Great books I read in 2015

My five favorite books of the year, plus other great reads

Tuesday, Dec 29, 2015

What defines a great book? For me, one that changes how I think in a fundamental way, or expands my gamut of understanding. Here are the great books I read this year and the books I’m looking forward to next year.


Excellent books

Mastery — by Robert Greene

The great chess Master Bobby Fischer spoke of being able to think beyond the various moves of his pieces on the chessboard; after a while he could see “fields of forces” that allowed him to anticipate the entire direction of the match… In all of these instances, these practitioners of various skills … were suddenly able to grasp an entire situation through an image or an idea, or a combination of images and ideas. They experienced this power as intuition, or a fingertip feel. (256)
  • Why it’s great: One of the few books I've found that focuses on long-term skill and personal development for excellence.
  • Key takeaway: Mastery is the process of gaining knowledge in the right ways, in a field that you feel closely connected to, while in the process arranging support structures that increases your propensity of gaining that knowledge (especially mentors), then applying what you've learned to certain projects and experimenting, with the ultimate goal of attaining a deep, intuitive understanding of your field from which you make progress. The intuition part is essential: his theory is that we gain deep knowledge about a field, so when we face new problems, we are able to activate the disparate parts of our deep memory that turn things up. Seems like the process of gaining mastery is an art in and of itself – and Greene talks about a few paths that others have taken to this art.
  • Review: The book gives a good framework for developing mastery. It is highly traditional (heavily focused on apprenticeship), but still has good tried-and-true ideas. Greene’s writing style leaves a lot to be desired (too many assumptions), but the framework and mini-biographies in this book are great.
  • Full review on Goodreads.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future — by Ashlee Vance

People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall. It’s one of his most impressive and intimidating skills and seems to work just as well in the present day as it did when he was a child vacuuming books into his brain. After a couple of years running SpaceX, Musk had turned into an aerospace expert on a level that few technology CEOs ever approach in their respective fields. (Loc 3421)
  • Why it’s great: An incredibly inspiring biography about Elon Musk that really goes into his background and the stories behind Tesla and SpaceX. Musk’s story drives this book, even if the biography itself is slightly lacking.
  • Key takeaway: This book brought up one key question: do you have to be a bit reckless to be good? Musk was reckless in two areas: in the risks he took, and the way that he manages his companies. The near–death experiences of Tesla and SpaceX detailed in his book are gripping, and show how far to the edge Musk went, and how Musk’s seemingly reckless behavior saved these companies from failure. And the way that he manages those companies is similar to Steve Jobs’ harsh management style. Is it necessary to be that harsh to be successful?
  • Other notes: It really drives home how much of a genius Musk is. Consider that in his childhood, he ran out of books to read at the local library and the school library, and sometimes would read for ten hours a day. Dude also has a memory that's not only photographic, but he can wrangle images and numbers and relationships between them in his head.
  • Review: Fantastic. It does lack a more ‘inner’ understanding of Musk, though. For example, Vance says that Musk can be a bit cold and non-emotional because he empathizes differently than others – he empathizes with the human species in general, not just individuals. What would Musk think of this characterization? Hard to say. Wish there were more access on this front.
  • Full review on Goodreads.

Thinking In Systems — by Donella Meadows

The rules of the system define its scope, its boundaries, its degrees of freedom. Thou shalt not kill. Everyone has the right of free speech. Contracts are to be honored … They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power. That’s why … the Supreme Court, which interprets and delineates the Constitution — the rules for writing the rules — has even more power than Congress. If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and to who has power over them. (158)
  • Why it’s great: A great introduction to system dynamics that changes how you think (or at least, changed how I think) about, well, everything. Everyone should read this to better understand the world around us. Thanks to Dan Shipper for the recommendation.
  • Key takeaway: We break down a system into its outcomes and the processes that are generative of those outcomes. These processes can be incredibly complex, but we can model them using certain primitives, like stocks and flows, and analyze their behavior using the paradigms of feedback loops, oscillation, delays, and self-organization. Through this, we can understand bad projections, the tragedy of the commons, and similar outcomes. A key idea: the paradigms—the assumptions and foundations, things like ‘property can be owned,’ that we hold that eventually lead to the behavior and goals of a system—are the important leverage point at which systems can be changed. Finally, complex systems are by definition unpredictable – but if we have a better vocabulary and can build better models, we can build better systems.
  • Other notes: Dan Shipper recommends Complex Adaptive Systems by John Miller and Scott Page as another book about complex systems.

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger — by Peter Bevelin

I think the best question is, “Is there anything I can do to make my whole life and my whole mental process work better?” And I would say that developing the habit of mastering the multiple models which underlie reality is the best thing you can do. It's just so much fun - and it works so well. —Charlie Munger (189)
  • Why it’s great: A mind-expanding collection of mental models, common misjudgments, and ‘tools for better thinking’.
  • Key takeaway: We can gain wisdom in a systematic process, and there are certain building blocks that we can use – mental models – that we should aim to build. This book details many mental models, and it also spends a lot of time talking about why and how we make misjudgments. It’s hard to really summarize this book, since it’s really a collection of mental models and traps to watch out for, but it’s a valuable jumping-off point. A key focus is on being well-calibrated in your own confidence, which is something that Buffett and Munger apply successfully to their business – they only invest in things that they can really understand.
  • Other notes: This book is a favorite of Shane Parrish from Farnam Street, and there’s a fantastic list of mental models (some of which have posts dedicated to them) on the Farnam Street site.

The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change — by Al Gore

[In a future with an inhospitable Earth,] the story would still be told: in the early decades of the twenty-first century, a generation gifted by those that came before them with the greatest prosperity and most advanced technologies the Earth had ever known broke faith with the future. They thought of themselves and enjoyed the bounty they had received, but cared not for what came after them. Would they forgive us? Or would they curse us with the dying breaths of each generation to come? (L6768)
  • Why it’s great: An ambitious and wide-ranging look at the huge changes that the future holds – from artificial intelligence to brain mapping to the shift from politics to markets to climate change – and what we need to do to face these changes. It’s dense and boring at points, and expect frequent connections back to climate change and a center-left bias, but it’s nonetheless eye-opening. Thanks to Alex Godin for the recommendation.
  • Key takeaway: We are at a crossroads in our species. The confluence of globalization, a hyperconnected world, the decline of the U.S. and the rise of the developing world, massive growth on all fronts, imminent biological breakthroughs that we are not morally ready for, and climate change—all of these things lead us to a future that is wildly unpredictable. With all of these changes, we are dealing with highly unpredictable elements—and yet our ability to make decisions as a species has atrophied. Corporate interests and a broken political system make the U.S. unable to provide global leadership. There are exciting changes ahead, but we need better systems for consensus to be able to face the difficult decisions—the morality of cloning, the automation of work, the destruction of the environment—that we will have to face in the future.
  • Other notes: To get a sense of the wide array of topics that Gore talks about in his book, check out the extended resources for the book for neat mind-maps of all of the topics. Also, reading this has made me think that I would vote for the Gore that comes across in this book: he strongly believes in capitalism but is against corporate greed, believes in technology but knows its limitations, understands privacy, and of course, knows climate change.

Great books

The Effective Altruism Handbook — edited by Ryan Carey — This isn’t technically a book, but it’s a collection of essays by people associated with the Effective Altruism movement. The key question is: how can we do the most good? My key shift in thinking is thinking about ‘the most good’ in terms of expected value. Donating $5,000 to an anti-malaria foundation can save a life, and thus has a higher EV than donating it to somewhere else where the expenditure per life saved might be $50,000 or more. This was important for me for thinking about where I want to spend my energy in the next few years.

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? — by Michael J. Sandel — An important book that examines different systems of justice and talks about scenarios and the difficulties of each system. Starting with utilitarianism, he then goes through libertarianism, Kant's categorical imperative, Rawls' theory of justice, and virtue ethics to talk about what the right thing to do is – how to maximize justice. Really good, but the system of justice that he settles on was unconvincing to me, but still an important read that changed how I think. Full review here.

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World — by Steven Johnson — A really entertaining and fun read about the innovations that led to where we are today. My favorite one is how the invention of glass enabled so much of what we know about medicine today – I’ll leave the rest for your entertainment. The key idea in this book is that inventions and discoveries are, by nature, networked, and exhibit what Johnson calls the “hummingbird effect”. Each discovery expands what Stuart Kauffman calls the “adjacent possible”, the scope of possibilities now unlocked by that new discovery. I love that. Full review here.

Snow Crash — by Neal Stephenson — I really don’t read enough fiction. Mike Godwin is right on target when he describes this book as the "manic apotheosis of cyberpunk science fiction," at least the manic part. What I both loved and disliked about this book was its deep interconnectedness of technology and reality, man and machine, and all the ridiculous Sumerian mythology. It’s silly at times but overall an awesome read, and, so I hear, a must-read sci-fi book. Thanks to Will Johnson for the recommendation. Full review here.

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Business — by Shane Show — This book is all about how to work smarter and find better paths to success than the conventional way, and it’s actually good, unlike most books of this ilk. Includes a lot of tools that you can use – fast feedback, ladder switching, platforms (e.g. the concept of multiplication, not the times table), harnessing waves (e.g. Michelle Phan’s understanding of the YouTube trending algorithm) – to implement these ‘smartcuts’ and reach success faster. Read my book notes for a more complete summary.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion — by Robert B. Cialdini — This is a classic review of a lot of the findings in social psychology about influence, such as the impact of liking, consistency, reciprocation, social proof, and all that. Though I’m biased since I already knew much of it, it’s still cool to see how it’s all used in the real world. Must-read for people who are new social psychology.

Good books

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics — by Richard Thaler — A great history of behavioral economics and how it came to be from one of the most influential behavioral economists. Touches on a lot of the key findings in the process and how homo economicus is a flawed concept. A fun if mostly historical read.

How to Read a Book — by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren — This was a good read because it laid out the ideal state for reading a book: analytically, deeply, and in concert with other books. It includes a lot of excellent questions to ask yourself and ways to engage with the text that can really improve comprehension, but it’s hard to really implement all of these ideas in the real world because it’s time consuming. So, too, is reading this book, so I suggest checking out one of the many summaries first.

In Defense of a Liberal Education — by Fareed Zakaria — Zakaria makes the argument that the liberal arts, far from being obsolete, are one of the few enduring things in a quickly changing world. The skills of exposition and rhetoric will always be useful, but they’re soft skills that we don’t prioritize highly enough. In summary, a liberal education teaches you how to write (which teaches you how to think), how to speak (which, um, speaks for itself), and how to learn. We need to nurture that.

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be — by Andrew Delbanco — Goes through the history of higher education and how the modern conceptualization of it in the United States is missing the mark. He makes the common argument that when we focus on vocational training in college, we miss out on the value of college as a place to think about the harder questions of life, ethics, and meaning, questions that science cannot, and usually does not attempt to answer. Full review here.

Books I’m looking forward to in 2016

  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning — by Peter C. Brown (thanks Evan Samek)
  • The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood — by James Gleick
  • Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era — by James Barrat
  • Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies — by Nick Bostrom
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions — by Thomas Kuhn (thanks Dan Shipper)
  • Theoretical Foundations of Artificial General Intelligence — edited by Pei Wang and Ben Goertzel
  • On Intelligence — by Jeff Hawkins
  • Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down — by J.E. Gordon
  • Rationality: From AI to Zombies — by Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • Doing Good Better — by William MacAskill
  • Roguelike — by Sebastian Marshall
  • The Remains of the Day — by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre — by Keith Johnstone
  • Tao Te Ching — by Lao Tzu (thanks Sebastian Marshall)
  • A Brief History of Time — by Stephen Hawking (thanks Peter Boyce)
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — by Yuval Harari
  • The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger — by Mark Levinson
  • Nonviolent Communication — by Marshall B. Rosenberg
  • Between the World and Me — by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Any recommendations? Send 'em to me below.

Answering this question is a collaborative effort. Have some thoughts on this topic or know of something I should read? Comment publicly at the end of the article, or use this form to send it to me directly.
By Mark Bao

I write about behavioral science, personal growth, strategy, and the true nature of things under the surface.