Reading List Annual Review 2017

I certainly started the year off strong with high hopes, believing that it wouldn’t slow down with the birth of my first kid in March.  I was either wrong, stupid, or weak. I don’t like thinking about which for too long ;P.

Here is a list of the 10 books that I got around to reading.

If you’re interested, here is my list from 2016.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It was quite cool to be able to read a classic.  Mostly so that I could stroke my own ego.  As Pavel Bulowski cited on his list of 2017 books, “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” I figured this one fit the mold.

“The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.”

The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton

It’s not a 10 step program, it almost seems like a collection of blog posts, just short chapters with different thoughts.  Mostly around behaviours, psychology, and systems around money.

This is a re-read of my favourite personal finance book.  As I was preparing for 2017, thinking about financial goals, and thinking more about planning and legacy as I transition to being a father, I wanted to prime myself and give myself a reminder.  I may consider re-reading this nearly every year just to prime myself and remind myself of my financial goals

“Few emergency funds stand a chance against society’s innate skill: the ability to rationalize.  We can convince ourselves of anything if the result is short-term gratification.”

Night by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel gives an account of his experience in the concentration camp, Auschwitz, and through other camps.  Wiesel does not spare any details of his experience, which is absolutely horrific.  I had to take several breaks during reading, as it was quite intense and upsetting.

Hard to recommend to book after that sort of review.  However, part of my interest in this area is that it builds gratefulness.  Reading accounts of history’s past gives perspective on how trivial our problems of today are, or the evilness that exists or doesn’t exist in our world today.  I would highly recommend reading this if you are as ignorant as I am around the monstrosities of the times.

The translation I read was by Marion Wiesel, Elie’s wife, which I would recommend.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Continuing in my research and interest in Europe during WWll, I wanted to read this classic.  It definitely was not what I was expecting, which was going to be an education about the war.  Rather, what I encountered was a very normal girl, trapped and gone stir crazy inside and in hiding, going through very normal 14 year old problems, and got to transport myself into the crazy time that it was.

“The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God.  For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity.”

A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

Irvine, a professor of philosophy and practicing stoic, gives his version of a summary of stoic principles.

The book goes through a wide range of topics in Stoic philosophy and I earmarked quite a few pages.  It is very practical in the sense that they speak about mindset, riches, fame, anger, insults, grief, old age, and other everyday topics. Whether you want to learn more about Stoic philosophy, or you want a very handy and practical guide to live a more effective and happy life, I would give a loose recommendation to read it.  The introduction into the history of stoicism in the beginning, as well as the end chapters were quite boring for me.

“If we lack self-control, we are likely to be distracted by the various pleasures life has to offer, and in this distracted state we are unlikely to attain the goals of our philosophy of life.”

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Although this book may have been industry changing when it was released years ago, it has weaved throughout companies and tech so much that it just seemed like logic as I was reading (listening to) it.  I stopped midway as I found it quite boring and not a great use of my listening time.

Work Rules by Laszlo Bock

Bock is essentially head of People Operations (his title now escapes me) at Google, and had a lot to do with the hiring practices, HR practices, and culture building within Google.  Decently written for a business book, which is rare, and kept me quite engaged, particularly throughout the first half of the book.  I took a lot of ideas and carried away with me and implemented a lot throughout our hiring processes and practice at Keboola.  I would say it is one of the most practical books I have read, and I don’t doubt I will keep it as reference for many years.

“Our goal is to tell every person in the bottom 5 percent that they are in that group.  That is not a fun conversation to have.  But it’s made easier by the message we give these people: “You are in the bottom 5 percent of performers across all of Google.  I know that doesn’t feel good.  The reason I’m telling you this is that I want to help you grow and get better.”

The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker

A lot of what was in this book informed me on how I want to focus on maneveruing in my career, as well as how I want to build a culture at my workplace.  Focus on being effective, making contributions, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses, delivering results, prioritizing and spending time well, and other helpful models for being effective at work.

I have a hard time remembering a better business book that I have ever read. It is a short book, packed with ideas, and doesn’t waste words, my favorite kind of business books.

“Brilliant men are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that the brilliant insight is not by itself achievement. […] insights become effectiveness only through hard systematic work.”

The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

I guess this is one of those books that either resonate with you or don’t.  The lessons it tries to teach are very in your face, there isn’t any deep thinking you need to do.  I know lots of people read it and re-read it often.  I found it quite boring and didn’t resonate with me at all, and stopped midway.

I do want to point out that, it seems that not only what you’re reading, but at what point of life you are in, is very important to the experience in the book.  For myself, the lessons within this book is not something that resonates with me.  Perhaps it will in 10 years, I don’t know.  So sometimes it’s not helpful to decide a book is good or bad, another response may be “it’s not what I need right now”.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz 

Seems like it is likely a good book for CEOs and founders … though I do not identify with the downswings and pits of what entrepreneurship is.  Lots of encouragement and how to deal with feelings when you have to let go of a bunch of people, can’t make payroll, upsetting the board and shareholders, waking up in the middle of the night in sweats and nightmares about failing others.

There wasn’t much I got out of the book.  Although there is a large section on interview questions when hiring a Head of Sales that seemed quite good and comprehensive.

Thousand Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

If you enjoy cooking shows, not the drama filled competition crap, but the documentaries on obsessed chefs, I think you would enjoy this book.  I loved it, so much so that I missed my bus stop by several bus stops once as I was so deeply into it and couldn’t draw my eyes off the page in order to see where I was at.   Great arc on the story, and excellent writing, including the food descriptions.  This book was also made into a movie recently which I recommend watching as well.

The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant

This husband and wife duo are historians and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.  This is a tiny (seriously tiny) book with small lessons from history.  Unfortunately I did not squeeze out of it what I wish I had, so I do want to re-read it.

“The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows.” 

The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey

As parents, our first instinct when we face pain or challenge for our children is to help or save them.  Unfortunately, often this is actually not what you want for them long term.  Facing challenges, dealing with the emotions of failing, figuring out what to do in the face of failure, in aspects of household chores, friendships and social dynamics, homework, competition, etc., is a crucial part of development.  A good reminder to try and take a step back and see how failures play out, in order to raise more resilient little human beings.

“Given our support, love, and a lot of restraint, our kids can learn how to engineer their own solutions and pave their way toward success that is truly of their own making.”

I’m surprised, looking back, at how much I actually did get to read.  Even if I spent very little time doing so, small increments of reading can actually add up to something substantial.

If you ever want to discuss books, give me a holler!

4 Intangible Skills I Learned From Reading More

What I gained from reading has spilled over to many areas of my life.  It wasn’t just the amazing stories, the knowledge, strategies and tactics, or motivation.  What has had far more spill over effect have been the intangibles.

1. Focus

Sitting down and reading everyday required focus. I had to learn to put on mental blinders and focus on the book.  Plug in headphones if my wife was watching TV, and focus on what I was reading.   Not check Instagram.  Not check Facebook.  Not check Snapchat.  Learning to focus the mind on one task. Reading, learning, not thinking about other things at the same time.  Sitting down for 2 hours without checking the phone.  Not checking e-mails.  No social media.  Not googling random thoughts or doing small errands between tasks.  Not turning on Netflix.

2. Discipline

It required discipline to read everyday.  Every time I had extra time at home, it wasn’t about finding something to do.  It was about sitting down and getting shit done.  Read.  When I started, I created a rule.  No TV between Mondays and Thursdays.   So what do you do when you’re home and you can’t watch TV, and you told yourself you would read more?  It didn’t matter if I was tired, I forced myself to open the book and read.  When I couldn’t focus my mind on a specific book, I would switch to something lighter that my brain could digest.

3. I’ve always got an hour

With the rare exceptions, I always had time to read.  Even if it was right before bed and super exhausted.  I could pick up a fiction book and get engrossed in the story.  Reading fiction before bed would help turn off the “doing” part of my brain.  Rather than winding down by watching TV and letting the glare of the screen kill my bio rhythms, reading a book would help put me to bed.  The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time,’ — Barack Obama

4. Achievement

At the beginning of the year, I set out to read 8 books during the year.   I set a low goal by pushing a little bit past my then-speed of reading.  So I started with a high pace in January with a goal of reading more in 2016 than I did in 2015.

[A] man’s most specific gift: his ability to put all his resources behind one activity, one field of endeavour, one area of accomplishment… Human excellence can only be achieved in one area, or at the most in very few. — Peter Drucker

The one achievement that I wanted to do everyday was to read more.  It wasn’t about reading a certain number of books or pages.  It was, squeeze as much reading as I can in a day.  Before work.  After work.  After dinner.  Before bed. On the bus.  Waiting for the car to get maintenanced.  Anywhere and everywhere.

I learned that if I set my mind to accomplish something, reading more, I could achieve it.  It wasn’t about reading more, and also eating really healthy, working out everyday, spending more time with my wife, more more more.  It was one thing, setting my mind to that one thing.

It’s surprising how simple, not easy, but simple, it is to do achieve just one thing.

The Outer Scorecard vs The Inner Scorecard

“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or Outer Scorecard.”  — Warren Buffett

When you’ve got the Outer Scorecard, you are at the mercy of perceptions outside of your control.  How can I suck up to the boss?  Does anyone above me notice that I’m putting in extra hours?  How does my appearance look?  Do I look like I’m successful and have made it?  Have I got enough Likes on my Instagram; otherwise I need to take it down.  I have to buy a new car, not a used one, or what will people think of me?  If I buy a home, will my family be proud of me?  My children are acting crazy, people must think I’m a bad parent!

When you’ve got the Inner Scorecard, your dialogue with yourself can be … Did I put in all my effort into this project?  Am I improving, or just going through the motions.  If I was the customer, would I be happy to receive this product/service?  Am I being courageous, or playing it safe?  Am I contributing to others?  Am I selfless, in order to help others?  Does my wife/husband, children, dog respect me?

“I say ‘Lookit.  Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover?  Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?'” — Warren Buffett
When you’ve got an Inner Scorecard, it’s all on you to judge yourself, and be satisfied yourself.  That seems like a lot of pressure, but it’s freeing.  You have 100% control of your perceptions of yourself.

Leadership Lessons From One of the GOAT

Greatest of all time that is.

Bill Walsh joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, taking over the worst team in the league.   In his third season as head coach, he turned the worst team, and won the Super Bowl, a first of it’s kind turn around in the NFL.  Bill Walsh went on to win three more Super Bowl’s in his career, and revolutionalized the NFL with the West Coast Offence.

We are lucky, that before he passed away, he chose to write about his leadership principles and how he was able to turn around an entire organization, from the secretarial staff, to coaches, players, and physio staff.  How to manage NFL players, some of the most egotistical people.  How to set a standard of performance and work ethic, that leads to the highest performance.

“Everybody’s got an opinion.  Leaders are paid to make decisions.  The difference between offering an opinion and making a decision is the difference between working for the leader and being the leader.”

Standard of Performance

Walsh is known for his Standard of Performance, setting the bar to be the best in performance, while maintaining the right attitudes.  It is as follows …

“Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement; demonstrate respect for each person in the organization and the work he or she does; be deeply committed to learning and teaching, which means increasing my own expertise; be fair; demonstrate character; honor the direct connection between details and improvement, and relentlessly seek the latter; show self-control, especially where it counts the most — under pressure; demonstrate and prize loyalty; use positive language and have a positive attitude; take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort; be willing to go the extra distance for the organization; deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation (don’t get crazy with victory nor dysfunctional with loss); promote internal communication that is both open and substantive (especially under stress); seek poise in myself and those I lead; put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own; maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high; and make sacrifice and commitment the organization’s trademark.”

Walsh has many facets around his philosophy of coaching, management, and leadership, however this is his cornerstone statement.  All activities and attitudes point back to this statement.  Regardless of how much you agree with his standards, Walsh highlights that it is of prime importance of a high performing organization to have high standards.

“The culture precedes positive results.  Champions behave like champions before they are champions.”

Sustained success does not happen by accident.  It always leaves breadcrumbs to follow.  So let’s dig further into his philosophy.

“I directed our focus less to the prize of victory than to the process of improving — obsessing, perhaps, about the quality of our execution and the content of our thinking, that is, our actions and attitude.”

Work Ethic

“For me, the starting point for everything […] is the work ethic. Without one of significant magnitude you’re dead in the water, finished.”

Walsh was known for his fierce work ethic.  In practices, he narrowed down to the quarter of a yard where a receiver should be and turn around to expect a pass.  During practice, if a receiver stepped a quarter of a yard out of position from where he was supposed to receive the ball, even if he received it, he would stop and call the play and demand the receiver to do it again until he got it right.  His discipline for the right execution of plays is what would lead his team in high pressure situations, to be able to perform their plays like clockwork.

Quarterbacks were taught the three step, five step, seven step back, how to throw the ball, when to throw it, how to hold the ball, and practice throwing at different distances, velocities, trajectories, and angles.  Linemen were taught specific key moves, foot movement, foot positioning, arm movements, and multiple drills were designed to practice each one of these. Practices were organized and scheduled down to the minute.

Walsh had raised the bar for his team, to practice their faces off, to go further than what other teams were willing, in order to have the most well practiced execution, with the right strategy, and people who were taught exactly how they should do what they need to do at the highest level.

“Most of the [leadership] theories seem to take monumental work ethic for granted, as if it is assumed or something, as if people automatically know what it is and do it.  I didn’t assume it.  The majority of people out there don’t know what it is.”

Making Good Decisions and Planning

Outside of the time Walsh spent on practices, tape, games, travel, he was planning strategy and execution.  He would plan for several scenarios under several circumstances, running what-if and scenario analysis so that he would be prepared for almost anything.

“If I’d done my work properly, little would arise that hadn’t been anticipated.  There’s always something you can’t anticipate, but you strive to greatly reduce the number of those unforeseeables.”

Walsh would also script the beginning of the game.  Not only would the first number of downs be planned, but every game he was known for planning out the first 25-30 plays that the offence would run.  His players came to expect this and looked forward to hearing the script of the game.  This allowed players to visualize and pre-meditate on the execution of the beginning plays to set the right tempo for the game.  Proper execution of the script would lead to a quick lead at the beginning of the game.

It also gave the team a sense of calm.  In an environment where tens of thousands of the opposing team’s fans are screaming at you, in howling wind and freezing weather, these environments and contexts are not conducive to the best decision making.  Making decisions on the fly in high pressure situations, does not produce the best decisions.  Scripts and contingency planning would assure that the decisions were made ahead of time, in better environments when emotions and distractions were controlled.

“What is the width and depth of the intellect you have applied to your own team’s contingency planning?  What could happen tomorrow, next week, next year that you haven’t planned for, aren’t ready to deal with, or have put in the category of “I’ll worry about that when the time comes”?

“Great organization is the trademark of a great organization.”

Managing Personell

At this point, it is no surprise that Walsh has a lot to say and think about regarding employees of your organizing. On setting his standard and letting it permeate through the organization:

“Bonding within the organization takes place as one individual and then another steps up and raises his or her level of commitment, sacrifice, and performance.  They demand and expect a lot of one another.”
“Employees can thrive in an environment when they know exactly what is expected of them — even when those expectations are very high.”
“Place a premium on those who exhibit great desire to keep pushing themselves to higher and higher performance and production levels, who seek to go beyond the highest standards that you the leader set.  The employee who gets to work early, stays late, fights through illness and personal problems is the one to keep your eye on for greater responsibilities.”

Reading Walsh’s book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, was a difficult read. It brought out insecurities of mine and I would ignore or disagree with many of his writings.  However, through reflection, it is the work ethic and discipline of a great man, who pushed it outside of the limits of my own thinking, that I realized that I am miles away from one of the greatest coaches of all time.  So what now?

“It takes time to develop the Standard of Performance; it is not just a seminar or a practice or a season’s worth of seminars and practices, but thoughtful and intense attention over years and years.”