Food for Thought – Book Reviews and Reading List 2020

Another rather exciting year has passed. Even though the pandemic certainly heavily influenced how we worked and lived during the last year, I am unwilling to assign a negative connotation to everything that has happened. While all of us had to endure severe deprivations, many of us tried to do their best, making use of all the opportunities that have been offered to them. During the past year, I used my energy and time to put a stronger focus on various things. I dove deeper into my research projects, exploring different nuances of my professional life and I also had the opportunity to advance my personal projects. Those included health and fitness, getting a better picture of my journey to come as well as continuous learning and self-reflection. Especially the latter is an important aspect of my life, for which I reserve a lot of time and energy. To me, self-reflection is not so much about facts, about bits and pieces of information, but rather about perspective. Our view of the world, our values, our understanding of what is happening to us is only one possible perspective, one that is, tragically, highly limited. And while we don’t know what we don’t know, we can at least engage with other perspectives, other experiences and other views and evaluate where these diverge from our own and why. Reading books is one of the tools I use to reflect on my perspectives and to refine and adjust them, wherever I feel necessary. Facts and information can be found quite quickly, but the way you interpret and make use of them makes the difference – and makes us better or worse equipped to navigate a world that is characterized by overstimulation, complexity, and ultimately, a lack of emotional and moral orientation.

While I tried to tap into a diverse set of ideas and experiences during 2020, this article will present five highlights, hoping that some of the ideas I found most inspiring will provide some food for thought for you, as well.

The books I loved most in 2020
A Promised LandBarack Obama
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and DreamsMatthew Walker
When Breath Becomes AirPaul Kalanithi
Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily LifeNassim Nicholas Taleb
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans Rosling & Ola Rosling

A Promised Land – Barack Obama (2020). After months of discussions, rumors, and conspiracy theories, President Obama released his (long version) birth certificate in 2011, proving that he was born on American soil and was, therefore, a legitimate US President. In retrospect, it seems perfectly logical that one of the greatest supporters of the rally against Obama was – Donald Trump. “Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald.  And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?” said Obama on his 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, roasting Trump in front of the whole nation. Apart from the question whether Trump may or may not have deserved that roasting, it can be interpreted as a symptom of a very difficult presidency, in changing times when politicians are not only criticized and attacked for their decisions but for who they are. We know President Obama for his inspiring speeches, the clever statements, and intelligent jokes. Yet I believe his personal reflections and the reasonings behind his political decisions that he provides in his book are even more valuable, insightful, and fascinating. Besides the apparent pressure of handling the financial and economic crisis, ecological catastrophes like the explosion of the Deep Water Horizon platform, or Operation Neptune Spear, that resulted in the assassination of Osama bin Laden, there is one passage in the book that struck me particularly. There was one night, long before his election, when Obama woke up in fear and had to pour himself a drink. It wasn’t the fear of the upcoming election. It was his fear that he might have a chance to win. To me, this shows a great respect, beyond superficial personal aspirations, of how difficult of a job and how great of a responsibility the presidency is. You may or may not be an Obama fan, but the book gives you many (personal) insights into how one person tried to live up to the responsibility of the highest office the United States have to offer, and into the tragedy of knowing that his decisions will always be based on incomplete information. Outcomes are only likely to a certain extent, as the world is too complex and too fragmented for us humans to fully understand. I enjoyed this book a lot because I think you can take a lot of ideas and advice out of it, which can be applied to our own lives, as well.

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams – Matthew Walker (2018). Why do we sleep? Why do we dream? And how can whales sleep while being awake? This book was a true revelation about a topic, that, to be honest, I have never been particularly interested in. And why would I: We neither actively enjoy our slumber nor are we productive (in an economic sense) while we sleep. We mostly aren’t even aware that we are asleep while we sleep. Even stranger, our society seems to admire those individuals, who pride themselves with “only needing 3-4 hours of sleep”. It sounds tempting to consider this an achievement and to pride yourself with it. In one of his motivational videos on YouTube, Arnold Schwarzenegger put it very simply: “If you think you need 8 hours of sleep, sleep faster. Sleep 6.” However, the author Matthew Walker, a leading scientist and professor of neuroscience and psychology, would probably harshly disagree. Sleep is performing various useful functions for our brain. It prepares our brain for information input e.g. recognizing faces), it facilitates information storage, it transfers information from short to long term memory, it provides a self-cleaning mechanism and saves you basically from going insane. There is lots of stuff to learn, for example about the complex neurological system of how the brain keeps track of time (and therefore urges us to sleep), or what happens to our brain if we don’t get our 7-8 hours of slumber. One point Walker is very clear about: only about 1-3% of the total population are natural short sleepers due to specific genetic constellations, which are extremely rare, and the rest of us is well-advised to stick to sufficient sleep. This book provides fascinating insights about how the brain functions, how and why we sleep and what we can do to actively manage our sleep. For all those of you who have this boss who brags about being a short sleeper, give him this book. For all others, who are just interested: it definitely changed how I thought about this topic. Maybe it inspires you, too.

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi (2017). When breath becomes air was one of my favorite books last year. It is multi-faceted, discussing career, meaning, happiness, family, and ultimately death – and incorporates specifically those changes in perspective that we talked about here in the introduction. Kalanithi was a young and highly successful neurosurgeon, who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of thirty-six. One day, he was the successful doctor, looking at scans, diagnosing illnesses, performing surgery, and discussing Kaplan-Meier estimators, likelihoods of patients surviving a certain amount of time. The other day, he found himself in the role of the worrying patient, being confronted with his own personal mortality (and the likelihood of surviving the next Christmas), thinking about what to do with those days that still might be left to him. In this short memoir, he looks at important questions of life, exploring through different lenses what could be a meaningful life. What should he do after the diagnosis: Should he give up his job to spend time with his wife? Should he finish his residency? Or should he start a family and have a child, knowing that he might be gone so soon that his child may not even remember him? While he had been searching already for many years for what a meaningful life is (he had studied biology, philosophy, and literature to find the answer at the intersection, before dedicating his life to medicine), he waited for an epiphany in vain, even when facing the ultimate end itself. Despite all his doubts and challenges, he decided to pursue what he had been trained for (he finished his residency). He spent time with those he loved and even decided to start a family which he would all too soon say goodbye to. He engaged in reading and writing and started this last, yet overwhelmingly honest project of telling his story. While this sounds tragically sad and even depressing, I found this story to be life-affirming and inspiring. Despite not being able to find the answers he was looking for, Kalanithi managed to keep on walking and to do what he felt was worthwhile doing. While we often feel crushed by our doubts and inadequacies, not even thinking about our own mortality, Kalanithi gave us a beautiful example that it is possible to live a meaningful and self-determined life, even when facing the inevitable. In my opinion a beautiful and inspiring story.

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life – Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2018). You may have heard of Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan, or Antifragile. Skin in the Game is a later contribution by Taleb, a mathematician, statistician, and thinker, teaching at several universities such as New York University or London Business School. In his book, he explains that for all kinds of (economic and social) interactions, bearing some fraction of the total downside risk is necessary for decisions to be fair and efficient for all parties involved (therefore: to have skin in the game). In other words, we cannot expect good decisions in a game, where only one party bears the risks while the other receives the benefits. This involves numerous situations in our lives. Is a politician really accountable for the decision he makes? Is a management consultant held liable for a faulty advice? Are a scientists’ research results being adequately tested before he publishes (and even applies) them? According to Taleb, these and many other games are characterized by significant asymmetry, which in turn negatively influences how decisions are being made – oftentimes at the cost of those who bear the risk (see the financial crisis in 2008). Taleb produces very clear arguments, even though you probably need to adjust to his fearless and immodest style of writing. Maybe specifically because he sometimes ruthlessly attacks other intellectuals (for example holding Myron Scholes, Nobel laureate 1997, in part responsible for the financial crisis: “This guy should be in a retirement home doing Sudoku. His funds have blown up twice. He shouldn’t be allowed in Washington to lecture anyone on risk.” Maneker, 2009), he makes us critically reflect on what we know and even question what we have been taught so far. Ask yourself, as a manager, consultant, scientist: do you really think you have skin in the game? Do you bear a part of the true downside risk involved in the decisions you make? I fear that we oftentimes do not, even though we keep telling ourselves the opposite. While you might not agree with Taleb, he might still be able to challenge your thinking, which is already a win.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans Rosling & Ola Rosling (2019). Ask yourself, how has the world advanced? Three simple questions: A) What share of the world’s population doesn’t have enough food to meet their daily needs? B) What has happened to the global suicide rate in the last 20 years?  C) In low-income countries across the world, what share of girls went to school until at least age 11 (before the pandemic)? Answers: A) Around 11%, B) Decreased by about 25%, C) Around 60% (Misconceptions about UN Goals). Did you know? Most likely your guess was not even close. While there are uncountable problems and issues all around the world, it sometimes pays off to get your facts straight, or put a bit more moderately, to take a close look at what is going on. This should by no means imply that problems are solved. It means that all too often, we are prone to unconscious bias, which makes the world a darker place than it actually is. Some of the problems we have  are that often our facts are outdated or our reasoning is too simple to accurately estimate what is happening around us. One misconception is the outdated distinction between a developed and a developing world, or us versus them (named the “gap instinct”). Another big mistake is the “straight line” instinct, which means that we tend to extrapolate from known data to the future. Think about world population: while the human population has risen beyond 7 billion recently, scientific estimates suggest that the growth is slowing down and that we will reach a plateau in the near future – which looks more like an S-curve than a straight, let alone an exponential growth line. We also tend to generalize, judge data differently under the influence of fear, we overestimate negative news, etc. There are a lot of pitfalls when looking at the world, that may lead to crooked views. Even (highly) educated people tend to make these mistakes, a lot. Maybe especially highly educated people. Rosling & Rosling oftentimes used polls during their speeches, e.g. at the World Economic Forum, asking multiple choice questions about how the world is developing currently. They concluded that the most intelligent people did worse on average than dart-throwing monkeys when it comes to answering these questions correctly. That is interesting and sad at the same time, as it shows that education only partly saves us from making erroneous judgements about the world and what is actually going on in it (refer to Daniel Kahneman for a more detailed analysis on unconscious bias). It is another reminder for us to leverage different perspectives and to remember that our own models can only approximate reality. We need to carefully gather, analyze, and interpret the available data and only then make up our minds. Something that seems super important in times of widespread fake news and blunt lies.

Other inspiring reads in 2020

While the above books made me think the most during 2020, see also a list of my other reads below:

Brave New WorldAldous Huxley
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldDavid Epstein
The Business of Platforms: Strategy in the Age of Digital Competition, Innovation, and PowerMichael Cusumano, Annabelle Gawer & David Yoffie
Strategy for a Networked WorldRafael Ramirez & Ulf Mannervik
Designing Interactive Strategy: From Value Chain to Value ConstellationRichard Normann
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell
Bold: How to Go Big, Make Bank, and Better the WorldPeter Diamandis & Steven Kotler
Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of HumanityJamie Metzl
Il Principe (Der Fürst)Niccolo Macchiavelli
The Ultimate Introduction to Neurolinguistic ProgrammingRichard Bandler, Alessio Roberti, & Owen Fitzpatrick
Organizations in Action: Social Science Bases of Administrative TheoryJames Thompson
The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern ScienceJonathan Haidt
MeditationsMarcus Aurelius
The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your LifeTodd Herman
Brief Answers to the Big Questions: the final book from Stephen HawkingSteven Hawking
Everything is Fucked: A Book About HopeMarc Manson
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Christian Betz

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