A Thousand Splendid Suns

Author: Khaled Hosseini

About half-way through this one, I had to search the internet to confirm that it is indeed a work of fiction. When that was confirmed, I had a sigh of relief.

Much of the book is incredibly sad. And the reality is that much of the situation in Kabul (where most of the story is based) is incredibly sad and has been for a long time.

The story, though, is beautiful in a way. It touches on relationships between people when things get ugly and complicated, and the beauty that can exist even in the ugliest of situations.

One aspect of the book I appreciated was the rare glimpse into how people in the Muslim world look at things. The particular example that comes to mind: at one point a female character discusses wearing a Burqa at her husband’s request (demand?). She grew to like it because it was like a 1-way window to the world.

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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Author: Jack Weatherford

I loved this book because it opened my eyes to a perspective and an account of history that I’m rarely exposed to. I had some idea of who Genghis Khan was, but the more I read this book the more I realized that my ideas were limited and often inaccurate.

A lot of reference material comes from The Secret History that was recently uncovered and translated. It was a set of records kept by warrior’s family that was specifically for their use and education. This obviously comes with some risks, but considering the other accounts available are generally western and often completely fabricated based on myth.

Some interesting learnings from this book:

• One reason that the advance of the Mongol armies was stopped: their arrows didn’t fly as straight when the climate was more humid.
• The Silk Road and its accompanying laws created the best environment for free trade until that time in history.
• Descendants of the Khan family continued to rule some territories until 1920!

I absolutely recommend this book for anyone interested in history!

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Measure What Matters

Author: John Doerr

John Doerr is the legendary venture capitalist who invested in (among others) Google, Amazon, Compaq, Intuit, Netscape, Symantec, Twitter and Zynga. Seriously this guy is an OG in the venture world. He started his career at Intel where he learned the system of OKRs (“Objectives and Key Results”) developed by Andy Grove. He’s been sharing it with the world ever since, it seems.

The OKR system helps organizations focus the talents and efforts of groups of people to accomplish incredible things together – from “making the trains run on time” to moonshot goals.

Shortly after Doerr’s firm Kleiner Perkins invest into Google, he showed up with a slide-show to pitch Larry & Sergey on OKRs. He presented it as an operating system for their business. They signed up, and have been using it ever since. This book includes excerpts from Larry Page and other founders/execs telling their story of OKRs.

I loved reading this book because I am a believer in goal-setting generally, and goal-setting processes for teams specifically to improve outcomes. Goal-setting and measurement are, for me, permanently intertwined. At eComfort, we used a similar methodology to set goals and metrics for each individual, and I was thrilled with the results. It was a bit rougher than OKRs, so the next opportunity I get I think we’ll migrate over to this instead.

Bonus: Google’s OKR Playbook

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How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease

Authors: Michael Greger, M.D., Gene Stone

I’m way too busy (or lazy) to verify the quality of the myriad scientific papers and studies referenced throughout this book. I haven’t counted them either, but there are surely hundreds of them. So, instead I’ll just assume that at least half of what I read in this book can be discarded as flimsy. That still leaves the unignorable other half, which is a lot.

My take-away from the book is that a plant-based diet is shown repeatedly in research to improve the quality of human health. In general, I am convinced of this. At the same time, I recognize that there’s an asterisk on much of this because of the challenges inherent in nutrition research.

Personally, since I am a big fan of fruits and veggies, it’s not too hard to make them the bulk of my diet!

If you’re interested in nutrition, I think this book is worth reading. The author definitely unearths some obscure research about different foods and diseases. If you read it and happen to take the time to fact-check his sources, please let me know!

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Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams

Author: Matthew Walker PhD

We all have a relationship with sleep. We tend to understand that sleep is important, but I think many don’t give it enough credit. This book hit me early with a profound fact: “Without exception, every animal species studied to date sleeps, or engages in something remarkably like it.”

The author of this book, Matthew Walker, is a sleep researcher. He doesn’t think his profession has done a good enough job communicating the science of sleep nor the implications of not sleeping enough. So he wrote this book. I, as a reader, am thoroughly convinced.

Walker references dozens of studies that all highlight aspects of the same core conclusion – sleep is critical to high physical and mental performance, and there’s no way to cheat it.  If you are sleep deprived at all (even 60 minutes matters), you aren’t functioning at your best. Moreover, if you’re sleep deprived you are opening the door to all sorts of diseases because your immune system isn’t operating at 100%.

I think this book is applicable to everybody – whether you’re already a good sleeper or not – for the insight that it brings around how to improve sleep quality.

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I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

Author: Ed Yong

What an eye-opener this book is! Microbes like bacteria and archaea are everywhere. They live on pretty much every species and surface. And, their lives impact ours in myriad complex ways.

Our species has co-evolved with many of the bacteria we live with today. So much so that if we were born in sterile environments, we’d turn out abnormal!

We still know arguably very little about the myriad species of bacteria that live in and among us, but scientists have started realizing their importance and digging in to learn more.

New techniques for DNA sequencing have opened the door to better classification of the microbe species. This book offers a great introduction to the world of microbes. If you’re into health, biology, or science in general – this one is for you.

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

Author: Hunter S. Thompson

This book is something special! With its subject matter, it’s definitely not for everybody. Those who are very conservative and/or easily offended might want to stay away. Then again, maybe this is exactly what the doctor ordered.

It’s a piece of writing that has been popularized by a movie starring Johnny Dep and Benicio Del Toro. It’s the pioneering work of the genre Gonzo Journalism, “a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative.” (Wikipedia).

The book is entertaining on so many levels. I can’t stop laughing at the made up credential: “I’m a Doctor of Journalism”. Thompson offers readers a thorough lesson on drugs and drug culture. The story line is so “out there” that one can’t help but wonder what real-life drug use fueled this creative masterpiece. But you don’t have to wonder all that much, because it is allegedly mostly based on real life events.

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Solaris

Author: Stanislaw Lem

This book is considered one of the classics of science fiction. No doubt about it, it’s a great book.

That being said, I’m starting to believe I’m tainted in the sci-fi novel category. Because of all the mediocre movies made out of great books, I can’t manage to read most older sci-fi books with any of the amazement and wonder that I get from present-day authors like Daniel Suarez.

I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen the movie Solaris, but the plot just felt so familiar to me that as I read on, I kept expecting to recognize what happened next. I never actually did guess what happened next. But I just can’t shake that feeling…

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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

I loved Sapiens, so I naturally had to give Yuval’s sequel a shot. He picks up where Sapiens left off – it’s the 21st century, our species is here, and we’ve figured out how to cooperate well enough to build some impressive technology.

So where is the species Homo Sapiens going? Well, Yuval makes his case for a possible future where the species evolves into Homo Deus (pronounced: day-us), a more advanced species that is amortal (no death of natural causes) and extremely intelligent. Basically, where humans are gods (in the Greek mythology sense of the word).

While Homo Deus book didn’t wow like Sapiens did, I still liked it enough to recommend. I think the main difference is that Homo Deus seems significantly more speculative. Maybe this is natural because subject matter is the future, but nevertheless an issue for me.

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The Three Body Problem

Author: Cixin Liu, Translated By: Ken Liu

This book is Chinese-language science fiction, translated into English. I’ve heard from a few folks that it’s all the rage among China’s tech community, and I couldn’t resist a chance to read it (hear it read) first-hand.

Judged purely as a science fiction book, it’s good. The story kept my attention and I didn’t want to put it down. There were plenty of interesting twists and turns, and it was full of scientific language and concepts.

That said, I don’t judge this purely as a science fiction book. For me, it was more than that. At the start of the book, I kept thinking “How did this make it past the Chinese censors?”

The book gave me a window into Chinese culture, in some ways directly and in some indirectly. It’s not often I read books written from non-western perspectives, so I really enjoy the opportunity!

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Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Authors: Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling

A couple years ago I watched some of Hans Rosling’s TED talks and found them captivating. He was a Professor of Public Health, and had an amazing way of bringing statistics about the world to life. He focused on busting commonly-held but outdated myths about the world. He passed away near the completion of this book, and luckily his collaborators (his son & daughter-in-law) were able to press on to its publication.

Factufulness means having a fact-based world view. Because humans take so many mental shortcuts (see: cognitive bias), we often fall into patterns of thinking that are just plain wrong. The authors break down our errors into 10 human instincts, some of which are pseudonyms for commonly-documented heuristics (The Straight Line Instinct, The Generalization Instinct), and others are cousins (i.e. The Blame Instinct, The Urgency Instinct).

The surface message of the book is that globally the world has been improving at a rapid pace. The deeper message is that we should acknowledge evidence of how our world is evolving and  update our world view (i.e. practice Factfulness)!

The best way to decide if you should read this book is the 3-minute quiz below:

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Built from Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew The Home Depot from Nothing to $30 Billion

Authors: Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Bob Andelman

I was very excited to read the founding story of The Home Depot! Though I have never had an inside look before, I always believed this was a remarkable company. Everywhere I looked while growing up, there was a Home Depot. When I was in the contracting business, our guys in the field would swing by one for supplies seemingly daily. In my adult life, the company’s stores have plainly been a fact of life. In one word: ubiquitous.

As with most memoirs written by successful entrepreneurs, a big chunk of the book is used for self-back-patting and my-side-of-the-story-context. As readers, we must forgive this because the authors have indeed built something great.

I loved learning about the turbulent beginnings of The Home Depot, the deals that fell apart, and the ones that ultimately catapulted the company toward greatness. The story should be an inspiration to any entrepreneur, as well as a keen insight into Home Depot for those who works in retail or the buildings materials industry.

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Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I must admit I may have gone about this backwards… Before reading the book, I read this excellent critique of it by Alex Lynch. It definitely helped me keep from getting sucked in to the passion with which Taleb writes.

This was the first Taleb book I’ve actually read, but I’m told that his stylistic approach is consistent throughout his writing – specifically, he writes with an impressive level of arrogance! Also a bit annoying: the book is littered with latin phrases that add no discernible value other than to scream “I know latin!”

That aside, I recommend this book for two reason. First, skin in the game is a concept with plenty of merit, and should be a requirement in more cases than we find today. Many people have managed to get vast upside potential while dumping downside risk on an unwitting public (i.e. bank bailouts) because our system is flawed. Second, there are plenty of interesting stories and anecdotes in the book. Many of them around the old-world, including the code of Hamurabi. And, if you take Taleb in context, his writing can be pretty entertaining.

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Cryptoassets: The Innovative Investor’s Guide to Bitcoin and Beyond

The cryptoasset field is very new and fast-moving. That’s why I’m especially impressed that a book on the subject is so useful! Whether you’re already an investor in the space, are looking to become one, or are a skeptical financial advisor who wants to keep your clients from throwing away all their money, this book is a great place to start. I was most excited the by deep historical context this book offered on the players and projects that are most often in the news today. This book skips the hype and goes right for the meat of the topic. (View on Amazon)

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

History, as its taught in US schools, looks upon Lincoln quite favorably. After all, he led the Union to win the Civil War, freeing the slaves in the process. From this book, I learned how the sausage was made. First, his ascent to the presidency was almost a fluke of history (except that he worked his ass off to outmaneuver his competitors) because he was relatively unknown on the national stage. Once elected, he maneuvered to get all of his former rivals into his administration and cabinet. It is by leveraging their relative talents and his strong sense of popular timing that he was able to win the war and free the slaves. A recommended read for any history buff. (View on Amazon)

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It

I liked this book so much that I’m planning to re-listen to it soon with a notebook handy. I first heard Chris Voss on Shane Parrish’s podcast, and I really liked his style. He was a former FBI hostage negotiator, and shares stories from that world. Much of his content contradicts negotiation conventional wisdom, and I’m always a sucker for a contrarian view. Just a few examples: BATNA sets you up to fail. Getting counterpart to say NO is more important than YES. Don’t meet in the middle. (View on Amazon)

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

This was like a funnier, South African version of Hillbilly Elegy. I like Trevor Noah, I think he’s funny, and this was a nice window into his childhood. He tells stories of growing up as a semi-delinquent, and uses them to share broader info about South Africa, its cultural profile, the different neighborhoods he was exposed to, and of course apartheid. There are many serious topics, and Noah always finds a way to bring out the humor in some and be good humored about others. (View on Amazon)

Hillbilly Elegy

JD Vance does a nice job of story-telling in this book about his hillbilly family and their cultural origins. He really gives a voice to his people that we “urban elites” are unlikely to have seen firsthand. Though I felt like I understood where he was coming from for a variety of personal reasons, the reality is I did not experience anywhere near the level of dysfunction that his family & their peers did. One question that he managed to answer for me in this book – why don’t the people in these going-nowhere towns just leave? I guess their reasoning is that their home equity is negative. While I don’t know if this is logically sound, it does help me empathize with their position. (View on Amazon)

The Four

Author Scott Galloway does a wonderful job of dissecting the business models and situations for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google (often referred to as GAFA in popular press). For each company, he frames their competitive advantages and their vulnerabilities (which are few). I particularly liked his analyses, but equally disliked his “color commentary” on what they should do. His normative statements about what Apple should do with their pile of cash didn’t strike me as useful – I got the impression that he was purposefully stirring the pot to get attention (to his credit, it seems to be working). At the end, he has advice for the younger generation that’s getting into the workforce on how to make the most of their situations. I thought that this advice was really astute. (View on Amazon)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

There’s a lot to be learned from Benjamin Franklin. It’s nice to learn it from the man himself. Not a thorough autobiography by any means. It stops abruptly, long before the American Revolution. Franklin would often engage in public projects for the benefit of his city (Philadelphia). When gathering support and funding for these projects, he learned to minimize his involvement by feigning to represent a group who asked for his help rather than “owning” the project. Nevertheless, he was always the one who seemed to initiate or expedite civic projects. One way he was able to accomplish this was by focusing himself on his 13 “virtues”, which he ingrained as habit by way of his 13 week journal. The book ends with a story about “paying too much for the whistle”, an error he committed and learned from early in life. (View on Amazon)

Artemis

Andy Weir, author of The Martian, wrote another book set in space (or more accurately, the moon). It’s not as great as the Martian, but still a neat story with a bunch of science woven in. (View on Amazon)

Principles: Life and Work

Investor Ray Dalio likes to talk about principles. He’s been writing his down for decades, and using them to build one of the most successful hedge funds of all time. The first part of this book is basically an autobiography. Ray tells his story of growing up and founding Bridgewater Associates. He then discusses all of his life and work principles. There’s a lot of wisdom here, but to be frank the format doesn’t match with my style. I prefer stories rather than platitudes. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in this book – because there’s plenty to learn from him! (View on Amazon)

Catherine the Great

I had a basic understanding of Catherine’s (her birth name was actually Sophia) story from The Romanovs. This was a much deeper dive into her story, chronicling the journey of this minor German princess to the Russian throne. She ended up becoming more loyal to Russia than I think anyone could have expected, and worked during her reign to improve conditions for the peasantry. Interestingly, she tried to end the practice of serfdom, but had a tough uphill battle. Eventually, after a rebellion, she changed her position entirely and never tried to abolish it again. (View on Amazon)

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

This is a great biography that shows both sides of this complicated captain of industry. Rockefeller was both a deeply pious and generous philanthropist, and at the same time a ruthless businessman who knew how to manipulate competitors and entire markets. He built the Standard Oil trust in the midst of a hyper-competitive environment by identifying the appropriate part of the value chain to dominate. Later in life, he settled down significantly – spending tie enjoying golf and founding enduring institutions like the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University). (View on Amazon)

The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World

My knowledge of Thomas Edison’s story and achievements was very limited before this book. I knew he had some relationship to “inventing electricity” and that our local electric utility ComEd is named after him. I also knew he had some sort of feud with Nikola Tesla (from an episode of Drunk History). This book didn’t mention Tesla at all, but it really clarified for me that Edison was a fairly big jerk. His inventor persona was largely overhyped, and he was a hapless businessman. (View on Amazon)