Title: The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History Author: John M. Barry Publication Date: 2004 Recommendation Score: 4.5/5
The H1N1 influenza A virus was called the Spanish flu. This is mainly because the Spanish press was reporting about it freely, in contrast to the censored press in the countries involved in world war I. This flu is arguably the deadliest pandemic in history. It happened between 1917 and 1920 with a peak in 1918. The war helped the virus spread by both displacing men between countries, and by censorship that minimized the death reports to maintain morale. The book describes this period in great detail.
When I was reading this book, I heard a president of a European country comforting his people by claiming that the COVID-19 crisis and its context (economic crisis, terrorism) is the worst in modern history. Political dogma aside, we are far better, with our modern technology, than the generation that endured the flu pandemic and WWI. We should expect the worst.
The book was written over 15 years ago. The author, John Barry, warns against the risk of flu pandemic outbreaks that may occur any time. He points out the fragility of the just-in-time supply chain, and the over-optimization of the industries, including the health industry, which makes us poorly prepared in case of a pandemic.
Title: Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries Author: Safi Bahcall Publication Date: 2019 Recommendation Score: 4.5/5
Safi Bahcall is an entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in physics. In his book “Loonshots” he tries to apply the principle of physics to innovation in business ventures. The book is inspired by two success stories in recent American history 1) the turnaround of the Bell Telephone Company, led by Theodore Vail, during the first decade of the 20th century which resulted in creating the Bell Labs, 2) and by the efforts of Vannevar Bush to improve the technology of the US army during the second world war.
The author states that for an organization to nurture innovation, the following conditions should be met:
Phase Separation and Dynamic Equilibrium
Create phase separation and dynamic equilibrium: to separate the artists, who want to create crazy technology, from soldiers whose discipline ensures that the technology is being implemented efficiently (quality, cost, time). And create a continuous exchange of ideas, information, and people between the two groups (dynamic equilibrium) to allow the transfer of technology from the innovation phase to the implementation phase, and to allow the transfer of field experience to innovators.
The Leader as a Gardener
Innovation leaders should be like gardeners: their role is to balance between the two groups and to manage the transfer between them. Not to intervene as soldiers, nor to contribute as artists. And leaders should love their artists and soldiers equally.
Robert Iger had been the CEO of the Walt Disney Company for 15 years. In his book “The Ride of a Lifetime”, Iger tells his story from humble beginnings to global fame. In hindsight, the author tries to extract some lessons for successful leadership. The book is pleasant to read. Its storytelling is enjoyable. It gives you insights into how the life of a CEO looks like.
I recommend it: enjoy the story and take the lessons with a grain of salt.
Leadership is not an exact science, and most books dealing with it are a waste of time. The best thing about “The Ride of a Lifetime” is the no-nonsense approach to leadership; the author tells you what has worked for him and what has not. There are no references to (HBS) academic theories, nor pseudo-scientific studies. When I finished reading the book, the impression I had was that leadership is all about being trustworthy, emotionally aware, and able to take bold risks.
The author starts the first chapter by “This book is not a memoir”, as he wants it to be a book of lessons. I disagree. Iger is trying to connect the dots backward and to make sense of past events. This process is very risky, especially when based on one person’s perspective. It is prone to the hindsight bias; when we try to find causality between correlated events where there might be none. The author admits the role of chance at the end of the book, but convey the message that the traits that served him well are the reason for his achievements. This is why I think that the lessons should be taken with a grain of salt. Some problems have no unique solution. Again, leadership is not an exact science.
Title: Skin in the Game – Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
Author: Nassim N. Taleb
Publication Date: 2018
Recommendation Score: 5 / 5
Nassim Taleb is a non-conventional thinker. He is a mathematician and cares a lot about rigor and logic. He is a philosopher and cares about the consequences of theory on people’s life. This is reflected in his writings when theory (science) and practice (real life) are intertwined.
“Skin in the Game” is the 5th book in Nassim Taleb’s Incerto series. It deals with asymmetries in daily life (decision-making, risk management, politics, religion, etc.). This post summarizes some of the ideas of the book.
Ethics and Competence
In the introduction, the author focuses on the idea that one cannot disentangle ethics and competence when dealing with human beings. What does it mean that you trust a professional? Do you trust their knowledge and skills? Or their ethics and moral values? Or both?
Some people have skin in the game, such as citizens, merchants, businessmen, entrepreneurs, artisans, etc. Others have no skin in the game such as bureaucrats, administrators, policy wonks, consultants, etc.
No-skin-in-the-game people keep the upside and transfer the downside to others. Skin-in-the-game people, on the other hand, take their own risk and keep their own downside.
Avoid taking advice from someone who gives advice for a living, unless there is a penalty for their advice.
The golden rule vs the silver rule
The golden rule is: Treat others the way you would like them to treat you. The author argues that the following silver rule is more robust: Do not treat others the way you would not like them to treat you.
Title: Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Author: Cal Newport, PhD
Publication Date: 2016
Recommendation Score: 4 / 5
The population of “knowledge workers” is increasing with the shift towards an information economy. These workers, such as researchers, journalists, engineers, computer programmers, designers, etc. need “deep work” to be productive and creative. However, they often find themselves in a working environment where they are prone to distractions and frequent interruptions. They are losing calm offices to get open spaces, they spend their time in multitasking, jumping between meetings, chats, and emails, they are expected to remain available for instant messaging platforms, and sometimes they are forced onto social media.
Cal Newport addresses these topics in his book “Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”. He coined the term “Deep Work” to define the professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration, and that stretches one’s capabilities to their limits.
Deep Work is Valuable, Rare and Meaningful
The author argues that:
Deep work is valuable for learning, productivity, and creativity.
Deep work is rare since we live in a world where we are distracted permanently.
Deep work is meaningful and brings calm and satisfaction to our lives.
Title: Blink – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publication Date: 2005
Recommendation Score: 3.5/5
“Blink” is about experts’ intuition. The takeaway of the book is: the experts cannot be fooled easily because of their “thin-slicing” ability, that is, they can judge and find patterns in events based on a narrow window of experience, thanks to their intuition. On the other hand, experts can be easily (catastrophically) fooled, as in the case of “Warren Harding Error” (chapter 3). The book leaves you confused about when to trust an expert intuition and when not to.
Gladwell is a good writer and knows how to attract his reader’s attention. He is a talented journalist, who reads tons of articles and books, and interviews a lot of people, to write a good story. His storytelling style makes the reading of the book pleasant. When it comes to the content, the author is far from being an expert on the topic. In many chapters, Gladwell seems to jump between 2 or 3 stories to come to some conclusion, without citing solid evidence about the conclusion.
If you want to read a book that is based on solid scientific research, “Blink” may not satisfy your need.
Title: The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business
Author: Josh Kaufman
Publication Date: 2010
Recommendation Score: 5 / 5
The author, Josh Kaufman, argues that MBA programs are too expensive, with a low return on investment. Especially that the best MBA programs are highly selective, they will pick the candidates who have promising profiles, and who would climb the ladder with or without an MBA. He suggests that business school is unnecessary, and that reading books and gaining real-life experience is a better option.
“The Personal MBA” book as a distilled summary of a huge number of business and personal development books. It gives a boost of knowledge about business, but you need to complete it with further readings and practical experience. As the author puts it: The Personal MBA is a “Do-It-Yourself” approach to business education, but “Do-It-Yourself” does not mean “Do-It-By-Yourself”.
The book comprises both the technical and emotional skills needed for a successful career. The chapters pursue the following outline:
Who are you, really? Do you consider yourself an extrovert or an introvert? Are you compassionate or rather detached? What defines your personality traits? Can you change your character?
The book “Who are you, really?” provides insights about the personality traits based on latest psychological studies. The good news is: you are not destined to have a certain character, you can change your personality traits. How? By pursuing your personal projects, you define who you are. In other words, the well-doing can change your character, and has an impact on your well-being. More details below.
Biogenic, Sociogenic and Idiogenic selves
The author argues that everyone has three ‘selves’:
The biogenicself: your genes define some of the traits of your character. This is the fixed part of your personality.
The sociogenicself: other traits of your personality are imposed by your social context and the culture you grew in; people who are important to you, your family, friends and colleagues.
The idiogenicself: what you decide to do, your projects and plans, are the last layer of your character. Studies have shown that what you do can even has an impact on the manifestation of your genes, and, in a sense, influence your genome at least temporally.
Fortunately, your genes and social context are not the only determinants of your personality. Your idiogenic self is your hero.
If you find yourself making a lot of stupid mistakes, having difficulty remembering names, and being unable to connect with people due to your bad mood, then you might need to consider to have more sleep.
“Why We Sleep” is a must read for all those who think that sleep is a waste of time, and that 5 or 6 hours of sleep are sufficient for them. It explains how modern life style is deteriorating our sleep quality and quantity, and its impact on our everyday lives, on organisations and on society.
In a nutshell, here are the proven benefits of a full night of sleep as the author puts it : it makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious.
Establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends.
The author warns the reader against the use of sleeping pills, and recommends the cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, which is proved to be more effective and is rapidly being embraced by the medical community as the first-line treatment. The tips below include some of the CBT-I methods.
The book is written in a “coaching” style, and is full of research-based tips and practices that help you understand better the self-control mechanisms and employ them to gain more willpower.
One of the best interesting ideas that I find helpful is to mind the gap between your “Present self”, that is yourself, and your “Future self”, that super-human that can stick to any plan or budget. More details in the takeaways below.
The intelligent want self-control; children want candy.
Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves. It helps us to be a better version of ourselves.
Self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired from use, but regular exercise makes it stronger. When your are too tired, you are most likely to give in to temptations. Self-control is highest in the morning and deteriorates over the course of the day. Try to accomplish your most important tasks early in the morning. When you come back from a hard day of work, exhausted, you are less likely to exercise, and more likely to overeat. Similarly, don’t get yourself into exhaustion before moments of big decisions. This includes sleeping well and eating well. Continue reading “The Willpower Instinct – Kelly McGonigal”→