Favorite Books of 2018 (and early 2019)

Here are some books I’ve enjoyed more than others in the last 14 months or so. I’ve included some notable quotes but not all are equally representative of the book contents.

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

“What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.”

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Harari

“Homo sapiens is just not built for satisfaction. Human happiness depends less on objective condition and more on our own expectations. Expectations, however, tend to adapt to conditions, including to the condition of other people. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvement in conditions might leave us as dissatisfied as before.”

Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

“Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they’ll find a way to screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a good team, and they’ll find a way to make it better. The goal needs to be to get the team right, get them moving in the right direction, and get them to see where they are making mistakes and where they are succeeding.”

Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark

“I’m encouraging mine to go into professions that machines are currently bad at, and therefore seem unlikely to get automated in the near future. Recent forecasts for when various jobs will get taken over by machines identify several useful questions to ask about a career before deciding to educate oneself for it. For example: Does it require interacting with people and using social intelligence? Does it involve creativity and coming up with clever solutions? Does it require working in an unpredictable environment?”

Doing Good Better by Will MacAskill

“Effective altruism is about asking “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. It takes a scientific approach to doing good. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be. As the phrase suggests, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be.”

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

“In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular, to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.”

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

“Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.”

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

“A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile, but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew. I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way when she dropped out of Stanford fifteen years ago. By all accounts, she had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.”

Lost and Founder by Rand Fishkin

“The problem with MVPs, and with the “something > nothing” model, is that if you launch to a large customer base or a broad community, you build brand association with that first version. […] Bing’s gotten much better since then, and is now as good as or better than Google on most queries, but that MVP hangover has stuck with the brand for years and, in my opinion, continues to dampen the prospects of what should be a very decent option for web searchers.”

Angel by Jason Calacanis

“If a startup called the Delta Corporation is making $10,000 a month selling enterprise software and they have five FTEs here in Silicon Valley, I simply calculate the FTEs by $120,000 each all in—or $10,000 a month—because they might have non-engineers getting $70,000 sitting next to developers making $150,000. […] So, Delta Corp is spending $50,000 on headcount and probably has $10,000 in miscellaneous expenses a month, for a total spend of $60,000 a month, which means they have a burn of $50,000. I’ve also asked at some point during the conversation how much they’ve raised. Let’s say they raised $1 million a year ago. […] They are burning $50,000 a month, so they have eight months left. I’ll say something to the founder like, “So, you’re burning about fifty thousand dollars a month and have six to eight months of runway left? Like four hundred thousand dollars in the bank?” They look at me with shock. How do I know that?”

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

“Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner. (That is, from freedom rather than compulsion.) If you need to be reminded how completely mental habit blinds us to experience, just take a trip to an unfamiliar country. Suddenly you wake up! And the algorithms of everyday life all but start over, as if from scratch. This is why the various travel metaphors for the psychedelic experience are so apt. The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment.”

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

“Freedom isn’t an illusion; it’s perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it’s simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It’s like that famous optical illusion, the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There’s no “correct” interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can’t see both at the same time. Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don’t talk about it.”

Never Split The Difference by Christopher Voss

“Negotiate in their world. Persuasion is not about how bright or smooth or forceful you are. It’s about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea. So don’t beat them with logic or brute force. Ask them questions that open paths to your goals. It’s not about you.”

The Spring Chicken by Bill Gifford

“If you could put the benefits of exercise in a pill, it would be an astonishing pill,” says Simon Melov, a researcher at the Buck Institute who has studied exercise extensively. ‘The data is now coming out on the effects of chronic exercise, and it is astonishing in terms of its ability to prevent all sorts of age-related disease, everything from cancer through to neurodegenerative disease to heart disease, even arthritis. All of these things have vastly lowered risk in people who exercise regularly—and if that was in a pill, it would be insane.’”

Chasing Excellence by Ben Bergeron

“What is grit, really? It’s a word that’s been used to describe everything under the sun, but it means something specific: when things get hard, you push harder; when you fail, you get back up stronger; when you don’t see results, you don’t get discouraged, but you just continue to pound away day, after day, after day, with relentlessness, consistency, heart, and passion — that’s grit.”

What have you liked recently?

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