“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none, zero.”
— Charlie Munger
I read ~32 books a year. The page is a list of the best books I’ve read each year. You can be sure that each one is fantastic and will be worth your time. They are listed in reverse chronological order. The latest books appear on top.
If you want to discover new books to read, I share quotes from the books I’m reading every week on The Sunday Wisdom, my weekly newsletter. Sign up here.
“Courses in “data science” are proliferating in our universities, and jobs for “data scientists” are lucrative in the companies that participate in the “data economy.” But I hope with this book to convince you that data are profoundly dumb. Data can tell you that the people who took a medicine recovered faster than those who did not take it, but they can’t tell you why. Maybe those who took the medicine did so because they could afford it and would have recovered just as fast without it.”
“When we want to help the poor, we usually offer them charity. Most often we use charity to avoid recognizing the problem and finding the solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility. But charity is no solution to poverty. Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor. Charity allows us to go ahead with our own lives without worrying about the lives of the poor. Charity appeases our consciences.”
“When ideas advance only at the pleasure of a holy leader—rather than the balanced exchange of ideas and feedback between soldiers in the field and creatives at the bench selecting loonshots on merit—that is exactly when teams and companies get trapped. The leader raises his staff and parts the seas to make way for the chosen loonshot. The dangerous virtuous cycle spins faster and faster: loonshot feeds franchise feeds bigger, faster, more. The all-powerful leader begins acting for love of loonshots rather than strength of strategy. And then the wheel turns one too many times.”
“A forest is an intensely competitive place, and sunlight is a scarce but critical resource. And even when you’re a redwood, the tallest of all tree species, you still have to worry about getting enough sun because you’re in a forest of other redwoods. Often a species’ most important competitor is itself. Thus the redwood is locked in an evolutionary arms race—or in this case, a “height race”—with itself. It grows tall because other redwoods are tall, and if it doesn’t throw most of its effort into growing upward as fast as possible, it will literally wither and die in the shadows of its rivals.”
“Altruism, compassion, empathy, love, conscience, the sense of justice — all of these things, the things that hold society together, the things that allow our species to think so highly of itself, can now confidently be said to have a firm genetic basis. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, although these things are in some ways blessings for humanity as a whole, they didn’t evolve for the "good of the species" and aren’t reliably employed to that end. Quite the contrary: it is now clearer than ever how (and precisely why) the moral sentiments are used with brutal flexibility, switched on and off in keeping with self-interest; and how naturally oblivious we often are to this switching. In the new view, human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse. The title of this book is not wholly without irony.”
“The greatest risks are never the ones you can see and measure, but the ones you can’t see and therefore can never measure. The ones that seem so far outside the boundary of normal probability that you can’t imagine they could happen in your lifetime—even though, of course, they do happen, more often than you care to realize.”
“The brain handles tasks sequentially but can switch attention between tasks so quickly that we’re given the illusion that we can perform multiple tasks together. So if you want to get more done using less effort, aim to work on what’s called your attentional ability: focus and concentrate on one sequence—one task—at a time and avoid distractions.”
“The truth is, I’ve never been a big believer in destiny. I worry that it encourages resignation in the down-and-out and complacency among the powerful. I suspect that God’s plan, whatever it is, works on a scale too large to admit our mortal tribulations; that in a single lifetime, accidents and happenstance determine more than we care to admit; and that the best we can do is to try to align ourselves with what we feel is right and construct some meaning out of our confusion, and with grace and nerve play at each moment the hand that we’re dealt.”
“Eating in our time has gotten complicated — needlessly so, in my opinion. I will get to the “needlessly” part in a moment, but consider first the complexity that now attends this most basic of creaturely activities. Most of us have come to rely on experts of one kind or another to tell us how to eat — doctors and diet books, media accounts of the latest findings in nutritional science, government advisories and food pyramids, the proliferating health claims on food packages. We may not always heed these experts’ advice, but their voices are in our heads every time we order from a menu or wheel down the aisle in the supermarket.”
“The first thing to understand about nutritionism is that it is not the same thing as nutrition. As the “-ism” suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology. Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s still exerting its hold on your culture. A reigning ideology is a little like the weather—all pervasive and so virtually impossible to escape. Still, we can try.”
“The recycle rate of a human being is around sixteen hours. After sixteen hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours. Three full nights of recovery sleep (i.e., more nights than a weekend) are insufficient to restore performance back to normal levels after a week of short sleeping. Finally, the human mind cannot accurately sense how sleep-deprived it is when sleep-deprived.”
“If you can bring someone belonging, connection, peace of mind, status, or one of the other most desired emotions, you’ve done something worthwhile. The thing you sell is simply a road to achieve those emotions, and we let everyone down when we focus on the tactics, not the outcomes. Who’s it for and what’s it for are the two questions that guide all of our decisions.”
“Like chess masters and firefighters, premodern villagers relied on things being the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. They were extremely well prepared for what they had experienced before, and extremely poorly equipped for everything else. Their very thinking was highly specialized in a manner that the modern world has been telling us is increasingly obsolete. They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts. Faced with any problem they had not directly experienced before, the remote villagers were completely lost. That is not an option for us. The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”
“It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we’ve been endowed with. But what’s life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours—arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don’t. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment’s additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be.”
“Every once in a while, an up-or-down-leg goes on for a long time and/or to a great extreme and people start to say ‘this time it’s different.’ They cite the changes in geopolitics, institutions, technology or behaviour that have rendered the ‘old rules’ obsolete. They make investment decisions that extrapolate the recent trend. And then it turns out that the old rules still apply and the cycle resumes. In the end, trees don't grow to the sky, and few things go to zero.”
“Just sitting quietly, doing nothing at all, your brain churns through more information in thirty seconds than the Hubble Space Telescope has processed in thirty years. A morsel of cortex one cubic millimetre in size—about the size of a grain of sand—could hold two thousand terabytes of information, enough to store all the movies ever made, trailers included, or about 1.2 billion copies of this book.”
“What makes a decision great is not that it has a great outcome. A great decision is the result of a good process, and that process must include an attempt to accurately represent our own state of knowledge. That state of knowledge, in turn, is some variation of ‘I’m not sure.’”
“Your deepest moments of happiness don’t come from doing easy things; they come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself. Ultralearning offers a path to master those things that will bring you deep satisfaction and self-confidence.”
“If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim—if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances—you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take. (In particular, the Stoics thought it possible for a person to retain his tranquillity despite being punished for attempting to reform the society in which he lived.)”
“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”
A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) — When professor Barbara Oakley saw how her lack of mathematical and technical understanding limited her options—both to rise in the military and to explore other careers—she returned to school with the determination to re-tool her brain to master the very subjects that had given her so much trouble throughout her entire life.
Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters — Strategy should not be equated with ambition, leadership, vision or planning; rather, it is coherent action backed by an argument. The heart of good strategy is insight into the hidden power in any situation and into an appropriate response – whether launching a new product, fighting a war or putting a man on the moon.
Skin In The Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life — “Skin in the game is the ultimate BS filter and the engine of evolution. Do not pay attention to what people say, only to what they do and how much of their neck they are putting on the line.” Taleb draws on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump, from ethics to used car salesmen, to create a jaw-dropping framework for understanding this idea.
The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master, Volume 1 — Stoicism is a no-nonsense philosophical system designed to produce dramatic real-world effects. Think of it as an ideal operating system for thriving in high-stress environments. This book is an introduction to Stoic philosophy through the words of Seneca.
What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People — What you say is often far less important than how you say it. One of the harbingers of success is understanding how nonverbal cues such as body language, dress and demeanour affect how you are perceived and understood.
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain — Did you know you can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, sharpen your intellect, and function better than ever simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat? The evidence is incontrovertible: Aerobic exercise physically remodels our brains for peak performance.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life — Author Scott Adams wittily epitomises his life as a book of failures, that eventually turned out to be his manual for success. Consistently failing and falling and perennially getting mentally fatigued can often send a man straight up the stairway to hell. But Adams on the other hand, tells us how he exploited each fall to get back up and each pinch of pain to earn a moment of bliss.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder — In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. Here Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary. The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.
Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It — Life is a series of negotiations you should be prepared for: buying a car; negotiating a salary; buying a home; renegotiating rent; deliberating with your partner. Taking emotional intelligence and intuition to the next level, this book gives you the competitive edge in any discussion.
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones — Bad habits repeat themselves again and again not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Here, you’ll get a proven system that can take you to new heights.
Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter — This book distils the strategies Donald Trump used to persuade voters to elect the most unconventional candidate in the history of the presidency, and how anyone can learn his methods for succeeding against long odds.
The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts — This book will upgrade your thinking with the best, most useful and powerful tools so you always have the right one on hand.
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In — This book describes a method of negotiation that isolates problems, focuses on interests, creates new options, and uses objective criteria to help two parties reach an agreement.
Meditations — Few ancient works have been as influential as the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and emperor of Rome (A.D. 161–180). A series of spiritual exercises filled with wisdom, practical guidance, and profound understanding of human behaviour, it remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written.
Stumbling on Happiness — In this brilliant, witty, and accessible book, renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight that cause each of us to misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions.
The Prince — While juxtaposing the traditional way of linking political theory with moral ethics and law, Machiavelli, in The Prince differentiates between the two, where he asserts that a Prince’s actions must always be based upon the practical implication of the situation.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business — Charles Duhigg takes us to the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. With penetrating intelligence and an ability to distill vast amounts of information into engrossing narratives, Duhigg brings to life a whole new understanding of human nature and its potential for transformation.
“I am most often irritated by those who attack the bishop but somehow fall for the securities analyst—those who exercise their scepticism against religion but not against economists, social scientists, and phony statisticians. Using the confirmation bias, these people will tell you that religion was horrible for mankind by counting deaths from the Inquisition and various religious wars. But they will not show you how many people were killed by nationalism, social science, and political theory under Stalinism or during the Vietnam War. Even priests don’t go to bishops when they feel ill: their first stop is the doctor’s. But we stop by the offices of many pseudoscientists and “experts” without alternative.”
“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.”
“Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.”
“The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.”