For me, 2017 marked another year of exponential personal and professional growth, both through running a fast-growing start-up and through keeping up the habit of voracious reading. I shall do a separate post to reflect on my lessons learned as a CEO, but this one is about books.
At the beginning of 2017, I set the intention of cutting down the number of books vs 2016 (28 books), with the goal to be more selective and to allow ample time for knowledge digestion. Despite the intention and a much busier schedule than 2016, and to my surprise, I finished the year at 32 books (one important caveat, with much help from audile books from Audible). First, I think reading has been ingrained in my brain as a habit, once I finish a book, my mind naturally hungers for the next great one. Second, I used reading/listening to fill up most of my fragmented idle time, such as in transportation or in the gym. As long as I have a good book in hand, I feel that I am productive and getting better mentally.
Similar to 2016, my reading list encompassed a wide range of topics in English and Chinese, but one category that dropped out completely is finance & investments books. I don’t think this is a one-year anomaly but a natural cognitive progression for me, where behavior economics/psychology and philosophy are more additive to my mental models at this time. Some books, such as those on consumer internet operations, design, and big data, were essential for my current industry and trade.
One category that popped on to my list and will remain there going forward is fiction & literature, and this gets to my book of the year recommendation…my book of the year for 2016 went to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind”, with Ray Dalio’s “Principles” up there as a very close second. The crown of 2017 goes to:
“The Three-Body Problem Trilogy” by Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu, which won the 2015 Hugo Award (the highest honor awarded to Sci-Fi)
It is the best hard-science fiction (or fiction in general) that I have read so far, an ultra-realistic speculation of how the world/universe would unfold when humans encounter aliens. Without giving away important details that would jeopardize the reading experience, the story begins in the mid of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 – 76), when a victimized female scientist, Wenjie Ye, discovered and sent a response to an alien message. From there the story unfolds on a time-scale that stretches from the not so distant past to the end of the universe. The anti-heroic characters, rich details of the world construct, gut-wrenching twist and turns, and deep reflections on humanity and the universe are mind-altering. The book’s underlying worldview and philosophy potently challenge our inadequate perception of reality and our shaky moral compass as a species.
“Giving time culture, not giving culture time” – a line from the book
When I finished the book and stepped out to look at the open sky, I view the world and its future outlook differently and part of me changed permanently…the book left me with a subtle and bitter sense of pessimism (I am an optimist by nature and by logic) and cold-hearted perception of how small and inadequate our struggles, thoughts, and feeling are when placed on the grand scale of the cosmos. This feeling resonates with those expressed by Albert Wenger at Union Square Ventures, who also reviewed the book.
(Postscript: however, I think one needs to recognize that in reality, that’s how things work in nature. Humans have intelligence, cognition, and feelings, nature does not, it merely selects among optionalities that have an evolutionary advantage, with cold-hearted rationality, and completely ignores the feelings/well being of individuals or an entire species.)
On the other hand, I was marveled by Cixin Liu’s ingenuity and deep and wholesome understanding of science and humanity. It takes a BIG mind to complete a work like “The Three-Body Problem,” no smaller fit than “The Lord of the Rings” and “A Game of Thrones” in my opinion. The pyramid is not built in one day and Liu, absolutely innately talented, also grew through the decades via his shorter fictions, which I will certainly read in 2018 to trace his path of growth as a writer and thinker.
Last but not least, below is the full list of books I read in 2017, with the recommended ones highlighted. Those worth noting include ( displayed on the cover of this post):
- “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel – I read this one three times in 2017. The short book is packed with so much spoken and unspoken (hidden between the lines) wisdom on the start-up world and informed by his philosophy, which in turn is influenced by the French Anthropologist and Philosopher Rene Girard. Whether you agree with Thiel’s support for D.T. Junior and his crusade on Gawker or not, his contrarian thinking has proven right more than enough times and one should take his thoughts seriously. “Zero to One” is also good complement to Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things,” the former a 3000-feet constitution and the latter a battle-ground handbook
- “Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow ” – the sequel to “Sapiens.” War, hunger, and disease have largely been conquered in modern times, where will humanity go as a species for the next few hundred years, what will guide our choices – religion, science, or a new spirituality? Not as good as the first one in my opinion, some views here are a far-fetched and speculative, such as Dataism as a new religion (hard to avoid when you ponder about the future, or maybe not when we consider the close to religious belief some hard-core evanglist hold toward the Blockchain and decentralization), but still very much thought-provoking. I re-read select chapters multiple times throughout the year. A good complement to this book is Albert Wenger’s (free on the web) “World after Capital”
- “When Breath becomes Air” – when a flourishing young neuro surgeon’s life meets death head-on, science and logic could not square away the conflict. The thoughts and feelings expressed in this short memoir bring people to tears. I read (listened) to this one twice in 2017.
- “Anti-Fragile: Things that Gain from Disorder” – Somethings are Fragile toward (hurt by) chaos, volatility, disorder, pressure, and stress etc. Somethings are Robust toward them (resistant) but break given enough force and time. Then there is a whole other category of things that are Anti-fragile, things that gain and grow stronger from exposure to chaos This Central Triad served as the foundation for this philosophical work by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that unified his previous works including “Fooled by Randomness,” “The Black Swan” etc. Taleb explored the triad idea across domains including social science, culture, psychology, mathematics, finance, and entrepreneurship etc. Tableb is known for being abrasive (sometimes insulting) and often emphasizes his point by going to the extreme, such as disparaging theorizing over creative tinkering. While this is by and large true, it is not always the case. One should take his viewpoint with an open eye but his expressionism with a grain of salt. Many insightful people are flawed individuals after all. Other than that, a good re-read for 2018.
- “The Turbulent 30 Years” by Xiaobo Liu – a comprehensive, entertaining, by and large objective chronicle of the development of Chinese businesses since the end of the Cultural Revolution (by focusing on the individual characters, big and small, that shaped and passed through the turbulent river of history ). This book gives me a heightened level of appreciation for the unique business environment in China and respect for the entrepreneurs remembered and forgotten by the public.
- “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by the Nobel Economics Prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman – this is another book that challenged my perception of reality, made me acutely aware of how delusional my brain is, and prompted me to work hard on re-wiring it in 2018.
- The Art of the Deal – D.T. Jr.
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life – Walter Isaacson
- Einstein: His Life and Universe – Walter Isaacson
History & Anthropology
- Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari
- Who Controls the Internet – Tim Wu, Jack Goldsmith
- Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crisis – Timothy Geithner
- 腾讯传The Tencent Chronicle 1998 – 2006 – 吴晓波Xiaobo Wu
- 激荡三十年上 The Turbulent 30 Years (Chinese Business 1978 – 1992) – 吴晓波 Xiaobo Wu
- 激荡三十年下 The Turbulent 30 Years (Chinese Business 1992 – 2008) – 吴晓波Xiaobo Wu
- Zero to One – Peter Thiel
- Growth Hack Marketing – Rayn Holiday
- 从零开始做运营 Doing Operations from Scratch (Consumer Internet) – 陈亮 Liang Chen
- 运营之光 The Halo of Operations (Consumer Internet) – 黄有璨 Youcan Huang
- Simple and Usable Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design – Giles Colborne
- Mobile Design Pattern Gallery – Theresa Neil
- Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United – Alex Ferguson
- How Google Works – Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg
- The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande
- 合伙人制度 The Rules for Partnership: Effective Incentivization without Losing Control – 郑指梁 Zhiliang Zheng
Science and Technology
- 征信与大数据 Credit Information Service and Big Data – Xinhai liu
- 大数据挑战与NoSQL数据库技术 Big Data Challenges and NoSQL Database – Jiaheng Lu
- The Beginning of Infinity – David Deutsch
- Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
- Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters – Matt Ridley
- When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi
- Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Anti-fragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- World after Capital – Albert Wenger (Union Square Ventures)
- The Devil Comes and Plays His Flute – Seishi Yokomizo
- 三体I The Three-Body Problem Trilogy I – Cixin Liu
- 三体II：黑暗森林 The Three-Body Problem Trilogy II: The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu
- 三体III：死神永生 The Three-Body Problem Trilogy III: Death’s End – Cixin Liu