Over the past few months I’ve made a deliberate effort to spend less time on social media and more time reading books. I’ve picked up a few unread paperbacks from my bookshelf, downloaded a couple of Kindle books and subscribed to Audible on my iPhone. I’ve enjoyed having fresh perspectives kicking around in my head and some fresh conversation topics when I’ve caught up with friends.
Before diving into each book I’ll first point out some interesting observations on each of the mediums. I use Kindle on iPad, and while I love instant access to pretty much any book ever written, my brain still associates Apple devices with distraction candy such as email, iMessage and Twitter, so sadly I found myself switching away from the Kindle app when I found my attention wavering — not ideal. Audible is great for making better use of time during long commutes in the car or stints on the rowing machine at the gym, but having a book read aloud makes it impossible to highlight favourite passages or easily jump back and forward to recap key passages or concepts. I finished a couple of extra books thanks to Audible, but I’ll definitely be spending less time with it in the future (and replacing with Podcasts).
Surprisingly, it’s been old fashioned paperbacks I’ve enjoyed the most. There’s nothing but the words of the book on the page so distractions are non-existent, my phone can be silenced in another room, of course the battery doesn’t go flat and I can easily flick back and forward to recap anything I’ve missed or forgotten. Plus you can lend the book out once you’re done. Long live the mighty paperback!
Now onto the books…
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This book really helped me to understand why the feeling of being completely 100% immersed in a task is so pleasurable and how these precious moments where time stands still are becoming so hard to experience in today’s world of push notifications, smart phone apps and endless distractions and interruptions. Written over 10 years ago by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — the book makes a strong case for seeking out flow state activities as the path to everyday happiness and feelings of accomplishment. Tasks such as an hour spent cooking a challenging meal (vs. going out for dinner or takeaways), cleaning your house or clearing out your wardrobe (vs. hiring a cleaner), playing a board game or video game (vs. watching a movie or binging Netflix) or more difficult activities such as writing, drawing, designing or programming. Even seemingly undesirable tasks such as washing your car, paying bills or helping a friend move house can trigger flow state and create feelings of happiness, pride and accomplishment. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to unlock the mystery of why some activities bring more joy than others — and the importance of creating long stretches of interrupted time.
Playing to Win by A.G. Lafley
This book on business strategy by AG Lafley from Procter & Gamble proposes a simple framework for making better strategic decisions for your business. A great strategy might seem like common sense from the outside but there’s more to it in practice. A key learning for me was the importance of taking time to decide what “winning” looks like for you or your business. This is a deeply personal question and forms the basis of any long-term strategy. It should be understood and accepted at all levels of an organisation. Winning could simply be becoming as big as possible — biggest revenue, biggest volume, biggest whatever. It could be creating the best quality product possible in your segment — judged by your customers or industry awards. It could be creating the best possible work environment for your employees, and seeing them live healthy, happy lives outside of work. It could be creating a lifestyle business or enough income to cover your own household bills. It could be creating a legacy business that your children can run once you’re gone. It could be taking your company public and listing it on the stock exchange. Only once you know what “winning” looks like can you move onto how you’ll win and what capabilities must be in place to get there.
How to Have a Beautiful Mind by Edward de Bono
I just love Edward de Bono and the value he places on the art and skill of listening, thinking and being considered in your approach to conversation. Learning how to think and use your brain is as important as learning to read, write or do maths. I read this book years ago and it was a pleasure to remind myself there’s an art to disagreement, how to be interesting, how to listen and how to make sense of emotions and feelings. Read this book if you want to have more meaningful and rewarding conversations with strangers, or you want to be that person other people gravitate to in social settings (without relying on superficial things that fade with time like good-looks or money).
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
It was interesting to revisit this iconic and Best Selling book by Robert Kiyosaki that I read as a teenager — in many ways it has not aged well. A passionate Trump supporter, his attitude toward paying as little tax as possible and his heartless encouragement of screwing people going through financial difficulties and mortgage disclosures did not sit well with me. There was a ruthlessness in some of his words that don’t feel great this side of the GFC and in New Zealand’s current housing crisis. That being said his core belief that “the rich don’t work for money” and the importance of building up your personal asset column are as true today as they were when the book was written in 1997. Kiyosaki shuns the popular definition of an asset — which usually includes things that take money OUT of your bank account each month such as cars, family homes with a mortgage etc — in favour of a definition that only includes things that put money INTO your bank account each month — such as rental homes, profitable businesses, cash investments, shares etc. Looking at my own life I’ve made plenty of mistakes but taken some good steps too. I’ve burned plenty of money on income-sapping liabilities dressed up as assets (cars!) but I’ve been pretty good at spending time creating income generating assets too (nzflatmates, Mighty Ape) in addition to simply trading time for money (i.e. my day job).
Factfulness by Hans Rosling
This book woke me up to my personal biases and outdated world-views. We think the world is getting worse — but it’s actually getting much better. We see images on TV of children and families in far away lands ravaged by starvation and disease, and to say things are getting better trivialises their suffering — but they are in fact getting better — and quickly. This book uses data, facts and figures to precisely illustrate advances in technology and health care are rapidly improving the lives of countries and communities all round the world, and despite the current political climate there’s a lot to be optimistic about. The book also opened my eyes to the reality that Africa is likely to lead the next phase of world economic growth and that economies in Europe and the USA are essentially flat. For fun, the book starts with a 13-part questionnaire designed to test your understanding of the current state of the world. If you score badly, don’t worry — Rosling gives the same test to leading scientists, university lecturers and journalists from around the world and the majority get most of the answers wrong, scoring even worse than chance, with the worst results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers! Great book. Hans Rosling has also given a number of TED talks which are a bit heavy but definitely worth a watch.
It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
I’ve read every book by the Basecamp duo (formerly 37signals) — they’re excellent and this one’s no exception. It’s short and can be completed in 2–3 hours. It rejects the chaotic work environments that have infected so many companies today and supports environments that foster slow, quiet and meaningful work. Amongst other things, DHH and Jason Fried push hard against long hours in the office, late nights and early starts, work that seeps into the evenings or weekends, misuse of messaging apps like Slack, unrealistic deadlines, shifting priorities and the constant drive to get big and “win” at any cost. Instead they outline the benefits of putting in a “good day’s work” and nothing more, lots of time for rest, sleep, relaxation and hobbies, long periods of uninterrupted time during the day to focus on your actual work (not talk about it) and thoughtful asynchronous communication that allows time for colleagues to digest and comment intelligently at their own pace. As I watch many of my friends and colleagues go through periods of being consumed by work (myself included) I feel this book is hugely important and a definite must-read. We must remember that work supports life, not the other way around, and that modern work tools like smart phones, email, Slack and even the office can have an unhealthy impact on our lives if left unchecked.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
I read this book because I know in my heart that I don’t get enough sleep. Matthew Walker beautifully illustrates why humans actually need 8 hours per night (don’t listen to anyone who says otherwise) and the disastrous short-term and long-term consequences of getting anything less. Sleep makes you live longer, enhances memory and makes you more creative. Without the bags under your eyes it even makes you look more attractive. It protects you against colds and flu, plus more serious illnesses including cancer, dementia, stroke and heart attacks. It makes you feel happier, less depressed and less anxious. This book is great because it not only tells you how to get more sleep — it explains why, which is hugely motivating. You’ll also learn plenty of fun facts along the way including how some animals can sleep half their brain at a time (i.e. stay semi-conscious during sleep) and understand why a concert pianist rehearsing a difficult piece of music late into the night can go to bed frustrated and yet wake up in the morning able to play it perfectly.
This month I also read a novel(!) — Holding by Graham Norton (yes, “the” Graham Norton) a murder-mystery set in a small Irish village. Overall it was quite forgettable, but I enjoyed it none-the-less as it gave my brain a rest. I’m keen to read more fiction so if you have any recommendations please drop me an email. I also finally got around to reading Mike O’Donnell’s Trade Me: An Inside Story (a book which is 10 years old, and sadly out of print) which I found inspiring even though many of the details were not new to me. Of course these days we see Trade Me as the billion dollar publicly listed mega-company but it’s fun to take a trip down memory lane and remember they were once the little guy battling the dominance of the pre-internet newspaper companies. Trade Me recently celebrated its 20th birthday and I think they have some challenging times ahead. Historically Trade Me’s “network effects” have protected it in New Zealand, however big international players such as Facebook, AirBnB and Amazon are coming into the local market with strong, established network effects of their own — challenging many of Trade Me’s core businesses, especially Marketplace. Interesting times ahead.
If you’ve read this far I hope you’ve picked up a suggestion or two to add to your own reading list. I’m keen to hear from anyone who has suggestions on what I should read next — please drop me an email!