My 2018 in Books

― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

This quote engraved itself in my mind indefinitely when I read it first. Not only do I occasionally blurt it out at parties to sound cool, but it has also shaped my thinking in an important way. While I always loved reading, now I believe that to get the most out of life, I should read as much as I can. I told myself, I want to try and read a thousand books.

Reading a thousand books, however, is quite a challenge and can easily take a lifetime. And as with each big challenge, cutting it up in smaller pieces makes it more doable. Luckily, my favourite book website and largest online community of book readers ‘Goodreads’ has a great feature available. The Reading Challenge.

So I took this challenge, set my target for 25 books, meaning it would take me 40 years to reach my grand goal.

While I didn’t reach my target, I found that the challenge helped me to pick up a book more often than I normally would have. With this article, not only do I want to inspire others to read more but I definitely also use it as a recap just for myself to better remember what I learned this year.

Therefore, here the reviews I gave on Goodreads about the books I read, with some adjustments and updates to reflect my thoughts today:

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World — Adam M. Grant

Rated 4 out of 5 stars

This book is a comprehensive overview of inspiring individuals, leaders, parents and teachers and how their behaviour can help others think differently about creative thinking and, especially, the ways to improve this.

Most importantly, it showed me that also creative work requires hard work and productivity.

Even me writing this article on the second day of Christmas (which we have in The Netherlands), can be considered a result from the insight that it is important to keep producing artefacts from the developments of your mind. A quote from the book that stayed with me: ‘Don’t bring me solutions, bring me problems.’

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Rated 3 out of 5 stars

The book starts with a very good first chapter, where some dead serious insights are shared on how big data can show us the real reasons why Donald Trump appears to have been elected (spoiler: It’s racism).

In the rest of the book some noteworthy examples are given that truly show the power of big data and why we should start basing much more decision-making processes on data analysis. It definitely sheds a new light on the differences in what people say or think they do and what they actually do.

However, while the examples of research results speak to the mind and are at times even funny, the relevance of the research went down for me throughout the rest of the book. I missed a clear explanation of the steps that can be taken towards using big data in actually solving world problems and how it can be integrated more easily into existing institutions. It is worth a read for those unfamiliar with big data, but for those seeking tools to apply it, this book will not get you much further.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World — Cal Newport

Rated 4 out of 5 stars

Recently I have found myself increasingly troubled by distractions in life. A fractured schedule of meetings, emails, calls and updates have prevented me from doing many of the ‘large’ jobs that require concentration, among them writing.

With this book, Newport gives the explanations of why this happens in an overconnected world and hands you some tools to structure yourself to get more full concentration work done. Each of these tools is mostly based on habits and require effort to keep up.

After reading the book, I started my day now by drawing a schedule, prioritising deep work tasks and assigning blocks of time to each task, all the while having my smartwatch on quiet. Today, rereading my review and having a new job, I realise that I have stopped doing those things and did not follow through with the techniques described. My smartwatch is on again and I often feel scattered in my attention. Time to retry this I guess.

Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective — Thomas Sowell

Rated 2 out of 5 stars

I don’t always agree with the deterministic view on the situation of people in this world. While I am no fan of ‘ghetto’ culture either, Sowell regards anyone living in the ‘ghetto’ culture exactly the same, without properly defining what ‘ghetto’ culture is, seeing the good influences it might have done or differentiating amongst individuals. Sowell does point out several things, however, that should reposition many thinkers in the equality debate.

Firstly, something comes up that relates a lot to the current debate in the Netherlands, sparked by a controversial statement from a member of the Dutch political party Forum voor Democratie (FvD) on the differences in IQ between people. While taken up by the media as ‘discrimination’ and even ‘racist’, Sowell actually shows that such an observation of differences in IQ is often done through different groups in society. The cause of such differences, however, is almost impossible to determine, due to a large number of variables involved. Geographical, sociological, demographical and cultural factors need to be incorporated and Sowell shows that both failing and succeedings combinations of parameters within the full range exist. The world, again, proves a complex place, with no predetermined solutions.

That differences in IQ exist, unfortunately, is a reality. It shows that in our world, the cards are not divided equally in terms of food, education, health. It should be even more reason to fight for creating a more equal world. But Sowell doubts if wealth distribution is the solution.

Humanity has been poor most of its life. That large parts of the world have managed to escape it, should be seen as an achievement, like solving a difficult puzzle. The ones that have not, are subject to so many factors influencing well-being, that poverty is often the most likely condition. Sowell argues that we have the tools in our hands to try and solve the poverty problem, but disregards the redistribution of wealth as the solution. Rather human capital, capacity building or skills should be emphasised because that would allow for creating one’s own wealth, instead of relying on others for it.

Changing the culture, education and facilitation of production are the keywords, to which I take Sowell for speaking the truth. At least, it should be in a capitalistic society, which lies at the heart of these assumptions. It can certainly be argued that capitalism has done well to fight poverty, looking at the reduction of poverty around the world. However, the dark sides of capitalism have surely presented itself over the years, with the destruction of our natural resources and the violation of human rights. And at the same time, we see research emerging that shows the distribution of wealth to be beneficial to get people out of poverty. The discussion appears not to be closed yet. (In retrospect, the argument that inequality should rise before it can go down, was refuted in another book I read this year).

Sowell represents for me a breed of economists that can have many worthwhile insights, but also have used faulty statistics and individualistic values to justify a crashing down capitalistic system. Perhaps, if we can find a new economic system, where growth is not the only thing at the centre of things, we could find the optimal balance of wealth production, natural capital, human capital, political capital and human rights. In the meantime, moving on from capitalism should not mean to undo the things it has done. We would not want to be like the Chinese emperor Hongxi in 1425, who burnt all his ships.

Metamorfose: The New Wealth — Wim De Ridder

Rated 3 out of 5 stars

Prof. De Ridder gives a good overview of our changing society. He touches upon several of the key concepts that will shape the future, and I was especially happy to see the energy sector represented in the book.

However, it could have gone deeper into some subjects. Also, the storytelling sometimes was a little bit chaotic.

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rule-breakers, and Changemakers — Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo

Rated 5 out of 5 stars

Really a helpful book, that I have used on many occasions already. It helped me to tackle problems in companies, governments and with students, create new insights and even to help people for job applications.

So if you are stuck with a problem and you need your team to get further, get this book and try out some of the tools inside it!

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future — Ashlee Vance

Rated 3 out of 5 stars

Though I thought it was a pretty good review, which certainly does not only show Musks brilliant side, I do not really understand why the book was written now (apart from the authors wish to be the first perhaps). Since the book has been out, Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City have accomplished so much more and Musk has started other new initiatives, so that I do not consider his story ready for publishing yet.

Also, his work ethic is often praised and copied by some, which I think is a tremendously bad idea. Luckily Musk himself recently showed that with his inexplicable actions (not talking about the weed, which I think is fine, but calling a guy who gave him critique a paedophile).

Nevertheless, it was a pleasure reading about this great mind and it gives me hope that indeed individuals can change the world for the better.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind — Yuval Noah Harari

Rated 5 out of 5 stars

For anyone who wants to understand our biological origins, social structures, economic models and our potential future, this book is a need-to-read.

Harari helped me to realise that everything we value around us, from our money to our companies or politics, is just a construct of our minds. Us humans have the unique ability to fantasise and the writer shows perfectly what can become of that. The most important chapter for me is the one where complexity, chaos and contradictions are explained in relation to our ever-growing global efforts. Stuff is so complex that the traditional linear analysis does not work anymore. We need new tools to move on, but will we also develop ourselves into new tools? Are we ready for a global empire?

Cryptoassets: The Innovative Investor’s Guide to Bitcoin and Beyond — Chris Burniske and Jack Tatar

Rated 5 out of 5 stars

A lot of valuable insights into the space of cryptoassets, which helped me shape a big fundament for much of the work that I am still doing today, advocating for wider use of this technology. I derived a framework from the book that will help me pick out projects that could succeed more easily (and might be fuel for a future story).

Even in the rapidly changing space of crypto, this book will hold its relevance for some time.

At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity — Stuart A. Kauffman

Rated 4 out of 5 stars

I started reading this book because I wanted to more about complexity and how one can move within complex environments.

It turned out to completely change my view of chemistry, biology and life. The mathematical approach was sometimes hard to follow, but in general, I understood what was said and it made me see that life and autocatalytic sets of molecules or artefacts are not an accident but rather a logical result of how our universe works, which converges to an optimum on the edge of chaos and order.

The boolean networks and the NK-models that are described are a nice way of showing how all of this works and is, as Adam Smith said about market dynamics, governed by an invisible hand. Honestly, it took me a long time to read this and was sometimes hard to follow, but I am happy I stuck to it.

Still, I have not found any tools that I can directly start using in my work, except for stressing organisation to decentralise in non-overlapping patches of departments that are working autonomously on innovation, since this will optimise towards excellent solutions in bringing the organisation as a whole further. Funny, enough, I now realise that I have been advocating for the exact opposite in my new job, so I need to get back on track with this soon. Also, I now have the arguments to stress that a little bit of chaos in organisations can help to get out of rigid situations where little improvement is done and go towards new paradigms of activities.

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist — Kate Raworth

Rated 5 out of 5 stars

What a refreshing take on our economy. Kate Raworth has surely convinced me that a world based on ever-increasing growth is not what we should strive for.

In her call for the 21st-century economist, I was happy to see complex system thinking and blockchain technology mentioned as methods to achieve a more equal sustainable world.

Additionally, her views on regenerative and distributive design have opened up a new view that I will surely apply in my works. What we need now is more people to take her views further and start applying them in companies, governments, civil society and academics

Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions — Russell Brand

Rated 4 out of 5 stars

Russel Brand has for a long time been one of the people in the public space I most respect for his ability to combine serious topics with humour and his intellectual take on the world.

Only later did I found out about his troublesome past and this book opens up a great deal on that. I started reading it to help get over some of my own bad habits and it has definitely helped me to take steps into solving it.

The Industries of the Future — Alec J. Ross

Rated 3 out of 5 stars

Though the contents of the book are completely valid and absolutely necessary to know about, I did not hear a lot of new things.

Still, I liked the focus on the entire world, including developing countries and the message that the ‘new frontiers’ such as Africa and India should be watched closely.

I would recommend anyone who cannot yet name the 6 most important technology trends in the world right now to read this book However, if you can, I suggest you read a more in-depth book on each of those technologies separately.

Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges — C. Otto Scharmer

Rated 4 out of 5 stars

It’s been quite a challenge to finish this book, but I am happy I did.

Theory U is one of the few books that can help individuals, organisation, institutions and complete societies to make a change towards a better world. A world where we are aware of our place in the system and our own actions that help to form the system.

In my work, I am going to apply many of the notes I made during reading the book, especially the design of workshops with multistakeholder groups. The first workshop has taken place now and the feedback of the participants was very positive.

The reason why I did not give 5 stars is that I feel the size of the book could have been downsized tremendously since there is a lot of repetition of concepts. Therefore, I recommend the pocket version, as it would have enough material to work with.

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives — Gretchen Rubin

Rated 4 out of stars

Though as Gretchen says herself, she is a little bit of a freak, looking at the number of suggestions to read at the end of the book, I would have expected more research-based examples apart from experience from Gretchen herself.

Still, I do give her 4 stars, because she has made me stand on 1 leg in elevators, something seemingly small, but significant if you consider the way how I think about my own habits now.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow — Yuval Noah Harari

Rated 4 out of 5 stars

This book asks the right questions. The questions we need to answer before we let the current technological advances wash over us.

Are we algorithms? I have surely always thought so. Is democracy still equipped for our data society? Elections these days give a dark picture where misinformation is used to censor the facts and people are steered to believes they might have not held otherwise.

But what comes of our society? Do we cling on to humanism, where the free will is the golden ticket, or do we see that the free will is nothing else than a subjective decision-making-entity, which is unstable, unreliable, easy to manipulate and soon inferior to other algorithms in the temples of data worshipping?

No 5 stars, because the middle part spoke less to my imagination, while I also found there were a lot of similarities with Sapiens.

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold — Stephen Fry

Rated 3 out of 5 stars

Even though I am a big fan of Stephen Fry and he has noted on multiple occasions that the myths were not analysed for their deeper layers of meaning, I found myself longing for some more analysis, whilst really enjoying the book in the few moments that it did.

Still, a refreshing take on old stories that I now know are even more entwined with language and culture today, as I thought before.

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think — Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Rated 4 out of 5 stars

What this book taught me most is that us humans have a hard time to think exponentially. Information Technology is developing at such an enormous rate and touches upon so many different aspects of our life, that many of our biggest problems will soon be gone, but that our current model might not be ready for an abundance based system. Truly, the book is a piece of the big puzzle of responsible progress in my head, where moving away from scarcity-based models towards abundance based models could help society move forward in the 21st century instead of back.

For me, the most inspiring part was the Internet of Energy perspective, where an abundance of energy will make a kWh nearly free of cost and will, therefore, transform our economic model completely, including removing the need to pay for ‘work’, especially that of automated work. Today (6 years after the book was written) we see projects such as ‘Universal Right’ who are actually working on this.

While much of the talk in the book looks at a sort of ideal situation and forgets many practical concerns for getting to these futures, the writer does pose an interesting option for readers to use in real life, which is the incentive price model. Working for a government, I could definitely use this in my work and maybe will.

Some reviews note that logical errors exist because the writer ignores power laws that would increase the position of giants like Amazon. However, these people forget that 25 years ago there was no Amazon or Google and that there will always be a rapid rise of new players due to new cheaper and more widespread technologies.

2019?

Next year, I will surely use the reading challenge again to fuel my reading habit. It’s also been nice to see what my friends have read and has already given me a few suggestions that I can read later.

If there are any books I should definitely not miss out on, let me know in the comments. Next year another chunk towards reading a thousand books!

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Yvo Hunink

Yvo Hunink

Design goes where complexity takes it. Working on the boundaries of chaos and order, so that we can create a world of justice and peace @ City of The Hague