Influential books I read in the last 2 years

Either I’ve become way better at choosing which books to read, or am able to get more out of reading each individual book than I used to. In any case, a surprisingly large number of books have managed to contribute long lasting ideas to my mental repertoire over the last couple of years, compared to years prior. Here’s my brief summary of a few of them. This is not so much an indiscriminate compilation of reviews as much as a ringing endorsement of a handful of the books I read. You’ll probably notice some common themes running through the list. I haven’t added any negative comments about these books because they wouldn’t tilt the balance of my recommendation.

  1. Deep Work by Cal Newport

I first read this as soon as it came out, in early 2016. And re-read it again this year. It has many solid ideas, all based on the assumption that success in intellectual careers of the unfolding future depends on doing extremely mentally demanding tasks (“deep work”) on a regular basis. Therefore, the author — who has a PhD in theoretical computer science from MIT — suggests that you should organize your life around a work routine which enables that style of work. You can take inspiration from a variety of people and professions who already operate in that manner, and you should avoid bad habits like multitasking, over use of social media.

I’ve managed to incorporate some ideas from this book into my work life over the last couple of years and observed good results. Off the top of my head I can list the following: allocating big blocks of time in my calendar for deep work, conserving precious willpower to be able to take on such work, cutting down on social media, seeking out silence and solitude, and letting my mind actually feel bored at times so that it gets used to a lack of stimulation.

I’ve restricted my summary to just a couple of paragraphs, but Newport goes into elaborate detail on what is meant by deep work, why its economic value is at an inflection point, and how he himself manages his intellectual energies. He has some proof of success in his productive academic career so far. I feel that every knowledge worker is going to find enough things that resonate within this book, and hopefully go on to try some of his tips.

2. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods by A. G. Sertillanges

This early 20th Century book by a Christian monk is referenced in Deep Work. It extends Newport’s economic value proposition of intellectual work into a broader philosophy of life, probably one more suited to academics and theologians of the author’s ilk. What’s pertinent is that many of us are trending towards leading such a life in today’s intellectual climate, without being consciously aware of the fact. The author draws upon his own life experience, but one that is also rooted in hundreds of years of monastic practice. Thus, the book contains many subtle psychological nuggets, refined over time and presented in beautifully simple English.

For example: he believes there are 4 reasons to “read”, and warns you not to over indulge. The reasons being:

  • for formation — books of lasting impact that are about values, habits, attitudes etc. Obviously, they will be few in number.
  • for information — think of this as very specific documentation about work related tasks.
  • for enlightenment — general reading like newspapers and magazines to remain clued in to the world around you. Recommended in moderation.
  • for entertainment — probably made more sense before TV, video and social media. He has strong injunctions against over indulging in novels. How quaint!

I use this categorization whenever I find myself browsing mindlessly. It’s easy to fool oneself into thinking you are not reading for entertainment. So being able to assign a specific category to the material at hand can act as a check. The book delves into his Christian belief system on occasion, but not so often as to detract from the core content of an intellectual life.

3. A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley

This innocuous little book, based on a popular online course by the author, packs a powerful punch. Despite the title, it’s not just about mathematics. Oakley presents a credible — enough for me! — theory of how the brain accumulates knowledge, retains it and recalls it. Expertise that is demonstrated through flashes of insight also fit into this theory. Based on this, Oakley suggests routines and practices that help you learn faster, recall better and of course, apply it to get crucial insights.

If the ideas in this book have any academic merit, I dearly hope they become part of the common vocabulary of students of all ages and kinds. Phrases like focused / diffused modes of thinking, chunking, active recall (as opposed to re-reading), spaced repetition, will power fatigue etc need to be on everyone’s lips in order to create a more productive society. Perhaps these ideas have already made it into mainstream pedagogy but they’ve been lost in translation? I don’t know. But personally I’ve had good success using these concepts when learning and solving problems. I create time for focused thinking, recall concepts as I go about my daily chores, figure out what chunks best abstract a piece of information, and so on.

The book is not a dry, theoretical walkthrough, largely because it was motivated by the author’s own emotional journey back into a STEM degree, after having been a miserable failure at mathematics in school. She also cites famous people from the worlds of physics, medicine, art and so on who applied these practices although they didn’t name them as such. And a few of them happened to be borderline academic failures, just like Oakley herself!

4. Peak by Anders Ericsson and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Quite frankly, I’m surprised that I hadn’t come across Anders Ericsson’s work till now! Apparently, Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book “Outliers” goes over some of his territory, but in this new book Ericsson calls out Gladwell for misrepresenting some of his core ideas. Ericsson’s thesis is that the way to become an expert at any skill is to follow a style of practice he calls “deliberate practice”. A consistent application of deliberate practice over years can bring you within reach of world class performers in that field. Notice that the stunning corollary to that is that genetics and natural talents play a far less role in virtuosity than generally believed. And also, expertise is not automatically transferable across domains, unless they happen to share some common underlying concepts.

Ericsson is a psychologist who has been studying various kinds of experts — in particular how they acquire their skills — for many decades. Consequently, he has a lot of affirming evidence and presents it in a measured writing style that still manages to be engaging. He fearlessly breaks down the myth of genius around people like Mozart, Benjamin Franklin, modern musicians, Tiger Woods, chess grandmasters, marathon winners, memory champions etc.

So what is deliberate practice? First you break down the skill to be acquired into distinct, objective components that are measurable during practice sessions. Then you go about working on each component — separately if required — in a series of exercises designed to push you out of your current comfort zone. It’s vital that you get continuous feedback as you practice (preferably from an onsite coach), so that you can make adjustments as you go along. Practice of this nature is mentally taxing and can’t be kept up for more than a few hours at a stretch. Musicians who work in this manner, for example, take a deep nap immediately after.

If you keep practising in this manner, your mental representation of the skill keeps getting more refined and easier to recall. Finally, the different components come together in one fluid motion. Ericsson ventures into some brain studies as well, showing how people with advanced ability in certain fields — London cab drivers who have detailed knowledge of the city, for example — develop a different pattern of brain cells over time.

All of this is fascinating stuff, and one hopes that Ericsson’s findings aren’t disproved at their core. The catch of course, is coming up with those specific set of exercises and mental representations that correspond to each skill.

Geoff Colvin is a popular journalist who has interpreted Ericsson’s work for the layperson. His book predates Ericsson’s by a few years, but hits roughly the same notes and in a fairly accurate manner. It features more anecdotes and first person interviews than the former. Colvin also allows himself to speculate more widely about the nature of expertise.

If you read both these books (and like me, the closely related one called The Talent Code), you begin to sense their far-reaching implications. On an individual level, it shows clearly that you can improve far more than you think — in whatever you choose to work on — provided you allocate sufficient time and energy to such deliberate practice. If the broader worlds of education and business are viewed through this lens, they suddenly appear very Darwinian. Today we do a good job of spotting talent and nurturing it, but offer little by way of hope to the shocking proportion of people who prematurely self-select out of even trying to master complex subjects. This could be remedied to a large extent.

5. The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman

Compared to the rest of the lot, this book is a swashbuckling ride. You get to see Hoffman’s version of what lies behind successful careers. Hoffman — as many might know — was one of the founders of LinkedIn and in this book he radiates genuine affection when giving specific and actionable career advice. His premise is that the era of stable jobs that have well-defined career trajectories is over, and today you must treat your career the way an entrepreneur treats their startup (hence the title). At its core, this means you always consider your professional identity as being a work-in-progress (what he terms “permanent beta”) and be willing to adapt.

Fundamentally, what you should be working on is developing your competitive advantage, as that is what makes your customer (or in this case your employer) choose you over others. He says that competitive advantage is a function of the following things: market realities, your abilities, and your aspirations or values. Always keep an eye out for whether the market for your expertise is on the up or down. Significantly, this is independent of whatever your current employer is paying you for those same skills. Similarly, you should be assessing your abilities and introspecting about your values.

Based on what such assessment tells you, create one main, ambitious plan of action for career progress and set that as your current default. At the same time, have a less ambitious one as the back up, and then a place of refuge that lets you stay solvent if things go horribly wrong. If you are operating with this conscious objective of increasing your competitive advantage, it might also be that a “breakout” opportunity — which can accelerate it tremendously — might serendipitously present itself, and you will be well poised to capitalize on it. He believes that people with remarkable careers usually took advantage of at least one such breakout opportunity. But without an acute awareness of your competitive advantage, market realities and so on you are unlikely to even notice such chances. He adds that your plan shouldn’t be too detailed or project too far into the future. A couple of steps ahead from where you currently are, is a good rule of thumb.

My description of the book’s contents so far might make it seem a tad abstract, but it is anything but. Hoffman is quite the Silicon Valley insider and has had long friendships with top tier executives and venture capitalists. So all this advice is backed up with credible anecdotes from companies like Paypal, Zynga, Draper Ventures and others.

By far the best part of the book is Hoffman’s thoughts on the value of a professional network (he says it is “I to the power We”) and his recommendations for creating your own. He is brilliant at framing related issues. For example, his notion of allies, strong and “weak connections” is something to keep in mind as you get to know more people over your lifetime. He acknowledges that people with successful careers always operated in an enabling environment, and goes as far as saying the “You” in the book’s title refers to the set of people who make the individual you a success.

Most repositories of information — including this article! — sit there passively once created, only leaving you with a few faint mental images after you are done reading them. No book can by itself pop out of your shelf on a Saturday morning and give you a rap on the knuckles for failing to follow through. Hoffman tries to address this partly, by providing exercises at the end of each chapter and exhorting you to make a plan, schedule meetings with people you think you should talk to, and so on.

6. So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Newport gets an encore on the list, thanks to his assiduous nature. When he was about to finish his Ph.D and find a job, he started researching about careers, and true to form wrote a book on the topic. He locates the book inside a somewhat contrarian outlook, done partly to garner attention (according to his own admission). He wants people who are starting out on their careers to stop thinking of “following their passion” and instead focus on acquiring “rare and valuable” skills. Passion is often a result of having useful skills and being able to deploy them satisfactorily. It is neither necessary — nor sufficient — to be passionate about something before developing related skills.

Newport believes in a craftsman-like approach to work, where you progressively get better at a task, and derive happiness by good execution. This may not appeal to someone who has grand visions like address injustice in society, tackle climate change etc. Newport’s response to that comes in the form of a long segment at the end, called the “Mission driven life”. He believes that it is perfectly fine to have lofty goals, but don’t assume that will let you skip the phase of acquiring concrete skills. Also, it sometimes happens that worthwhile missions only become clear after you’ve gained some expertise. An extreme case is of graduate students who embark on a Ph.D but soon find themselves disillusioned due to a lack of exciting ideas. The missing link here is an extensive knowledge of their field, which is a prerequisite for generating good ideas at the forefront.

But the rest of the book is more broadly applicable. How the quest for passion in a person too young can lead to looking inwards for non-existent answers, rather than looking outwards at society and figuring out what needs doing. It also leads to loss of valuable time that could have been otherwise spent acquiring skills. Newport draws on quite a few anecdotes, studies and books. Some of them do feel far-fetched (like an archaeologist who went on to host a TV show), and you could argue that there are enough people to be found who are competent but never had a fulfilling career. But on the whole, his suggestions feel sound to me. For example, Steve Jobs is famous for preaching the “follow your passion” mantra, but he himself took his time to figure out what his “passion” was, and it was more the success of the initial computer sales that made him decide to commit to that business, rather than any great childhood interest in computers.

Which brings me to what is arguably the best part of the book: a specific strategy for deciding on your plan of action, that Newport calls the “little bets” approach. While Hoffman stresses on the power of networks and conversations, Newport relies on experiments. First you should identify a handful of promising future directions, and then for each possibility, commit to doing small projects within a fixed time frame. This generates real feedback, and avoids wishful thinking and various other cognitive biases. He has been using this approach to determine which research ideas deserve further investment.

Hoffman and Newport have different ways of going about things. Hoffman looks like the inveterate hustler, always believing that with enough networking and pivoting you will arrive at better outcomes. Newport is more internally focused (an entire chapter is devoted to “the clarity of the craftsman”) and places more value on expertise gained over time, preferably in solitude. The way I’d like to reconcile the two is by noting where each is appropriate. There is a time and place for hustling, and similarly for hunkering down and doing the grind associated with tackling mentally demanding problems. Being able to do both could dramatically improve your productivity.

7. The Road to Character by David Brooks

It’s hard to believe that I read this book just a little over a year ago, as its contents have worked their way broadly and deeply into my psyche. You can read my detailed review from back then, but what has found repeated echo to me over the last year is the idea that people can traverse long and surprising arcs over their lives. It is Brooks’ own rendering of the “growth mindset” and some other aspects of behavioural psychology. What I wrote then about reaching across the aisle continues to remain relevant. As society continues to diversify and individuals live within their respective attention bubbles, common ground will recede. So you can’t hold that a person’s views on any one issue is definitive of their overall belief system, nor that their beliefs won’t change over time. Applied to oneself, the book provides many cautionary tales of moral and sensual pitfalls which are ever present and require diligent effort to overcome.

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