Originally published on Medium on December 31st, 2019
2019 in Books
I continue to spend a lot of time not just reading books, but thinking about why I read books, how to better read books, and more specifically how to retain and track what I learn from what I read.
To better capture what I learn from the books I read, I committed to writing a separate Medium post, along with the quotes I most enjoyed from each book (and if you’ve read my book lists from 2016, 2017 and 2018 (Part One and Part Two), you’d know this approach is also to keep this post shorter and to stop it from crashing Medium.)
For me, this year was a year of associations among the people I know. Alexis de Tocqueville, when he visited America, noticed how much we like to do this.
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.”
My associations often motivated me to read wider and deeper than I have before, some lasted longer than others:
- The Junto: While discussing topics with my peers, exposed me to books like Utopia For Realists and Catastrophic Care
- The Fiction of Future: A group of fellow nerds seeking out books that took a fictional lens of what could be our actual future; read books like Leviathan Wakes, The Water Knife, and Red Rising
- Classics: A by-product of the Junto, focused on reading the best books that mankind has accumulated over time, reading books like The Art of War and Cicero
I also started to see trends in some of the books I was drawn to, including reading biographies of Presidents of the United States (Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, etc.) as well as Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (from modern presidents like Howard W. Hunter and Gordon B. Hinckley to early presidents like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young who I’ll be reading about in 2020.)
What I read represents one small part of what makes me. This is a record of the things that made me who I am this year. “You are what you think all day long.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The Books I Read This Year
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
This book exposed me to one of the first great leaders of the American middle-class, a pioneer in self-improvement, the best case study of hobbyist scientist, and the elder statesman of the founding fathers. I’ve had the chance to read several biographies of founding fathers over the last few years, from John Adams to Alexander Hamilton. I didn’t relate most closely to Franklin, but I did see the most practicality from his life that I could apply to mine.
The Expertise Economy
The future of work. Reskilling. Retraining. Practical education. If you’ve spent any time worrying or wondering about these ideas, The Expertise Economy might be one of the most important books you could possibly read. David Blake and Kelly Palmer are both from Degreed, which is a company that has been on my radar for a long time. Not only because a lot of the founders are BYU grads, but Degreed was also a portfolio company of one of the first venture funds that I interned for, Signal Peak Ventures. I remember using the product during college, and even having one of their product managers speak at an EdTech class that I was teaching. I’ve been in and around the philosophy behind this company, but not until I read this book did I understand how deeply their message resonates with me.
I don’t read a lot of fiction, and I certainly don’t read a lot of science fiction. Leviathan Wakes was the first book in a new book club my brother Chad and I put together called The Fiction of Future. The goal of the group was to read science fiction that specifically framed a perspective lens on what the future of our reality could look like, both in the near-term and beyond. Leviathan Wakes fits in the “beyond” category.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Parenting is an exercise in creativity. Not only are you literally creating a person (their body, mind, habits, self-identity), but you have to get real creative in the way you go about raising this child. Every single person is different, and therefore the ideal parenting style for every child will be unique.
Recession Proof: How To Survive and Thrive in an Economic Downturn
This book caught my attention first because it was free, and second because I’ve often thought about industries that are recession-proof, or even that do well in a recession. And now, as more and more people are predicting an economic downturn, I thought this was an appropriate time to read this book.
The New Urban Crisis
When I was 11 or 12, I visited a town called Nauvoo in Illinois. While most of the town is a recreation, the history of the town is tied to some of my ancestors. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were chased out of various towns and finally built a city from scratch in a swamp in Illinois that, at the time, was larger than Chicago. Seeing the history of what it meant to literally build a city, I have ever since been fascinated by what it takes to organize such a fascinating and complicated tapestry of human lives that you see contained in every town and city.
The Messy Marketplace
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Brent Beshore and what he’s doing with Adventur.es, but at times it feels like I’ve stumbled on my generation’s Warren Buffet. Private equity has become a veritable mess of debt-laden egotism. Everything I’ve read from Beshore is a return to first principles of business building — building a good business.
The Water Knife
The second book we read as part of The Fiction of Future, we focused on finding a more near term landscape. The Water Knife lays that out in a not-too-distant wasteland impacted by the increasing draught and water shortages caused by climate change. To hear the possible outcomes, even if an unlikely possibility, is stark, and begs the question of why we aren’t talking about this as a bigger issue.
John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit
I’ve had the chance to read a lot of biographies over the last few years of founding fathers, but none have I found so much perspective on myself as I did with John Quincy Adams. There are many things that he was (or wasn’t) that don’t apply to me; genius, terrible dad (I guess I’ll let Dax decide), etc. But his attitudes about life felt very close to home.
For me, this book about small towns caught my eye not because of the 2016 election, but because of my own attraction to small towns; the feeling that I have when I walk through a vibrant little downtown. My personal interest has been caught by one little town in particular, in fact it’s about as small as they come. The town of Luna, New Mexico is a place that is deeply tied to my own family roots. My ancestors helped to settle that small town in western New Mexico and ever since I’ve wanted to know how these little communities can thrive.
The Art Of War
A small group of Junto members decided to put together a monthly book club to read what we termed ‘classics.’ This could extend a to a wide variety of books, but our focus was on books that we had often heard of, that had withstood the test of time, but that we had never read.
Michelle Obama is a surprisingly polarizing individual. If I’m being honest, I picked up Becoming because we needed an audiobook for the long drive back from Southern California — but what I found was a surprising story of a woman struggling between those who thinks she’s gone too far, and those who feel she hasn’t gone far enough.
If you’ve seen the Will Smith movie based on I, Robot, then I can easily draw a comparison — this book is nothing like that movie, beyond the three laws. While this is the third book we read in our Fiction of Future book club, it was also the oldest and slowest. You realize something about technology; once you get more than 20 years away from the technology you’re talking, you realize how very old that technology is, and how very fast technology progresses.
Measure What Matters
There is a shift in the way companies are managing themselves — quantifiable measurements of success have almost always been in vogue, but aligning those measurements to outcomes is critical. Objectives, and Key Results represent a methodology of identifying what you want to accomplish, and how you’ll observe those things over time.
How To Be A Capitalist Without Any Capital
I had a quote come to mind, “You can love me or hate me, but you can’t ignore me.” After a little googling, the best I could come up with was Shah Rukh Khan, a famous Indian actor. I think that could be said of Nathan Latka. I don’t love every flare of his flamboyant personality, but I can’t ignore the success he’s had, and the valuable lessons he’s learned along the way.
De Re Republica / The Republic Books I & IV
The second book our group picked as we try and read more of the Classics; Cicero was front of my mind because over the last year or so I’ve read biographies of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom were big Cicero fans. So it felt worthy of further investigation.
Faith Is Not Blind
In almost any religion, there is an expectation of ambiguity. We will likely not know the answers to everything we would like to know. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the offer is to have answers to more of those questions than most. That being said, you’ll never have all the answers you’d like to have, at least not in this life.
Shortest Way Home
I, like a lot of people, was struck by Pete Buttigieg’s demeanor during his SXSW Town Hall. More than anything, what I saw was someone not that far off from me in terms of his stage in life. The route he took, while drastically more impressive, is not too dissimilar from a lot of people I know my own age (hold the 29-year old Mayor-ship).
Utopia For Realists
What is your perfect world? If you were put in charge of the simulation — reality is just one big game of SIMS and your’e in charge — what does yours look like? The mental exercise of trying to answer the myriad of questions alone would make you a better person — “The real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. No, the real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better.”
One of the most obvious statements of the last 20 years: Healthcare is an incredibly complex industry. My dad spent 25 years as executive at healthcare companies, and described the industry as riddled by a lack of understanding and misaligned incentives that leads to a purely reactive environment. His Yelp review is 1.5 stars.
Essays Second Series: Nature & Politics
There is a moment when you find yourself in front of something beautiful, whether its nature or art, and you recognize that you do not have the words inside yourself to adequately capture the beauty, or even respond to it in any meaningful way. You simply sit back and say, ‘Wow.’ Other times, you think “maybe I’m too dumb to understand what I’m seeing.” Emerson makes me feel a bit of both.
The Invention of Russia
In 2012, Mitt Romney was criticized for pointing to Russia as our biggest geopolitical foe. In the last year or so, people have reevaluated how they underestimated Russia. I remember having conversations with a friend in the summer of 2014, talking about how Putin was playing the Third Reich’s geopolitical game but slower and without the ethnic genocide. In 2016, Russia was catapulted more broadly into everyone’s attention as we acknowledged the age old question: ‘Oh say, what is truth?”
I’ve seen a number of books this year that focus on automation, human displacement, inabilities to compete with machines. When our efficiency is irrelevant, what is left to inform what it means to be human? Thoughtfulness. Creativity. Mindfulness. These are the ideas that, at least for the foreseeable future, will determine much of our humanity. So it’s probably a good idea to start thinking about what you’re doing with your last proprietary resource — your attention.”
Innovations around biological engineering and technology like AI will drastically change humankind and bring with it a whole host of questions, both ethical and logistical. I see the imagined societies in the science fiction books I read where they lay out what would happen in a world where the rich could engineer their bodies and brains to superiority. And any kind of regulation targeted at preparing us for the impact of technology is written by people who are still trying to figure out how Facebook makes money.
Go Forward With Faith
Gordon B. Hinckley was the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from the time I was a small baby up until the time when I was 16; basically my entire growing up years. When I have thought of President Hinckley, the characteristic that has always struck me the most is summed up in this quote from Elder Robert D. Hales: ‘I have never met an individual who can become so well informed through reading and through contact with people. When he spends an evening at dinner with someone, he leaves knowing something about that individual’s expertise.’”
Howard W. Hunter
I’m not old enough to remember Howard W. Hunter, either as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, or the brief time he was President of the Church. But as I set out to read more biographies of past Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I realized that there is a wealth of character insights from these men who have served as modern-day Moses’.
“Jefferson was not a profound political thinker. He was, however, an utterly brilliant political rhetorician and visionary. The genius of his vision is to propose that our deepest yearnings for personal freedom are in fact attainable. The genius of his rhetoric is to articulate irreconcilable human urges at a sufficiently abstract level to mask their mutual exclusiveness.”
Lock In paints a specific question in the form of a disease, but in general, what happens to our humanity when the majority of our life is lived in a digital environment? Can life be as full when it’s happening in bits and bytes?
Everyone who has seen this book on my shelf makes the same comment on the abstractedness of a book about TED Talks. What drew me to this book was not an undying need I have to be on a TED stage giving a talk; it’s the increasing importance of persuasion that I’ve seen in being successful. Everyone has ideas and perspectives, but to clearly articulate why your perspective should be heard and regarded is something else entirely.
My first job out of undergrad was working at an investment firm called Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV). One of, if not their most successful investments was an early investment in Netflix. There was always a belief in the power of enabling access to content. What I don’t think even Netflix saw in their future was the ability to kick off the revolution of consumers paying for access instead of ownership in a digital world.
“Whether or not experience inevitably led to expertise, they agreed, depended entirely on the domain in question. Narrow experience made for better chess and poker players and firefighters, but not for better predictors of financial or political trends, or of how employees or patients would perform.”
When you read a biography of a U.S. president they’re often framed as a ‘larger than life’ character, often with limited relateability. There are certainly the exceptions where U.S. presidents have felt closer to the bottom of the barrel. What struck me about Lincoln was how human he feels — he liked working, but hated being his Dad’s unpaid labor, ran for office but often lost — but all the sudden he became the face of the biggest conflict that would test the republic all those Foundational Titans had put together starting in 1776.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Yuval Harari’s books have spanned the past, the future, and now address critical issues of today. I couldn’t even begin to highlight each key point or topic because it’s deliberately wide reaching. I don’t have to agree with everything he says to recognize that he’s trying to speak honestly to the world we live in.
I’ve mentioned before, but I rarely if ever read fiction and here there is another first where I almost never read fiction series. Red Rising started as a book in our Fiction of the Future book club, but I was completely captured by the story and the society that Brown created. I was particularly struck by the lessons on leadership that Darrow learns in the institute.
As I read the second book in the Red Rising trilogy you realize what power friendships can have; the idea that they take years to make and moments to break. When life is on the line, that can make the difference between living or dying. I listened to stories of betrayal in this book, and felt genuinely nervous as I went to work, almost irrationally so, because you rarely know what people are thinking, or how they feel.
Fiction often gives us the opportunity to overestimate the impact we can actually have on the world around us. But sometimes you have to overestimate to get you off the couch and into the game. And also, here’s a random quote: “Forget a man’s name and he’ll forgive you. Remember it, and he’ll defend you forever.”
The War on Normal People
When I look at politicians, I rarely see characteristics that I can relate to. Andrew Yang, coming from a tech background, is already someone I can more easily relate to. But more than anything, as an investor I see every day the companies that are being built specifically to replace people. We don’t talk about it in terms of ‘lost jobs’ but rather increased efficiencies. But automation is a real and systemic issue that will affect every facet of our lives.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends
Rob Lowe is someone I’ve been inspired by in shows like The West Wing and entertained by in shows like Parks & Recreation. You don’t think about how someone’s life evolves over time, you often only see them in snapshots. When my wife told me about this book, it was a story that felt worth understanding as an evolution. I’ve never been one to obsess over famous people, but I’ve always been one to appreciate a story.
Law of the Harvest
Everyone is left to decide for themselves what they believe in regards to whether or not there is a God. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also referred to as the Mormon Church. Not only do I believe in God, but I belong to a church that believes in proselytizing; sharing the message of what we believe. The discipline of church growth has fascinated me, and this book speaks specifically to the methods and data behind how churches of any denomination grow.
My brother shared a quote with me that struck to the core of why people of my faith go out in such fervor to share our beliefs. The quote comes from Penn Jillette, a famous magician (the Penn in Penn & Teller) and he clearly lays out why, if you believe in a bigger picture, you should do everything you can to share that news (and do note, Penn is a vocal atheist.)
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward — and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”
While the Red Rising trilogy ended, I went back and forth on whether I would read the first book that continued the series. There is something to be said about a good ending. Not always a happy ending, but a good one. The next series is a future continuation of the story I’d fallen in love with. And when I decided to read it, any possibilities that formed in my head would give way to what Pierce Brown wrote. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to know what happened next.