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BR 278: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

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Category: 1 – Read ASAP! (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

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.

2. BUY it! · Book Review Actions · Book Reviews · Money · Psychology

BR 263: Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

Category: 2 – BUY it! (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: This is an interesting book because it isn’t about how to invest or how to think about money. Instead, I describe it as a book that is about how to think about thinking about money. It is a collection of stories and anecdotes that you’ve likely heard of before and that provide food for thought. And, it can either be a light heavy read depending on how you’re feeling.

I walked away with a list of questions that I intend to work through in the coming days. It made me think. And, for that I’m grateful.

Insights that resonated:

1. Our savings = Our earnings – Cost of essentials – Cost of our ego (all expenses related to looking good)

2. Manage your money in a way that helps you sleep well at night. 

3. Luck and risk in complex systems explain outcomes better than deliberate action. Respect them. Then do what you control. 

4. The key with compounding is to not interrupt it. 99% of Warren Buffett’s net worth came after his 50th birthday, and 97% came after he turned 65.

5. Luck and risk in complex systems explain outcomes better than deliberate action. Respect them. Then do what you control. 

3. SHELF it · Book Review Actions · Book Reviews · Career · Novel Concepts and Interesting Research · Philosophy · Psychology

BR 261: Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb

Category: 3 – SHELF it (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

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.”

3. SHELF it · Book Review Actions · Book Reviews · Business · Leadership · Management · Novel Concepts and Interesting Research · Psychology · Skills

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.

3. SHELF it · Book Review Actions · Book Reviews · Career · Psychology · Relationships

BR 247: The Algebra of Happiness by Scott Galloway

Category: 3 – SHELF it (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: The Algebra of Happiness is a nice collection of his weekly newsletters with many nice nuggets. This book didn’t rank as high on my list as I’d already seen most of the content. I guess I was looking for something I hadn’t seen when I read the book.

Top Lessons:

  1. Hard work and lack of balance early in your career has a disproportionate impact later in your career. Speed matters. There’s no right way to do it. It involves trade offs.
  2. Most important decision you make is who you marry. Good sex is 10% of a good relationship but bad sex can be 90%. Aside from that, your values – especially on money matter a lot.
  3. The ratio of how much you sweat to watching others sweat is a leading indicator to success.
3. SHELF it · Bio/Autobiographies · Book Review Actions · Book Reviews · Business · Management · Psychology

BR 242: Principles by Ray Dalio

Category: 3 – SHELF it (All Categories are 1 – Read ASAP!, 2 – BUY it!, 3 – SHELF it, 4 – SOMEDAY it)

Comments: This is going to be a controversial rating for a book that has been lauded a fair bit in the mainstream media. Ray Dalio is a legendary investor and is clearly very smart. I just happened to follow his work via his videos and his “Principles” website after having done a case on Bridgewater in graduate school. So, a lot of the book wasn’t new to me. It would be in the “Buy it” category otherwise.

Top 3 Lessons: 

1. Ray Dalio’s success built on investing since he was 12 + reflecting on experiences + approaching every decision with a fear of being wrong (never being over confident).

2. First order and second order consequences are often in opposition. Unhealthy food has a good first auto consequence but a bad second out a consequence.
Question – Will you choose a painful healthy route or an unhealthy comfortable delusion?

3. Managers are engineers. They focus on setting up the machine to create the outcomes they seek. Build systems first, then put people in.

1. Read ASAP! · Career · Leadership · Parenting · Psychology · Relationships · Self Improvement · Skills

BR 233: Non violent communication by Marshall Rosenberg

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Comments: Simple, profound, life changing. Someone I know describes this as “algebra” for communication – a must read for anyone who communicates (i.e. all of us). I think that’s a great description. Putting this book to action will be my top focus in 2019.

Top 3 Lessons:

  1. Keeping observation and evaluation separate in our thinking and communication is one of the hardest things to do. There’s a time to observe and a time to evaluate – almost never a good idea to do both at the same time.Words like always and never communicate evaluation. Communicating observations can be powerful.
  2. I feel is often misused when we use it so say things we think. “I feel I’ve been mistreated” or I feel misunderstood or I feel you..
  3. We don’t know how to communicate needs. :) empathic listening is all about listening to feelings and needs.
2. BUY it! · Creativity · Novel Concepts and Interesting Research · Psychology · Technology

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.
1. Read ASAP! · History · Novel Concepts and Interesting Research · Psychology

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.
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BR 227: The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

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Comments: Awesome book by a former national chess champion and child prodigy who then became a Martial arts champion. The depth of insight in this book blew me away.

Top 3 Lessons: Going to go with my top 5 instead :)

  1. Investing in loss. The gifted boxer with a fabulous right and no left will get beat up while he tries the jab. And, the excellent soccer player with no left foot will be significant less effective while she invests in it. And, yet, investing in loss is the only way forward.
  2. Amateur chess coaches start by teaching their students opening variations. Students learn by memorizing the “right” openings and by avoiding problematic ones. Expert chess coaches, on the other hand, start with the lowest amount of complexity. They start with just three pieces on the chess board – king and pawn versus a king. Then, they might substitute a pawn with a bishop or rook.Piece by piece, expert coaches build an understanding of the power of each piece and a comfort with space on the chess board. Over time, they add more pieces to the board and build their student’s understanding of the game from first principles.
  3. It is Chen’s opinion that a large obstacle to a calm, healthy, present existence is the constant interruption of our natural breathing patterns. A thought or ringing phone or honking car interrupts an out-breath and so we stop and begin to inhale. Then we have another thought and stop before exhaling. The result is shallow breathing and deficient flushing of carbon dioxide from our systems, so our cells never have as much pure oxygen as they could. Tai Chi meditation is, among other things, a haven of unimpaired oxygenation.
  4. A woman was about to cross the 33rd street in New York City. As she was about to cross, she looked the wrong way and took a step forward. But, a bicyclist she didn’t see swerved and narrowly missed her. She fell.Instead of taking a step back to the pavement, however, she began screaming at the bicyclist. This turned out to be an unfortunate error as a taxicab followed the bicyclist a few seconds later and hit her.

    There’s a saying that it takes at least 7 consecutive mistakes or unfortunate occurrence for a plane crash to occur. And, we’ve all likely witnessed downward spirals of varying degrees of severity. For example, we see it frequently in sports when talented sportsmen fall apart once they make a mistake on a big stage.

    In all these spirals, it is not the first mistake that counts. Instead, it is when we get caught in the emotions of the moment – anger, annoyance, fear – and refuse to move on. That’s when we commit the second, third and the costly fourth mistake.

    It is much easier to write about avoiding downward spirals than it is to do it – especially if you are given to bursts of emotions. But, in these critical moments, the only way out is to recognize you’ve made a mistake, stop, take a few deep breaths and snap out of the emotion as quickly as possible.

  5. “Learners and performers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are aggressive, others are cautious. Some of us like questions, others prefer answers. Some bubble with confidence, always hungering for a challenge, while others break into a sweat at the notion of taking on something new. Most of us are a complicated mix of greys.We have areas of stability and others in which we are wobbly. In my experience the greatest of artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies, playing on their strengths, controlling their tone of battle so that it fits with their personalities.I have found that in the intricate endeavors of competition, learning, and performance, there is more than one solution to virtually every meaningful problem. We are unique individuals who should put our own flair in everything we do.”