A Reading List for the Holidays

  Unleash your imagination for the holidays

Every week I share what I'm reading in Learning Habit. Subscribing to the free letter is also the only way to receive new articles on Conversation Agent and updates on what I'm working on (coming soon) by email. The only way to receive the email is by subscribing and opting in using the link above or the subscribe box on this site “never signed up for this” is an impossibility here.

    It's been a while since the mid summer reading list, so here's a current list to give you ideas to get smarter during the holiday season, start the new year with creativity and imagination on your team, and with a dose of evidence-based optimism:


The Better Angels of our Nature is a book worth reading. Especially since Pinker set out to write a follow up book on the same topic due out early next year. His main thesis is that violence is much less acceptable than it used to be for a variety of reasons and that unacceptability has come about as humans have developed civilization and sought out ways to live together more peacefully.


As a corollary to this message, we can use some Enlightenment Now to make the case for reason, science, and humanism stronger.  


It's a good idea to re-read Man's Search for Meaning when in search for profound humanity. This time the question I'm thinking about is, "How would I do, if I were put into the same situation he and so many others were put into? Would I be one of the courageous, noble ones, or would I ultimately fail as a human being?"


Lest we forget our place in the universe, Carl Sagan's Cosmos can help us understand 15 billion years of cosmic history while touching on philosophy, religion, and our society.


All I Did was Ask is an edited collection of interviews Fresh Air host Terry Gross did over the years. The conversation with actor Nicolas Cage (a Coppola by birth) is a favorite.

My favorite question is about the scene where Cage eats the cockroach in Vampire's Kiss: “what did it taste like?” Because Cage did it for real and it turns out it was soft, not crunchy as we would think. I was also curious about where Mario Puzo got the stories from for The Godfather, the book and the screenplays for the movies by Francis Ford Coppola. Was he connected himself?

“If you had a family member who was powerful, you made sure that you gave a present at Christmas or a special occasion. Which was not regarded as a payoff in any way.” For example, an illiterate person receives a letter and takes it to the priest for reading, thanking him with 3-4 eggs. Acknowledgement of skill or influence was a sign of respect in the old world. It was Puzo's idea to cast Marlon Brando in the movie… but Brando had a bad reputation, a troublemaker. Its quite the fascinating story. Puzo was also the screenplay writer for The Cotton Club.


Give and Take givers sometimes harbor this thought in the back of their minds that good people finish last. As a giver myself, I was interested in making sense of the differences between the givers at the bottom and the giver at the top. It's easy to lump concepts into simple buckets or binary choices, but reality is more complex. We live in the grays, and this book helps articulate the mental shifts of successful business people and givers.

Grant says there are three broad styles of interpersonal dealing — taking, matching, and giving. Takers are those who try to take more than they give. Matchers are those who try to give and take proportionally and conditionally. Givers are those who give more than they take. Takers are primarily self-oriented, matchers are other-oriented as a means to being self-oriented (I'll help you when I think you will help me) and givers are primarily other-oriented.

A growing body of research showing that giving under the right conditions really is the best overall 'strategy.' See also, the difference between selfless givers and otherish givers.


The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon interested me on a couple of levels. First off, this week I was thinking about biographies and how much we learn about how people make decisions from their lives. As an Italian, it won't probably shock you to learn that I'm a foodie; the acquisition of Whole Foods had me go back to the history of Amazon. The professional angle is that digital has disrupted some many industries, and Amazon is part of many of those disruptions.

The book describes Amazon's ultra-hardball business practices, but also the better aspects of the company's services and products. The conversation about the book has also been interesting. When the book came out, Bezos' wife blasted it in a review (Brad Stone had no access to Jeff Bezos), but the company's first employee, Shel Kaphan, came to the books' defense.


Abundance holds a more optimistic view of technology. Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler say the future is better than we think. Which is good news in a cycle of seemingly unending global economic and environmental crises.

We can get an idea of the ballpark ratio between curiosity and fear as a driver by tabulating how much we spend in science research in the U.S.—$30 billion at the time of the book writing—and the defense budget—which in 2011 was roughly $700 billion.


Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. This is exactly my problem. The ratio between things I start and things I finish is sub-optimal. Almost doesn't count. What things do we finish? Surprisingly (or maybe not), we progress the most when we take the pressure off. More done is the result of easing our expectations of perfect.


Many of the people I talked with in the last couple of years confessed they're bored at work. Even when quitting is not an option, or desirable, staring something on the side is energizing. Side Hustle was out in the fall. "The side hustle is the new job security.”


Hit Refresh is a set of reflections, meditations, and recommendations presented as algorithms. At the core, the book describes the shift from a “know-it-all” culture to a “learn-it-all” culture. When we're addicted to being right we cannot create a space where learning is a priority. The shift allows ideas to flourish and feedback to become a tool for progress. It's hard to admit when you could have been better. But that's often the first step to driving change. Curiosity and empathy are prized ingredients for innovation.


Make your Bed is based on Naval Admiral William H. McRaven's commencement speech on changing the world, which attracted 10 million views online. Making my bed after I've aired the sheets is one of those Italian habits I inherited from my mother. It does set the day on the right foot.


Pair that with Shoe Dog, Nike's founder Phil Knight's entertaining memoir and you have two solid stories. Plus he had a Plymouth Valiant when he started—a car many a grandfather passed down to their sons and daughters.


General Stanley McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2004. He quickly realized that conventional military tactics were failing. He and his colleagues discarded a century of conventional wisdom to remake the Task Force, in the midst of a grueling war, into something new — a network that combined extremely transparent communication with decentralized decision-making authority. Team of Teams is the story of how they were able to tear the walls between silos.


The Mystery of Sleep provides a historical perspective from an MD. First and second sleep are documented phenomena, meaning we sleep for several hours then are awake for a few hours in the night (say 1-3am) then go back to sleep for several more hours. This was understood as normal in many cultures in the past and many people would even get together and visit during that night-waking time.

So we adjust our routines to expect it and be okay with it. It doesn't always last long-term and can be for just a few weeks or months (some people may go back and forth between this and regular “through the night” sleeping). This happens if we have many things on our mind. As a night owl, I tend to get my best ideas at night or early morning right after waking up. We do sort things out in our sleep.


Culture against man is an analysis of the educational climate and processes of cultural and social conditioning in the 50's American culture was published fifty years ago and still relevant, so it's what I would call a perennial book. In addition to “Learning Nightmare,” it includes an entertaining analysis of “Blondness,” a chapter on “Human Obsolescence,” and the negative influences of advertising, technology, and the labor market. For the part about education he survey actual children. I discovered the book while listening to a talk by the late Dr. Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking.


The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a honest take on building and running a company. It is a struggle and it is hard to go from understanding the issues on a theoretical level to actually going through them to create a new business. Of course, the biggest thing is sales, and few enjoy being in that spot when what you're selling is you — as a service/product, as a philosophy of how we get things done, and as a brand. The biggest take away is that we need to learn to manage ourselves to run a company. Which is what makes it the hardest thing.


Creativity in Business is a book about the creative journey in general. It's based on a Stanford course by Michael Ray. See also, creativity in business.


Leonardo da Vinci is a fascinating figure in the Italian past. Genius and polymath, he had his quirks and distractions, maybe not at the rate we do. In a recent interview Walter Isaacson says, “What he was able to do is pause, and put things aside, and look at very ordinary things and marvel at them.” Can we do that?


Start the year off by understanding the value of timing with a book to pre-order — When: the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Dan Pink pores over research to answer the questions that nag at us, or we're curious about. In Drive, it was about what motivates us — see the Zen of compensationTo Sell is Human helped us get better at doing what we all do — move others. In his latest book, he answers timeless questions about getting to what we want by timing ourselves right:

How can we use the hidden patterns of the day to build the ideal schedule? Why do certain breaks dramatically improve student test scores? How can we turn a stumbling beginning into a fresh start? Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon? Why is singing in time with other people as good for you as exercise? And what is the ideal time to quit a job, switch careers, or get married?

    Reading helps us expand our knowledge of other domains and make new connections between what we know. so we can use it better. Polymathics, or being well read — and practiced — in more domains helps us build better judgement in all areas.

    The goal is not so much to become a master of many trades, but to acquire depth and nuance by looking at age-old questions based on evidence. Which is where cross-referencing many domains helps us internalize information with the value of context, use reason to distill wisdom.

    This is the very process we're using in the higher form of cognitive computing. If we can attain cognitive empathy at the same time, we'll get through the holidays with renewed enthusiasm and energized.