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BR 277: Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

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Comments: This book was a classic Eric Weiner book – lots of fascinating stories artfully weaved together with humor. A fun read and one for the bookshelf for when you’re in the mood for it.

Insights that resonated: 

(1) “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” | Plato

(2) “Walking quiets the mind without silencing it completely.” | Eric Weiner, Geography of Genius

3. SHELF it · Book Review Actions · Book Reviews · Philosophy

BR 275: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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Comments: A fascinating peek into the diary of the most powerful man in the world at the time.

Insights that resonated:  The one word that I’ll remember the book by is “perspective.”

“Keep perspective” seems to be the one piece of advice Marcus reflects on the most. He does this by constantly reminding himself of death.

In doing so, he reflects on the futility of chasing fame and sensory pleasures. And, he doesn’t seem to tire of reminding himself of his place in the world – that of an evolutionary speck – in these reflections.

Marcus Aurelius was probably the most powerful person in the world at the time. So, the nature of these notes are all the more impressive given the immense power he held. He clearly passed his stoic examinations with flying colors.

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BR 274: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

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Comments: It is so amazing to think about the sheer power of making insights accessible. Seneca’s notes were written two centuries ago.. but so many are still relevant today.

Insights that resonated: A few among many that stood out to me –

  • All ideas with merit are common property (more)
  • Treat everyone as you’d treat your superiors.
  • Spend less time mourning your friend and instead go ahead and make one. (more)
  • There is nothing a wise man does reluctantly. He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity will force on him.
  • Something that can never be learnt too thoroughly can never be said too often.
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BR 273: The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou

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Comments: A practical book for the first time manager. I’ve enjoyed Julie’s blog posts and think she comes across as positive and authentic. She did so here too.

Insights that resonated: The premise of the book is – be thoughtful about how you manage your team and keep adapting your style and processes as time passes. I thought Julie delivered on that with lots of insights from her time leading a fast growing design team.

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BR 268: Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

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Comments: Ender’s Game from the point-of-view of Bean. If you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I’d start there. If you have and liked it, you’re likely to love this too.

Insights that resonated: None – just an engaging read. :-)

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BR 265-267: The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi

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Comments: Growing up as a Hindu in India, I listened to many fascinating mythological tales with supernatural beings, incredible powers, and such. This work of fiction aims to make sense of it all with a fascinating and believable tale. Very well crafted.

Insights that resonated:

1. The central insight was about the importance of being as principled as possible. That, in turn, means striving to apply those principles 100% of the time. There were many cases where the hero (Shiva) had a strong cause to bend the rules or make exceptions. But, he refused to do so – winning the respect of his followers as a result.

2. Provide the framework for discussion and let people arrive at solutions themselves.

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BR 264: No Rules Rules by Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings

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Comments: A helpful insight into Netflix’s culture – which is unique even by Silicon valley standards.

Insights that resonated:

1. Optimize for high talent density and attract + retain this talent by paying top-of-market. Do this in cash – not with bonuses, RSUs, etc. There are thus no stock cliffs at Netflix – it is the manager’s duty to keep ensuring the employee is continually paid top-of-market. Employees are encouraged to do their own research as well – e.g. interview elsewhere and come back with a competing offer to ensure the manager has the right data.

2. Netflix is a high performing sports team, not a family. One practice that drives this hope is “the keeper test.” Every 6 months to a year, every employee is encouraged to ask their manager – “if I had an offer to leave Netflix, would you fight to keep me?” If the answer is yes, all is well. If no, then the employee is paid a generous severance. If in between, it is a chance to receive helpful constructive feedback and course correct. It helps that this is not done in isolation – candid feedback is a big feature of the culture at Netflix.

(I’ve thought about this practice a bunch since and think it would be helpful across companies with different cultures.)

3. After optimizing for high talent density, provide near complete freedom and responsibility for creative roles – no control processes (e.g. expense, procurement, etc.) and complete decision making power. This comes with the responsibility to do the right thing for Netflix.

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BR 262: Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal

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Comments: I enjoyed reading this book. General McChrystal starts out with a lofty aim – to prove that he had a better approach to management than the traditional hierarchical org chart. I’ve read a few books that have attempted to propose better alternatives. This one sounded the most promising based on his experiences leading the Special Ops force against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

This would be a category 2 book (“Buy it!”) if you’re interested in management and/or the military.

Insights that resonated:

1. Focus on leverage instead of efficiency.

2. My summary of what I took away below –

I read “Team of Teams” by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and co. recently. The book makes the case that rigid organization structures – the legacy of the assembly line – need to be replaced by a more flexible model – a “Team of Teams.”

The book makes the case that rigid organization structures may have worked in a world where we dealt with complicated problems. But, they don’t work in today’s world characterized by complex interactions and rapid technological changes. And, it is inspired by the experiences of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s experiences leading the Joint Special Operations Command against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

I was skeptical as this is a topic many have attempted to tackle with limited success. But, the book came highly recommended and I think it justified the recommendation. I was positively surprised at the clarity of thought and found it applicable.

The book makes 3 recommendations to move from rigid organization structures to to a “Team of Teams” –

1) Shared consciousness: Replace attempts at blocking information based on access and seniority and embrace broad and open sharing of as much information as possible. The more shared the context, the better everyone on the ground will be able to operate.

2) Decentralize decision making: Once you’ve provided the context, enable folks on the ground to make decisions and strategic calls. They likely have more information than their leaders and any attempt at gaining approval will slow people down.

3) Gardener leaders instead of chess players: Rigid organization structures invoke the image of leadership as skilled chess players. They concoct amazing strategy and the pawns on the ground follow orders. In a team of teams, leaders act more like gardeners – tending to the system and organizational culture – and enable teams to be quick and decisive.

Management systems are hard to change. The assembly line model, as an example, has stuck around for more than a century. But, the book does a good job explaining that the days of celebrating efficiency are over.

We need to spend more time thinking about effectiveness and leverage.

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BR 261: Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb

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Comments: Fooled by Randomness is classic Nassim Taleb in that it is insightful and provocative. It just didn’t hit the heights of “Skin in the Game” in terms of what I took away. Perhaps it is because I had given a lot more thought to the role of chance in our lives – the topic of this book.

Insights that resonated:

1. We habitually underestimate the role of chance in our lives.

2. On randomness and stoicism.

“Having control over randomness can be expressed in the manner in which one acts in the small and the large. Recall that epic heroes were judged by their actions, not by the results.

No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word. There is nothing wrong and undignified with emotions—we are cut to have them. What is wrong is not following the heroic or, at least, the dignified path.

That is what stoicism truly means. It is the attempt by man to get even with probability. Stoicism has rather little to do with the stiff-upper-lip notion that we believe it means. The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life’s gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life’s dirty tricks.”

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BR 260: What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz

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Comments: There’s a lot to like about Ben Horowitz’s book on culture. His first book was just a tough act to follow.

Insights that resonated:

1. Culture – what you do is who you are.

2. Choose virtues instead of values -> Values are what we believe. Virtues are beliefs that we pursue or embody.

3. The amount of communication required in a relationship is inversely proportional to the amount of trust in it.