2017 Reading List

Last updated March 25/2017 – “Confessions of an Advertising Man” by Ogilvy and “the Art of Profitability” by Slywotzky should be written up and on the list by early May. Both are worth a read, and both are fairly “light” reads

Upon reflection as 2016 wound down, I realized that I hadn’t been reading anywhere near as much as I had in the past. While I could put this down to many factors (work, kids, commute time) if I am being honest with myself it was really because I had not made reading a high enough priority. To try and catch up with everything I have missed (since I used to read at least a book a month) I’m trying to read a book a week.

This section will outline my 2017 reading list (as it proceeds) with quick reviews similar to those in the mentorship reading list, but with a much wider focus. Categories will appear as I build a system, and books that I think are appropriate for the project management Mentorship program will also appear there. Since I don’t think that anyone will care what my chronological reading list is, I won’t record it, but you can expect book commentary to update at least twice a month (and weekly if I can).

I have now read a book in 2017 that hasn’t made me wish I had read it earlier. As a result there is now a “I will not be re-reading books below this line” entry – with the better material on the top. The vast majority of this list is (in my opinion) exceptionally good

The Books:


This is the first book I have read written by Seth Godin (go ahead and read his blog here – if it is interesting you will be back sometime next week) and I will probably read at least one more this year. I got two useful chunks out of Seth’s book:

  1. Instead of trying to figure out how to profit from what you know, help people with it, and you will see benefits as a result. I have no idea where in the “chicken and egg” spectrum this falls, but this list is largely being published (instead of just complied) because of this book – I write notes anyway, so an extra 15 minutes a week that might help someone with a reading suggestion is time I think I can afford to spend
  2. Everyone is unique, and instead of trying to become a cog in the machine, you should try and become a Linchpin – an indispensable part. This builds more value for you, and increases the value of the organization you are in – even if that is an organization of one.

Breaking the Time Barrier

This is an interesting book, offered “by donation” by Mike McDerment, who created FreshBooks (a cloud based accounting service). It looks at how to approach charging for value, instead of hours. This is actually a very slippery concept, and in my opinion the  main reason that hourly rates remain in use is because they are easy to track, not because they have anything to do with value.

Mike McDerment and Donald Cowper do a good job at identifying why you would want to charge (and pay) higher rates and  why it is important to understand your goals (and the goals of your clients) before you start looking at pricing. One of the obvious conclusions is that regardless of the price, if a product or service provides value it is likely to be successful in the marketplace – as long as all parties understand that value.



The two traits that consistently predict “positive outcomes” in life are intelligence and self control. No one has been able to consistently increase the first, and the second has been denigrated (or ignored as an artifact) for much of the last century. It includes some interesting anecdotes about how in the age of Freud, the challenge was to “break through” barriers to get people to realize their limitations, and then people managed to correct them fairly easily. This had apparently changed by the second half of the 20th century, so that people were fairly quick to recognize their issues, but just appeared to be powerless to make a change.

One of the largest (unintentional) takeaways I got from this book is that psychological researchers are very strange. A more useful takeaway is that people with high willpower tend to make less decisions, and have systems that they follow to preemptively make decisions for them (if this then that).

This book is about Willpower, both from a historic perspective as well as some fairly recent biochemical research. More importantly from my point of view, it includes pointers for improving willpower, in much the same way that one would do resistance training for strength gains (and apparently following a similar mechanism). Other useful, albeit unsurprising information includes how willpower is depleted, how to “recharge” your store of willpower, and how “decision fatigue” can cause bigger problems than you think it does.

It also includes some notes around why it is so challenging to diet (since your “willpower muscle” is powered by glucose – so your body says “give me that sugary snack so I can resist the sugary snack”) and provided me with additional reasons to avoid sugar in my diet.


This book may be overly intellectual for some, and I suspect that I will take some time (and likely re-reads) to wrap my head around the book. The central tenant is that there are three (not two) kinds of things, those that are Fragile (susceptible to failure with change), Robust (indifferent to change) and Antifragile (get stronger with change). Our language apparently doesn’t have the word for “the opposite of fragile” and many have been using “robust” or “strong” as the antonym. As Taleb points out, neutral is not the opposite to negative, and proposes “Antifragile” as the word for this concept.

The summary is effective as a summary, once you have absorbed at least the gist of the argument,  although it probably isn’t as effective without the background. “Everything gains or loses from volatility, Fragility is what loses from volatility and uncertainty.” Robustness is indifferent, and antifragility gains from volatility and uncertainty.

Antifragility benefits from “positive” Black Swan events, and a large part of the book deals with strategies (natural and man-made) for  insulating yourself from negative events, and being positioned to benefit from positive ones.

Since I read this book almost immediately after “Willpower” I was struck by the antifragile aspects of Willpower with stress causing improvement – to a point.

Great by Choice

This is a book that looks into how some companies were able to take advantage of good fortune, and how others tried and failed. While there is a lot of good information in this book, it is notable that they stopped collecting data in 2002, and the last decade and a half have had considerable more uncertainty. I found this a bit hampered by cute naming conventions – “10x-ers” instead of “companies with large sustained growth” “Bullets then cannonballs” instead of “effective prototyping” and “20 mile march” instead of “consistent execution plans”. Lots of solid information backing up the basic concept that successful companies are the ones that weather the bad times and don’t overextend in the good times rather than those that grow madly when they can and then try to consolidate when that growth stops.
While counterintuitice, I’d suggest starting with the chapter “leading above the death line” since most of the rest of the book follows from that, then go back and reread the entire book.
In retrospect, I note that most of the books written by Jim Collins have companies that either fall or become more “meiocre” within a decade of being featured – perhaps this is a viable investment strategy, or perhaps (as Daniel Kahneman muses in “Thinking Fast and Slow”) it is simply a reversion back to the mean.


THis is a book about decision making. More specifically it outlines areas where snap judgements (or “thin slicing”) can provide decisions that are as good or better than deliberative decisions. There are a number of good examples of decision making processes where more information was actually harmful (such as who is at risk for an immediate heart attack) and how a checklist can be used to “retrain” people to make better decisions. There were also a number of examples of how snap judgements can result in bad decision making.
An interesting book worth a read. If you have read “Antifragile” already you may find yourself noting several of the decision making methodologuies were constructed around how to defend yourself from what you don’t know.
My core take-aways from this book:

  • Some decisions are better made with less, rather than more information
  • Many decisions can be optimized by forcing yourself out of your current decision making process
  • Controlling an opponents decision making process can lead you to control their decision (Illustrated in Blink by the chapter on Van Riper, but more generally executed by advertisers and used car salesmen)
  • Understanding that you are subject to decision manipulation is the best way to counteract it

Note that this book (and many others) reference “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

Thinking Fast and Slow

If you only read one book this year, it will be a hard choice between this book, which goes into a LOT of detail on how we percieve the world, and “Decisive” which covers some of the same ground, but is focused on strategies to rectify our cognitive blind spots. This has three big sections which interact:

  • System 1 Versus System 2. This section outlines how our brains are wired, and how our “thinking self” tends to hang out waiting for our “autopilot” to run into trouble. Our thinking self is pretty lazy, so it generally lets our autopilot have free reign. System 1 is great at averaging, and not so good at adding, which is an issue when we get around to how we remember stuff.
  • What is “Rationality” which outlines how (most) humans actually make decisions. Note that impulsive System 1 makes the decision, and system 2 can override it if it seems crazy. Unfortunately System 2 tends to be pretty lazy, and misses a lot, which explains the failure of a lot of large corporate aquisitions. There is lots of good stuff in here about how people are risk averse, and feel losses more than gains. A (mathematically) identical question framed in a different way will provide different results, which explains a lot about advertising.
  • The “remembering self” versus the “experiencing self”. We are who we remember ouselves to be, not the sum of our experiences. A critical point in this section is that when we are “remembering” how good a time we had, we are really ranking it on the average experience, and the END of the experience. This (sadly) explains my performance on a job interview that I thought I had knocked out of the park. Time pressure caused a fumble at the end, with no time to recover, and that is the largest “weight” remembered in the interview.

The Geography of Genius

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” This is a book about several nodes of genius, and helps debunk the western ideal of the “isolated genius” showing that the place where creativity happpens can matter as much (or perhaps more) than the people who inhabit it. Of the places that he outlines (Athens, Florence, Hangzhou, Calcutta, Edinburgh and Silicon Valley) in my opinion it remains to be seen whether the valley is truly a node of genius or simply an effective marketplace: a Milan rather than a Florence. Mr. Wiener does a good job of pulling some of the commonalities of these places together, including the blend of chaos, poverty and opportunity tied to the perceived fall of an old order and the rise of an as-yet-undefined new one. There are some interesting thoughts hidden in this book:

  • are you a genius if no one knows who you are?
  • Are there different kinds of genius?
  • does genius “spread” with breakthroughs in one field helping “cascade” discoveries in others?

One of the particularly interesting points is the lack of academic institutions – as if established education is anathema to “new” discoveries. While many institutions followed these outbreaks of genius, most of the cities referenced were more “working class” and necessity is often the mother of invention.


This is an interesting book about how we make decisions, and covers some of the same ground as “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Instead of focusing on how we perceive reality, this book is focused on how to make decisions to systematically cover those blind spots. The pragmatic advice on project pre-mortems, triplines and our inability to recognize when we should be unsure (an artifact of System 1 from Thinking Fast and Slow) are alone worth the time to read. A couple of other “minor” pieces that I found useful were the “what would your friend tell you to do?” question and the “10/10/10 rule” – how will you feel about this in 10 minutes / 10 months / 10 years. If it’s a positive outcome for all of them, then this should be a no-brainer.
For some additional detail:

  • Premortem – It’s a year after the project was authorized, and it was a collossal failure. Why did it fail? What could we have done about it if we had forseen it as a possibility?
  • Triplines – If “X” happens then we need to reevaluate our decision. If the following conditions are true then we should choose alternative “A” instead of alternative “B”. What can we do to make these conditions true? What can we do to make these conditions false?

I will not be rereading books below this line

The Wisdom of Crowds

This is the first book I have read this year that I won’t be reading again. Mr. Surowiecki started the book with some confusion about “crowd wisdom” and the properties of networks. Specifically he used an example of the “shortest path” being the one in a maze where the majority of turns were made resulted in the shortest path out of a maze. Unfortunately this is a side effect of graph theory (how things connect) not “crowd wisdom”. This really bogged me down and made me look at his examples to decide if they were providing useful information or were “red herrings”, and wondering how many of the examples were things that seem to be connected but likely aren’t (“Confused by randomness”).
Useful items that I got from this book included:

  • How to structure groups to make better decisions
  • Information Cascades and the “first mover” effect (and how to force them – or avoid them)
  • ways to improve coordination

Leave a Reply