Books I liked

These are notes on some of the books I’ve enjoyed. I figure this is a good way to help me internalize them. Please let me know if you read any, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Nonfiction

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

Read this if you want to make your gatherings with other people more meaningful.

My notes on The Art of Gathering

This is one of the best non-fiction books i’ve read in years. It is entertaining but also actionable, and has a different perspective than most of the books I read. Its lessons apply to many things beyond creating impactful gatherings. Some of my major takeaways were:

  • Always have a perspective for why your gathering exists. What is its purpose? What are you trying to accomplish by getting this group of people together? Even if it’s as simple as “for old friends to catch up,” having a thesis helps make every decision easier.
  • Be a benevolent dictator at your gatherings. People want to be led, and if you don’t take leadership and guide the group in service of your gathering’s purpose, someone else will guide the group in service of a different purpose. So for example, if you are having a gathering for the purpose of having old friends catch up, that may mean people aren’t allowed to bring significant others — you should enforce this, in a gentle, but firm way.
  • Have memorable rules for your gatherings. This reminded me of Ben Horowitz’s advice about building companies. Having memorable rules helps unite people, makes the gathering memorable and puts them out of their usual mindset. Some examples of rules include “no one can serve their own food,” “everyone gives a toast before dinner,” “phones go in the middle of the table” “everyone wears white” etc. By making rules explicit, people actually feel more comfortable and there is more equality than when rules are implicit.
  • Setting is very important and you should consider doing things to surprise your guests with the setting to jog them out of their usual routine. For example, if you’re having a dinner party that would usually take place around a table, consider having guests eat on the floor.
  • Make the gathering an enclosed space: for example, seat people around a circular table, instead of on either end of a rectangular one.

Burn Rate by Andy Dunn

Read this if you are interested in business and want to hear an honest, emotional, empowering story about mental health.

My notes on Burn Rate

This was one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. I would have read the story of the founding of Bonobos on its own, it is an interesting and innovative company and since I have worked in the space I liked learning about the origins of the DTC movement.

But Dunn’s candor and thoughtfulness about his experiences with bipolar disorder made the book incredibly touching and engaging, way beyond a normal business book. Hearing about his first manic episode in college was so relatable; he was a high-achieving kid at Northwestern who was partying a lot and dating someone seriously for the first time and it was hard to tell what was normal college behavior and what was madness until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

The rest of the book is similarly honest and compelling. He beautifully illustrates the highs and the lows of entrepreneurship weaving together with bipolar disorder.

Something that struck me is that even though he was desperately afraid to acknowledge his diagnosis, even to himself, everyone he eventually opened up to (including the board of directors of Bonobos!) were supportive and understanding. And things he feared for so long, like telling his Board or his girlfriend about his condition, were over in mere moments — the fear was so much worse than the actual event. This has certainly been true in my life and is something I try to remember.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Read this if you’re in the mood for an incredibly well-researched story about a business empire, the dysfunctional family that runs it, and the horrific opioid epidemic it helped cause.

My notes on Empire of Pain

  • It was transformational for the pharmaceutical industry to start marketing products like consumer goods. For example Valium was marketed for a wide array of ailments, to housewives etc. The Sackler brothers helped pioneer this marketing.
  • There was an idea that doctors’ judgment couldn’t be swayed my marketing or sales tactics. This is clearly wrong and many doctors overprescribed opioids as a result of aggressive sales and marketing
  • The Sacklers owned interests in competitive firms, industry publications, gave money to tons of universities; they had many conflicts of interest. Reminds me of the founder of incredibly powerful hollywood agency CAA Michael Ovitz’s motto: “no conflict, no interest.” This can be a great business strategy but is morally dubious especially in a field like medicine.
  • Money tore the Sackler family apart; the brothers barely talked towards the end of Arthur’s life
  • Pharma companies have strategies to move the public from one drug to a slightly different drug to extend the time they’re selling things on patent
  • Oxycontin was marketed and widely believed to be non-addictive. This is terrifying
  • The data on which doctors are prescribing which drugs is very valuable and is used in a way similar to how CPG firms use retail data. Pharma companies call on doctors in high-prescribing regions, give special attention to doctors who were prescribing a lot. Purdue could also see which doctors were clearly writing fraudulent prescriptions, and mostly encouraged this

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

Read this if you are early in your career or are looking to find more meaning in your career. One of the best frameworks I’ve found for thinking about how to build a career and life that you will enjoy.

My notes on So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Newport wrote this when he was finishing a computer science PhD at MIT and preparing to enter the academic job market. He was facing a lot of career uncertainty and wanted to understand the factors that lead to fulfilling careers. Since writing this book, he’s gone on to write several more popular books in addition to being a professor, and he appears to have a lot of autonomy and success, which gives his framework some credibility in my mind.

Autonomy is an extremely important factor in meaningful, fulfilling work. But, it’s a mistake to try to for too much autonomy before you’ve built up something valuable to offer the world (for example by trying to become a full time travel blogger from scratch at age 22). Autonomy must be “purchased” with career capital.

Career capital is built through

  • Deliberate practice: working intentionally and without distraction, mastering fundamentals and getting feedback quickly. He writes that most people and especially knowledge workers don’t do this, so it is an opportunity.
  • Having the mindset of a craftsperson: how can you deliver more and more value to the world?

Instead of focusing on finding something that you’re passionate about, focus on building career capital. This will earn you autonomy and control over your career. He gives the example of a software engineer who became indispensable to her employer, and built the leverage to negotiate a 4 day workweek.

I am not sure what the best ways to “deliberately practice” knowledge work are but some things that come to mind for data science are:

  • Publishing analyses and getting feedback on them. I have found this to be a great way to get a sense of what people care about, what they connect with and where holes in my thinking are.
  • Creating data science libraries: learning to interact with the underlying technology (e.g. Python & Pandas) seems like it brings a deeper understanding than passively using it. This is hard work.
  • Getting feedback from colleagues on presentations, code, and after meetings. This is also hard to do both because it’s uncomfortable for the ego and because it can be hard for people to give critical feedback.

Wherever You Go There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Read this if you want an easy-to-read introduction to mindfulness meditation or you’d like to deepen and reinforce your existing practice. It occupies a nice middle ground between scientific and spiritual.

The chapters are 1-3 pages and I’ve been reading one or two of them each morning or during lunch. It’s been a good companion to the guided meditations in the Waking Up app.

My notes on Wherever You Go There You Are

The mind listens to the body and the way that you sit during formal meditation practice can affect the quality of your mind. He recommends sitting in a way that “exemplifies dignity” and thinking of yourself as a mountain when you’re sitting.

He recommends 45 minutes of formal meditation a day to patients at his clinic. Any amount is good, but he finds that if you ask a lot of people, you are more likely to get a lot.

There can be dark or scary parts to oneself and part of meditation is having the courage to see these parts and be curious about them, sometimes over and over.

Van Gogh: The Life, by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Read this if you want to appreciate art more, you like learning about a person’s psyche, and you’re in the mood for a long read (it’s 1,000 pages or so).

My notes on Van Gogh: The Life

  • Van Gogh had a tragic life and never found peace or happiness. He depended on his brother Theo for financial and emotional support and painted mostly in anonymity for years.
  • Success didn’t bring him happiness. In fact, when he was first reviewed in a Paris art journal and gained some notoriety, he almost immediately felt shame and like an imposter. He likened pride to a liquor, which intoxicates you and leaves you sick.
  • Not being self-sustaining ate at him, the dependency of asking Theo for money really pained him and contributed to the mental illness that killed him.
  • His financial dependence on his brother haunted their relationship, which is terrible because it was the most important relationship in both the brothers’ lives. Mixing business with family is dangerous.
  • I am interested in what made him an exceptional painter, one of the best artists of all time. Two things emerged to me that help explain that:
    • First, he produced a huge quantity of work. He worked very fast, and painted consistently for year and years. This seems like a prerequisite to greatness.
    • Second, because he was a social outcast, he saw the world differently than other people and had space to think for himself. He wanted to be included by other artists but lacked the necessary social grace. Ironically this allowed him to develop a unique style, something critics called “finding truth”. This reminds me of the idea of “thinking from first principles” which is championed by many tech founders. It is very difficult to do, especially when one faces of distractions and social pressures. Van Gogh’s isolation allowed him to discover truth for himself.
  • There are non-linear benefits from creating things consistently. Vincent’s big break came in an unpredictable way, and it would have been easy to think of him as an overnight success, but he had been toiling in obscurity for years and years. Consistent work sets you up for outcomes like this but you can’t measure it, you can’t really plan for it and so this sort of long-term, non-linear investment gets consistently undervalued.

Wanting, by Luke Burgis

Read this if you are interested in social frameworks and understanding why people act the way they do. I appreciated the reminder to be careful of how your desires get shaped and how you should take an active role in setting your life up to have influences that reflect your values.

My Notes on Wanting

I have been hearing a lot about mimetic theory and felt like giving this a try. The basic idea is that people’s desires are determined by other people’s desires: we mimic other people.

It comes back to the idea of truly being oneself, and whether that is possible or what it means. I thought about this a lot while reading Wind-Up Bird and Black Book too.

You need to be careful who you associate with because you’ll take on the values and desires of people in your life.

There are different types of mimetic role models and it matters whether they are celebrities operating in another strata or peers operating in the same strata. If they are peers, this will breed rivalry.

Burgis suggests naming the mimetic forces in your life because awareness helps you make clearer decisions about them. Some that come to mind for my life are:

  • People in New York want to live in certain neighborhoods and in certain types of apartments
  • Over the past couple of years, my peers have transitioned from wanting to have fun dating to wanting to settle down and get married
  • People want to work for high-status companies
  • Within a company, people want to work on high-visibility projects
  • People want to go on trips to unique places

I could go on and on.

Fiction

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

Read this if you are in the mood for a melancholy novel that creates a new world with different rules than the one we know but that feels entirely natural. The writing style is conversational and matter-of-fact and it is a fast read. It will make you want to go to Japan.

My notes on Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s protagonist is Toru Okado, a 30 year-old man who is painfully aware that he is not getting to the essence of life. He is despondent and his relationship with his wife has grown stale.

Okado is unsatisfied with his job at a law firm and so he quits without knowing what he will do next. It seems that the job did not make him happy, but leaving does not make him happy either; he faces the difficult and common question, “what is it I truly need to be doing?”

Okado’s relationship with his wife started when they shared a strong connection but the drudgery of day-to-day coexistence has buried that connection. They are unable to truly “know” one another, and this idea of essence comes up again and again. Okado questions how he can ever know the essence of another person, especially when he does not really know the essence of himself.

Okado spends time in the bottom of a well to think about everything that happens in his life and becomes addicted to it. He needs solitude.

Sex is a complication in the novel and comes up in most of the relationships but is a secondary byproduct of relationships, it is certainly not the essence of the relationships or life itself.

There are several characters who have a supernatural ability to understand things and predict the future, it seems that some characters have the ability to tap into the essence of the world and understand it and use it.

People’s spirits can inhabit different bodies, the bodies of people are more vessels than core ingredients in what make up a person.

Okado is able to love his wife even after her infidelities. He does not ruminate on them and recognizes that they are not the core problem between them; instead the core problem is their inability to be truly open with one another.

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

Read this if you liked The Catcher in the Rye and are in the mood for thinking about what it means to be religious and how we should cope with what can feel like a ridiculous, phony world. This book apparently inspired the movie The Royal Tenenbaums.

My notes on Franny and Zooey

This isn’t as fun to read as Catcher but grapples with some more complex questions and still has Salinger’s distinctive style (lots of italics to emphasize characters’ utter exasperation). Franny and Zooey are brother and sister, part of a big family full of child prodigies who grew up starring on a children’s quiz show.

The book is broken up into two parts, the first focused on Franny’s disastrous weekend visiting her awful boyfriend at school, where she has a breakdown. She’s exasperated by lots of the things Holden Caulfield is exasperated by, but with more of an intellectual mindset.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Read this if you feel like an eery setting and great descriptions of the invisible web of group dynamics that exists between friends.

My notes on Never Let Me go

This book captures the resentment, desire for approval, and small betrayals that can swirl between long-term friends. But it also describes the love that coexists with those more difficult feelings really beautifully. The setting and circumstances of the book are creepy but also somewhat whimsical.

The novel’s premise is dystopian and probably should’ve prompted some more critical thought from me. But I didn’t think too much about the morals or the politics behind Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth’s positions in life when I read this, in a way that I think people do when reading Handmaid’s Tale or a similarly dystopian book. I mostly enjoyed the descriptions of the complicated feelings and interactions that develop between friends, especially when they’re in a group.

The narrator, Kathy, is really charming after a while and has a comforting way of not panicking about scary things. Tommy’s burst of rage but pure innocence and surprising intelligence made him really endearing. And I think everyone knew a Ruth growing up, someone magnetic whose approval was like currency.

This is a melancholy novel but not overly sad. Surprisingly, there was one scene that was exceedingly creepy that literally made the hair on my arms stand up.

The Incongruous Spy, by John le Carré

Read this if you want the escapism of reading realistic stories about spies walking through the fog in post-war London.

My notes on The Incongruous Spy

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by le Carré. His spy stories are dark and foggy but aren’t void of morality like some other noir novels. The Incongruous Spy is a collection of two short novels, both featuring George Smiley as the main protagonist. Smiley is a fascinating character: brilliantly intelligent but completely unremarkable in appearance and demeanor. His wife has left him for a Cuban race car driver and he hates the politics that have started to dominate the British Secret Service.

The stories take us through his past running spies in Germany and to a murder investigation at a fancy prep school in England. Le Carré builds the details of the mysteries brilliantly and you always feel like the answers are just beyond your grasp. There are plenty of wonderfully dark scenes in smoky parlors that made me want to go to London and piercing descriptions of the shadowy sides of people. I read it on the train from DC to New York and it was the perfect train book.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Read this if you’re in the mood for short stories and like ambiguity.

My notes on Men Without Women:

These are bite-sized stories that have everything I love about Murakami’s writing: strange but beautiful settings, bittersweet introspection, and mystery. There are lots of themes that show up in his novels: love triangles, men leaving home abruptly after a rupture in their relationship and traveling across Japan, phone calls in the middle of the night.

My favorite story was Kino, about a man who leaves his home and job and starts a small bar after his wife sleeps with his friend. The setting is beautiful, a cozy bar in Tokyo where old jazz records play, a cat naps in the window, and a mysterious visitor drinks scotch while it rains outside. I imagine this draws heavily on Murakami’s experience running a jazz bar in his twenties before becoming a full time author.

The main character is having trouble accessing his emotions following his relationship with his wife and this blocks the natural “flow” in his life and in the world. This idea comes up in Murakami stories a lot. His characters tend to work through it by seeking out solitude. In this story, the main character retreats from humanity, but must allow himself to connect with others instead of fully retreating in order to let his emotions flow and get unblocked. He has to have the courage to feel his emotions and let himself be vulnerable instead of permanently inhabiting the purgatory of protecting himself from being hurt again.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

This one’s long so I’m taking notes as I go.

I found this book surprisingly easy to read. It’s long but full of insight into how characters think that feels relatable in a way that is really compelling. Most of the characters’ thoughts are selfish or ugly, in a way that I would find hard to write because it would mean being intensely forthcoming and honest with oneself. A striking example to me is when Anna comes home from a trip to her young son, who she’s been thinking about and missing during her time away. Upon her return, she finds him lacking; he doesn’t live up to the image she had in her imagination and she is disappointed.

Vronsky’s love for Anna is, so far, not selfish; he seems entirely bound to her and to care about her completely. But this love is clearly destructive and is bringing both of them pain.

Russian names are difficult.

When Anna confesses her affair to her husband, he feels relief. The certainty that she was unfaithful is better than the miserable uncertainty wondering about it. This is so often true, that the fear of something bad is worse than the reality.