Category Archives: Books

Book Notes: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited after many years. For more such posts, see the Book Notes category

everything_store

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone

Published: 2013
ISBN: 0316219282
Amazon link

Brief Summary

The fascinating story of the rise of Amazon, which is the story of Jeff Bezos himself. He is brilliant, analytical, highly competitive, and driven. Bezos built Amazon not only to create the best contemporary company of its kind, vanquishing all rivals, but engineered systems to innovate and continue to succeed well into the future.

My notes:

  • I read this book as part of the research for my Wall Street Journal story, published in November, about Amazon’s rapid progress here in India. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Amazon. I couldn’t have picked a better book.
  • Author Brad Stone, who covered Amazon for years for the likes of The New York Times and Newsweek, provides the fascinating story of Bezos’s personal background, his early academic success, and his bold decision to leave a high-paying Wall Street job to move out west and found Amazon.
  • The book is not a hagiography, however. Bezos and Amazon are presented warts and all. Anecdotes show the Amazon founder to be at times ruthless in his quest for success, and other times enormously generous. And the high-pressure nature of Amazon’s corporate culture is plain to see.
  • I’m old enough to recall the dotcom bust, but “The Everything Store” serves as a good reminder to younger readers just how bleak things got for Amazon, when its stock fell and many believed one of its e-commerce competitors, eBay, would be the runaway success, not Amazon.
  • From a communications perspective, it’s interesting to note the book highlights several instances when new public announcements have been timed over the years to conincide with competitors’ quarterly results, as a way to steal their thunder. And Bezos himself is a master at messaging, honing “Jeff-isms” to express the company’s point of view in a pithy manner, often deflect various criticisms of the company along the way.
  • If you want to learn more about Bezoz, Amazon, and its culture, Stone has helpfully provided a list of “a dozen books widely read by executives and employees that are integral to understanding the company. Some of the titles include the novel “The Remains of the Day,” books by Sam Walton and Alan Greenberg, and modern-day business classics like “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “The Black Swan.”

The Best Books I Read in 2016

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I read many books this year, and as faithful readers know, I’ve been sharing my notes from some of them under the heading “Book Notes.”

I’ll break down my picks according to two categories:

My favorite book published this year:

I read Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” over the summer, and its insights have stuck with me.

In brief, Newport, a computer science academic, stresses the importance to our careers of doing uninterrupted, sophisticated, value-added work, and avoiding distractions like social media.

Common sense? Yes.

But in a world where information of dubious quality and technologies engineered to monopolize our attention seem to proliferate by the day, it’s a timely reminder that we must focus on activities that distinguish us from our competitors.

My full notes are here.

My pick for the best book I read this year*, regardless of when it was published:

It’s been around for nearly a decade, but Joe Studwell’s “Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia” was a revelation for me, because it provided historical context for what I’d seen all around me during my time in Thailand and Singapore.

Studwell’s thesis: The region’s dysfunctional governments have given rise to its billionaire godfathers.

In turn, Southeast Asia has produced few, if any, truly global brands because the region’s biggest firms simply take advantage of monopolies or licenses, don’t really innovate, and thus aren’t internationally competitive.

My full notes are here.
*Okay, I’m cheating here: I actually read this book in November 2015, but that’s pretty close to 2016!

On the Importance of Reading Books to Understand the World

Will Schwalbe, in a WSJ Saturday essay called “The Need to Read”:

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

And:

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.

The technology of a book is genius: The order of the words is fixed, whether on the page or on the screen, but the speed at which you read them is entirely up to you. Sure, this allows you to skip ahead and jump around. But it also allows you to slow down, savor and ponder.

And a passage that especially resounded with me:

So I’m on a search—and have been, I now realize, all my life—to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions that I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.

I know I’m not alone in my hunger for books to help me find the right questions to ask, and find answers to the ones that I have. I am now in my mid-50s, a classic time for introspection. But any age is a good age for examining your life. Readers from their teens to their 90s have shared with me their desire for a list of books to help guide them.

In a word: yes.

The essay is excerpted from Schwalbe’s new work, “Books for Living,” which comes out next month.

Book Notes — The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

The dog stars

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
Published: 2013
ISBN: 1611736137
Amazon link
Rating: 8/10

Brief recap: A beautifully written, hope-infused post-apocalyptic novel. Yes, you read that right.

My notes:

  • I am not ashamed to admit I an enamored of post-apocalyptic fiction. Like another well-known book about a disaster-struck world, Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” this novel tells the story of handful of people left behind after most of the world’s population has been wiped out. But unlike “The Road,” as some reviewers have noted, this book — while it does contains some very real nastiness — is dominated by the protagonist’s love for his deceased wife, his bond with his beloved dog, and his hope that the future may bring salvation of some sort. In other words, it is strangely optimistic. And very moving.

  • Narratively speaking, Heller does an excellent job recounting, in bits and pieces via flashbacks, the sickness that befell humanity. But rather than get into highly specific medical or scientific details, he hints at symptoms and theories, leaving the reader to ponder precisely what happened. Similarly, the reader gleans just enough details about the how chaos unfolds to still leave some questions unanswered. This is not, in other words, “World War Z,” replete with gory details (and zombie attacks), viewed from some future standpoint.

  • The novel is set in Colorado, and there are some really gorgeous passages here about nature: mountainous vistas, deer, trout. Striking stuff.

  • This is a book aviation buffs will enjoy, as the narrator, Hig, lives with his partner at an abandoned airport. Hig frequently takes his Cessna out to patrol surrounding areas and visit other survivors, and the book has some detailed passages about the experience of flying.

Book Notes — ‘Never Eat Alone,’ by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

Never eat alone

Never Eat Alone…and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time
By Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz
Published: 2005
ISBN: 0385346654
Amazon link
Rating: 6/10

Brief recap: A popular book about the power of networking. I didn’t find it revelatory, but appreciate the central theme, which is common sense: that you should help friends just to help them, not because you expect something in return. In other words, as the author writes, networking can be a huge advantage – but don’t keep score.

My notes:

  • Ferrazzi relates his story of growing up in the U.S. in a lower-middle class family, outside of elite circles. One he became friends with influential people, however, he discovered that they helped him in school and work, and that – of course – it’s much better to be on the inside than on the outside looking in.
  • Anyone who’s read books about the power of networking is probably familiar with most of the notions mentioned here. These include: the importance of building relationships with business contacts over the long term; the importance of being kind to assistants and other gatekeepers; why it’s key to follow up after you meet new contacts in order to stay in touch; how to make the most of meeting people at conferences; how to make small talk; etc.

  • My main takeaway from the book, though, was that it reinforced the the importance of trust in building career capital via the relationships you make, over time. As Ferrazzi writes:

My point is this: Relationships are solidified by trust. Institutions are built on it. You gain trust not by asking what people can do for you, to paraphrase an earlier Kennedy, but what you can do for others. In other words, the currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.

Business cycles ebb and flow; your friends and trusted associates remain.

Book Notes — ‘Deep Work,’ by Cal Newport

Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

Deep work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
By Cal Newport
Published: 2016
ISBN: 1455586692
Amazon link
Rating: 9/10

Brief recap: Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, argues that knowledge workers must devote themselves entirely to the most sophisticated and valuable contributions they can make – they must concentrate on what he calls “deep work.” Common sense, yes, but the book provides some compelling insights and plenty of practical tips. Highly recommended.

My notes:

  • What is deep work? It’s the core stuff we are trained to do, for which we’ve developed deep expertise – the crux of what makes us experts in our field.

    Or, as Newport writes:

    Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

    What isn’t deep work – or, as he calls it, “shallow work”? Newport says it’s activities that a recent college graduate could learn how to do relatively quickly.

    So, if you’re a consultant, let’s say, you must devote yourself entirely to your most important work, like producing deliverables for clients or bosses. Eschew all but the most critical email, needless meetings, social media and other distractions – even though it may seem like this stuff is important to your job.

  • Social media is largely a waste of time, and should avoided, Newport says. But our culture is so techno-centric – we are living in Neil Postman’s “technolopy”, he writes – that this is difficult:

Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech. Deep work is exiled in favor of more distracting high-tech behaviors, like the professional use of social media, not because the former is empirically inferior to the latter. Indeed, if we had hard metrics relating the impact of these behaviors on the bottom line, our current technopoly would likely crumble…

  • After laying out, in the first half of the book, why deep work is important, Newport goes out to provide some tips for building more deep work into one’s life. A few that I liked, and have since implemented:
    • Keep a scorecard: log not only how many hours per day you’re able to spend on deep work, but track with a paper and pen, and post in a conspicuous place, details on when you’ve reached important milestones, such as completing important projects.
    • Train yourself to embrace boredom in order to build focus: Newport notes that a key requirement of deep work is the ability to concentrate deeply for long stretches of time, and that means resisting the temptation to surf the web or check in on social media when boredom strikes.

    • Ponder your work when walking. In a notable passage, Newport says he often takes long walks to and from his office, devoting the time to thinking about problems that are vexing him at work, searching for solutions.

    • That said, guard your downtime: Though Newport is a successful academic, publishing regularly, he argues that because he consistently focuses on deep work, he doesn’t have to work marathon hours. This is crucial because focusing is more mentally demanding than shallow work, and the brain needs time to relax. Newport even describes how he mentally prepares to leave his office every day, saying out loud to himself that he is finishing his work and shutting off his computer, serving as a reminder that it’s time to tune out a bit.

  • Newport earlier authored another interesting book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.”

    The premise of that work: Follow your passion is terrible advice. True work satisfaction often comes only after a good deal of time, once we’ve developed expertise. So pick something you’re good at, that you like, and that society values. Then develop a craftsman’s mindset, honing your skills over time. Also worth checking out.

Book Notes — ‘Asian Godfathers,’ by Joe Studwell

Note: I have long kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

2016 06 01 asian godfathers

Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia
By Joe Studwell
Published: Oct. 2007
Read: Nov. 2015
Amazon link

Brief recap: An incisive look at how Southeast Asia’s godfathers got rich by exploiting the region’s dysfunctional governments — and how local elites have used godfathers, in turn.

One of the best books, if not the very best, on the region that I’ve encountered; should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the history of modern Southeast Asia.

My notes:

  • The region’s godfathers — largely Chinese and Indians — emigrated to Southeast Asia before World War II, taking advantage of opportunities for concessions and monopolies from local political elites in exchange for not seeking their own political power. Typical godfather behavior would be, for example, to bribe local politicians for lucrative monopolies, which they then used to build their own fortunes. Local elites got a steady stream of incoming cash in return, and weren’t challenged in the governmental sphere.

  • Southeast Asia and Hong Kong have very few global brands because they employ “technology-less industrialization” — entrepreneurs seek rents and have monopolies, so don’t need to improve productivity or become globally competitive.

  • The economic landscape in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong is “shaped by the interaction of two historical forces: migration and colonization.” That is, migrants came to Southeast Asia and began building their riches by taking advantage of colonial systems.

  • Thailand’s Thaksin was a godfather who committed the sin of political ambition — and alienated his fellow godfathers.

  • Studwell is highly critical of Singapore despite the fact it is known globally for good governance and its outsized economic development. He argues that its small size makes comparisons with countries irrelevant, and that both the city-state and Hong Kong show that small cities with deep water ports and good banking facilities were always destined to flourish in the region, despite their very different political models. “As relatively easily managed city states, with highly motivated and purely immigrant populations,” Studwell writes, “Hong Kong and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands. In other words, business comes to them because they perform certain tasks — principally services — a little better than surrounding countries.”

Book Notes — ‘The One Thing,’ by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan

Note: I have long kept written notes on index cards about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

2016-01-02_one_thing

The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
By Gary Keller with Jay Papasan
Published: April, 2013
Read: December, 2015
Amazon link.

Brief re-cap: This is a short book with a simple thesis: In every job, there is one single activity that you should focus on that will improve your value to your company or your customers. You should focus on that, above all else, even if it means neglecting other responsibilities, the authors argue.

I didn’t find this book revelatory, exactly, but it served as a useful reminder of the necessity of prioritizing the most crucial projects over all others.

My notes:

  • You must disabuse yourself of several common notions in order to have the biggest impact in your work and life. One is the idea that humans are adept at multitasking, that we can do it all. You can only ever concentrate on one thing at a time. So choose wisely.

    Another myth is the idea that willpower is available on demand. In fact, willpower decreases throughout the day, like a cellphone battery draining bit by bit. That means you must get your most important work done early in the day, while you’re still able to concentrate to the best of your abilities.

  • You should block out four hours on your calendar every day for your “one thing,” and treat it like an appointment that can’t be broken. Day after day of concentration on your most important work will yield big results down the line.
  • Embrace chaos. When you prioritize your “one thing,” some other stuff won’t get done. But that’s okay.
  • Book Coming Out Later This Year: ‘The Art of Atari’

    2016 05 02 atari

    “The Art of Atari,” a book by pop culture author Robert V. Conte and designer Tim Lapetino set for publication in October, looks really amazing.

    From the description on Amazon:

    Sourced from private collections worldwide, this book spans over 40 years of the company’s unique illustrations used in packaging, advertisements, catalogs, and more.

    And:

    The Art of Atari includes behind-the-scenes details on how dozens of games featured within were conceived of, illustrated, approved (or rejected), and brought to life!

    There’s more artwork to marvel at on the book’s official site, ArtofAtari.com.

    (Via Kottke.)