The Best Books I read in 2016

Good books are a joy to read; great books make you a better person. Of the books I read in 2016, I would nominate the six below as good or even great.

Per book, I explain how it influenced my life, so that you can decide which are worth your time. If you’re interested in more book recommendations, have a look at “Books that Influenced my Life” and “The Best Books I read in 2015”.

What’s the best book you read this year? What’s the best book you ever read? Please share a book recommendation in the comments below.

2016-books-001

  1. Dune, by Frank Herbert

Frequently ranked as “best science fiction book of all times”, this story about a battle between extra-planetary noble houses trying to take control of a desert planet Arrakis is a page-turner. I finished this book in a week, spending many nights reading till deep in the night. The book is well-written and rich in narrative, touching on topics diverse as how to start new religions; how to manage international (or interstellar) relations; and how to preserve water in deserts. It’s a tale as rich as Star Wars, so good that I’d be happy to re-read it soon.

2. Road to Character, by David Brooks 

People who have cultivated a deep and applied compassion inspire me. One of the best books I read in 2015 was My Life with the Saints, by Fr. James Martin, which profiles a dozen or so saints in a chapter each. NYT-columnist David Brook’s Road to Character is similar in structure.

David Brooks observes that in today’s Western societies, our media admire people who show grit, persistence, boldness, and courage. Think of famous entrepreneurs, professional athletes, and pop stars. However, when we look at the people who are most admired upon their deathbed, these are people who show a different set of virtues. Brooks contrasts today’s résumé virtues against eternal eulogy virtues, dedicating the book to profiling eight people who lived in the last two millennia—from St. Augustine to President Eisenhower—in the hope that it may inspire us all to be better. As Brooks writes in his introduction:

“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner coherence. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”

Reading through the book, I found myself underlining constantly, making notes in the margins on almost every page. Re-reading my notes made it clear how much space we have to grow. This is a book I want to continue to return to, to remind myself how much work it takes to be a good person.

  1. The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander

This book will make you shine like a lightbulb! In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, a social worker and the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, share their philosophy of a life full of possibility. In each chapter, they illustrate a helpful maxim with lively stories. One example stands out: Ben Zander explains how he publicly announces at the start of a new class that each student will get an A, under one condition: they must write a letter to themselves, imagining they have finished the class, explaining what it is that made them deserve an A. By doing so, you can unleash the power of possibility and responsibility.

I first read this book in print, and later downloaded it as an audiobook. I’d listen to (part of) a chapter each morning on my way to work, which would often have a profound impact on how I’d go through my day. Highly recommended!

  1. Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings young people of different religions for cooperative service and dialogue around shared values. I picked up his autobiography in Chicago this fall, after noticing the title years ago on my friend Ted Gonder’s booklist.

Patel’s short, highly readable biography filled me with inspiration about starting organizations that matter. Patel opened my mind to the reasons why youth are easily attracted to religious extremism, because it offers a clear path to a life mission and social status, things that every teenager craves for. He then suggests that the way to address religious extremism at its root is to offer young people alternative paths to meaning and social status, which he tries to do with his organization.

  1. Structures (or Why Things Don’t Fall Down), by J.E. Gordon

Giles Holt recommended this lovely book. Reading Structures was a déjà vu back to my undergraduate civil engineering classes. Gordon, a very witty British professor, will make you learn something new on each page, such as how our quads compare to car springs, why birds have feathers on their wings, or why a piece of paper rips apart more easily once it has an initial cut. He strips structural engineering of its confusing terms, communicating it in vivid and witty prose through clear examples.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is curious to learn more about their physical environment (if you like this book, also consider Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces on physics or Goodsell’s The Machinery of Life on cell biology). Although neither Structures nor Dune directly led to a lot of changes in my everyday life, they both brought many new perspectives and were absolutely a joy to read.

  1. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight

I picked up Phil Knight’s autobiography three days ago and finished it this morning. This story, about the origins of Nike, reads like a high-speed train. Phil Knight, Nike’s cofounder, explains in detail and without much ego how he started to import Onitsuka Tigers from Japan, building a scrappy business from scratch in a time when venture capital, minimum viable product, and A/B testing did not exist. Knight’s story left me with a sense of the importance of having courage in your endeavors, and pursuing your crazy idea.

I already have a few must-read books on my list for next year: Value Investing by Guy Pierce, Gene by Siddharth Mukerjee, and Tolstoy by Henri Troyat. I will remind myself to read the classics. Which books should I add?

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The Best Books I read in 2015

Below are some of the best books I read in 2015, each with a short paragraph explaining how reading the book influenced my thinking.

If you’re looking for great books to read, also look at my July 2014 blog on “Books that Influenced my Life”, Ted Gonder’s “Books that Have Changed My Life“, Edge.org’s list of 2015 Summer Reading, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s list of 8 books that every intelligent person should read, and Mark Bao’s “Great Books I read in 2015“.

I keep a visual overview of all the books I read in 2015 at http://books.titiaanpalazzi.com (a great, easy-to-use Tumblr template).

 

Best books I read in 2015:

My Life with the Saints, by James Martin

James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine, shares a brief synopsis of the lives of about fifteen Christian saints, detailing how each saint inspires him in everyday life. Reading this book kindled my desire to become a better person through service, and led me to explore more deeply the lives of St. Francis and Dorothy Day. If this paragraph tickles your curiosity, listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with James Martin on On Being.

The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff

Benjamin Hoff explains the essence of Taoism through stories from Winnie the Pooh. This is a hilarious read that will inspire you to be kinder and funnier under the hardships that life will throw at you. Reading a chapter of The Tao of Pooh every morning is one of the surest ways to be a happier person (I can attest!)

Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer

I first read Peter Singer’s writing many years ago about eating meat, when he influenced my thinking that it’s OK to eat oysters and mussels as part of a vegetarian or vegan diet. In this book, a collection of essays and excerpts from different books, Singer will challenge many of your beliefs on how to live well.

Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton

De Botton’s mission is beautiful: to make the wisdom of philosophy accessible to a wide audience. In this book, he looks at six great philosophers, and frames the message of each in a way that can help you in every day life. I was particularly intrigued by Socrates’ method to get to truth, and Nietzsche’s belief that pain and distress are good, because they spur us to work harder to realize our dreams.

Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson

In this crazy science-fiction story, Neal Stephenson sketches a world where people choose to live more in virtual reality than in physical reality.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein describes a beautiful symbiosis between men and machine who collectively try to overthrow an upsetting political regime.

The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse

Hesse is possibly my favorite novelist, and I had put this book (a Nobel Prize winner) off for too long. The book made me think about the contemplative life versus the life of action, a theme that replays itself in many of Hesse’s books.

 

Books I want to read in 2016:

  • NLP: the essential guide to neuro-linguistic programming, by Tom Dotz—to understand how we can craft our actions and behavior for better effects.
  • The Utopia Experiment, by Dylan Evans—to understand the challenges of communal livings.
  • On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin—to understand the foundation behind how Darwin came to his conclusion on natural selection.
  • Mastery, by Robert Greene—to understand the path of the artist, so compellingly portrayed by Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
  • The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine—to understand his critiques on The Bible and religion.

Books I want to re-read in 2016:

  • Bhagavadgita, in translation by Eknath Eswaran—to be inspired to be a better person. (Gandhi read the Bhagavadgita every day.)
  • Six Thinking Hats, by Edward de Bono—to be more aware of the different modes of think I do, and can, use.
  • From Darwin to Munger, by Peter Bevelin—to remind myself of the flaws in my thinking.
  • The Little Prince, by Saint Exupéry—because the wonder expressed by our small friend from another planet is something I always want to keep in mind.

 

One of my intentions for the new year is to keep a digital summary of the best books I read in 2016, with the intention to re-read the summaries frequently, to truly internalize some of the lessons.

Book Review: Waking Up by Sam Harris

This is a summary of Sam Harris’ very insightful book Waking Up. I am editing this post as I’m reading the book. 

Chapter 1: Spirituality

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

“The experience [of using MDMA] was not of love growing, but of its being no longer obscured.”

“There is no other term [than spirituality] to discuss the efforts people make to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness.”

“Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences.”

“There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eye, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished.”

“Most cultures have produced men and women who have found that certain deliberate uses of attention—meditation, yoga, prayer—can transform their perception of the world. Their efforts generally begin with the realization that even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive.”

“There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.”

“[A] true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease with the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self.”

“[T]he teachings of Buddhism are not considered by their adherents to be the product of infallible revelation. They are, rather, empirical instructions: If you do X, you will experience Y.”

“The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in the world.”

“The Buddha described four foundations of mindfulness: the body (breathing, changes in posture, activities), feelings (the senses of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality), the mind (in particular, its moods and attitudes), and the objects of mind (which include the five sense but also other mental states, such as volition, tranquility, rapture, equanimity, and even mindfulness itself.)”

“Eventually, [mindfulness] begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how terrible the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to say awake for more than a few seconds at a time.”

“Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.”

“The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of wellbeing that is imperturbable—or if perturbed, easily regained. The French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.” (And a healthy body, I would add.)

“Just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states—deeply, not merely as an idea—can transform your life.”

“It is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.”

“In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.”

Mastery: the path to success, one skill at a time?

It’s common wisdom that being good at something is valuable. Is it wise, then, to optimize for learning one skill compared to building some proficiency in multiple skills?

I am naturally interested in many things. During a typical week at work, I write and review articles, structure arguments, do analyses in excel, create graphs, code, and more. Add to that the reading, sports, music, and drawing I pursue in my free time, and you start to see the wide variety of my activity. I sometimes wonder: is it smarter to focus on becoming very good at a single skill, rather than doing a little bit of many things?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You Cal Newport suggests that focusing on a single skillset is more valuable than pursuing multiple interests.  Cal argues that, follow your passion” is poor advice. He suggests you increase your chances of success by building rare and valuable skills. Cal calls this the ‘craftsman mindset’, a relentless focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering, using deliberate practice to grow. He recommends that you stop asking yourself “am I doing what I love?” and start asking yourself “am I building a valuable skillset?”

After reading Cal’s book, I noticed myself thinking “Should I focus all my effort at mastering a single skill?” I hesitated to answer this question with “yes”. I can’t remember a time where I focused on mastering a single activity and I do not aspire to be a deep domain expert, spending decades working in one discipline.

Shortly after finishing the book, I listened to a podcast by Tim Ferriss, The Top 5 Reasons to be a Jack of All Trades. (Blog version here.) Tim Ferriss acknowledges that being very good at something is valuable, but he says it’s a false, commonly held assumption that you can only be very good at one thing. Tim suggests instead that you can become very good at anything after a few months of focused and smart learning, and because of that you can be very good at many things.

That idea—that mastery is valuable, but does not need to be limited to a single skill—was music to my ears. Upon reflection, I found this is only possible under two conditions: take one skill at a time, and use deliberate practice to improve.

Learn one skill at a time

Learn different skills in series, not in parallel. In a good week, I may create a drawing, play a bit of piano, and code for an hour or two. I focus on learning many things at the same time. As a result, I do not experience the intensity to get really good at any of them. The solution, I am finding, is to adopt one or two skills you want to learn this year, and commit to learning only those. Although this focus is difficult for me (I have not built the habit of doing so), I commit to spending two hours every day on one skill for the next three months, building websites, because I notice it’s a combination of design and engineering that I enjoy.

Practice deliberately

Learning skills in series is insufficient—you need to learn skills effectively too. Taking drawing as an example, I experience no peer pressure to produce a drawing every day, and there is no teacher who evaluates my sketches. Even when you focus on one or two skills at a time, you need deliberate practice (another concept from Cal Newport’s book) to grow. This stretching yourself to perform uncomfortable exercises. This means stretching yourself to uncomfortable exercise (for instance, drawing a portrait if you’ve never done so), and asking for direct feedback on your work.

The question is: can I stick to this framework to learn one to two skills each year. Do you agree? Was there a time where you learned to master many skills at the same time? What is the path you follow?

And, considering our changing world: how valuable is specialization in a world where more work is automated?

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Thanks to Franziska Becker, Ted Gonder, Giles Holt, Philo van Kemenade, Marin Licina, Tobias Rijken, and Max Song for reviewing this blog.

Books that Influenced my Life

A dear friend of mine keeps a list (two, actually) of the books that shaped him. I liked that idea, so I made my own list below.

Books, of course, are not the only influence on us—I am influenced too, probably to a greater extent, by experiences, conversations with people, documentaries, and so on (those influences may be a topic for another blog post). The beautiful thing about books is, however, that for the cost of a meal and a few hours of dedication, you can gain a new perspective on the world.

The books below come to mind when I ask myself “Which books have changed the way I see the world and act?”

I’ve read (or re-read) all of these in the last 5 or so years, so I hope that the list will be much longer by the time I turn thirty.

(PS I would love to hear your recommendations for further reading. If there’s a book that has shaped your life that’s not on the list below, please share it with me.)

 

Life Philosophy:
Viktor Frankl – Man’s search for meaning
How a deep sense of purpose can keep you alive even in the toughest of circumstances.

Erich Fromm – The art of loving
A primary driver for human action is our desire to overcome separateness. Love is an activity, not a noun, that we need to keep practicing. “Work on yourself more than on the other person.”

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (also Cicero – On the Good Life)
Practical recommendations for how to be happy and less perturbed by what happens to you.

Bhagavad Gita and Dhammapada (both in the translation by Eknath Easwaran)
Powerful words to motivate you to try every day to be a better version of yourself, I read two pages each morning last summer before jumping on my bike. 

Lao Tze – Tao Te Ching (also the lighter, but as impactful, Benjamin Hoff – The Tao of Pooh)
Wonderful short verses that inspire you to smile and take a zoomed-out view at life’s busy-ness. 

 

Life stories that inspired me:
Buckminster Fuller – Critical Path
Revealing how you can live your life as an experiment; how much freedom you have to shape your days; and how powerful it is to work only and always for the benefit of all humanity. 

Benjamin Franklin – Autobiography (and Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin)
Combining the roles of writer, printer, entrepreneur, public citizen, politician, diplomat, and many more in one lifetime, with incredible zest and infinite curiosity.

Tracy Kidder – Mountains beyond Mountains
A page turner—one of the most inspiring, best written biographies I’ve read; and very relatable since Paul Farmer is still very active today. Paul Farmer’s story also deeply reminded me of Albert Schweitzer’s life (below).

Albert Schweitzer – Essential Writings
Like Paul Farmer, Albert Schweitzer expressed through his actions a deep commitment to serving others. His Essential Writings are written from a very human perspective—explaining how he loves to dance, play the organ, and put his feet in an ice-bath to stay awake at night while writing. 

Joseph Jaworski – Synchronicity
Every one of us has a cubic centimeter of chance pop up in our view occasionally. It is the warrior—the person who is always aware—who recognizes this and ceases the opportunity. A story that makes you excited about life. 

Wendy Kopp – One Day, All Children
A powerful example of how experience and age are not prerequisites for making big things happen. 

 

Personal Effectiveness:
Stephen Covey – 7 Habits of Successful people
I still use (slightly changed) versions of Covey’s weekly calendar exercise every week. 

Tim Ferriss – 4 hour workweek
You can disagree with some of the principles and core values underlying the book, but this book definitely makes you rethink what you’re pursuing and how to do so more effectively. 

Ray Dalio – Principles
Clearly-written, logical, practical manifesto on evaluating your mental models. 

Seth Godin – Linchpin
Emphasizing the mindset that you should always strive to be indispensable.

Reid Hoffmann and Ben Casnocha – The Start-up of You
From this book I took a number of practical exercises on how to tap into your network and look at your own future. 

Dale Carnegie – How to Win Friends and Influence People
Despite the “superficial” title, this book is surprisingly sincere; if you practice the lesson, you will be a kinder, happier person.

 

Books that helped me to improve my thinking:
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Helped me realize how often I use the scientific method (and when I fail to), and the limitations of the method. 

Peter Bevelin – From Darwin to Munger
Introduce me to using the evolutionary perspective to explain why our mind works in the way it does. Also includes a stunning list of all the “biases” of the brain, and led me to read Charlie Munger’s great speech and Charles Darwin’s autobiography. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan
This book was the first that made me aware how foolish it is to make predictions about phenomena that do not follow the laws of nature, such as the value of GE shares two years from now.

 

Books that changed the way I look at the world: 
Paul Hawken & Amory Lovins – Natural Capitalism
This book convinced me that resource-efficiency and profitability can go hand in hand. A good, more recent, book on this topic is “Resource Revolution” by Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers. 

Janine Benyus – Biomimicry
We can take so much (scientific) inspiration in design and technology if only we look at the rest of Life on Earth. 

Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs, and Steel
Describing the “advance” of man from Africa through today in a very exciting way, explaining what phenomena caused the differences in wealth we see in the world today.

James Goodsell – Machinery of Life
Beautiful illustrated book about the biology of the human body. 

 

 

Novels that touched me:
Herman Hesse – Siddharta
A personal journey that many of us can (or want to) identify with—going into the “real world”, tempted to follow our senses, only to realize that wisdom is found in simple things. 

Antoine de St. Exupéry – the Little Prince
Always stay a child at heart. 

Tintin
Choose for adventure! 

 

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I would love to hear your recommendations for further reading. If there’s a book that has shaped your life that’s not on the list below, please share it with me.

6 lessons from Churchill’s biography

Churchill

Churchill is widely admired for his courage and leadership. Would you not want to read about a man who is described by a biographer (Paul Johnson) as follows: 

Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. […] None hold more lessons, […] How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical, moral and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion and decency.

Here are 6 lessons on life from Churchill’s biography:

Dedicate yourself fully to an activity. As a teenager Churchill discovered that he had a love for words. Attracted by the adventure of joining battles, Churchill decided to try to report on a war in India. Spending most of his twenties traveling all around the world reporting from the front lines, war-reporting became Churchill’s obsession (paraphrasing Drew Houston, Churchill found his tennis ball). Later Churchill would throw himself with comparable vigour into other activities.

Build different ways to express yourself. “Politics never occupied his whole attention and energies. He had an astonishing range of activities to provide him with relief, exercise, thrills, fun and money.”

Churchill was dismissed from his position as Admiral in the British navy by prime minister Asquith at the start of WW1. Churchill found himself suddenly with no daily responsibilities, which had a disastrous effect on his mental state (his wife thought “he would die of grief”). Inspired by a friend, Churchill picked up painting. Painting became a deep passion, since “while you are painting you can think of nothing else.” I think it is critical to develop activities that you enjoy outside your work – all the more so in a future where fewer people have jobs. In what ways do you express yourself? 

Go where the action is. “Churchill began his plan of campaign to make himself famous, or at least conspicuous. But if you sat still, expecting wars to come to you, you might be starved of action. You had to go to the wars. That became Churchill’s policy.”

Churchill built up a reputation by fighting in the front lines – he did not stay in the UK. After returning from his war journeys, he quickly built a network in London with people in the House of Commons, as his aspirations were to become a politician.  “All his life he refused to be bound to a desk. He insisted on seeing for himself.”

Rise after you fall. Churchill was fired from his official position more than three times and lost many personal battles (he lost all his money on multiple occasions). Yet he never let his head hang (for too long). After he was dismissed as Admiral of the Navy, he found a way to participate in a battle on land. He was humiliated badly in the House of Commons but fought his way back into politics.

Do not take yourself to seriously. “We are all worms. But I really think I am a glow worm.”

Share your work. “This was his first book, and he sent a copy to the Prince of Wales, who wrote him a delightful letter of thanks, praised it to the skies, and recommended it to all his friends.”

Book Review: Natural Capitalism

Natural Capitalism suggests practical methods to improve the performance of your company or the quality of life in your country by accounting for natural capital. If you want to read success stories of better cities, more profitable businesses and more productive factories that reduce flows of energy, materials and waste, this book is for you. Below are some of my most important take-aways:

“What might be called “industrial capitalism” does not fully conform to its own accounting principles. It liquidates its capital and calls it income. It neglects to assign any value to the largest stocks of capital it employs – the natural resources and living systems, as well as the social and cultural systems that are the basis of human capital.”

The book introduces four strategies that enable countries, companies, and communities to operate by behaving as if all forms of capital were valued.

  1. Radical resource productivity. Using resources more effectively has three significant benefits: it slows resource depletion, it lowers pollution, and it provides a basis to increase employment. Companies and designers are developing ways to make natural resources – energy, metals, water, and forests – work five, ten, even one hundred times harder than they do today.
  2. Biomimicry: redesigning industrial systems on biological lines that change the nature of industrial processes and materials, enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles. Spiders make silk, strong as Kevlar but much tougher, from digested crickets and flies, without needing boiling sulfuric acid and high-temperature extruders.
  3. Service and flow economy: a shift to an economy wherein consumers obtain services by leasing or renting goods rather than buying them outright. This will entail a shift from the acquisition of goods as a measure of affluence to an economy where the continuous receipt of quality, utility, and performance promotes well-being.
  4. Investing in natural capital: reinvestments in sustaining, restoring, and expanding stocks of natural capital.

Resource productivity in industry

According to Natural Capitalism, the methods to increase industry’s energy and material productivity can be classified into (1) design; (2) new technologies; (3) controls; (4) corporate culture; (5) new processes; and (6) saving materials. An example of improved productivity through controls is found in distillation columns:

“Distillation columns use 3 percent of total U.S. energy to separate chemical and oil products, but most operators instead of continuously monitoring the purity of product as it emerges, test only occasionally to make sure samples meet specification. Between tests the operators, flying blind, often feed the same material back through the column more times than necessary to be really sure the products will pass the test – using 30-50 percent excess energy. Better controls that measure the purity actually coming out and keep fine-tuning the process for the desired results could cut waste in about half.”

We only need to look at chickens for improved productivity through new processes:

“There are three ways to turn limestone into a structural material. You can cut in into blocks, grind it up and calcine it at about 1500 Celsius into Portland cement, or feed it to a chicken and get it back hours later as even stronger eggshell. If we were as smart as chickens, we might master this elegant near-ambient-temperature technology and expand its scale and speed.”

The next time you design a manufacturing process or building, limit yourself using this framework:

“If a company knew that nothing that came into its factory could be thrown away, and that everything it produced would eventually return, how would it design its components and products?”

Eggs

Elimination of Muda

Muda is Japanese for “waste”, “futility” or “purposelessness”.

A central thesis of the book is that large-scale centralized production is not more efficient than localized small-scale production. The benefits of decentralized production – lower capital investment, greater flexibility, higher reliability, lower inventory cost and lower shipping costs – often far outweigh the benefit of centralized production – a lower price per pound of material or cubic foot of machinery. In decentralized production, all the different processing steps can be carried out immediately adjacent to one  another with the product kept in continuous flow.

“From a whole-system perspective, the giant cola-canning machine may well cost more per delivered can than a small, slow, unsophisticated machine that produces the cans of cola locally and immediately on receiving an order from the retailer.”

“The whole system comprises classical central sewage-treatment plants and their farflung collection sewers – each piece optimized in isolation – is far costlier than such local or even on-site solutions as biological treatment. That is the case because even if the smaller plants cost more per unit of capacity (which they generally don’t), they’d need far less investment in pipes and pumps – often 90 percent of system investment – to collect sewage from a greater area to serve the larger plant.”

WasteWater

Water treatment centrally or in your garden?

Business models for a service economy

Together resource productivity and elimination of muda (lean thinking) offer the foundation for a powerful new business logic: Instead of selling the customer a product that you hope she’ll be able to use to derive the service she really wants, provide her that service directly at the rate and in the manner in which she desires it, deliver it as efficiently as possible, share as much of the resulting savings as you must to compete, and pocket the rest. 

An example of this “new business logic” are Energy Service Companies (ESCo’s). ESCo’s privately finance and install energy saving measures (insulation, energy-saving LED lighting, solar panels) in a client’s building, and charge a monthly fee to the client that is typically less than the energy saved. In a not-so-distant past, engineering firms would charge for the product (insulation materials, solar panels and labor costs for installation) upfront, because of which many potential clients did not become clients because they could not afford the capital expense.

SpaceX_Dragon

Another not-so-earthly example is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. In stead of selling NASA a rocket, SpaceX charges NASA for the service to bring weight into the stratosphere. Through a different design perspective – building reusable in stead of disposable rockets – SpaceX is able to deliver NASA their service for one-tenth of the cost, winning a $1.6B contract.

Other examples are Schindler, a Swiss elevator-manufacturer that makes 70 percent of its earnings by leasing vertical transportation services, and Amazon Web Services. In stead of selling server-racks, AWS provide the service of storing bits. With this new business logic, Amazon created the industry of cloud storage (for which no server-manufacturing-expertise was needed!).

“At first glance it is tempting to regard a company crazy for striving to sell less of its product. If you sell a service, however, you have the opportunity to develop relationships, not just conduct a one-time transaction. The business logic of offering continuous, customized, decreasing-cost solutions to an individual customer’s problems is compelling because the provider and the customer both make money in the same way – by increasing resource productivity. Service providers would have an incentive to keep their assets productive for as long as possible, rather than prematurely scrapping them in order to sell replacements.”

A “service economy” has important macroeconomic implications. In a “goods economy”, purchasing and thereby orders fluctuate vigorously depending on the economy. In a “solutions economy” this volatility is dampened, because access to a solution does not require large investments, only annual service-fees. This would lead to an enormous reduction in the cycle of jobs being created and destroyed.

The shared economy is one incarnation of the service economy. The shared economy – an economy in which people receive service from the unused capital of other individuals – has started to take shape in recent years because technology has enabled fast and efficient distribution of goods and connection between individuals. With smart door-locks and iPhones with internet access, you can reply to a tenant on airbnb, approve her stay and give her digital, 24-hour access to your front door all in a matter of minutes. Before, this was not possible.

Important questions:

  • Why is the idea of “centralized production leads to maximum efficiency” deeply rooted in our minds if it is incorrect?
  • Why has the “service economy” or “solutions economy” – the concept to sell access to a product in stead of the product itself – been adopted by companies only in the last 20 years?
  • Why do product companies – Apple, Philips, Dyson – choose to sell a product in stead of access to a service, if selling a service allows them to build long-term customer relationships?

Book review: Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography

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Written 250 years ago, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is surprisingly easy to read. In today’s world, Franklin would be a mix between Tim O’Reilly and Tim Ferris. Franklin operated a printing company through which he influenced public opinion; he founded organizations as a fire brigade and a university and he actively tried to change the way he acted through smart exercises and habits. I found it valuable to read his autobiography because Franklin was on a relentless pursuit to become a better person. In his own words:

“I grew convinced that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I formed written resolutions which still remain in my journal book to practice them ever while I lived.”

I wrote about one exercise to nurture your virtues in a post one year ago. Below are some of the thoughts flowing from his book.

# Study voraciously

Franklin took all the time he could to read. At sixteen Franklin became vegetarian, so he could eat a light lunch at his office, saving money and time to read more books.

# Changing someone else’s opinion

Socrates’ method of inquiry – as documented in Xenophobon’s book – is a tool to let other people rethink their beliefs or opinion on a subject by mastering the art of questioning. Franklin also taught himself to avoid argument. When he disagreed with someone, he would put his remark in the form of a question “Do you not think that the issue can be seen from another perspective?”. The point he makes is phrased by Alexander Pope as:

“Men should be taught as if you taught them not, and things unknown proposed as things forgot”

# Build relationships

Benjamin Franklin was recommended by two Governors for his work. “This was the second governor who had done me the honor to take notice of me; which, to a poor boy like me, was very pleasing.”

# An exercise to learn to write 

Franklin learned to write by sending in pieces to his brother’s printing press under the name of an invented elderly lady. Franklin describes one exercise he used to improve his writing: Take a piece of work that you think is well-written and copy the essence of every sentence. Put the notes to the side for a few days. Then, pick up the notes and try to recreate the original essay from the notes. Compare your paper to the original, and observe where and how the author of the original created different sentences.

# Stick to your principles

A friend who travelled alongside Franklin from NYC to Philadelphia was drunk and did not want to row when it was his turn to take the oars. Franklin insisted he would, because he saw every man on the team as equal. Here, Franklin was a man of principle – not bending to suit a friend who drank.

# Work with the best

When Franklin arrived in England, under the false conviction that the Governor had set up meetings for him with printers, he had to look for something else to do. He was advised to work with experienced printers in the UK; training with whom would allow him to set up his own shop afterwards.

# Learn to say no to requests

When he speaks about a governor who did not keep his promise. “It was a habit he had acquired. He wished to please everybody; and, having little to give, he gave expectations. He was otherwise an ingenious, sensible man […]”

# Think independently 

At the time Franklin started work in a printing press in England, the workmen at the printing press would drink beer during the working day, supposing they needed the beer for nutrition. Franklin reasoned that the nutritional value of 6 pints of beer could be no more than a loaf of bread, because:

“The strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made.”

Franklin did not drink beer and was a better worker and wealthier man as a result.

# Be ethical in your work

Franklin refused to print advertisements or letters that spoke negatively of others.

“I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse.”

When his customers would claim “freedom of press”, Franklin would respond by saying that he would print the article for them, but that he would not distribute such a piece.

# Find smart ways to learn

When Franklin wanted to learn Italian, he found another student with whom he would play chess. The winner of a game was allowed to impose a language-learning task on the other.

Franklin also created a “club of mutual improvement” called the junto. The group would meet every week to discuss questions on morality, politics or science. 

# Turn enemies into friends

One man spoke against Benjamin Franklin. In stead of attacking him, or writing him a nasty letter, or even asking “Why did you attack me?”, Franklin tried a different tactic: he asked the man to use something he deeply cared about. Franklin asked to borrow a book, which the man highly treasured.

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Try to think in opportunities when someone reproaches you – try to tickle their interests.

# Spread ideas through writing

Franklin used the written word as a method for spreading his ideas. He would come up with a solution to a social problem – for instance, an Academy to reduce the levels of illiteracy in Philadelphia – write a convincing essay, share it with friends to receive feedback, and publish it into local newspapers. This is no different from the method Elon Musk uses today to spread the idea of the Hyperloop.

Glancing over the different lessons learned, Franklin’s autobiography could easily fit into a business-book section.

Book review: Mountains beyond Mountains, a biography of Paul Farmer

How did your last visit to Belize or the Philippines influence you

At twenty-three years old, on a path to becoming a doctor, Paul Farmer spent several months as a volunteer in Haiti. Like other American visitors, Paul Farmer was amazed by the jam-packed third-hand European vans and struck by the warmness of the Haitians. Unlike other Westerners, Paul Farmer turned a one-off visit into a lifelong relationship. He decided to build a health clinic in Haiti, for the poorest people in the country.

Mountains beyond Mountains tells the story of Farmer’s life. I highly recommend the book as an inspiration for living a life of service. Farmer calls his life approach pragmatic solidarity: not the life of an ascetic who attempts to achieve nirvana by meditating in solitude; but the life of a person who is out in the world helping others every minute of the day.

What did I learn from Paul Farmer? 

A deep love for all people. He helped the poorest, the ugliest, the neediest. The people others try to avoid, Farmer treats like dearest friends.

Complete, selfless dedication to a cause. Farmer would be the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. He let go of all personal comfort to spend more time with patients.

“The problem is, if I don’t work this hard, someone will die who doesn’t have to. That sounds megalomaniacal. I wouldn’t have said that to you before I’d taken you to Haiti and you had seen that it was manifestly true.”

Courage and persistence. When Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, did not have enough money to buy drugs for patients in Haiti, Farmer would bring the medicine from the Brigham Young hospital in Boston, where he was a practicing doctor.

“Paul and Jim would stop at the Brigham pharmacy before they left for Peru and fill their briefcases with drugs. they had sweet-talked various people into letting them walk away with the drugs. […] Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

Clear in communicating his views. Farmer convinced the World Health Organization to change their specified treatment for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis all around the world. That does not happen if you do not clearly speak your mind.

“He was fresh as hell to me, but I liked him, because if you said boo and he didn’t think boo was right, he’d tell you. He was way ahead of me, on service to the poor.”

Excellent at maintaining relationships. Farmer would thank everyone personally for making donations – even the individual $10 contributions from fellow church visitors in Boston.

As a reader, I observed a though coming to mind: “How can I lead a life as impactful as Farmer?”. I don’t think that question follows from the right intention. The goal is not to be just like Paul Farmer – we should all find our own paths in life.

What we can learn, however, is to focus our work on the needs of others – not the comfort it provides to ourself; to commit to the problems we believe should be solved; and to pursue our cause with vigor and persistence, not being attached to the outcomes of our actions. 

On the Good Life

If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty stars, the marvelous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it for himself

– old Roman saying.

I had the pleasure to spend the last weekends traveling Europe. In Zurich, Belgium and London, I found myself surrounded by beautiful friends who truly made me feel at home. What would life be without friends? Below some reflections taken from Cicero’s “On the Good Life”:

Friendship can only exist between two good men.

When a man thinks of a true friend, he is looking at himself in the mirror. Even when a friend is absent, he is present all the same. However poor he is, he is rich: however weak, he is strong. […] Even when he is dead, he is still alive. He is alive because his friends still cherish him, and remember him, and long for him. This means that there is happiness even in his death – he ennobles the existences of those who are left behind.

A good man is attracted by other good men; he wants to annex them for himself.

Scipio’s greatest wish was that all his friends should gain, not lose, in stature because of their association with himself.

You ought to give each of your friends just as much assistance as you have the capacity to provide.