News & Events
Books That Changed Me
- December 7, 2017
- Posted by: Vas Taras
- Category: X-Culture Stories
Not the books I liked or enjoyed. The books that contained real practical advice. The books that, looking back, changed how I think and how I do things.
But first, on my romance with books.
For about half of my life, I would not move in space without a book.
This habit became a true addition during my years in Dallas, and then strengthened further in Calgary, where my home-office-home walk was through a rather quiet campus and took me about 20 min: long enough to read something, and quiet enough to be able to focus on the book while walking.
I would literally walk with a book or printed article in hand and read. To outsiders it looked strange and people often asked me if I ever bump into light posts. No. Never. I personally was worried that walking and reading could hurt my eyes, but I still have a perfect vision, so no adverse (and possibly even a positive) effect there.
Then in 2009 we moved to Greensboro and off-campus. My commute on foot would be more like 50 min now, way too long to fit into my busy day. So, I switched from walking to biking and from reading to listening. My first year or two I would buy books on CD and rip them onto my smartphone. Then I discovered Audible.
For the past several years, I bike about 3800 km (2200 miles) and read about 50 books a year. 7 km each way, 5 (often 6 or even 7) times a week. That’s about 23 min door to door. Plus a bit more in the gym. I listen to books at speed x2 for “serious” books and speed x3 for “light” books. A standard audio book is usually 10 to 16 hours. So, I usually cover one book per week. If I do lots of manual labor around the house on the weekend, or if we have a road trip, I may even finish two books in a week.
The best part: I do not spend a single minute on just reading. All my reading is done during my commute or manual labor. A book per week, zero extra time.
The worst part: You get used to reading (listening) when you’re moving. So it becomes hard to commute without a book. Occasionally, when the battery on my phone dies, every second of biking becomes a torture. So long. So boring. Likewise, occasionally, there would be a book I can’t find an audio version, so I must just sit down and read. It’s painful. Feels like a waste of time. I try to walk to work on those days and read walking. And when I have to revive a paper, I literally must walk around the campus or park to read it. After a few years or a daily audiobook injection, you can’t just sit and read off paper.
Looking back, out of about 500 books I have read in the past 10 years or so, some have literally changed how I do things and how I think.
Below is a list of 25 that had the greatest impact on me. All of these I have read (listed) at least twice, some literally 5-6 times. Several were packed with so much advice, that I had to buy a paper copy. I could not bike with them. I had to stop every few seconds to take notes, and then later I would have to go back to look up things, and the audio version is not very suitable for notes and references. So I got paper copies.
Please note, most of the books that changed me were written by real scientists, some Nobel Prize winners. Most of these topics have also been addressed by pop-writers like Malcolm Gladwell, who are easier to read and tend to be more entertaining. I found the books by the people who actually did the science to be more useful, but you can always find a “Gladwell” version on these topics.
Decision Making: These are books that are a must-read for anyone. They explain how our mind works, errors we tend to make, tips on how to avoid making these errors. For example, I review the lists of the biases presented in some of these books on a regular basis to teach myself to spot and avoid them.
- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely & Simon Jones (this book taught me to check if I am not making these mistakes in my own decision making).
- Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (same as the previous).
- Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody, by Geoff Colvin (changed how I raise my kids and motivate myself).
- The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, by David J. Hand (changed how I see and treat coincidences and make predictions; a bonus on the same topic: Fooled by Randomness by Taleb).
- The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt (completely changed how I see conflict and participate in disputes).
- Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, by Timothy D. Wilson (shapes how I shape my kids’ behavior).
Influence, Negotiations, Advertising: These will be useful to you only if you study influence or addictions to various forms of entertainment. But if you do, these are a must.
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, by Chris Voss (BATNA-shmatna. I took several negotiations courses and read all the major textbooks on negotiations. Yet, I found this one to be the most practical guide).
- The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu (completely changed how I perceive advertisement and entertainment and the use of advertisement to sell us entertainment).
- Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards Audiobook, by Yu-kai Chou (changed how I motivate my kids and how I am trying to design X-Culture, one of a few that I also bought a paper copy of).
Platform Businesses and Crowdsourcing: This is more specialized literature, but if you your research or business has something to do with collaboration and platforms, you’ll find these very useful.
- Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators, by Clay Shirky (pushed me to rely more on crowds and surplus resources in designing and managing X-Culture).
- Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy – and How to Make Them Work for You, by Geoffrey G. Parker, Marshall W. Van Alstyne, Sangeet Paul Choudary (gave me the much needed theoretical structure to think about platforms like X-Culture).
- Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms, by David Richard S. Evans, Richard Schmalensee (gave me even more much needed theoretical structure to think about platforms like X-Culture).
Science and Discovery: Even more specialized. That’s how to apply the platform business models in science. These books literally made me change my own research stream and shift from studying culture to what I know find more fascinating and practical – crowdsourcing.
- Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, by Michael Nielsen (read 5 times, completely changed how I do research and probably had the greatest impact on my professional life).
Business and Workgroups: These would be of interest only to those who run a business. But if you are running a business, these are a must:
- The Automatic Customer: Creating a Subscription Business in Any Industry, by John Warrillow (WOW! Very practical advice for improving your cashflow).
- The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries (basically an operator’s manual to X-Culture).
- Scrum, by Jeff Sutherland (changed how I work with IT, designers, and research collaborators).
Your Business Online: If you are trying to promote your company (or your persona) online, these two are a must. Not useful to everyone else.
- The Conversion Code: Capture Internet Leads, Create Quality Appointments, Close More Sales, by Chris Smith (taught me modern-day marketing, one of a few that I also bought a paper copy).
- Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, by Michael Hyatt (changed how I manage my life online, one of a few that I also bought a paper copy).
Religion: Not so much faith or spirituality, but organized religion.
- The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (made me seriously question my own beliefs and how I see religions)
History: These are not very practical books as far as providing advice for everyday life, but give you a much better understanding of the things around you; show where we came from and help you predict where we may go – and prepare for it.
- Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (sort of Gladwel’s Outliers, but for entire societies, explains the role of luck in the history of humanity; affected how I think about “developed” and “developing” nations).
- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson (luck matters, but there are things we can do – this book changed how I evaluate politicians and policies).
- Debt – Updated and Expanded The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber (helped me understand debt as a social institution and affected how I manage my own finances).
- Food: A Cultural Culinary History, (The Great Courses), by Ken Albala (gave me a much better understanding and appreciation of cultures around us).
Bio: We learn from our mistakes. But smart people learn from mistakes of others. Biographies help us learn from mistakes of others. Of course, I have read the biographies of many great political leaders, the Silicon Valley guru’s, the great companies and empires. Steve Jobs, Airbnb, Uber, Google, Jack Ma, Ilon Musk, Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca among the most recent ones. But somehow, only one biography got stuck in my head and shaped my own behavior. A story of underdogs who changed an entire industry, and then lost it all.
- Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry, by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff
Fiction: Not a big fan of fiction, but there is one that affected me deeply:
- Animal farm, by George Orwell
One day maybe I’ll tell you about the books by new-age guru’s that everybody raves about, but I found to be impractical or shallow (e.g., The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, by Timothy Ferris).
By Vas Taras