A Few Random Thoughts in Reading

I’m a huge book nerd. I geek out over reading lists, love visiting physical bookstores when I travel, and am in the minority of people still collecting physical books in the age of Kindle. I try to start every day with 10 pages of reading, and reading a physical book is my preferred way to wind down at night.

With all of that in mind, I’ve spent far too much time over the past years thinking and reading about…reading. Here’s a smattering of thoughts on what you should read, how to start reading, where I find books, etc.

  • In my opinion, books are the best way to continue learning, and they’re a bargain for $10-$15 a piece. I’ve heard many people mention that they have an unlimited budget for books because they find them so valuable. I do have a budget, but I still spend $150-200/year on reading. The best part about books is you can almost always get them free from the library.
  • I’ve heard all the quotes from folks like General Mattis on reading: “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.” While I personally find books valuable, I think that’s a bit extreme. I don’t think someone is incompetent if they don’t enjoy reading. There are dozens of ways to learn and grow. Books are just one way.
  • With that being said, if someone says they don’t like reading, I often imagine it’s a holdover from school when they were forced to read books from a set reading list. I think anyone can learn to love reading if they choose the right books and explore topics they find interesting.
  • You should stop reading a book if you don’t find it interesting regardless of who recommended it or what “Best Books” list it was on. I’ve heard Ryan Holiday mention the rule of 100 pages minus your age as the cutoff for when to make a judgement call on whether to continue a book. I don’t follow a set rule, but I frequently stop reading books and either set them aside for another time or decide they’re not for me.
  • I typically buy 2-3 books per month and spend $25 or less. Ideally, they’re all used, and even better if I can get them from Powell’s Books or a local bookstore. I only buy from Amazon directly if the price difference is extreme (30+% of the book).
  • If you’re struggling to find time to read, the most helpful guidance I’ve found is to start with 10 pages per day, which will add up to 12-15 books during the year, a hefty amount.
  • In general, I think it’s better to default to older books that have stood the test of time rather than always reading the latest thing that hits the shelves. A good rule of thumb I’ve heard is to not read anything that was published in the past five years.
  • I love book recommendations from friends, but there are a few people that heavily influence my reading list. This is because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything they’ve suggested in the past. Those people include Ryan Holiday (through his monthly reading email), Matt Mullenweg, and Bill Gates.
  • I naturally gravitate towards non-fiction, but I do find value in fiction as well. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is one of my favorite books of all time.
  • For recommendations, I keep an Amazon list that I add to whenever I hear about a book in conversation or in a podcast. When I’m looking to buy more books, I’ll review the list, scan the reviews for general feedback, and typically use the “Look Inside” feature to preview a few pages.
  • I have mixed feelings on audiobooks. I just don’t feel like I retain as much of the information. When tackling longer books though (like The Better Angels of Our Nature by Pinker), I like to pair up the audiobook and physical book just to keep moving at a solid pace.
  • I don’t follow any special reading hacks like reading the ending first or speed reading. I enjoy the process of reading so I have no desire to speed it up. My only “hack” is occasionally pairing physical books and audibooks as mentioned above.
  • I think there’s value in having a set list of books you re-read on a regular basis because they’re particularly impactful or formative in some way. That list for me includes On the Shortness of Life and Man’s Search for Meaning.
  • I don’t think it’s always better to read more books. I’d rather read fewer books deeply. This is something I didn’t fully understand early on, and I’d rush through books just to have a higher tally at the end of the year. I’m much more content reading a book slowly now.
  • I earmark pages, highlight, and write notes in the margins of books although I often don’t revisit my notes unless I’m specifically looking for something.

Featured image is my bookshelf, which I dream of filling up to the point it’s bursting at the seams.

The Positive Impact Test

In the most recent Distributed podcast, Matt chatted with Vanessa Van Edwards of Science of People. I’ve had the episode queued up in Overcast since it came out, and I finally had an opportunity to listen to it yesterday during some yard work.

I thought the conversation was wonderful and provided many tactical tips including how to look and sound better over Zoom calls, which is applicable as many people switch from in-person to forced remote work.

They also talked about our internal definition of API at Automattic—“assume positive intent”. This is particularly important in a distributed workplace where much of the conversation occurs over text and comments can be misconstrued or read in an unintended tone.

The piece that stuck out the most was at the very end when Vanessa mentioned the Positive Impact Test (originally from author Tom Rath)—three questions she asks herself at the end of every day:

  1. In the last 24 hours, have I helped someone?
  2. In the last 24 hours, have I praised someone?
  3. In the last 24 hours have I told someone that I cared about them or appreciated them?

Certainly great questions to keep top of mind!

Two Criteria for Believability

Back in 2017, I read Principles by Ray Dalio. It has since become one of my favorite professional books of all time and one I’d certainly recommend to anyone.

Dalio ran Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, for many years and created a unique culture that he describes in the book. A key concept of Principles is the idea of believability and making decisions within a group.

The problem with a democracy is that it assumes that everyone’s views are equally valuable.

Ray Dalio

(I took “Democracy” in the above quote to mean “consensus-driven decisions,” not “democracy” as a political construct.)

This idea resurfaced in my mind after listening to a recent podcast from Pat Sherwood where he discusses this idea in-depth.

Bridgewater has built a culture Dalio calls an idea meritocracy. Everyone is free to have an opinion in any decision, and the overwhelming majority of conversations and meetings are made public within the company through recordings. This isn’t inherently unique as many companies are moving towards a more transparent model. The unique part is how Bridgewater comes to a decision.

They practice believability-weighted decisions where everyone’s opinion is not counted equally. Individuals with unique expertise, a track record of success, and/or a special investment of time, energy, or resources in a given area are weighted higher than others.

I’ll share a large chunk from the book that summarizes this approach well:

In typical organizations, most decisions are made either autocratically, by a top down leader, or democractically, where everyone shares their opinions and those opinions that have the most support are implemented. Both systems produce inferior decision-making.

That’s because the best decisions are made by an idea meritocracy with believability-weighted decision making in which the most capable people work through their disagreements with other capable people who have thought independently about what is true and what to do about it. It is far better to weigh the opinions of more capable decision makers more heavily than those of less capable decision makers.

…How do you determine who is capable at what? The most believable opinions are those of people who:

1. Have repeatedly and successfully accomplished the thing in question.

2. Have demonstrated they can logically explain their cause and effect relationships behind their conclusions.

Principles, page 370

I find myself coming back to those two criteria quite often when I’m weighing in on a conversation. It’s easy to weigh in and express ideas, but it’s often not clear that those ideas are backed up by experience and logic.

In his podcast, Sherwood mentioned a CrossFit article titled “Conjecture, Hypothesis, Theory, Law: The Basis of Rational Argument.” This goes hand in hand with the concept of believability.

I’d highly encourage everyone to read Principles if you’re interested in running a high-performing team or just making better personal decisions. For a teaser, you can listen to Pat’s podcast or the Recode Decode interview with Dalio. Also, read the interesting story about how Principles came into being as an actual book.