Monday, January 2, 2017

My Top 7 (Out of 7) Books of 2016

(1) Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets & (2) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

These books will be reviewed together because they’re written by the same author, address the same subjects, and are the first two books (in chronological order) of the author’s four-book series on uncertainty called Incerto.

Last year I read Malcolm Gladwell’s compilation of New Yorker stories called What The Dog Saw. Easily one of my favorites was “Blowing Up,” a profile on Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a trader who has made millions from every global financial crisis since Black Monday in 1987. He essentially bets against the system. By doing so, while everyone makes money, he loses money. And when people lose money, he makes money—a lot of it. However, there are no guarantees of a big payday. Gladwell writes about what the toll doing such a thing—losing money everyday for years betting on a payoff that may never come—can have on a person, not just financially, but emotionally—and doing it anyway. I enjoy these “me against the world” and “going against the grain” type of stories.

The title of Fooled by Randomness explains exactly what it’s about—whereas people cite fate, superstition, religion, a logical series of events, etc., to explain why things happen, Taleb offers another idea—randomness. This goes against the most visceral condition of human nature: that everything happens for a reason, which can be convincingly explained in hindsight, something Taleb calls narrative fallacy.

He also goes into other topics like biases (conscious or not), and how things as trivial as the font on a resume can be very real factors in determining whether a person is hired for a job or not.

All this more or less confirmed my belief in how the world really works, not how I was taught it works. People don’t like to cite randomness and bias because it goes against their beliefs of how and why things happen (like plain old hard work leading to success). They like to think that because X and Y happened, the events of X and Y led to Z.

People say that if you work hard and hustle, good things will happen—it’s a narrative that usually works out. But I’ve noticed that even the most successful people in the world will admit that luck—another word for randomness—can play a role. It can be good luck—something that gives someone the opportunity to break through, or bad luck—something that explains why someone never “makes it.”

Others, however, believe that luck is for losers and you make your own luck (I’m looking at you, Gary Vaynerchuck). But when you’re winning all the time and you believe your own narrative, it’s hard to believe anything else. You’re infallible. It’s human nature, after all.

The problem with this book is that it’s tough to read. Taleb is a guy who likes to hear himself talk; he uses a robust vocabulary and while reading this book I had a sneaking suspicion that he could have explained his ideas more simply, but chose not to. However, he peaked my interest from what I understood, and led me to read his next book, because it’s his best-selling and most popular work.

The Black Swan was my favorite book of the year, possibly of all time. The title comes from the old world belief that all swans were white—until the discovery of Australia, where there are black swans. Taleb uses this analogy to explain that while the only things that are certain are within the world of what we know, there is plenty that we don’t—and these unknowns affect the world in profound ways.

The average mind believes that life happen over the gradual progression of time—a steady climb where A leads to B leads to C and so on. We can provide a narrative as to why and how things happen, as they happen or in hindsight.

However, Taleb argues that the world is actually shaped by major unforeseen events. Rather than a slow build up over the last 100 years, Taleb argues that the last century was shaped by major “black swan events” the average person could not see coming, like World War I, the rise of the internet, and 9/11.

Throughout the book he rails against the bell curve, Nobel Prize-winning economists, and medium risk bonds, which he says do not take black swan events into consideration. When black swan events do happen, people will then retrospectively give incorrect explanations as to why (narrative fallacy).

Taleb also explains how this applies to every day life. In any endeavor, he says that even the most competent person who does everything right can still fail due to a variety of factors beyond that person’s control, whether it’s the perceived biases of the people who will decide that person’s fate or just the sheer odds of success. Taleb doesn’t discourage people, but as a numbers guy, he explains that, say, if the reader wants to become an Oscar-winning actor, it’s most likely not going to happen. Almost everything will be working against that you, and the only thing you will run on is hope—hope that things will be different for you in particular in a particular situation (or situations)—critical components of luck.

Hope is what keeps most people going anyway.

This book was much easier to read that Fooled By Randomness, but I still couldn’t grasp all of his concepts, especially when math formulas were involved. It definitely requires repeated reading, which I look forward to doing in the future should I decide to read the other two books in his series.

(3) Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well-Lived – Laurence Shames and Peter Barton

Usually when I become newly infatuated with a public figure, I will research that person to death, starting with their Wikipedia bio and ending with searches of any in-depth interviews they may have done.

I’m a big fan of the TV show Shark Tank, and saw Chris Sacca as a guest judge a couple seasons ago. He came off likeable, and his track record as an early investor in Twitter, Uber, Instagram, and Kickstarter speaks for itself Also, to any friends on the West Coast, I highly recommend one of his less-prominent investments, Veggie Grill, a fast-casual vegan restaurant; it’s the only time I will enthusiastically eat kale. As part of my efforts to learn more about him, I searched his name and “podcast” in iTunes and saw that he had done a couple interviews on The Tim Ferriss Show, which I listened to.

In addition to discovering Tim Ferriss, I also discovered this book. In every interview, Tim asks his guests which book they would recommend to others. Chris recommended this one, summarizing it as (paraphrasing), “Guy becomes millionaire mogul, and just when he decides to retire to spend more time with his family, he finds out that he has cancer and dies. If you don’t shed a tear reading this book, you have ice in your veins.”

I didn’t cry, but I enjoyed it a lot and it put things into perspective. It was easy and interesting to read. Peter Barton was born only a few years earlier than my parents and his eldest child is my age. His dad died when he was young, and this motivated Peter to live life fearlessly and to the fullest from a very young age. He was able to spend his formative years going on adventures and finding himself before he became a major player in cable TV’s expansion in the 80s and 90s. He purposely delayed having a family until he secured financial freedom. When he found out he had cancer, he decided to write this book with Laurence Shames.

The book is a reflection on his life, as he was living it as a young man and in retrospect from the perspective of a man fighting, yet dying from, cancer. Knowing he was going to die changed his perspective not just on what was happening in his life, but his perception of time itself. His insights on how he came to see life while fighting cancer are simple, yet profound; it’s easy to compare your perspective to his and understand the polarity of both. I don’t want to go as far to say I empathize with him, because I don’t think you can truly understand what it’s like to be in his position unless you are in his position. But he certainly has plenty of wisdom to share, and not just from his cancer fight; I admire the fearless way he lived life, how he tried to live two lifetimes in one, the lessons he tried to teach his kids and their friends—all things he was doing prior to his diagnosis.

He addresses a lot of life’s questions and challenges, and it would be tough to argue better ways to answer and live up to them than the ways that he did.

(4) Double Cup Love: On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China - Eddie Huang

This is Eddie’s second book after Fresh of the Boat, which I read few years ago and is now a TV show. Like his first book, there are some poignant moments that stood out that I enjoyed, but I spent a considerable amount of time speed reading through it so I could get to the next poignant moment that stood out to me. Ironically, a lot of the stories where he goes in depth about cooking and his Chinese identity/family history were the parts I sped through.

The book was originally supposed to be about Eddie and his brothers cooking his ABC (American Born Chinese) recipes for Chinese people in China and seeing their reactions them, but along the journey Eddie decides to invite his non-Asian girlfriend to share in the experience to see if she will accept his culture. If she does, then he’ll know she’s the one.

It’s funny; even though the book uses a pseudonym to hide her identity, I’ve been following Eddie on Instagram for a few years now, so I knew who she was—she was regularly tagged in his pictures and I knew her real name. Her physical description in the book matched her appearance in his pictures. Chronologically, they started dating shortly after the release of his first book, which is when Double Cup Love takes place.

(Spoiler Alert)

But suddenly, she stopped appearing in his Instagram feed. I didn’t think much of it until I started reading this book and realized it was about her. But as abruptly as she disappeared from Eddie’s pictures, the book ends. You think there is going to be a happily ever after until you notice you’re running out of pages for Eddie to write a happy ending and explain why she retired from Instagramming. Just when she accepts his marriage proposal, Eddie uses the last few pages to note that they broke up (not specifying how) and wraps up the book. Which is odd; you’re on the ride for that long so you at least want an explanation of what happened.

There is one exchange Eddie has with a cab driver in China about U.S.-China relations that was memorable for me (paraphrasing):

DRIVER: You’re from America? So tell me, do they finally respect us over there?

EDDIE: I don’t know about respect. Maybe fear is a better word.

DRIVER: Ah, I see. But fear is not the same as respect.

(5) On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know How to Use It – Seneca

On The Tim Ferriss Show, Tim always asks his guests what their favorite book is, or which book they would recommend to others. This book is Tim’s recommendation, he and rereads it himself a few times a year. Admiring Tim’s work ethic, genuine curiosity, and constant quest for self-improvement, I decided to give it a read.

It was the shortest book I read all year. It’s a series of three letters the Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca wrote warning against the pitfalls of materialism, comparing yourself to others, and worrying about things you can’t control. It introduced me to the concept of stoic philosophy, which is not unlike things I have read in the past about meditation, enlightenment, and spirituality (à la Eckhart Tolle).

It was enjoyable, though it was somewhat hard to concentrate on the core message because it’s essentially a long and rambling essay translated from Latin.

A few months ago, I was talking to some coworkers about how the average 40-hour workweek, advertising, clickbait, etc., are designed to distract us from realizing the principles Seneca talked about in his essay. When I said how remarkable it was for Seneca to come to these realizations thousands of years ago, a coworker interjected and said, “Well, he was able to just sit around and think about these things all day because he had slaves.”

“But we have machines and computers,” I countered.

I’m glad Seneca wasn’t distracted by a smartphone while writing his letters, or he may not have even gotten around to writing them. His beliefs cut through the noise then, and they cut through the noise now. Even with all the technology that surrounds us today, I don’t think it was that much easier to follow Seneca’s advice back in his time; a lot of his writing is about winning the battle of the mind. And while Seneca’s time was very different than ours, the “noise” of both time periods manifests in the head the same way.

I understand why Tim rereads this book as often as he does—as soon as you’re inspired to do away with the noise distracting you from life, it surrounds you again—it’s on Instagram, at your job, the Facebook friend you love to hate’s status update. You’re back to square one and the momentum of the noise sends you in a recurring circle.

(6) The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right – Atul Gawande

I read this book at the recommendation of chef David Chang on The Ezra Klein Show. Turns out Ezra asks the book question on his podcast, too. On the surface, the book is very mundane—Atul Gawande, a surgeon on a quest to make surgeries more efficient and reduce complications on the operating table, comes to the conclusion that pre- and post-op checklists can help improve communications among surgery teams and even significantly reduce the death rate. He finds that checklists have already been in use for many years in aviation, architecture, emergency response, even investing, tested and perfected many times over.

While not a boring read, it all felt obvious—of course checklists are a good idea, it doesn’t hurt to double check, I’m all for making things more efficient and safe, blah, blah, blah. I felt like this could have just been a story in Time instead of a whole book. But towards the end of the book, I read this passage:

“We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away from not only saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us—those who we aspire to be—handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists.

Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”

It’s our attention to detail and how we handle complexity that can truly make or break a truly tough situation. A good checklist addresses both. A good checklist is also hard to make. In between compelling real-life stories involving the use of checklists, Atul works on perfecting his surgery checklist. It’s time-consuming, frustrating and painstaking—figuring out the right questions to ask, the amount of questions to ask, the time it takes to go through it, and making sure the checklist is actually being followed through and not just being read through for the sake of being read through.

I learned that just because something seems boring or not exciting enough doesn’t mean it can’t be powerful and have a major impact. And "more interesting" and "more exciting" doesn’t always mean "better." This goes against human nature, but the more I read about the world, the more I feel we should go against human nature more often.

(7) Open: An Autobiography – Andre Agassi

I remember when this book was first released the media was baffled by Andre Agassi’s revelation that he hated every minute of playing tennis, from the moment he started playing to the moment he retired. There was no lull on this feeling even while he was making millions as the number one ranked player in the world.

Over the years I read great reviews of the book, some calling it one of the best sports autobiographies of all time. I saw that my friend Andrew was reading it and he highly recommended it, specifically mentioning the book’s ghostwriter, J. R. Moehringer, a newspaper journalist and novelist. I never heard of him before (though his own memoir now is on my reading list for 2017), but I’m convinced that this is the X-factor that made this book one of the most compelling I’ve ever read.

It’s written in the first person, but it doesn’t read like an autobiography. Most autobiographies I’ve read are more like recollections of sequential events in life, trying to rattle off as much detail as possible—which isn’t a bad thing, but feels more like a statement of facts (albeit very interesting facts) rather than story. Andre’s book feels like a novel; he’s telling us the unbelievable journey of his life with as many emotions as there are facts, and his emotions are vivid, unfiltered, and brutally honest. I visualize each decade from the 70s onward in a different filter that grows clearer as his story progresses, as he grows into the person I hope he accepts and has come to terms with today.

All this makes me wonder if this unique point of view is Andre’s or J.R.’s. Is it J.R.’s writing style or Andre’s story of his life, career, and identity shaped by a brutally overbearing sports parent that makes the book? While I grew up reading stories of Andre’s success in the newspaper, I didn’t know his personality (apparently none of us did) and I didn’t know what his voice sounded like.

Either way, I’m not going to complain. This book made me want to go past my daily minimum allotted reading time (always a good sign). I felt a great deal of empathy, and not just for Andre—I wonder what happened to his family members, childhood friends, and the bigger, stronger, older opponents Andrew smoked on the court as an adolescent.

Because I’m not familiar with the details of his professional career, my feet sweat and my heart raced as he described battling rivals at hallowed tennis tournaments. I didn’t know which tournaments he won or lost, so I was genuinely invested and learned the results as they unfolded, which added a new dimension of suspense.

His life reminds me of the quote “I don’t love my job—I’m good at my job.” Which is why he did it. Why many of us do ours.

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