often the ‘answer’ involves minimizing or suppressing the ego. This is true for flow, for meditation and mindfulness, as well as for psychedelics.

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Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies

Author: Geoffrey West

From the Amazon description of this book: “[West] has found an underlying simplicity that unites the seemingly complex and diverse phenomena of living systems, including our bodies, our cities and our businesses.”

The topic intrigued me. Was there really a common thread that tied all of this stuff together? The author made and reinforced the point that scale is a useful predictor for many features of things (animals, cities, companies, etc.). “If you know the size of a mammal, you can use scaling laws to learn everything from how much food it eats per day, what its heart-rate is, how long it will take to mature, its lifespan, and so on.”

What I liked about this book:

  • It forced me to think more clearly about the underlying relationship between mass and surface area. As an object gets bigger without changing its shape, the mass increases as a cube³ while the surface area increases as a square². The result is that without some accommodation of shape it will eventually reach a point where it can’t support itself.
  • The author highlighted examples where we tend to apply linear thinking to non-linear environments. For example, human weightlifter strength has a 2/3 scale factor – strength increases by two orders of magnitude for every 3 orders of magnitude increase in body weight. He concludes that the strongest man in the world (in the 1956 Olympics) was the middle-weight who outperformed his predicted capacity rather than the heavy-weight who lifted the most weight and under-performed his predicted capacity. Debatable, but fun.
  • Another example I found interesting was scale as applied to the dosage of medicine. The author makes the point that many dosage instructions are determined on a linear scale with weight, while they should, in fact, be calculated differently. A 30lb child and a 150lb adult should not merit a 5x difference in dosage. The same concept holds true for scaling up recipes in the kitchen. If you scale linearly from home cooking to commercial kitchen, you’re gonna have a bad time.
  • The changing lengths of coastlines due to fractal dimensions was a new concept for me. The point here is that if you measure the coastline of a nation (in Kilometers, for instance), the number you come up with is going to vary based on the scale that you use to measure. An example from Wikipedia:
  • Power law scaling applies to many aspects of cities too. For example, the number of gas stations in a city scales sub-linearly with population at a factor of 0.85. So for every doubling in the population of a city, you can expect only an 85% increase in the number of gas stations. This is an example of the phenomenon that drives efficiency in cities. The flip side is that when applied to metrics like crime rates, cities tend to show a super-linear scale effect, meaning that crime increases faster than population growth. C’est la vie, I guess :).

What I didn’t like about this book:

  • There are a number of fair criticisms about the author’s conclusions and the strength with which he makes them. Suffice it to say that many of the points the author makes are subject to debate.
  • As an audiobook, its hard to grasp everything because of the many charts the author references. More importantly, because I didn’t see the charts in real-time as I was hearing the message, it was harder for me to call BS when things didn’t make sense.
  • The author is a very accomplished physicist and academic, and his writing style and language won’t let you forget it. Over and over again I found myself shaking my head at his use of big words when small words would do.
  • The application of scale as a ‘science of companies’ didn’t resonate with me. It felt like a vast oversimplification without any real utility.

The book is entertaining and its many anecdotes and analysis are worth a read if this sort of stuff interests you. The only thing that might be better is if someone compiled the most interesting of them into a list of short articles or blog posts.

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Mycroft and Sherlock

By: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

The first thing to know about this book is that it’s written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the 19-time NBA basketball all-star. He has demonstrated, at least to my satisfaction, his skill set has grown far beyond the court. This book was fun!

Mycroft and Sherlock is set as a prequel to the famous Arthur Conan Doyle detective stories. Sherlock and his older brother Mycroft get their first taste of investigating a crime. It’s not an obvious crime, either. It starts with Sherlock’s discovery of some small oddly-placed puncture marks. 

If you’re as much a fan of Mr. Holmes and his detective work as I, and you’ve already read the original works in their entirety, this book shall serve as an appropriate next step in your literary adventure. 

If, on the other hand, you have yet to read the original works, I definitely recommend starting there.

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Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

By: David Epstein

I owe a big thank you to author David Epstein for writing this book specifically with me in mind. When he set out to write this, did he know how much I’d appreciate his effort to validate my current strategy of dabbling on the verge of dilettantism?

In any case, the moral of the story is that breakthrough successes (both people and ideas) tend to come at the intersections of specialized fields rather than from narrow specialization. Generalists > specialists and the 10,000 hour rule is relegated to the trash bin.

He provides case study examples from athletics, music, lab research, and more. If you appreciate a good story and loads of qualitative evidence, this book will deliver for you.

What’s missing is, of course, the quantitative evidence that would more readily prove his point. But as humans who love a good narrative, can we all just agree to ignore that?

Now, in the spirit of variety and aversion to specialization, I’ll make sure to choose a next book that’s as far away from this on the range spectrum as I can find.

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Delta-V

Author: Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez is my favorite modern sci-fi author. I try to stay current on the cutting edge of science and technology. Without fail, Suarez has always been a few steps ahead. Reading his books feels like he’s followed all the same developments as me and then managed to connect the dots into a coherent narrative of the future. Then he adds interesting plot to spice it up even more.

Delta-V takes place mostly in space. It’s a future where space has become the next frontier of entrepreneurship. Considering what folks like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Paul Allen are all spending their piles of money on, this is a believable premise. In fact, some of the characters in this book seemed to mirror these real-life space entrepreneurs. That part felt a little kitschy for my tastes, but didn’t end up detracting from the book. 

If you’re into sci-fi, this is a book I wholeheartedly recommend picking up.

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Am I Being Too Subtle

Author: Sam Zell

Sam Zell sold a $39 Billion portfolio of real estate at the height of the real estate bubble. He’s a character. The autobiography of Sam Zell, narrated by Sam Zell, was so much fun to listen to. 

The entrepreneurial story here is an inspirational one. It starts, as many entrepreneurial stories do, with the story of Zell’s father escaping Europe as the Nazis took over. Zell grows up in an immigrant household and ends up going into business.

The book chronicles his life and work, with a strong emphasis on his work and his views on business. He’s an impressive character, and one who has worked alongside many of the same people for a very long time. I loved learning from his story – from his motorcycle trips in foreign countries to his buyout of the Tribune company that ended in bankruptcy.

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The Teachings of Don Juan

Author: Carlos Castaneda

In the 60s, UCLA anthropology student Carlos Castaneda met a Yaqui Indian Sorcerer named Don Juan. Faculty encouraged him to do field research, and he decided that there was much to be learned from Don Juan. Castaneda became Don Juan’s apprentice, setting out to learn the ways of the Yaqui sorcerers.

Throughout the 5-ish years of the apprenticeship, Castaneda was indoctrinated into a religion with a fully formed belief system that was built around hallucinogenic plants including peyote, Jimson weed and Psilocybe mexicana (magic mushrooms). By his own admission, at some point in the process he lost sight of his academic field research goals and became absorbed into the religion (my word, not his). He eventually cut off his apprenticeship rather than pursue what he believed was a permanent break with reality.

The book is divided into two sections. In the first section, the author recounts his first-hand experience absorbing the teachings of Don Juan. This includes his personal encounters with peyote (and the magic creature unleashed by the cactus called mescalito) and the other plants, as well as how he learned the other related elements of the shamanistic religion. The second section is Castaneda’s attempt to fit together all he learned into a coherent description of the beliefs of the Yacqui sorcerers. It reads much more like an anthropological study.

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The Secrets of Sand Hill Road

Author: Scott Kupor

Along with Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, this book is a standout resource for learning about the venture capital financing process. I had a lot of background before I picked this up, given my long-standing interest in the space and personal involvement in a handful of financings. This book helped fill in many gaps in my knowledge.

Specifically, I found it a standout resource for understanding the venture fund’s fundraising process and their typical relationships with institutional limited partners (insurance companies, pension funds, etc. who invest into VC funds). I hadn’t had much exposure to that before. 

The book also sheds light on the nuances of VC investor incentives – from timing within a fund’s lifespan to the dynamics within a partnership. Kupor also offers legal case studies of board fiduciary responsibilities to common shareholders, which I found interesting. 

For startup founders, he offers a really good long-view analysis of the many challenges that you might encounter during the course of building the business. This manifests into thinking about who you take capital from, how you dole out equity, board seats, and other strategic issues you’re likely to work through. 

I would treat this like a textbook and circle back to reference bits and pieces as they become relevant to your journey.

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Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky

The author sets the stage for this book by calling B.S. on the way so many scientists discuss behavior. They often have a strong bias to explaining the world in terms of their field. To the neuroscientist, the origins of behavior are neurological. To the sociologist, they’re cultural. And so on…

The point being different scientific fields study precursors that contribute only in part to human behavior. The truth is always more complicated than we grasp as first. Our brains are oversimplification machines!

So Sapolsky starts with a behavior and looks backwards at its influencing factors. He starts with seconds before, to hours and days before, to years and millennia before. Everything from neurotransmitters to hormones to genomes comes into play.

In the process, the author shares a lot of scientific background information with the reader. So much so, that I think I’d have to read the book a few times to really absorb it all. And I might!

This book sheds a lot of light on behavior. It’s a detailed and measured approach to analyzing why humans do what we do. A must-read for anyone who’s seeking to better understand humans.

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