Sometimes, a great book can be overwhelming to read.
Not because it’s hard to understand. But rather because your thinking is challenged with every turn of the page.
This is a lesson I’ve learned as I’ve become a better reader. Some books have altered my worldviews that I thought were absolute. Some have even inspired me to consider beyond what I know.
Below are summaries of several life-changing books I’ve read. These are books that have transformed my beliefs on a variety of subjects. They contain concepts that have stuck with me long after I’ve finished reading. I hope they can do the same for you.
Philosophy: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
For many of us, the random nature of life is unsettling. The idea that a single event could wreak havoc on it isn’t a fun feeling. But what if the opposite is also true? What if you could experience something that transforms your life for the better?
Randomness, in that context, doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
That is one of many concepts Nassim Taleb outlines in Antifragile. This was one of the most challenging books I read. Taleb’s writing style is verbose and sometimes took a few rereads to comprehend. But the challenge was well worth the effort.
What does it mean to be antifragile? Let’s start with something that’s not. Think of a glass vase. Drop it from ten feet, and it shatters into a hundred pieces. Now think of a friend who exercises daily. The stress from a workout might make his body sore, but it doesn’t kill him either. Your fit friend, unlike the glass vase, is antifragile.
We tend to emphasize the negative impact of randomness and disregard the positive. But embracing randomness is better than fighting it. “This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing – and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness,” Taleb writes.
Most of you reading are familiar with the idea of post-traumatic stress. Well, post-traumatic growth is the opposite. It’s when harmful events in someone’s life spur improvement.
For example, think of a basketball team that loses a critical game at the buzzer. A championship group uses that defeat to fuel its motivation for next time. Post-traumatic growth bears close resemblance to the idea of character built through experience.
Subtraction > Addition
When we examine where we are with our lives, we often acknowledge the decisions we made. But we don’t remember the decisions we didn’t make. Via Negativa is a concept that argues in favor of the latter.
“The greatest – and most robust – contribution to knowledge consists in removing what we think is wrong – subtractive epistemology,” Taleb writes.
Consider the amount of choice we have today. Some of us think the more options, the better. But is it? In a world of limitless choice, making decisions is time-consuming and exhausting. At a certain point, having less becomes more.
The Lucretius Problem
Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, right? But at the same time, history can fool us, too. Referencing past events can limit our expectations of what’s possible in the future.
Taleb calls this concept the Lucretius Problem. It’s the idea that best and worst case events exceeded previous benchmarks. The Lucretius Problem earns its name from Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus. He once wrote that a fool believes the biggest mountain in the world is equal to the biggest one he or she has ever seen.
Still not grasping the concept? Let’s reflect on a moment from history to help. For many Americans, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 was the benchmark of absolute terror. That was until 9/11. September 11th was an unimaginable event – a Lucretius Problem – because nothing like it had ever occurred before.
Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it – books have a secret mission and ability to multiply, as everyone who has wall-to-wall bookshelves knows well.Taleb on the antifragility of information.
Productivity: Deep Work by Cal Newport
We’re bombarded by so much noise in today’s world. Every moment of everyday life seems like one distraction after another. The incessant buzz of our cell phones set off by a million push notifications has become the new normal.
As a result, our productivity takes the biggest blow, and most of us don’t even realize it.
When was the last time you sat at your desk and worked for an hour? I mean WORKED. I’m talking no interruptions. “Never,” you’ve likely muttered to yourself. “That’s impossible.”
Well, Cal Newport would argue that it isn’t.
Deep Work centers around the belief that our best work comes when we’re undistracted. A simple idea, right? Well, doing so is the challenge. And that’s where Newport arrives with solutions he practices himself.
Why Deep Work Matters
There are two major arguments for the importance of deep work. First, a person who engages in deep work learns faster. You stay ahead of the pack because you’re not interrupted by dozens of minor distractions. Second, depth is a rule of producing great work. Creatives, such as writers, know how valuable it is to have uninterrupted periods of production.
Newport also notes a concept called the great restructuring. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, but human capacity is struggling to keep up. As a consequence, we’re not developing critical skills needed to survive in the new economy.
There Are Limits to Willpower
When it comes to willpower, we tend to give ourselves more credit than we deserve. Most of us think we can fight against distraction in moments that call for focus. Through research, Newport discovers this isn’t true.
He cites a study that reveals most humans want to do anything but deep work. Psychologists Hofmann, Vohs, and Baumeister discover we battle with desire all day long. They conclude that our daily willpower is finite and decreases as we use it.
Ritual Is Critical for Deep Work
Create a standard operating procedure for yourself. Fixed habits and routines can improve the likelihood of achieving deep work. Newport recommends that we create rituals that are strict and idiosyncratic.
Newport also says there are three general questions any effective ritual must address:
- Where will you work and for how long?
- How will you work when you start? (i.e. the tactics you’ll use to avoid rather than fight distraction)
- How will you support your work? (i.e.the habits and routines to get yourself into deep work)
The best athletes know the importance of ritual. When I covered the NBA, Ray Allen always wowed me with his gameday preparation. He was the first player in the gym before games and always practiced the same shooting routine. As a result, Allen was always ready for the big moment like this.
Whether it’s a friend, family member, or colleague, we all know people that brag about how much they work. They always mention how hard they grind and how they have no time for rest. For them, taking breaks is a sign of weakness and even laziness.
Newport argues against this trend. He states the importance of shutdown and downtime, which both foster better insight. Taking a break helps you recharge the energy needed for deep work.
Newport makes his case for rest by citing two examples of research. First is the theory of attention restoration. It’s the concept that spending time in nature can improve your concentration. Next, Newport highlights work from Anders Ericcson, known for his research on mastery. Ericcson finds that we have a daily limit of only one to four hours of deep work capacity.
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.Newport on the importance of depth in our lives.
Business: Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard
If you google the phrase reluctant businessman, Yvon Chouinard is the first result. Matter of fact, he’s the entire first page.
Chouinard never aspired to become wealthy from the company he made. Rather, his success came because he solved a problem for people like him.
Let My People Go Surfing is a book by the founder of Patagonia that’s part biography and part philosophy. Chouinard and others tell the story behind the clothing company’s creation. He also shares guiding principles that have helped Patagonia navigate the for-profit world.
“In 1979, my brother quit and Yvon didn’t want to run the company,” writes Kris McDivit, Patagonia’s CEO from 1979 to 1994. “He wanted to climb and surf and all those things. So he gave me the companies, saying in effect, ‘Here’s Patagonia. Here’s Chouinard Equipment. Do with them what you will. I’m going climbing.”
I became interested in this book after hearing Chouinard on the How I Built This podcast. Chouinard shares that running a business doesn’t have to cost you your morals and values. His book shows that it’s possible to profit while doing good.
Business Ideas Come From What You Know
Patagonia is one of the biggest and well-known brands in outdoor apparel. Its existence is a result of Chouinard’s love for the outdoors. Chouinard started Patagonia because he thought mountain climbers needed better equipment.
Chouinard incorporated giving into Patagonia’s mission. But when the company’s growth multiplied in the nineties, he realized it could do more. He decided Patagonia would inspire other companies as a model for “environmental stewardship and stability.”
The Best Businesses Build With Authenticity
Chouinard’s book summarizes some concepts around his philosophy on brand image. A few of them are.
- Patagonia makes a point to tell customers the entire story about what it is and does.
- Photography needs to reflect authenticity through pictures. Thus, it features only people who use Patagonia’s equipment.
- Patagonia has always tried to “argue ideas as well as sell products”. The company writes copy through the lens of the customer.
Patagonia also has three general guidelines for promotion. First, its mission is to inspire and educate as opposed to overtly promote. Next, it believes a glowing recommendation is often the best channel for marketing. Finally, Patagonia only turns to paid advertising as a last resort.
“Public relations companies tell you that a favorable, independent press notice is worth three to eight times the same space paid for with an ad,” Chouinard writes.
A Lean Company Is a Strong Company
For many businesses, bigger always means better. But for Patagonia, becoming a behemoth is not a priority. In fact, constant growth is detrimental to the company’s mission.
Smaller is stronger according to Chouinard. Offices with great communication and limited bureaucracy often have 100 employees or less. Democracy also functions well in smaller environments, where people feel more responsibility.
Chouinard notes that a small company is better equipped to solve problems. Employees are less self-conscious and feel more encouraged to ask hard questions. He also stresses the importance of welcoming new employees who challenge the status quo. A company that does so becomes resilient and adaptive to change.
I have a different definition of evil from most people. Evil doesn’t have to be an overt act; it can be merely the absence of good.Chouinard’s definition of corruption.
Marketing: To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink
What comes to mind when you hear the world sales? Chances are it evokes a few negative feelings. For many of us, people who engage in sales are duplicitous, disingenuous, and insincere.
But what if someone told you that everyone, including yourself, is a salesperson? Skeptical, right? Well, if you’ve ever done anything persuasive – like interviewed for a job – then congratulations! You’re in sales.
Every day, we face situations where we must influence others into action. This is the main argument Daniel Pink makes in To Sell Is Human. It’s an idea many of us refuse to accept because of the commercial connotations of sales. But as you’ve learned already, making money isn’t their only purpose.
The Availability of Abundant Information Puts Consumers in the Driver’s Seat
Many of us hate selling because it suffers a problem of perception from an old idea. When we think of sales, the thought of a used-car salesman is often what comes to mind. You know the type. It’s the guy who talks a big game about a can’t-miss deal. But behind closed doors, he cares less about your needs and more about his next commission.
But Pink’s book teaches us that the reign of such sleazy salespeople is over. Salespeople who don’t have the best interests of their customers in mind are now disadvantaged. That’s because they can’t pick and choose the details they share in pitches anymore. These days, a quick Google search arms consumers with ammunition that levels the playing field.
To be successful at sales in the modern age, Pink argues we must be honest. Successful salespeople believe transparency is not voluntary. Instead, they believe it’s mandatory.
The ABC’s of Moving People
Pink outlines three critical elements of successful salesmanship: attunement, buoyancy, and clarity.
- Attunement is empathy. It’s putting yourself in the shoes of the person you want to move. You could improve attunement by seeking to find common ground with others.
- Buoyancy is persistence. It’s maintaining resolve to continue with the sales process in light of failure. Thinking in impermanent or impersonal terms when faced with rejection are two examples.
- Clarity is the notion of keeping your pitch uncluttered. To achieve this, narrow down the most important benefits of your offer. This requires differentiating between the necessary and distracting features.
“Don’t get lost in the crabgrass of details,” Pink writes. “Instead think about the essence of what you’re exploring – the 1% that gives life to the other 99%.”
Think Serve Instead of Sell
Be personal and purposeful about what you pitch. Pink recommends it’s best to move away from upselling and orient toward upserving. This means delivering beyond your client’s expectations. Pink also recommends using emotionally intelligent signage like this. They trigger empathy and make the rationale behind your pitches better understood.
Finally, ask and answer the following two questions about your pitch.
- If the people you’re selling to agree to buy, will their lives improve?
- When your interaction with prospects is over, will the world be better than when you began?
The answers to both questions must always be yes.
The purpose of a pitch isn’t necessarily to move others immediately to adopt your idea. The purpose is to offer something so compelling that it begins a conversation, brings the other person in as a participant and eventually arrives at an outcome that appeals to both of you.Pink on pitching as collaborative.
Finance: The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko
Typical millionaires in America aren’t who you think they are. They’re not living in 4,000 square-foot homes. They’re not driving porsches, ferraris, or bugattis. And they’re not always traveling the world, staying in five-star hotels.
Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko paint a different portrait of wealth in The Millionaire Next Door. Real American millionaires don’t live in high-status neighborhoods. They also buy used cars rather than new. And if they’re men, they never spend more than $399 on a suit.
This book challenges the perception of what wealth looks like in America. Stanley and Danko show there’s a clear difference between the rich and wealthy. They find that rich people spend close to or more than what they earn. Meanwhile, the wealthy do a much better job of accumulating it
How to Identify Savers From Spenders
The authors distinguish between two types of people. They’re prodigious accumulators of wealth (PAWs) and underaccumulators of wealth (UAWs).
PAWs are people who reach million-dollar net worths in their lifetimes. They’re not lottery winners or celebrities either. Instead, they reach seven-figure valuations by working hard and living thrifty. Some PAWs may not even make six figures a year. But because they spend low and invest smart, their money goes a long way.
UAWs, meanwhile, are the opposite. They’re people who are worth a lot less than their salaries would suggest. UAWs appear wealthy because of the things they own – like big houses or fancy cars. But because they spend as much or more than they earn, UAWs have trouble sustaining wealth.
Wealthy People Are Meticulous Investors
The authors note that PAWs spend more time planning their investments. On average, they commit at least 8.4 hours per month. PAWs are also more likely to set aside some of their pretax income for investing. The authors suggest that aspiring PAWs budget 15 percent of their annual pretax income for investing.
Wealthy people don’t play around in the market, either. Instead, they buy and hold, rather than trade their investments. The authors find that fewer than one in 10 millionaires are active investors.
Economic Outpatient Care
Economic outpatient care is another concept that prevents us from becoming wealthy. The authors characterize EOC as substantial gifts and kindness parents give adult children. More than 46 percent of rich parents give at least $15,000 of EOC to their adult kids each year.
Though generous and thoughtful, EOC can do more long-term harm than good to those who receive it. The authors argue that EOC creates a cycle of dependency on parents by adult children.
Stanley and Danko have some solutions for parents to resist EOC. Some of their recommendations are:
- Fostering an environment that encourages kids to develop independent thoughts and actions.
- Placing high value on individual achievement, reward, responsibility, and leadership.
Wealth is not the same as income. If you make a good income each year and spend it all, you are not getting wealthier. You are just living high. Wealth is what you accumulate, not what you spend.Stanley and Danko’s definition of wealth.
Psychology: Give and Take by Adam Grant
For as long as I could remember, I thought work was a zero-sum game, with clear winners and losers. Thinking like this succeeded for a while as I accomplished many career goals. But, my success came at a cost. I felt unhappy despite employment in a handful of dream jobs.
In a world of winners and losers, I always watched my back. If I didn’t, my place in the pecking order was at risk. Most of us accept this paranoia as part of the journey. I, however, reached a point where I wondered if there was a better way.
Give and Take by Adam Grant showed me there was.
This book explains why professionals don’t need to play a game of divide and conquer to achieve success. Grant shares insights on how cooperation over competition leads to a fulfilling career. Using real-life case studies, he makes a strong argument for his cause.
Givers, Takers, and Matchers
Grant lays the foundation of Give and Take around the concept of three different kinds of people.
- Matchers are those who value fairness, equality, and reciprocity. Think of them as people who operate under a you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch yours protocol. Most people fall under this category.
- Takers are those who accomplish success at the expense of others. They’re not interested in win-win scenarios and seek the advantage in negotiations. You can identify takers through lekking. It’s the act of self-aggrandizing hype combined with the disregard of others’ contributions.
- Givers put peers’ needs before theirs, and help despite no guarantee of return. They’re willing to play the long game when assisting others. Givers aren’t concerned if their actions don’t yield immediate benefit.
Real-Life Givers in Action
Grants cites many examples of people who choose giving over receiving. Their selflessness has earned them success at work and respect from their peers.
One such person is Adam Rifkin, whom Grant calls the most connected man on earth. In 2011, Fortune Magazine named Rifkin the best networker in Silicon Valley. He earned this distinction by striving to improve the lives of those he’s connected to. “My network developed little by little, in fact a little every day through small gestures and acts of kindness, over the course of many years,” Rifkin says in Grant’s book.
Grant also introduces George Meyer, a well-respected writer among comedians. Meyer is most regarded for his work on The Simpsons, where he led script rewrite sessions with the show’s staff. He played a role in about 300 episodes in the show’s history, but only received writing credit for 12. Givers, like Meyer, reject that idea that interdependence equals weakness.
There’s power in vulnerability. Instead of promoting the strongest qualities, powerless communication is the opposite. It focuses on sharing weaknesses instead.
If you’ve ever watched 8 Mile, the idea of powerless communication shouldn’t be foreign to you. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Eminem’s character, B-Rabbit, takes the stage against one of his rap rivals in a battle. During his turn, B-Rabbit rhymes about all his shortcomings before his opponent can use them against him. By acknowledging his weaknesses, he wins the crowd.
Appearing vulnerable doesn’t bother givers. They worry far less about protecting a perfect image and projecting certainty. Vulnerability offers benefits, too, like the opportunity to learn or improve empathy.
It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes such as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, but being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice. It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others, such as by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others.Grant on how to be a giver.
What are you some of your life-changing books? Leave a comment or send me a message with names of titles and authors.
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