Balancing Quality and Quantity
I've read around 40 books every year for the last few years. 2020 sure hit different and I only read 15 books. For a few reasons (not all bad) I really struggled to finish very many books:
(1) Quarantine found me spending a lot more time with my family which reduced the time I spent reading, but increased my overall quality of life.
(2) This year was a big Berkshire Hathaway year. I spent a lot of time reading every Berkshire Hathaway annual letter and Poor Charlie's Almanack. Big undertakings and took up a fair bit of my early morning reading time (though well worth the effort).
(3) I discovered Roam Research this year. This was a net positive for my reading experience, but it also increased the time I spent with each book and made me much more selective of what I read.
As I've become more and more thoughtful about what I'm reading and putting into my brain I've noticed a few themes this year.
Presidents & Prophets: Last year I read biographies of John Quincy Adams (which became one of my all-time favorite "quake books" (see
Non-Linear Software Strategies: Over the course of my career I've continued to specialize around software investing. We're in the very early innings of an explosion in distribution strategies that are much more organically driven. Models like product-led growth (
Visionary City Builders: One of my
The Books I Read This Year
I love diving into the lives of people like Da Vinci because of the practical lessons rather than the inaccessible attributes. A lot of biographies focus so much on the successes people are known for. Isaacson has a knack for zeroing in on how they got there. "His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation."
A consistent theme this year is one of healthy self-criticism. "One mark of a great mind is the willingness to change it. That willingness to surrender preconceptions was key to his creativity." No quote has better summarized this for me than of Charles Darwin who "spent much of his long life thinking in reverse as he tried to disprove his own hardest-won and best-loved ideas."
As recently as 2-3 years ago I remember investors talking about the "consumerization of the enterprise" as a largely failed experiment. What they focused on was the user experience of enterprise software. What they were less focused on has now become one of the leading distribution strategies in software. The UI may continue to lag best-in-class consumer apps but the power of the end-user is becoming incredibly powerful.
"I'm increasingly convinced that product-led growth may become the new GTM standard for building a large SaaS business. If you look at the latest companies that made into the $1B ARR Club, you'll notice they are all are self-serve first." (Sudheendra Chilappagari)
City building is an area that I have no training or expertise in, but one that I often can't stop thinking about. How are places created? What would the "city of the future" look like? There are significantly fewer outlets for this type of revolutionary world-shaking. We're stuck in a very N+1 rut when it comes to city building (or in many instances, N-1).
This fascination with changing the way we live and work and interact is one reason why I can't understand people who hate Elon Musk. Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, I can't stop loving the dream. Building rockets. Interplanetary species. A new world built on a new planet.
I believe strongly that if Walt Disney had been able to finish EPCOT he would have had a generational impact on how we live.
I've spent my entire professional career in investing roles. While my jobs could be bucketed with a broad brush under "finance," I don't consider any of the experiences I've had to be "high finance." This book gave me a glimpse into a world that has merit and fascinating lessons to learn from, but a world that I'm sort of glad I got to skip.
I was impressed with Schwarzman's thinking, particularly these two ideas:
“I want to be a telephone switchboard; taking in information from countless feeds, sorting it, and sending it back out into the world.”
"No one person, however smart, can solve every problem. But an army of smart people talking candidly with one another will."
As an investor I spend a lot of time thinking about communities. Open source, user bases, partnership programs. All of my experience seeing and evaluating the health of a community can just as easily be pointed at the most significant community to which I belong.
I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is a fairly unique religion. There is a wealth of socio-cultural dynamics that make us kind but competitive, unified but aloof, and independent but deferential.
This book, and several other pieces of writing, are an honest evaluation of a religion that is facing a changing demographic landscape and how the culture of the church can change without throwing away any core doctrine or beliefs.
Imagine a special news conference and a very-much-alive Moses stepped to the pulpit to answer some important questions. That's how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints feel, not only about Joseph Smith historically, but about Russell M. Nelson today.
Regardless of your religious affiliation or inclination, Joseph Smith was an impressive force in 19th-century social and religious history. He fit a profile of a prophet, spoke for God, built a city that rivaled Chicago at the time, and led to the creation of a 14+ million person movement. Anyone who dismisses Joseph Smith as a simple footnote hasn't spent enough time understanding what he accomplished in his short life.
I have a personal goal to read biographies of every American president and every president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Brigham Young was the 2nd president of that church and is the namesake for the university I attended.
Where Joseph Smith is a fascinating case study of a religious extremist trying to co-exist in a country built on religious freedom (and can't seem to avoid every layer of persecution), Brigham Young is the aftermath. He was a force as an American pioneer cutting a path across the continent and creating the "crossroads of the west."
There are very few examples of successful sub-cultures built within an existing country's borders but the community Brigham Young built in Utah is very much one of them.
Continuing my exploration of early leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I read about John Taylor, the 3rd president of the church.
I want to read biographies of every president and prophet because there is something to be said about the psychology of a person who bears significant weight, whether it's a nation like the United States or a mission from God.
What I saw very clearly in reading this book was the perspective of a man who was fundamentally a good person trying to bring everyone along he could in a journey towards what he saw as a clear path to happiness.
Living life intentionally is not an easy or common thing. I used to believe I was quite thoughtful about the way I live my life, but Charlie Munger is an aggregator of some of the finest ideas other people have come up with and he taught me one thing: I can be much, much better.
This book is a distillation of that goodness. More than anything I can see the obvious impact of momentum. If I live my life allowing momentum to dictate most of my actions I'll fall victim to psychology and bias that aren't optimizing for my best life.
Ever since my first investing internship I've been told that the rite of passage every investor needs is to read every annual letter for Berkshire Hathaway. This was a massive part of my reading this year. Every morning bright and early I would read another sliver of Buffett's wisdom.
If there is one thing that I took away from this experience it wasn't the desire to codify Buffett's wisdom and live religiously by it. I want to take the same intelligent and honest approach to my own work and become one of the very best at what I do.
I stumbled on this book, probably like a lot of people, at the beginning of COVID. I had previously invested in GitLab which is one of the most successful case studies of corporate-wide remote work and even led to a standalone business productizing the logistics of becoming a remote company when one of their former employees, Job van der Voort, started Remote.com.
Before reading this book I didn't fully appreciate the cultural complexity in working remotely (something we've all learned this year whether we liked it or not.)
I recently changed jobs and most people have expected that onboarding remotely would be a struggle. Learning to work remotely is difficult, but once you do, your ability to modularize yourself and your work becomes much much easier.
In my life I've seen the impact of 'routine.' For several years I've woken up at exactly the same time. I've gone to the gym at the same time. I've seen the power of lowering barriers to success with things like packing my gym bag the night before.
Reading Atomic Habits in 2020 helped me see how limited my efforts have really been compared to what I could accomplish.
I certainly haven't mastered my own systems but this book, along with several others, has continued to show me how much I need to live my life more deliberately. I've done a lot to get myself into some very good currents. But now that I'm here I'll need to dictate my own path or those currents will take me wherever they want to go (which will rarely be the optimal outcome for me as an individual.)
I have not read a book that has so drastically impacted my thinking across such a diverse set of ideas. Nadia managed to impact the way I think about software, interpersonal relationships, journalism, trust, incentives, motivation, sunk costs, and a host of micro-learnings for specific communities that I run or am a part of.
The next generation of technology will be defined by niche communities that revolve around shared interests and power dynamics. Open source is a perfect petri dish to understand these types of communities but its going to get so much bigger.
Any product that is able to successfully rally a community of users around it will have significantly more power than ever before.
On March 19th, 2020 we were still in early quarantine. I stumbled onto Tiago Forte and a video interview he did with Sonke Ahrens about this book. I haven't been able to find the very first tweet, but Tiago was my original introduction to Roam Research, which has revolutionized my life and productivity this year.
I always had this book in the back of my mind as part of the Roam pantheon but I hadn't read it. Credit to Matt at Roam for running this book as part of the Roam book club because it would have taken me much longer to get to without that and I would have been much worse off the longer I took before reading it.
"Anything worth doing is worth doing well." If you're going to read a book you ought to take the time to truly ingest what you learn.