Food for Thought 2016 – The Life-Sparring Books of the Year

Food for Thought 2016 – The Life-Sparring Books of the Year

Photo: BigStockPhoto.com    Copyright: Sheila_F

Photo: BigStockPhoto.com    Copyright: Sheila_F

Last year, just before Christmas Eve, I published a list of my favorite books I’ve read over the course of the year. As it turned out, that article was quite well received, potentially even used as a pointer for last minute gift purchases. Encouragement enough to turn the annual Food for Thought Life-Sparring Round into a tradition.

I started the year with the intention to read 20 books. With about a week left of 2016, I finished 17 books and am in the middle of four more.
Knowing that my reading capacity is limited, I try to be picky, choosing the books I commit to carefully. I add every title I deem worthy of reading in a “to read” list on the Goodreads app and maintain an Amazon shopping list that triggers price alerts. Whenever I finish a book, I chose the next title to read based on my mood, special offers, and pure randomness from the list.

This being said for introduction, let me, without further ado, reveal the Life-Sparring books of 2016:

5th Place: The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, Jonathan Gottschall, 2015

In most societies girls have rites of passage, too. But with some gruesome exceptions, they don’t rival the ordeals invented for boys. That girls will grow up to be real women is pretty much taken as a given. Masculinity is not. It must be won, and won at a cost.
— Jonathan Gottschall, The Professor in the Cage

The Professor in the Cage is an interesting read, part an autobiography telling the story of Gottschall’s journey from untrained middle-aged academic to Mixed Martial Arts (amateur) fighter, part an investigation into the origin of (play) fighting in the human and animal kingdom.
If you are interested in MMA or martial arts in general and asked yourself why you should enjoy the book. 

4th Place: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2001 & The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing, Michael J. Mauboussin, 2012

Mild success can be explainable by skills and labor. Wild success is attributable to variance.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness
There’s a quick and easy way to test whether an activity involves skill: ask whether you can lose on purpose. In games of skill, it’s clear that you can lose intentionally, but when playing roulette or the lottery you can’t lose on purpose.
— Michael J. Mauboussin, The Success Equation

Place four goes to a double feature of two great books on one of my favorite topics: the influence of luck and skill on human performance.

Fooled by Randomness has become a true classic. It is a bit embarrassing that I just read it this year, 15 years after its release. With his background in trading, Taleb shows in practical examples the common misperceptions about randomness. To be successful, understanding the role of randomness and skill in life is extremely important. Fooled by Randomness remains one of the most relevant books on this topic.

The Success Equation as a relatively new book is surely building on Taleb’s books Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan; both books are multiple times mentioned as a reference. Mauboussin however, goes a step further looking at attempts to quantitatively isolate the factors skill and luck in different areas of human performance. Did you know that the mainstream sport that requires the least amount of luck is Basketball?

3rd Place: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, Tim Ferriss, 2016

Strong Views, Loosely Held” For a long time, this phrase was in Marc’s Twitter bio. I asked him to explain the meaning: “Most people go through life and never develop strong views on things, or specifically go along and buy into the consensus. One of the things I think you want to look for as both a founder and as an investor is things that are out of consensus, something very much opposed to the conventional wisdom. . . . Then, if you’re going to start a company around that, if you’re going to invest in that, you better have strong conviction because you’re making a very big bet of time or money or both. [But] what happens when the world changes? What happens when something else happens?”
— Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans, Chapter: Marc Andreessen

Bronze in 2016 goes to no one less than the master himself, Tim Ferriss. I have credited Tim on multiple occasions for inspiring me to start Life-Sparring. He was the major influence to do my self-experiments, of course on a much more pedestrian level than the grand master himself.

I am a regular listener of The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast since around episode 20 (mid of 2014) and haven’t missed many episodes ever since. I only picked up Ferriss’ bestseller 4-H Body and  4-H Workweek after becoming a devotee to the podcast.

Tools of Titans is “the book to the popular podcast.” It is Tim’s notepad where he sums up his main takeaways of 4 years of teasing out the secrets, daily routines, and tools of top performers of different fields.

If you have never listened to the podcast, the book will be an awkward read, as the individual articles for each interviewee are often very short and provide not much context.

If you are like me a devoted fan of the podcast, you will love the book, especially if you have a natural aversion to taking notes. While I am totally aware of how beneficial it would be to take detailed notes when listening to a podcast, I rarely ever do it. I listen to podcasts mostly as a secondary activity while doing something else, like commuting, hiking, or researching. Taking notes while listening would require a higher level of attention.

Reading Tools of Titans is like getting the study notes of the eager beaver sitting in the first row. I read the kindle version and shamelessly highlight everything noteworthy, creating my own best of ToT in Evernote. Used this way, the book is an incredibly rich resource.

2nd Place: Not Afraid: On Fear, Heartbreak, Raising a Baby Girl, and Cage Fighting, Daniele Bolelli, 2015.

As long as you’re not afraid, nobody can run your life for you. Remember that. Hell is being scared of things. Heaven is refusing to be scared. I mean that literally
— Danielle Bolelli, Not Afraid

The silver medalist of 2016 is a book that - like last year’s winner - influenced me deeply because I was reading it just at the right moment of my life. Like many things in life (songs, scents), timing can be a powerful factor when it comes to reading experience.

Not Afraid: On Fear, Heartbreak, Raising a Baby Girl, and Cage Fighting by cage fighting historian Daniele Bolelli, is an emotional autobiographic book giving an intimate view of Bolelli’s struggles to become the hero that he always wanted to be.

I read the book in the first month of 2016 while dealing with a massive personal crisis. In that state, the book hit close to home. I wrote about fear on different occasions, and a Life-Sparring round called I Fight, Therefore I Am! – More Reflections on Fear was motivated largely by Not Afraid
To everyone out there who fights his or her fears or needs a gentle reminder that life is more than often “the battle that the best part of us fights against our selfishness, weakness, and meanness” really should pick up this book. You won’t regret it.

1st Place: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, Michael Lewis, 2016

Historians imposed false order upon random events, too, probably without even realizing what they were doing. Amos had a phrase for this. “Creeping determinism,” he called it—and jotted in his notes one of its many costs: “He who sees the past as surprise-free is bound to have a future full of surprises.
— Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis is a masterful storyteller with the gift to write non-fiction books that read as engaging as thrillers. Some of his previous books Liar's Poker, The Big Short and Flash Boys are among my all-time favorites; once I started to read them I was not able to put the book down.
When I heard about The Undoing Project, I was extremely excited. Not only because it was a new Michael Lewis book, but also because the book tells the background story of one of my favorite books of all time, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, and Slow.

In Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), Daniel Kahneman summarizes his life’s body of research, most of it conducted together with Amos Tversky. Together they popularized cognitive biases that are now common knowledge, such as the halo effect, the availability bias or the confirmation bias. Kahneman and Tversky showed that human judgment is deeply flawed. The reality of our world is so complex that our mind heavily relies on heuristics, shortcuts that work well enough in most cases but produce horrible decision making in other circumstances.

Only Michael Lewis could do the story of the unlikely friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky justice. A platonic love story that changed how we understand human perception and that lead to Kahneman as a psychologist receiving the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 2002, for his research together with Tversky (who died six years prior).

While the book is missing the built up that made The Big Short or Flash Boys so exciting, it still a great read, painting the characters behind some of the greatest breakthroughs in understanding human judgment and its flaws.
If you want to understand how the world functions, you need to read Thinking Fast and Slow, and if you read it, you will want to read The Undoing Project.

If you need more book tips take a look at the recommendations from 2015, most of the titles such as the number one pick The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book about Relationships, by Neil Strauss are still highly relevant.

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