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This is the third part of the series on books that have inspired me the most. Read Part 1 and Part 2. Here are the books I have profiled so far –
1. Life and Living
- The Bhagavad Gita (~ 200 BC)
- Autobiography of A Yogi (1946)
- Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)
- Who Moved My Cheese (1998)
- Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970)
- Meditations (~ 180 AD)
- One Small Step Can Change Your Life (2004)
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948)
- As a Man Thinketh (1903)
- The Alchemist (1988)
- Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)
2. Learning, Thinking, Decision Making
- Poor Charlie’s Almanack (2005)
- A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes (2013)
- Fooled by Randomness (2001)
- The Black Swan (2007)
- The Art of Learning (2007)
- Sapiens (2014)
- Your Money and Your Brain (2007)
In this third part, I cover five more books on learning, thinking, and decision making (more coming in the fourth part). To reiterate, the books mentioned above and below do not form an exhaustive list but just those I go back to time and again, and return wiser.
Let’s start right away with one of my all-time favourite books on learning, thinking, and decision making.
All I Want To Know… (2016)
All I Want To Know Is Where I’m Going To Die So I’ll Never Go There, by Peter Bevelin, is one of the best on thinking and behaviour I’ve come across.
I thought Peter’s earlier book – Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger – was fascinating. And then he wrote this one that contains a brilliant story of a fictitious Seeker, who has known a lot of misery, and his visit to the “Library of Wisdom” where he meets another fictitious character – the Librarian – along with Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. The Seeker learns how to make better decisions to help his children avoid doing the dumb things he has done.
This beauty of this book is the way it is structured – as conversations full of quotations from Buffett and Munger, and from other, both known and unknown, people. These conversations cover not just business and investing, but also decision making in general, life, and parenting.
Here is an excerpt from that book where Buffett and Munger, in conversation with the seeker of wisdom, share with him the best method of training children…
Munger says –
I particularly recommend attention to the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—except it really isn’t often a mere pound. An ounce of prevention is often worth a ton of cure.
Peter’s books stand true to Munger’s dictum, as the major lesson his book serves is that of “ignorance removal” and the notion that effective decision making is not about brilliant thoughts and moves, but avoiding terrible ones.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (2012)
Nassim Taleb is one of my favorite authors. Before Antifragile he had authored two other best-selling books – The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness – both of which are must reads (and are profiled below). In fact, all three books are quite related to each other, like a trilogy. Many of the ideas that Taleb wrote about in his earlier two books have found their logical conclusion in Antifragile.
In The Black Swan, Taleb showed that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. In Antifragile, he stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary. Antifragile takes the central idea of The Black Swan and expands it to encompass almost every other aspect of life, from the 19th century rise of the nation-state to what to eat for breakfast.
Now, what is antifragility? We know what fragile is – something which breaks or disintegrates easily when subjected to a stress or disorder. What can be the opposite of fragile? ‘Robust’ or ‘resilient’? These are the words that came to my mind when I tried to answer this for the first time.
Think about it, is ‘staying the same’ the opposite of the word ‘decrease’? Because that’s what robust or resilient means – something which doesn’t break, i.e., stays the same, under stress.
Opposite of fragile should ideally be something which doesn’t just resist stress but benefits from stress; gets better and better. So Taleb coins a new word – antifragile – something which is not just immune to adverse events but thrives on them.
The simplest example of an antifragile system would be a human body or for that matter our bone structure. Our bones grow stronger when subjected to moderate stress. Not only that, in absence of stress bones become weak and wither away. So, an antifragile body doesn’t just thrive on stress but it needs it to flourish.
The reverse holds true as well: Remove stress from a system, and that system grows weak. Stay in bed for three weeks instead of lifting weights, and muscles atrophy.
Forest fires are another great example of how nature removes the fragility. The analogy between forest fire and economy here is quite interesting, as Taleb explains –
Small forest fires periodically cleanse the system of the most flammable material, so this does not have the opportunity to accumulate. Systematically preventing forest fires from taking place “to be safe” makes the big one much worse. For similar reasons, stability is not good for the economy: firms become very weak during long periods of steady prosperity devoid of setbacks, and hidden vulnerabilities accumulate silently under the surface – so delaying crisis is not a very good idea. Likewise, the absence of fluctuations in the market causes hidden risks to accumulate with impunity. The longer one goes without a trauma, the worse the damage when the commotion occurs.
I would like to be honest with you here. I don’t agree with everything that Taleb proposes in his book. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, I found this book immensely insightful and I loved reading it.
Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think (2012)
Peter Diamandis’ Abundance is a reminder of all the opportunities we have today to eliminate disease, hunger, and deprivation. He and Steve Kotler present a compelling case for a future of abundance for humanity.
The book is a tour of transformative technologies (for example AI, robotics, nanomaterials, etc.) and how they are being employed to address many of the hard problems that were once thought impossible to solve. The resource crunch is not a problem of scarcity but a limitation of tools that humans have. The story of aluminum is an instructive tale of how technology brings abundance –
Until the early 1800s, aluminum was still rare enough to be considered the most valuable metal in the world. Napoleon III threw a banquet for the kind of Siam where the honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while the others had to make do with gold. Aluminum’s rarity comes down to chemistry. It was the creation of a new breakthrough technology knows as electrolysis that changed everything. Today it’s cheap, ubiquitous, and used with a throwaway mindset.
History is littered with tales of once-rare resources made plentiful by innovation. The reason is pretty straightforward: scarcity is often contextual. Imagine a giant orange tree packed with fruit. If I pluck all the oranges from the lower branches, I am effectively out of accessible fruit. From my limited perspective, oranges are now scarce. But once someone invents a piece of technology called a ladder, I’ve suddenly got new reach. Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.
Deep Work (2016)
Everyone knows about the life of Bill Gates and success story of Microsoft but very few know about Bill’s another trait that has played an important role in making Microsoft what it is today.
Bill Gates used to work with so much intensity for such lengths during his initial years while building their first product that he would often collapse into sleep on his keyboard in the middle of writing a line of code. This the trait, a unique tendency to focus deeply on his work, which differentiated Gates from his contemporaries.
Gates is also known to go for retreats twice a year which he calls “Think Weeks”, during which he isolates himself to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.
It’s this ability to do Deep Work that Cal Newport’s book, with the same title, is all about. Newport defines deep work as –
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Right from sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne to modern psychologist Carl Jung (both of them isolated themselves for long stretches of time while they produced their most important works) and from Bill Gates to J.K. Rowling, you’ll find that commitment to deep work is a common theme.
Cal argues –
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behaviour of most modern knowledge workers – a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.
In a world of distraction, how you organize your time and days makes an enormous difference and Cal’s book convincingly presents a strong argument about the need of deep work and gives numerous hacks to cultivate and protect that skill the ability to do deep work.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (2013)
If you don’t know who Scott Adams is, odds are high that you would give a pass to a book with such a cheesy and hackneyed title. But if you did that it would be a huge loss. Scott’s How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is one of my all-time personal favourites and I can vouch for the tremendous utility of his methods.
For the uninitiated, Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, one of the most popular and widely distributed comic strips of the past century. He has been a full-time cartoonist since 1995, after sixteen years as a technology worker for companies like Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell. Apart from being a cartoonist he has written many bestselling books and is sought after speaker in corporate circles.
The title of the book is intriguing and Scott claims that he has at least failed in 36 different businesses. But in the process of failing he kept accumulating useful knowledge and skills in business, marketing, product, customers etc.
Based on his personal experience he has charted a template for success which, according to him, will not guarantee success but definitely increase your odds. Scott writes in his book –
This is a story of one person’s unlikely success within the context of scores of embarrassing failures…Was my eventual success primarily a result of talent, luck, hard work, or an accidental just-right balance of each? All I know for sure is that I pursued a conscious strategy of managing my opportunities in a way that would make it easier for luck to find me. Did my strategy make a difference, or is luck just luck, and everything else is just rationalization? Honestly, I don’t know. That’s why I suggest you compare my story with the stories of other people who found success and see if you notice any patterns.
That’s the kind of honest confession I look for from anyone whose advice I am willing to take.
To be continued…
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