Tag Archives: Books

Seven Important Books

Over the past nine months or so I stepped back from writing and threw myself into reading. I took a trip into the classics, reading Wealth of Nations, Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamozov, 1984, Brave New World, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, some light fiction and fun non fiction, but what I’ve really been interested in lately is the intersection between technology, our economy and how it’s changing our culture, both for the better and for worse.

I’ve started to formulate a thesis. And I don’t really like the conclusions that I’ve been reaching. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be writing about what I think might be going on, why its happening and how it may affect our present and our future. These are the key books that I’ve read that have shaped my thinking.

World

Antifragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb’s follow up to best selling and paradigm breaking The Black Swan, Antifragile, is probably the most important book in the past decade, if not longer. I found myself smiling and nodding in agreement throughout the book. And I’ve found that if someone’s read this book and enjoyed it, I’ll likely be their friend and share a similar world view.

Taleb creates a new word: antifragile – things that grow stronger from stressors. Humans get stronger from mild stressors. A glass vase does not. The restaurant industry does. Wall Street does not. Taleb shows that lack of skin in the game, the agency problem, micromanaging and a lack of understanding of real risk is causing our world to be more fragile when we should be orientating toward antifragile approaches.

Shorter: My Rules for Life in The Guardian.

You Are Not a Gadget – Jaron Lanier

Lanier invented the term Virtual Reality and has been involved in Silicon Valley since the very beginning. And he thinks technologist have gotten it all wrong. We’ve built technology that serves technology, not technology that serves humans. Our iPhones control us, not the other way around. And it’s wrecking our culture and economic future.

If you can’t read the book, read his oped in the Wall Street Journal, World Wide Mush.

Who Owns The Future – Jaron Lanier

In Lanier’s follow up, he talks about how technology is accruing massive returns for those who have the biggest, most powerful servers, not those who have the best ideas or give humans the most benefit. This techification eliminates the middle class and pushes economic returns up to a small group and gives the rest candy. Facebook without any users is worth $0. So why do so few people as a percentage earn money using Facebook?

If you can’t read the book, read his NY Times piece Fixing the Digital Economy.

Coming Apart – Charles Murry

Murry shows how the US has developed extreme income inequality that’s led to a small, super rich upper class that’s both physically and culturally separate from the rest of the population, similar to Latin American and other oligarchical countries. His description of how the US looks today is spot on and some of the consequences of income inequality, but I don’t buy his social root causes. I believe a similar pattern is taking place globally.

If you can’t read the book, read his Wall Street Journal piece The New American Divide and then Ross Douthat’s What Charles Murry Gets Right from the NY Times.

US Specific

Rise of the Warrior Cop – Radley Balko

Balko traces the militarization of US police forces from the US’s birth to present day and shows how the drug war and now terrorism fears have turned a police from traditional beat cops who knew everyone in their neighborhoods into body armored, automatic weapon toting, tank driving para military forces that have eviscerated the 1st and 4th amendments, wreaked havoc on families, killed innocents and brought terror the american households, all without even doing anything to lower crime.

Shorter: Why Did You Shoot Me? I was just reading a book! from Salon.

Three Felonies a Day – Harvey Silvergate & Alan Dershowitz

The US federal law system is now so vague that we all commit at least three felonies per day and the only reason we don’t get prosecuted is that we haven’t run afoul of a politician, a bureaucrat, or a prosecutor or even just gotten unlucky. Rise of the Warrior Cop interplays very well with this book. While I don’t recommend reading this book for pleasure reading, as its clearly intended for technical attorneys, the thesis is spot on.

These two books together paint the picture of why I’m very worried about NSA spying. Between a militarized police force, a government that collects all of our data and a criminal justice system that can indict you with lifetime jail time for living a normal life, we’re well on our way toward a police state.

Shorter: You Commit Three Felonies A Day from The Wall Street Journal.

Fiction

Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart

A dystopian, but extremely readable look at what the future might look like where everyone’s always connected to the internet, we’re constantly alone together, the government monitors everything, the US is a banana republic and everyone is rated on everything via metadata. Read it.

March Books

I got a bunch of reading done this month, mostly because I found myself on an airplane fairly often.  Of the four, The Last Lecture was the best.

Rework – Rework is the newest book by 37 Signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  They are well known for creating simple, easy to use online products that help business get things done.  Rework is the follow up to their first book, Getting Real, and attempts to show people how to work more efficiently and effectively.

I first became interested in 37 Signals when I heard Jason Fried speak at an entrepreneurship conference in Milwaukee where I was also speaking. Fried stressed simplicity, focus and building something you would use because if you are building something you’d use, you are already an expert.

My favorite chapters were Go, Progress, Promotion and Productivity.  They explain how to get started, make progress and then promote your business.  They also have a ton of great tips about how to be more productive.  My biggest take away is that companies should be teaching instead of promoting.  Most companies do not teach, they promote.  Companies that teach lessons to their customers have bigger followings, which leads to free promotion.

The book is a little repetitive at times, but is worth reading.  I’m fairly familiar with 37 Signals because I read their blog regularly, so most of the ideas weren’t groundbreaking, but it was nice to hear everything in a single place.  If you don’t read their blog or haven’t heard about 37 Signals, this book is a must read.  If you are familiar, you can save the money and just read their blog again.

Mark Cuban recently said “if I had to choose to invest in someone who’s read Rework or has an MBA, I’m choosing rework every time.”  While I wouldn’t go that far, I’ll want any new Entrustet hires to read the book as part of their initial training.

The Checklist Manifesto – I heard about Checklist by Atul Gawande while reading Switch last month.  It sounded interesting and I planned on picking it up.  Luckily, my Aunt came to visit and happened to have the book.  I read the book on the plane to SXSW and really enjoyed it.  Gawande is a brilliant surgeon who wanted to know how he could improve medical care.  He got interested in checklists after marveling about airline safety.  In the book, he investigates how checklists can be used to prevent mistakes in any industry. He first helped implement a clean IV lines program that help Michigan hospitals reduce infections almost entirely, which saved lives and millions of dollars.  He later helped the WHO implement a standard checklist for surgeries that has saved countless lives and money.

The book is a quick read because it is written more like fiction than non fiction and provides tips to increase productivity and help you get things done, while avoiding mistakes.  Highly recommended.

Leadership and Self-Deception – Someone gave me this book right before I got on a plane when I was complaining that I didn’t have anything to read.  It’s a self help book, styled as dialogues between an employee of a company and his bosses.  Written in 2002, the main idea is that it is not what you do, but why you do it that matters.  The central advice is that whenever you want to do something to help another person, you should do it, otherwise you make excuses for yourself and it starts a downward spiral.  I don’t agree with everything from the book, but I believe that the world would be a better place if people were motivated to help others more often.

The Last Lecture- I had seen Randy Pausch’s last lecture on youtube before, but had not read the book.  For those who don’t know, Randy Pausch was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and was given 6 months to live.  He spent that time trying to make life better for his wife and his three young children.  Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and was given the opportunity to give a “last lecture.”  It was recorded and Pausch used the time to talk about how to live life, pursue your own dreams and enable the dreams of others.  It is a sad and uplifting book at the same time.  It is well written and funny, informative and wise.  I especially liked the section about enabling the dreams of others.  The Last Lecture is one of the best books I’ve ever read and should be required reading in high school classes.

February Books

It’s been a busy last two months, so I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like to.  I only had a chance to read two books this month, but both were really good.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  This was one of the most unique books I’ve read in a long time.  The book is set in post WWII London and later Guernsey, one of the channel islands between England and France.  It is historical fiction about what life was like on Guernsey during and after WWII. I had never heard about this aspect of WWII and it was really interesting to read about what life was like on the island.  For example, I didn’t realize that Germany took over Guernsey fairly early in the war, expecting to only be there for a brief stopover before attacking the UK and that there was a small concentration camp on the island.

Aside from the history, the book is interesting because it is written all as letters between the characters.  There are no chapters, making it easy to continue reading.  At first, I thought I would have trouble keeping all of the characters straight because of the format, but I quickly started to enjoy the new format.

Another unique aspect of the book is the authors themselves.  Shaffer had never written a book before this, but had stopped over on Guernsey and was stuck in the airport with nothing to eat except candy from the vending machine and nothing to read except travel books about the island.  Fast forward 30 years and she started to write this book after being harassed by her book club.  After completing the first draft, her health began to deteriorate and she realized she would not be able to do the necessary edits and rewrites.  She drafted her niece, Annie Barrows, who is also a writer, to complete the book.

The overall plot isn’t incredibly complex and fairly formulaic, but the book is a winner because of the interesting historical context, great descriptive writing and unique format.  I highly recommend reading it.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard – Chip and Dan Heath.   In their follow up from their must read book Made to Stick, the Heath brothers have done it again.  Switch details a simple strategy to help create change in all different scenarios, from eating behavior, politics, business and health care.

They believe that the human mind is broken down into two parts, which they call “the rider” and the “elephant.”  If you imagine that the rider is attempting to ride the elephant, The rider is the analytical part of our brain that likes to think things through, while the elephant is our emotions and motivation.  They show that in order to create change, you need to get both the rider and the elephant moving in the same direction along a well defined path. They offer some inspiring stories to go along with some great strategies that help make campaigns work better.

They show examples of people with small amounts of power who created huge changes in behavior using simple, innovative strategies.  They show how a tiny group highlighted the bright spots of villagers’ behavior in Vietnam to help end childhood malnutrition in the country and how providing a roadmap to child abusers can reduce abuse by 3x.  I can’t really do this book justice with a short blog post, but if you are interested in change and how it works, read this book.

Thomas Friedman’s Advice to President Obama is Spot On

From time to time, Thomas Friedman writes something that has the power to change lives.  So far, Friedman’s The World Is Flat has had the greatest impact on me, as it inspired my business partner, Jesse Davis, to start work on our startup, Entruset.  The ideas in his book are still reverberating through our company today, as we got our first mention in the press in today’s Washington Post and continue to work to solve the problem he identified in the book.  You can read the entire story over on our company blog in a post called How Thomas Friedman and The World Is Flat Helped Spawn Entrustet.

I think his latest piece titled More (Steve) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs has the potential to impact the lives of even more people.  Friedman says:

The most striking feature of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency was the amazing, young, Internet-enabled, grass-roots movement he mobilized to get elected. The most striking feature of Obama’s presidency a year later is how thoroughly that movement has disappeared.

I remember getting inundated by posts from my friends on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the election urging me to support Obama, attend rallies or make sure to go out and vote.  The movement continued for the next few weeks, but has completely lost steam.  Even the most ardent Obama supporters among my friends aren’t engaged via social media anymore.  This in itself is pretty amazing, but not Friedman’s main point. He wants President Obama to re-engage America’s youth and doesn’t believe that going after Wall Street or other negative methods will work.  He continues:

Obama should launch his own moon shot. What the country needs most now is not more government stimulus, but more stimulation. We need to get millions of American kids, not just the geniuses, excited about innovation and entrepreneurship again. We need to make 2010 what Obama should have made 2009: the year of innovation, the year of making our pie bigger, the year of “Start-Up America.”

Obama should make the centerpiece of his presidency mobilizing a million new start-up companies that won’t just give us temporary highway jobs, but lasting good jobs that keep America on the cutting edge. The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things, is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things. Without inventing more new products and services that make people more productive, healthier or entertained — that we can sell around the world — we’ll never be able to afford the health care our people need, let alone pay off our debts.

I am 100% behind this idea.  It makes perfect sense and would appeal to both sides of the aisle at at time when partisanship is at a seemingly all time high because of the fight over health care.  It would harken back to the Obama that many young people voted for, rather than the less than inspirational version of the President who we have gotten to know since his election.

I believe that entrepreneurship is our best hope for saving the US from its mammoth debt obligations.  We need to find ways to “grow the pie” rather than trying to raise taxes on a stagnant (or shrinking) pie.  I believe that all kinds of entrepreneurship are going to be necessary to solve our problems.  We are going to need traditional entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but we will also need social entrepreneurs like Muhammad Yunus and the social entrepreneurs featured in Business Week.

I think that if President Obama were to make entrepreneurship a central portion of his presidency, he will find a huge groundswell of willing entrepreneurs who will be willing to help.  Friedman mentions National Lab Day and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship as examples of organization that are helping young people get interested in innovation.  Both programs would not be able to survive without older, successful mentors.  I think that entrepreneurs are willing to help out as mentors and young people are waiting to be entrepreneurs, but some are just waiting to be pushed.  Inc. Magazine contributor and author of Upstarts!, Donna Fenn says:

Over 75% of the entrepreneurs I interviewed for my book, Upstarts! said that they were very or highly likely to start another company; most had already founded two or more.”  She continues, “70% said their companies had a social mission. But make no mistake: they’re laser-focused on the bottom line as well and they understand why growing a profitable, sustainable company that creates jobs is a social good in and of itself. It’s pretty clear to me: this is a generation worth investing in.

Fenn‘s point is important because many startups are not only creating jobs and coming up with new solutions to problems, but they are also trying to make the world a better place.  If we can get more people to think with this mindset, the US and the world will be a better place.  So President Obama, please follow Friedman’s advice.  This is a no lose issue for you and the country.  You should be able to get support from both sides of the aisle.  You should be able to reconnect with an electorate that wants to support you, but has not because you have abandoned what got you into office.  Go back to the politics of hope, propose real solutions that everyone can get behind and see what happens.  I bet it will change lives.

A Look Back at 2009 and A Look Ahead to 2010

I know it’s a little late for a year end review, but I thought I finally have time to finish this post.  I wanted to take a look at some of my favorite things from 2009 and take a look ahead to some interesting thing for 2010.

2009 was a fun year.  I graduated with a degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, made great progress on Entrustet, made some good friends and traveled to Europe with one of my best friends to visit another.  I was in another great friend’s wedding, got my consulting company off the ground, saw some amazing sporting events and got more involved in Madison.  I even stuck with my blog.

My Best Posts (in no order)

The Business School Way of Life

Is the Dollar America’s Achilles Heel?

America Doesn’t Plan for the Future

The Entrepreneurial Push

Every Startup Needs a Mentor Team

My Decade in Review

My Favorite Books (read, not written in 2009)

Infidel

Three Cups of Tea

Outliers

Always Running

The White Tiger

I’m looking forward to going to South Africa for the World Cup this summer, attending South By Southwest and continuing to work on Entrustet.  I think 2010 will be another fun and interesting year for me.  I hope your 2010 is too!

Predictions for 2010s

I know it’s just about impossible to look forward a few months, much less a year or even a decade, but here’s some guesses as to where we are headed.

2010

  1. Gold will continue its rise in response to more US government debt creation
  2. Developing countries continue to grow more quickly than developed countries.
  3. Unemployment will become the biggest political problem next year, but entrepreneurs will be somewhat sheltered

Longer Term

  1. The Reserve Status of US dollar will be called into question.  Look for China and the rest of the world to continue to diversify away from US government debt.  I don’t know when this will happen, but I can’t see any other solution to the US’s massive debt and unfunded liabilities.
  2. At some point, bubbles in China, US debt and others may pop.  This could lead to lower stock values and a resumption of the bear market.
  3. China will move from manufacturer to the world toward one of the leading innovators.  China will continue to assert itself on the political and economic stages. Look for their dominance in rare earth metals.
  4. Entrepreneurs around the world will be successful, as large companies do not want to invest in new technologies and talent is cheap.
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