Category Archives: Books

Einstein

I recently finished Einstein by Walter Isaacson on Audible.

I actually don’t find Einstein himself to be terribly fascinating. I like polymaths like Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo Da Vinci, so even though he was a genius, Einstein seems kind of one-dimensional by comparison.

I was also disappointed to discover that (like Ben Franklin) Einstein was apparently a shitty dad. He abandoned a daughter he had early in life and seemed to have a pretty cool and distant (emotionally and geographically) relationship with his other kids.

I did find the science kind of interesting, although I didn’t really grasp it. I didn’t previously understand the theories of relativity at all and I think all that I understand better now is that it would require a lot more study for me to begin to grasp them.

One piece of understanding I did gain that I find pretty interesting is that gravity and acceleration are the same thing. When an elevator goes up and you momentarily feel like you’re pushed to the floor, that’s literally the same thing as gravity (in my understanding). I find that pretty crazy.

A Little History of the World

I just finished (very slowly) reading A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich.

It was one of the most interesting and enjoyable books I’ve ever read. It’s a book for kids and it was allegedly written in about six weeks by an artist, although you would never guess that it was written hastily by reading it.

The book starts with dinosaur times, then (if I remember correctly, which I probably don’t) the ancient Egyptians, then the Mesopotamians, then a bunch of European stuff. Since the book was written for kids, the style is very accessible and conversational, which I appreciate.

I think the most interesting thing I took away from this book was that I learned from it where the days of the week come from.

According to the book, the ancient Mesopotamians were aware of the existence of five planets. They named the seven days of the week after the five planets plus the sun and the moon. Saturday is Saturn day, Sunday is Sun day, Monday is Moon day and apparently the rest of the days don’t translate as well. I love learning stuff like this.

Titan

Some time ago I listened to Titan on Audible.

Since it’s impossible to remember everything in a book I usually try to think of just one takeaway from each book I read.

In this case my takeaway was the “price” John D. Rockefeller paid for becoming the richest man in the world.

The price he paid for his wealth wasn’t what you might think. Unlike other “great” men like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin, Rockefeller was apparently a pretty attentive father, and he actually didn’t spend much time working. So he didn’t sacrifice his personal life in order to get rich or anything like that. Mainly it seems that the price he paid took two forms.

First, his incredible wealth and position in life made it hard for him to form real friendships. He tried hanging out with people but they would always eventually bring up some business scheme they needed funding for or bring up some charitable cause they wanted a donation for.

Second, Rockefeller made his fortune using tactics that were unethical and/or illegal. There’s no way that this escaped notice of his conscience.

Of those two things, the latter is pretty irrelevant to me since I don’t feel any need to resort to unscrupulous means to meet my personal goal of becoming a millionaire. The first item is worth pondering, though. I can easily imagine how the possession of a huge fortune could actually be a liability in the social realm rather than an asset. A “regular” person’s day-to-day challenges are much different from a super rich person, and so it might be hard for the two people to relate. Friends might ask for loans or gifts, and whether you oblige or not, it could create an awkwardness either way.

So this book made me think that if I do achieve my goal of becoming a millionaire, it might be wise for me to hide it.

The other thing I want to mention is that I actually found John D. Rockefeller’s dad, “Big Bill” Rockefeller, to be more interesting in many ways than John D. himself. Big Bill was a “snake oil salesman”, total liar and all-around shitty guy, but likeable at the same time. I would almost consider reading the book worth it just to learn about Big Bill. But that’s not to say that John D. wasn’t interesting himself, because he certainly was, and the book was written in a very gripping way as well.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

I finished The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt last night. It was one of the absolute best books I’ve ever read in my life. One reason is that it was so well done. The other reason is that TR was such a guy.

From reading a couple Jon Krakauer books I get the impression that Jon has some kind of mild obsession with people who are really academically smart but also tough athletic guys. I too find those types of people interesting because the stereotype and the reality in most cases is that geeks are physically unfit and good in one area to the exclusion of many others. I always find it interesting when people are geniuses or at least competent in a number of disparate areas.

TR was definitely one of those people. He wrote a fuckload of books but he wasn’t just a nerd. One time in a bar a guy was threatening people with a gun and TR punched him in the face (or something like that, I don’t remember). There were also some guys out west who stole a boat and escaped in it and TR chased after the guys and captured them and brought them back to the town, which was a really dangerous thing to do. He could have just said oh well and let the guys go but he was too much of a badass. TR also famously led a group of soldiers called the Rough Riders into the Spanish-American war. The Spanish were shooting at them and guys were dying everywhere but TR didn’t even get down from his goddamn horse. Oh yeah, and he came from a really blue-blooded background but he wasn’t some dainty dandy or something, obviously.

TR also started life as a skinny weak kid who got sick all the time. His dad told him “You have the mind but not the body,” so he said “I’ll make my body,” and he transformed himself into a burly badass by working out all the time.

This book was long as fuck but it only covered TR’s birth to the time McKinley got assassinated. The next book in the three-part series is called Theodore Rex. Definitely have to read that one.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’m not sure what Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was about but I do know that it blew my mind. I like Robert M. Pirsig because he seems to be one of those geniuses of infinite intelligence who is also just a regular guy who talks about regular stuff in plain language.

Zen mentioned a number of things with which I don’t have much familiarity, like Aristotle and, um, motorcycle maintenance. Lately I’ve been reading How to Win Friends and Influence People for about the fifth time (the original version, not the jacked up “updated” version) and I’m noticing now that I see it a little more clearly now that I’m more familiar with the things it references. I didn’t really know anything about Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt the first time I read it but now I do. I have a new respect now for how well-educated Dale Carnegie must have been. I’m betting that I’ll be able to see Zen in a new light some years from now after I gain some more knowledge and life experiences. Maybe someday I can even ride a motorcycle from Minnesota to California so I can really have some reference points.

The Art of Learning

Since I value my time, I’m very deliberate about which books I read. There are so many “known good” books out there that it seems like a total waste of time just to randomly pick one. There are certain books that keep popping up on my radar so frequently that I eventually feel like I have to read them to see what all the fuss is about. I find that the fuss is almost always for good reason.

Having said that, I relish the occasions when I come across a more obscure book that turns out to be a gem. For example, I don’t know a single other person who’s read Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors but it’s one of my favorite books of all time.

I just finished another book that I’d put under the “hidden gem” category: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. (By the way, for some reason I appreciate that he goes by Josh and not “Joshua”.) Josh was a chess prodigy as a child and later in his life, like in his late teens or something, he quit chess and became a martial arts world champion. Pretty interesting since those two things are obviously such disparate disciplines. The movie Seaching for Bobby Fischer was made about Josh Waitzkin. I was vaguely aware of the movie’s existence (I was apparently 9 when it came out) but I’ve never seen it. It was made from a book written by Josh’s dad.

The book talks some about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I find interesting because I listened to Zen like two audiobooks before The Art of Learning, but my choice to read The Art of Learning was, as far as I can think, totally unrelated to the fact that I read Zen. There was also an interview with Tim Ferriss at the end of the book, which I again found interesting because I just started listening to the Tim Ferriss Show a couple months ago but that also didn’t influence my choice to read The Art of Learning. And then today I noticed that Tim Ferriss’s most recent episode is a second interview of Josh Waitzkin! It’s weird how frequently those seemingly-improbable connections pop up.

I try to distill each book I read down to just one takeaway. This seems like kind of a waste of all the other takeaways the book has to offer but I don’t seem to have the mental capacity to extract more than one lesson from a book, at least not on the first pass. What I took away from this book is that opportunities beget more opportunities. Josh Waitzkin seems to be an exceptional person who has a certain way of mastering skills. Additionally, though, he was born in the New York City area to supportive, loving and intelligent parents and he had access to things like Washington Square Park that someone living in, say, some small Midwestern town wouldn’t have access to. Because Josh played chess in Washington Square Park, he was able to get noticed by a well-known chess coach, and then he gained access to more coaches. Like Malcolm Gladwell observes in Outliers, opportunities you get early in life often lead to more and better opportunities later in life. The opportunities have a compounding effect resulting in exponential progress.

I don’t think the lesson is that people who don’t get the same opportunities should be bummed about it or use it as an excuse or something. Like Dan Kennedy said, a fact isn’t something to be feared; it’s something to be used. It’s not immediately obvious to me how it might be useful to know that some people are given more opportunities than others. Dan Sullivan said that some people start life on third base and other people start life with two strikes. I guess it can be helpful to observe what your starting point in life was so that you can calibrate your expectations over time accordingly. An 25 year-old Charles Dickens shouldn’t be upset that he doesn’t have the same net worth as a 25 year-old Donald Trump, since (I believe) Donald Trump came from a rich family and Charles Dickens came from a poor one. To compare myself to someone who was dealt a much stronger hand could be needlessly discouraging to me and possibly actually hinder my progress. I might direct my energy toward “What the hell am I doing wrong?” instead of understanding that I’m doing the right things, it will just take me some additional time to get to my destination because I have to put in active effort as an adult just to get to the point where another person might have started out at birth. I imagine that the understanding that my journey might be longer than that of others who have had more luck in their antecedence could be helpful in making that journey successfully.

Million Dollar Consulting

I believe I first read Million Dollar Consulting by Alan Weiss in 2011. I thought it sucked, and I thought most of it didn’t apply to me. I thought it only applied to fancy consultants who worked exclusively for huge companies.

Over the course of the next five years I kept hearing about it, so I decided to give it another look. This time around it seemed like an entirely different book. I was clearly just not ready for its advice the first time I read it. This is a wonderful example of the fact that what you get out of a book depends on more than just what’s in the book. A book’s value equals the book’s information multiplied by who you are at the time. If you gain knowledge or have additional experiences between two readings of the same book, you might see the book in a totally different light. You might grow “hooks” that catch parts of the book you didn’t catch the first time around.

One of the things that stuck out most for me on this reading of Million Dollar Consulting was the importance of relationships as it pertains to getting clients. The author said people don’t go googling for consultants and I think for the most part he’s right. There’s too much trust necessary in hiring a consultant to just find one online and hire him. My understanding is that people like this are usually sought out via referrals. This got me thinking about how to develop good relationships with high-caliber people. One way that I’m doing this now is through my BNI group. I’ve gotten one client via BNI so far, a really good one. Another way I’ve found to form good relationships is by attending conferences.

Another takeaway from the book was the idea of getting strong “conceptual agreement” to a project before presenting the proposal. My understanding of Alan’s sales process is that by the time they get to the proposal/contract, it’s just a formality. They’ve already talked enough about the project by that time that the client is already totally onboard with the project.

I also gained a new term from reading this book that I don’t know how I lived without before, and I don’t know how I missed it the first time. The term is market gravity which in my understanding is how easy it is for you to attract clients. I used to think that the way to smooth out the boom-and-bust cycle of freelancing was to work for a number of clients at a time. I tried working that way for a while and it’s fucking horrible. What I believe now is that it’s best to have one client at a time and to cultivate the ability to quickly and easily spin up a new client engagement at the time your current engagement ends.

I would definitely recommend this book to any freelancer. If it doesn’t seem good the first time around, maybe give it some time and read it again.

The History of the Ancient World

The History of the Ancient World covers the “earliest accounts” through the fall of Rome.

I think my main takeaway from this book is that the ancient world was an awful place. It seems like the default way that power was transferred from one person to another was via assassination, often by a family member. Often the children of royal families were killed in order to prevent their ascension to the throne.

I don’t remember a lot of what was in the book (natch) and it was honestly pretty hard for me to follow due to the esotery of the material and the fact that I often have a hard time grasping/remembering stuff in general. It was kind of interesting to get a high-level view of the history of the world though.

I think the reason I picked this book up is because I like the idea of having an understanding of the world from its very beginning. A number of years ago I read Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan which describes the origin of the human species and the biological reasons why we have racism, why we have a bias toward family members and people geographically close to us, and why we have a taboo against incest. I also read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond around the same time which answers the question of why technology progressed faster in certain parts of the world than in others. (The answer had to do with the plants and animals available for use on different continents, the shapes of the continents, and some other stuff I don’t remember, as opposed to anything to do with the inhabitants themselves.)

So I guess this book helped put another little puzzle piece in place as far as who we are and where we came from. It also made me appreciate today’s world. We have some bad stuff going on, like global warming, deforestation, general environmental destruction, the threat of nuclear war, mass government surveillance, the threat of machine intelligence, the obesity and lifestyle disease epidemic and some other awful things, but I also understand it’s true that the world is the safest it’s ever been. We don’t have to worry so much about hunger, disease, war, crime, and many of the other things that were a worse problem many years ago. This book helped me appreciate that.

The 48 Laws of Power

I thought this was a silly book. The power tactics it describes seem to revolve around deception, backstabbing, and that kind of thing. It seems like most the examples it used were from kings and queens of the ancient or medieval world, or con artists. I’m sure the author’s takeaways from those historical events were plenty correct, they’re just irrelevant. The vast majority of people don’t live in an adversarial or competitive world.

What I’ve found in my observations of wealthy and powerful people is that most of them seem to have a strong desire to help other people. There are a number of occasions where I’ve been set up with a meeting with some rich and successful person. I’ve found that the most successful people often end the meeting with, “So Jason, how can I be helpful to you? What can I do for you?” Less successful people don’t tend to ask this question as much. The correlation has been very interesting.

I found The 48 Laws of Power interesting and entertaining but not very useful. In fact, some of the advice was downright wrong. “Never apologize” is one of the pieces of advice. Terrible advice. People who think an apology will only bring attention to their mistake where it might otherwise have escaped notice are being horribly naive. If you make a mistake that no one notices and then you apologize for it, the other person will probably either laugh and say there’s no need to apologize, or they will appreciate the fact that you went out of your way to bring a mistake of yours to their attention that they otherwise would not have known about, and they’ll respect you more for it. I’ve never lost respect for someone due to an apology of theirs, but I certainly have lost respect for someone due to a failure to apologize when they should have. Maybe “don’t apologize” is good advice for politicians or kings or whatever but not regular people.

I don’t think I even believe that the author believes much of what he wrote in the book. I think it was probably written to be shocking and over-the-top. The book isn’t totally without value but I wouldn’t really recommend it.

It’s also generally a bad idea to listen to advice that’s not based on either scientific evidence or someone’s personal success. This book isn’t based on either.

My favorite books of 2015

I’d like to share my favorite books from 2015. I don’t mean my favorite books out of the ones that came out in 2015, just the ones I personally read in 2015. I have four favorites.

4. Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins

This book will probably only interest my business owner friends…luckily, that’s probably most of the people reading this blog.

As I understand it, Claude Hopkins was like the O.G. of split testing, among other practices. Scientific Advertising was written in 1923 but it reads like it might as well have been written yesterday. To me, understanding advertising is mostly about understanding psychology, and human nature doesn’t really change over time.

Let me see if I can recall some of my key takeaways from this book:

  • Long copy has been shown to outperform short copy, pretty much always. The longer the better, it seems.
  • Any attempt to sell is met with an equal resistance.
  • Exclamations are counterproductive.
  • Vague claims like “best food in town!” don’t work very well. Better to make very specific and precise claims.
  • Traced ads are better than untraced ads, although I didn’t need to read this book to know that.

On the cover of the book there’s a quote from David Olgilvy that says, “Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times. It changed the course of my life.” I do plan to read the book at least one additional time. I’m sure my list above leaves off at least half the important lessons from the book.

By the way, notice how most of the ads you see are short and contain vague claims with exclamation points at the end. I’m almost sorry I read this book because now I’m annoyed with how obviously terrible most advertising is and how ignorant most ad writers must be of the most basic principles.

By the way, around the same time I read Scientific Advertising I also read Olgilvy on Advertising. That was a great one as well. Scientific Advertising is available as a two-pack with another Claude Hopkins book called My Life in Advertising, and the two-pack is the version I read. If I remember correctly, Claude Hopkins was born in Michigan. He certainly spent some portion of his life here, and he talks about various places in West Michigan in My Life in Advertising.

3. The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms by Philip Morgan

For a long time I’ve been trying to raise my freelancing rate to $150/hr without much success. There seems to be some invisible barrier between $100/hr and $150. After reading The Positioning Manual (and after learning some things from some other sources) I believe that the secret to escaping the $100/hr range is to stop charging by time and start charging by the project.

Raising your hourly rate is easier said than done. Going from hourly billing to daily or weekly billing is also easier said than done, since so many clients have such a strong expectation that their vendors are going to charge hourly. Going from hourly billing to project-based billing is also easier said than done. What about scope creep? What about the fact that software is notoriously hard to estimate?

I’ve found that if I find clients on job boards, they’re going to want hourly billing, but if I find clients at, e.g., business networking events, those clients usually want a business problem solved as opposed to wanting a programmer, and those are the kinds of projects that are decoupled from typical vendor expectations and market rates.

My plan is to find businesses that use Excel in an at least partially manual way, and automate away their inefficiencies. I plan to do relatively small projects, and I plan to do similar projects over and over if I can. If the projects are small and repetitive, that helps mitigate the scope creep and estimation problems. The fact that the client wants a business problem solved means I can charge based on value rather than based on time.

I’m not very far along in my positioning journey. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

2. The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden

Historically I’ve had pretty low self-esteem. I bought this book as a way to try to fix that problem, and somewhat surprisingly, it seems to have worked to a large extent. I need to read the book again in order to be able to describe it very well. Its lessons helped me but I don’t actually remember very clearly now what those lessons were.

I guess one of the strongest lessons was the idea of accepting your actions and your personal attributes (which doesn’t mean you necessarily have to like those things). If I did something bad, I should admit that I did that thing and accept the fact that I did it. By acknowledging these things I can drive them into the open where they dissolve.

One thing I found interesting about this book was that the author himself seems to have led kind of a fucked up life that seems incongruent with what he teaches. I don’t mind, though, because his material seems self-consistent and has definitely worked for me.

1. Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman

This is another book I need to re-read. I first developed an interest in learning about nutrition in 2009 when I decided I had had too many days of feeling like shit most of the day. I read a really good book around that time called Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Walter Willett. The book was eye-opening because I discovered that the USDA food pyramid is total bullshit. Grains/rice/bread/pasta shouldn’t make up the base of your diet. Animal products are pretty bad for you. The food pyramid was created to benefit agribusiness, not our bodies.

Eat to Live was similarly eye-opening. Its content was not quite as surprising to me as that of Eat, Drink and Be Healthy when I first read it, but I was struck by the author’s apparently depth of knowledge. So much nutrition “information” out there is just such absolute bullshit. It’s hard to know what to believe. I could tell Walter Willett’s information was based on sound science. My impression was that Joel Fuhrman has gone even deeper.

Eat to Live basically recommends a vegan diet, although the word “vegan” appears maybe twice in the whole book. I was pretty surprised by all the adverse health effects described of pretty much anything that’s not an unprocessed plant food. I wish I could whip out some specifics but I don’t remember. This is another book I’ll have to re-read. But basically, the lesson is if you eat the Standard American Diet, which is heavily based on animal products, you can pretty much count on developing cancer, heart disease, and/or some other pretty bad stuff. The author claims that a plant-based diet can prevent or even reverse some of those things.

Others

Those were my favorite books from 2015. Here are the other ones I read, some of which I’ve already read at least once before.

  • Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  • The BFL by Roald Dahl
  • James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  • Winning Through Intimidation by Robert Ringer
  • Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane
  • Double Your Freelancing Rate by Brennan Dunn
  • Olgolvy on Advertising by Claude Hopkins
  • How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis
  • The Power of Ambition by Jim Rohn
  • Essentialism by Greg McKeown
  • The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber (this should actually maybe be on the favorites list)
  • Traction by Gabriel Weinberg
  • The Go-Giver by Bob Burg
  • The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch
  • The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra
  • SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham
  • The Psychology of Selling by Brian Tracy
  • A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russel
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell