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BR 278: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

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Comments: A perspective changer.

Insights that resonated: 

(1) Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste” is a recent read that I’ve thought about a lot. It is fascinating to dig into the history of a place. I’ve had some insight into the institution of slavery in the United States. But, there’s nothing like the kind of insight a seasoned reporter brings.

It was particularly powerful for me as she draws parallels to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and the treatment of Dalits in India. She makes the case that calling this “racism” is a simplification. Caste systems go deeper than that.

Stories about caste in India always sadden me. That’s not just because of the heartbreaking stories. They remind me of our collective stupidity and our unwillingness to learn from experience.

Most Indians – regardless of caste – were treated horribly by the British during the years of the British occupation. And, yet, despite all the shared humanity that helped us get through that experience, we didn’t take those lessons forward.

(2) While Isabel Wilkerson focuses on these 3 caste systems, the truth is that caste exists everywhere. Just like other popular western exports, a caste-like hierarchy based on skin color has become the most popular kind around the world. But, there are other systems too. When I lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 months, the dominant caste was Muslim for example. And, if you’ve traveled around the world without a western passport, the global immigration system will never fail to remind you about the importance of the color of your passport, your accent, and the color of your skin.

(3) At its heart, caste systems are about pecking order. We attempt to establish pecking orders wherever we go. Then, we go to crazy extents to maintain them.

This isn’t just true about nations. It is true about any human group. It is likely such pecking orders exist where we work – some function is the equivalent of the “dominant caste” and does all it can to preserve its status.

(4) It is hard to empathize with groups below the pecking order if you haven’t been there. That’s part of the human condition too. Reading stories in Isabel Wilkerson’s book is one thing. Experiencing it every day is another.

We live in the San Francisco Bay Area. This place likely has more immigrants per square foot than most places on the planet. And, yet, even in a place where we are not the lone outsiders, we experience situations that remind us of our status in the hierarchy.

This week, it was getting honked and told to “get out of the way” in a parking lot as we were unloading our bikes and kids. Last week, it was being told what to do in a car wash. We have a long catalog of these experiences. It is nearly always an older white/caucasian man who assumes he has the authority to tell us what we should do and how we should behave.

If this is our experience in the Bay Area, I can only begin to imagine the daily slights many others who are lower in the hierarchy experience. It is enough to drive you crazy.

And, yes, the frequency and intensity of these daily slights have likely gone down – on average – in the past decades. But, they’re still around.

(5) It takes a lot to see through false narratives of those who seek to use it for their gain. As Seth beautifully described, identity is often used against us.

We can hope for mature responses from time to time (this one warmed my heart).

But, I don’t see any way out of pecking orders and caste system. I think it is a side effect of our fallibility.

(6) While I don’t believe we’ll ever live in a world without arbitrary hierarchies, I do hope for progress toward that ideal. In a few years, the US will have as much of its history without slavery being legal as it spent with that institution.

I hope we’ll cross many more such milestones and move closer to a world where we spend more time thinking about what we have in common vs. what is different. Over time, maybe we’ll extend that to the plants and animals we’re blessed to share this space with. Before it is too late – at any rate.

The only way that will happen though is if we construct the kind of society that doesn’t gloss over our past. Our history is full of bloody wars and cruelty toward each other for arbitrary reasons. We have much to learn from all that bloodshed and suffering.

The more time we spend understanding our past, the more we will be able to understand the imperfections in our culture/community/country in the present.

No culture or country is perfect.

The problem is when we think we are.

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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 259: The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

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Comments: I think this book is a good place to start if it is one of the first books you read about leadership and culture. Dan Coyle pieces together many wise notes – the importance of vulnerability, psychological safety, sharing appreciation, etc. – with a collection of good stories. It just didn’t work for me.

Insights that resonated: Trust in a team is proportional to psychological safety.

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BR 255: Range by David Epstein

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Comments: I think this book is an important read as it is an antidote to the “start early and specialize as quickly as possible” advice that is sometimes peddled. While it might appear that David Epstein is against the notion of deliberate practice and specialization, I didn’t take it as such. Instead, his push is for us to appreciate breadth and the meandering path we might take to figure out what we want to specialize in. He makes the case (repeatedly) that the meandering path gives us the range to make the specialization count.

Top 3 Lessons:

1. Breadth of experiences are both key and undervalued. So, take the time to choose where you’d like to focus.

2. Lean into what your experiences have given you. And, also remember to lean into the experiences you are presented with. The dots only connect backward.

3. There is no such thing as “falling behind.” Comparisons are useless too. You are on your own unique path – one that will be defined by the range of skills you develop.

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BR 250: Who Gets What and Why? by Alvin E Roth

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Comments: This was a case of reality unable to meet expectations. Prof Roth is a Nobel Prize winner thanks to his pioneering work on creating a market for kidney transplants and it was recommended by a good friend who works with me on our hiring marketplace at LinkedIn. The book started off with plenty of promise as he spoke about the impact of marketplaces in our lives.. but the book was understandably focused on the marketplaces he’s worked on (kidney exchange, school enrollment, and law clerk enrollment). It is great in many respects and opened my eyes to some of the complexities involved in these markets.

It was just not what I was seeking. :)

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BR 249: Alchemy by Rory Sutherland

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Comments: Book of the year. It’s impact on me was as follows – every time I hear someone say “that makes sense – should work” or something similar, I stop in my tracks and remind myself that things that the idea that things that make sense should work is a falsehood.” Alchemy has put in a reminder as strong as any that things that work don’t need to make sense and that a dash of alchemy is often what we need to solve problems. In that sense, its impact on me was profound.

Top 3 Lessons: 

1. The opposite of a good idea is often a good idea. The most successful supermarkets post recession were either really cheap or really expensive. Luxury brands work. So do mass market ubiquitous ones.

2. The Earl of Sandwich asked for a type of food that would allow him to eat without leaving the gambling table. The sandwich since has received mass adoption. But innovation happens at the edges. Not for the average user.

3. Why do we have reason? So many animals have survived just fine without it and evolution doesn’t plan for the future and predict reason will be necessary for us to send someone to the moon. One interesting theory is that we developed reason as a way of justifying our actions to others – a necessary investment in a legal and PR department in a highly social species.

It is honestly really hard to bring this down to a top 3.

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BR 246: The Diet Myth by Tim Spector

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Comments: A must read. Tim Spector is a geneticist who does a fantastic job tackling the many myths that surround nutrition. This is a book I’ve recommended in every conversation about diet since.

Top 3 Lessons:

1. There is no perfect diet because it is an interaction between the person’s gut microbes and the food. Everyone reacts to different things differently.

2. Focus on natural, plant based, foods, Milk and food with living bacteria (yoghurt, cheeses), etc., are recommended. You won’t go wrong with diet that worked for your grandmother. Everything is best in moderation.

3. Avoid artificial/synthesized food, vitamins, and antibiotics.

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BR 232: Algorithms to Live By Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

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Comments: Really fun, geeky, book that doubled up as being insightful and applicable.

Top 3 Lessons:

  1. Explore/exploit: Exploration early in the lifecycle is the right strategy. Kids were considered intellectually deficient. But, as researchers opened up to the idea that they were in the exploration phase of their life, it made sense. Same with smaller social networks for the elderly.
  2. Wrong lesson from the marshmellow test. University of Rochester researchers exposed kids to an adult who promised to bring them better supplies but didn’t. When those kids were exposed to the marshmellow test, they did far worse.Willpower is important in enabling kids to be successful. But, it is likely more important for kids to grow up in an environment where they trust the adults they grow up with. Still a small sample (28 kids) but worth revisiting the learning.
  3. Prisoner’s dilemma has a dominant strategy that is worse for everyone. Unlimited vacation works like that because everyone wants to be perceived as a little more hard working. Equilibrium is 0.
    The only way companies can get around that is by shifting equilibrium – e.g. enforce x weeks of mandatory vacation.
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BR 231: Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferris

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Comments: An enjoyable book with many nuggets of life advice that will likely resonate with you depending on when you read it.

Not top, but the first 3 Lessons:

  1. Susan Cain – “You will hear so many stories of people who risked everything in order to achieve this or that goal, especially creative goals. But I do not believe that your best creative work is done when you’re stressed out because you’re teetering on the edge of bankruptcy or other personal disasters. Just the opposite. You should set up your life so that it is as comfortable and happy as possible — and so that it accommodates your creative work.”
  2. Tim Urban – “Society loves to glorify the “you-as-CEO” paths and make people who don’t want to be the CEO of their own career feel inferior about their path, but neither of these paths is inherently better or worse than the other — it just depends on your personality, your goals, and what you want from a lifestyle. There are some super smart, talented, special people whose gifts are best expressed as CEO and others whose are best expressed when someone else is worrying about keeping the lights on and you can just put your head down and focus on your work. Likewise, there are some people who need to be CEO to find their work fulfilling and others for whom being CEO and having their work bleed into everything is a recipe for misery.”
  3. Graham Duncan – “I like to think about careers through Dan Siegel’s model of a river flowing between two banks, where one side is chaos and the other side is rigidity.. It’s critical to remember you can always choose to course-correct and swim toward structure or chaos, apprenticeship or freedom, depending on what you need at that moment, what tempo and phase of your career you want to be in, which riverbank you’re coming from and where you want to go.” Advice to himself – be more patient with the rigid side where you’ll likely find yourself in your early life.”

There are literally the first 3 quotes from my book notes. There are many ideas that have stuck with me. R

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BR 230: Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb

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Comments: Albert Wenger has a great post explaining why you should read “Skin in the Game” that sums up my thoughts. Nassim Taleb is a brilliant jerk and it comes through in the book. There are moments of brilliance that make it well worth the experience and then there are moments when you are left shaking your head at his desire to pick fights and insult people for the sake of doing so. Albert also makes a great point at the end about reading books from folks we may not always agree with – “This is a good moment to point out that we should all seek out writers with whom we disagree at least some of the time. If we only read books by authors where we agree with every one of their tweets, why bother? What are we expecting to learn? Too many times we are letting our emotional reaction to something an author has said or done stand in the way of engaging with their arguments. Taleb certainly provokes a strong reaction at times, but by all means read “Skin in the Game” nonetheless.”

Top 3 Lessons:

  1. When someone says it is good for you when it is also good for them and when they don’t face downside, it isn’t good for you.
  2. Better fences make better neighbors. It is easier for people to like each other as neighbors than roommates. Interventionists keep trying to get people to not act sectarian when being sectarian is in our nature. Better to use that to keep groups and design systems that encourage us to work with each other. (Powerful implications in management and life)
  3. Loss aversion doesn’t exist (big statement!). The flaw in psychology papers is to believe that the subject doesn’t take any other tail risks anywhere outside the experiment and will never take tail risks again. The idea of “loss aversion” have not been thought through properly –it is not measurable the way it has been measured (if at all mesasurable). Say you ask a subject how much he would pay to insure a 1% probability of losing $100. You are trying to figure out how much he is “overpaying” for “risk aversion” or something even more stupid, “loss aversion”. But you cannot possibly ignore all the other present and future financial risks he will be taking. You need to figure out other risks in the real world: if he has a car outside that can be scratched, if he has a financial portfolio that can lose money, if he has a bakery that may risk a fine, if he has a child in college who may cost unexpectedly more, if he can be laid off. All these risks add up and the attitude of the subject reflects them all. Ruin is indivisible and invariant to the source of randomness that may cause it.