Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the surface, The Biggest Bluff seems to be simply about the author’s adventure learning about poker in an attempt to compete in the World Series of Poker: A Personal Quest story. But the book isn’t about Poker. And while it is a personal story, it’s more than just that. It’s about how we make decisions, and Poker turns out to be a remarkably good lens to understand how people make choices in situations which combine uncertainty and experience.

I was surprised to learn useful things that relate to my daily life like the impact of implicit bias and emotion on decision making, and the relationship between luck and skill in being successful.

The lessons here will give you insight into many facets of your life. While, poker may not be a good model for life, it is, according to Konnikiva, a way to develop skills important to ones life.

My one complaint is that I wish that there was an appendix with pointers to some of the research and the. references she cited. This is minor as a web search is easy enough to do, but was something I missed.

The Biggest Bluff tells an engaging story, and by understanding the path Konnikova follows you will learn about how you make decisions and interact with others. And you may learn a bit about poker along the way

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Monday, October 5, 2020

Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful History Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Humankind is an optimistic take on human nature  grounded in Science , Philosophy, and History. The author explains why humans are intrinsically good. He isn’t naive, and acknowledges that bad things happen but he explains that we tend to focus on and remember the bad things. Bad news tends to get more attention and play and thus reenforces this dynamic leaning to a downward spiral -- Good news stories don’t go as viral as bad news ones, and the banal, everyday good things people do don’t get reported. 

All bad news isn’t just a case of it getting our attention, and Bregman gives us some insight into why hate, for example, can spread in some cultures. In some cases, it is our desire  to be good, to belong, and to be collaborative can lead to us to follow  people acting in ways that are contrary to that. Even empathy -- which seems like a good thing -- can cause us to focus on the wrong things at times.

We also learn why widely spread research results, such as  “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “No Broken Windows,” and  “The Tragedy of the Commons” are at best highly incomplete and at worst, just wrong.  Many of these ideas that assume that people  are motivated by self interest, and seek power are often based on, well, assumptions about other people (because we often believe that we are different). We also learn about why less restrictive prisons can be more safe, and have less long term costs (and how the US almost adopted a model common in Norway). You also learn that the fabled 1914 Christmas Truce, after which English and German forces refused to fight each other, was not unique in history. 

One thing I really enjoyed about the book -- once I got used to it as it is very different from many similar books -- is that walks through the evolution of ideas.  You might be tempted to highlight and share some insight, only to read a paragraph later a “wait, there’s more!”  style discussion. Which makes sense, as human nature and interactions are complex.

The book resonate with things I’ve long thought, in particular that  forming connections is essential to reducing intolerance, and that organizational dynamics affect well being and productivity, and that it’s often worth giving people the benefit of the doubt before assuming bad intentions. This book gave me a good sense of the historical and scientific basis for thinking that these are not crazy ideas (or at least ideas that only make sense in the contexts I have experience in). Similarly it gave me some sense of awareness to detect when my optimistic nature could possibly lead me astray.

In terms of structure, the first half of the book makes the case for goodness with a walk through history.  The second half of the book interweaves stories and examples that provide guidance on how you can apply the information in the book in your personal, work, and community life.

Part history, part scientific survey, and part philosophical argument for the goodness of humans, Humankind will generate ideas for you to think about, and ideas for things you can try to do to change your approach to interacting with others.

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Friday, July 24, 2020

Review: Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When this book showed up in the Next Big Idea Club box I thought that I’d relate to this book, and I did. While I may not be “weird” in any obvious sense, but I’ve definitely experienced the not fitting in feeling for a variety of reasons. And as a book, Weird is a bit meta. It’s a weird book about the challenges and benefits of not fitting in. But it’s weird in all the wonderful, positive ways that the Khazan describes. It might not have imagined a book about the challenges of being different having laugh out loud passages, but this one does, and they pull you into the story. It’s not an autobiography, but it weaves autobiographical moments to help set the frame for the facts, history, and other people’s stories that are the core of the book. 

Khazan explains Weirdness isn’t a bad thing, in some ways it can be a superpower, as diversity of thought and approach can lead to better ideas in groups (the challenge is figuring out how to communicate them and being in a group that accepts a degree of “different” thinking. But not everyone assumes that, and as a rule, we like to fit in, and be around people who fit in -- though she also points out that humans gravitate to groups that are somewhat unique; it’s being the singleton that can make one lonely, awkward, and on edge. 

While race isn’t the main theme of the book, it runs throughout, in that the biases that people express towards people of different races and ethnic groups are in some ways just magnified versions of other forms of outsiderness. And this connection can be a way to find a deeper understanding of the challenges of racism. As Khazan states at the start of the book, the challenges of, say, a White immigrant are not equivalent to those faced as a BIPOC person or someone with a rare medical condition, but being aware of the extent to which social exclusion affects such a “broad swath of humanity” is useful for building empathy. 

In learning about weirdness, you have a chance to reflect on your differences and your biases, and perhaps considering these can help you find an empathy anchor when you see someone who is isn’t part of the group being challenged or feeling frustrated. And you may even learn to embrace the differences you and others bring to groups., and understand your reactions to being someone who brings a difference to a group. 


With a writing style that is engaging, and at times laugh at loud humorous, Weird will help you understand how you react to differences, how you are different, and perhaps guide you towards coping with the challenges and benefits of not quite fitting in, and also being more aware of your reaction to outsiders. 

Review: Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis

Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis by Katherine Levine Einstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neighborhood Defenders is an academic, yet approachable, book that discusses the dynamics around how people stop housing development that can increase affordability in the name of defending the neighborhoods. The book is and exploration of how current zoning (and review) processes , which were set up to give everyone a voice, have served to give certain advantaged groups an outsize say in what can be built. The result is often that larger housing projects which might include a range of market rate affordable, as well as subsidized affordable units often end up getting scaled back or stopped.


“Neighborhood Defenders” refers to the groups of residents that often rally around stopping projects by expressing opposition in terms of rationales along the lines of “this will change the character of the neighborhood.” In the book we learn that even while some of the  Defenders may be well intentioned (but perhaps not all) the end result is that housing that has the potential to diversify make a community more diverse and affordable is less likely to be built.


The theme that most caught my attention is the role of the public meeting process that many cities and towns follow around zoning has in this. The public meeting process has its roots in giving people voice, but in some contexts the voices that participate are limited to certain groups, and often not the ones who might benefit from certain housing projects. It’s easy enough to introduce delays -- which add costs to projects. -- either projects don’t happen, or developers abandon the idea of larger projects with Affordable housing and build smaller market rate housing. For example commenters at meetings often raise issues that are tangential to the original project, leading to the need for new studies and delays.  


While there are many books that opine about housing this one is different in that it is backed by data. The authors have read meeting transcripts and reviewed zoning regulations in cities and towns and used that data to support their conclusions. As such, the book is detailed and not a very  light read, but it is very approachable, and worth a read if you are interested in understanding the dynamics of housing and zoning meetings.  


Anyone who is a resident of a community that has a zoning board -- whether you are an activist or not -- could find this a useful and enlightening read, that will help you understand the obstacles involved in community development and paths around them




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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Review: Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth

Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth by Jurgen Appelo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars



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Though I’ve never been a founder, I’ve been an early member of startup companies and internal ventures (such as  being a founding member of the, at the time new,  Boston office for Fitbit )  so I was curious to read Jurgen Appelo’s book Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean and Agile Business Growth, and see how relevant it was for me. It turned out to be very much so.  Appelo combines lean and agile principles with a model for business development that is relevant for both an entrepreneur starting a company, and an intrapreneur, leading a product initiative or a team.   

Since the book weaves many agile concepts and processes, such as backlogs, burn down charts, and retrospectives, into the process,  I was tempted to title my review something like “Agile for Startups” or “A Startups with Agile values.” But those names would misstate two key take-aways from the book. First, agile themes like “Inspect and Adapt” are just a really good way to start a venture, as new ideas require that you get constant feedback and adapt to it. If this weren’t the case and you knew what would work and how to do it, it would not be a venture. Second, this isn’t just about startups companies. Appelo addresses these idea in the context of an entrepreneurial startup or any intrepreneruial internal venture. In either case, you need to demonstrate value to secure a continuing funding source, or fail. And the feedback loops agile approaches like experiments and retrospective are essential to building that value.

Reading through the book I was struck by how often Appelo makes points that are both obvious and iconoclastic.  At one point he asserts that “growth” should never be a goal in itself,  but way to achieve  success, such as delivering value to more customers, which seems counter to common business thinking,  but which makes perfect sense. Similarly he describes how teams often frame cultural fit as being “similar” rather than “complementary” -- which is to say that a new person fills a gap on the team.

The book covers everything from funding, and planning to hiring. The hiring ideas are reminiscent of the ones I learned from Johanna Rothman in Hiring Geeks that Fit, albeit with slightly different terms, which are in essence, figure out how to what qualities you need in an employee, decide how you measure them

Appello’s Witty, irreverent  and humorous style make this one of the more entertaining business books to read, and the style reflects a perspective on business that might make you want to reconsider things you took from granted.  At the very least you’ll be tempted to explore the supporting materials that are linked at the end of every chapter

Whether you are in a startup, involved in building a new product for an established company,  of just curious about how businesses succeed, Startup, Scale Up Screw Up is an enjoyable, informative, and actionable read that will likely generate many ideas of things to do or learn more about.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Review: Together The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

Together The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World Together The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars



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 Whether you are an extravert or introvert, connection is an important part of being human, and while we each differ in the kind of ways we connect, we need certain kinds of connections in our lives to be happy and healthy.   “Together”  is an engaging guide to what connection means,  how it benefits us, and how to built it.


While we sometimes need solitude , the absence of the appropriate connections in our lives can lead to loneliness, which has a larger impact on the quality of our lives than we expect.

Murthy describes the 3 kinds of connections, all of which are necessary: 

• Emotional (close confidant or partner)

• Relational or Social (quality friendships, social companionship and support)

• Collective (hunger for a network of community of people who share your sense of purpose and interest)


According to Murthy, the presence of one of these kinds of connections, o matter how strong, is unlikely to compensate for missing the others. Even with the strongest marriage, we can still find our selves feeling lonely  without close friends, or a community we belong to. Aside from the practical value of a community network to help us through challenging times, loneliness can be a significant health problem.  Murthy makes the biological connection between loneliness and depression and anxiety. Loneliness can also trigger some of the same fear instincts that cause us to be suspicious of others who are not ‘in our tribe.’  It thus makes it hard to forge connections to bootstrap away from loneliness. This connection to anxiety can be the source of acting on our biases and resisting connections with those different than ourselves. 


Having explained the risks of loneliness, Murthy discusses ways to get out of the rut that loneliness leaves us in, including service to others. Being in a place where we stay open to connections can help us help people step away from dysfunctional situations and mindsets.


Since connection and community is such a universal part of human existence, while reading, I found myself thinking of other books that touched on the topic, including Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, Adam Grant’s Give and Take,  Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening, Malcom Gladwell’s  Talking to Strangers, and even Dan Levitin’s  Successful Aging. Together has a different focus than all of those books, namely physical and mental health,  but as I read, I realized that the value of community to our physical and mental health means that by building community we can benefit ourselves in unexpected ways.


Personal stories  make this a relatable read. When combined with  pointers to more information and discussions of organizations that build community which you might be interested in connecting with, it’s also a very actionable one.


The book ends with a story that conveys the importance and power of  what Murthy calls “not the family chosen for you, but  the family you choose.”  As someone who grew up without a lot of extended family near, I’ve grown to understand the value of the friends and neighbors who’ve become part of what I consider to be my family. Reading Together helped me to  truly understand just how valuable those connections are. It also gave me insight into how to do a better job of building them at home, work, and in the communities I’m a part of.


Together is an important guide for our times about why connection matters  and how to built it at various scales: for yourself, for your family, and for your larger communities such as your workplace and town or city. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

Review: You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters

You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Listening is hard, and in my quest to be a better listener I’m always looking for information to both understand how I can do better, and to understand dynamics between me and other other people. Kate Murphy’s book is a great resource both for the advice it provides and the insights it leads you too.

One of the reasons listening is hard is that much of what we learn as a culture about “good conversation” and engagement emphasizes witty responses, self promotion and superficial gestures. She cites the Algonquin Round Table as an early example of a model of conversation dynamics that are entirely based on putting people down -- albeit humorously -- rather than building people up and connecting. Many of the “active listening” techniques that are popular are focused on reactions and gestures rather than the mindset of connecting with people. While techniques can encourage us to reframe how we think, they are not enough, and while superficial gestures can give the initial appearance of connection, people generally figure it out later on.

Murphy has some recurring themes in the book, including that how well you listen is, at least in part, tied to how comfortable and secure you are in a situation; it takes confidence to pause to respond and build on what others say, rather than pushing your own agenda, and that listening requires self awareness -- of how present you are, of the kinds of interactions that you tend to tune out on, and of whether you have followed up enough to have a chance at understanding what someone is saying.

Good listening isn’t just about politeness. It forms the basis of good personal, business, and community, relationships. These in turn can help you be successful whether you are a spouse, friend, manager, sales person, or advocate in your community. Murphy closes with a discussion of when to stop listening. Since listening well takes a lot of energy, we can’t always listen, and that’s OK as long as you are intentional and transparent. And there are some circumstances where it’s clear that a dialog won’t happen, even after you’ve given it a reasonable chance. But listening is key to understanding each other and building relationships, so it is important to not always give up simply out of impatience. Listening is hard, and we can all do better, and the effort can be worth it.

You’re Not Listening is a an actionable guide to the various aspects of why listening is valuable, what makes for better listening, and for understanding how you interactions with others can be better, both through self-understanding and empathy. The insights from the book can help you be a better spouse, friend, and neighbor, and perhaps even improve the quality of interactions on social media.

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Review: The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova My rating: 4 of 5 stars ...