Feeding Your Inner Brainiac: My 2020 Recommended Books, Podcasts & Ideas

Feeding Your Inner Brainiac: Recommended Books, Podcasts & Ideas from 2020
It’s been an educational & enjoyable year of reading books and blogs, as well as listening to new podcasts. It's been especially helpful, a relieving distraction, from all that's been in the news.  

In fact, I've learned how to better cope with the turmoil in US Politics as well as the COVID pandemic as a result of my reading. 

I've broken down my favorites into some categories:

One quick note: all links on this page are non-affiliate.  Those for the books point to Amazon Smile program so that a part of your purchases goes to your charity of choice.  I get no compensation for recommending anything on this page. My hope in sharing them with you is that at least one other person will get similar benefits as I did from them. 

This Year’s Favorite Books

  • Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide, by Erica Etelson 

    There are many of us who are centrists and want to understand how to have meaningful conversations with our family, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens about politics and social issues with the hopes of finding solutions that satisfy everyone's need, using compromise.  

    I'm left of center, and also believe I'm closer to center than some. Even though I believe I'm open minded, it seems at times I've labeled people and dismissed them if I disagreed with them, especially if there were much further left or right than me. 

    This is what author Erica Telson points to in her book, Beyond Contempt.  A good portion of the book focuses on how we tend to demonize people we disagree with, with the focus of this book on how the liberals do so with the right. 

    The book is a great culmination of studies others have done to understand why certain people support the current autocratic movement in the Unites States.  Etelson also speaks to how we can come together and have meaningful conversations, instead of using labels like "racist" when we disagree with how people see race, or tell them they don't realize their "white privilege" when they are unable to find a job or get a leg up in society.  Here's a big hint on what she recommends: use less name calling, and a lot more listening to understand, focusing our listening to understand and empathize, rather than just waiting for the other guy to finish so that we can make our point. 

    This was a great read in conjunction with the next two books on the list.



  • Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

    The authors want to show us how to have better conversation about topics that matter, that also happen to push out buttons.  These can be business confrontations, family matters, politics, religion, and, generally, any personal day-day idea or social conflicts we face.

    This is a how-to book that first dissects why we lose our cool when somebody pushes our buttons, and how we can overcome the urge to lash out, instead directing our energy to have productive conversations. 

    Their recommendations were based on real-world observations of business people as well as conflicts in their personal lives.

    The combination of this book and Beyond Contempt is what lead to my pursuit to hold get-togethers with friends and even strangers online on political topics that seem to make all of us blow up.  The lessons here helped me calm my nerves as I focused more on empathic listening, while learning how to tell people about my perspective firmly, buy compassionately. 



  • People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent, by Joseph E. Stiglitz

    I wasn't sure whether to recommend this book because of the subtitle.  However, it's a great book to understand what progressives are asking for and why they think it'll work.

    The basic tenet of the book comes down to the failure of pure free-market, unfettered capitalism to create wealth.  Stiglitz argues that unfettered capitalism hasn't failed those at the top.  They were able to extract, not create, wealth in many ways, by seeking lower-fees for accessing public and natural resources or reducing regulation to increase their profits.  This is what he calls the Extraction of wealth, rather than Creation of it.  He goes on to explain that wealth is Created when businesses provide means for society to increase its standards of living.  

    His recommendations on how to get there isn't to have a purely centrally run government-based economy.  Stiglitz crystalized the idea that capitalism is essential for an economy where the capitalists are provided the resources to be creative, compete with each other in the market, and create wealth not just for themselves, but for the rest of the population through the products they develop and the living wages they provide.  

    He argues for the government acting as a resource for industry, whether that means defending those who can't defend for themselves (the people and their wealth, including their wealth in owning the public lands that we do), creating the infrastructure necessary for the economy to prosper, or being on the cutting edge of technology through research and education that feeds innovative ideas into the market, to be used by various companies to create wealth for a nation. 

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book, especially in helping me better understand what the Progressives want to accomplish. Even if you don't agree with all the solutions, this is a great book for understanding what Stiglitz sees as the root causes of the economic and financial woes of our times, as well as what one approach to solving them may look like. 
      


  • Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio

    Dalio's book came recommended to me by a number of friends and I kept putting it off.  I kept hearing people tell me how they thought so highly of it, but they never finished it.

    I started reading it towards the end of last year. The book has two halves: the first is Dalio's autobiography of sorts, while the second half focuses on the Principles he applies to life and work.

    I found both halves of the book fairly easy to read, though the last few chapters deal mostly with large company management that may or may not be useful to you. 

    Don’t expect to get through the book quickly.  I spent about three months getting through it, including going back and forth on some of the ideas and taking more notes.

    Just as Dalio explains in the book, if you want to skip the biography first-half of the book, you can.  I got a lot out of reading that though since it gives context to why he recommends the principles that he does.  He brings up most if not all of the lessons in the biography chapters.  Once you read the second half, you get a good repetition of the ideas.  That personalization and repetition made for good reinforcement of a lot of the ideas for me.

    My one big take away from the book?  Always aim for "Radical open-mindedness and radical transparency" with discussions and your decisions. I like that.  

    This is definitely a book you want to go back to after a year or two to re-read parts of it based on your notes and life circumstance changes. 



  • Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models, by Gabriel Weinberg, Lauren McCann 

    I’ve enjoyed Gabriel Weinberg’s other book, Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth, but I came by this book when I was searching for Mental Models based on reading the Farnam Street blog, by Shane Parrish.

    You can think of Mental Models as principles of thinking to help you cut through distractions and getting results. You’ve probably come across some of them already, like The Peter Principle for management or Ockham's Razor for finding the simplest solution.

    I liked how Weinberg approached the topic of Mental Models and categorized them into chapters dealing with life scenarios like being wrong less, spending your time wisely, etc. This is not the most comprehensive list of Mental Models, but it certainly introduced me to a large number of them. I used the book as a primer on the various topics. You can then pick one and drill in further with online search and articles on how to best practice them.

    As is often the case with any how-to book, none of this stuff sticks until you practice them regularly. I’ve chosen to practice just one to two of them each month before moving on to another. So, even though I read the book this year and learned about many I didn’t know, I’ll be going back to the book and other reference material I gathered around each topic in the months and years to come.

    What a great find!



  • The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, by Michael Bungay Stanier

    Man this book made me realize how I often fall back on Advising rather than Coaching.

    Stanier makes it very easy to understand how to Coach with the varied examples he gives and the distinction he makes between advising (fishing for someone) rather than coaching (helping them learn to fish on their own).

    The big take away are the 7 key questions you can ask as a coach, though you have to really read the book to understand the psychology of how and why each work:
     
    • The Kickstart Question—“What’s on your mind?”: to get the conversation flowing.

    • The AWE Question—“And what else?”: to encourage digging deeper, not just the surface and initial response.

    • The Focus Question—“What’s the real challenge here for you?”: to figure out the true issue that needs to get addressed.

    • The Foundation Question—“What do you want?”: to help the person get clarity around what they want, the solution they're searching for. 

    • The Lazy Question—“How can I help?”: to get the person thinking about how they want you involved.

    • The Strategic Question—“If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”: to crystalize what someone has to give up to gain what they want. 

    • The Learning Question—“What was most useful to you?”: so that you can both learn what was most useful and how you can be a better coach next time. 



  • Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, by Tim Ferriss

    Tools of Titans marks my third book read from Tim Ferriss.  I first read The 4-Hour Work Week in 2009, followed by The 4-Hour Body in 2011.  I’ve read his blog and finally picked up this book, which is a culmination of his lessons learned from various people he’s interviewed on The Tim Ferriss podcast

    I didn't read this book in the order of sections as they appear.  He recommends the same: pick a section or even a chapter that sounds attractive and start.  You can jump around and come back to any section without missing a thread. 

    He's created these sections based on the Ben Franklin quote from his book, Poor Richard's Almanac: "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." So, they are named Part 1: Healthy, Part 2: Wealthy, Part 3: Wise!

    I started out with Wealthy, went on to Wise, and came back to Healthy mainly because I was thinking about how to better run my business and investments.  In the end though, I realized I could have just as easily started out with any of the other sections since the lessons in wise could just as easily apply to business and investment decisions, or your social interactions.

    I found gems here and there like "Strong Views, Loosely Held" that reminded of the Radical Open Minded approach that Ray Dalio recommends; or the Richard Feynman quote that “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    The book is a fast read, even though it's quite long (706 pages). I suggest reading a chapter a day in this book.  You may even be able to read it alongside another book. 

                          New to me Blogs & Podcasts

                          • Blogs
                            • Principled Perspective Newsletter, by Ray Dalio
                              This is one of Dalio's latest projects where he continues sharing the lessons from his book, Principles: Life and Work.  They're easily accessible so long as you're a LinkedIn member. They are longer reads and give you an up to date perspective about the economic and business changes that Dalio sees in the horizon. 

                            • Brain Pickings, by Maria Popova
                              If you love in-depth analysis of authors, ideas and philosophies, Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog is a great resource for you.  She regularly reads, analyzes and write on various topics from Nietzsche on Love to How Abraham Lincoln Drew Poetry and Power from His Suicidal Depression (from recent reads). 

                              All her posts are extensive.  So, grab a cup of your favorite tea or coffee and enjoy!

                          • Podcasts
                            • Making Sense, by Sam Harris
                              I've seen Sam Harris on YouTube speaking about everything from religion to politics to meditation.  Some of his ideas are quite provocative and make me recoil, but they also make me think and question my biases and deeply rooted beliefs.  I find his interviews and opinions interesting, even if he's sometimes long-winded with his own opinion before asking his guests questions on the podcasts. 

                            • Startup School, by Seth Godin
                              I've attended a few of the Akimbo Workshops that were originally started by Seth Godin, while also reading his daily blog (that he literally publishes every day) from time to time.  My intent is to be inspired and get ideas on how to run my own business better.

                              While searching for podcasts by him, I found the Startup School podcast that encompasses many of the lessons you practice on the Akimbo Bootstrapper's Workshop.  If you like to go back and forth on lessons and don't want to take the workshop, this podcast is a great intro into bootstrapping.

                              Take lots of notes, practice, and have fun with it. As Seth also says, don't forget to "go go go!"

                              BTW, I highly recommend the Akimbo Bootstrapper's Workshop.  It's intense, with lots of interactions and challenges from the lessons and your fellow cohorts to help you sharpen or come up with your business idea.  It's well worth the price and time.

                          Ideas & Questions that Made me Pause

                          The Learning Tree: Books, Blogs and Podcasts that Changed Me 

                          This is a living list of my all time favorite books, blogs, podcasts and learning tools that have changed my life in some way.  The list is too long to include here.  Check it out and let me know what you think.