Monthly Archives: January 2017

January 2017 Book Club Recommendations

I believe that we must transcend. We must elevate earthly life beyond this little rock. We must release the rungs of our old paradigms and climb the ladder of progress. We must transcend, we must transcend, we must transcend.

Transcendance starts with learning.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am an obsessive reader and learner of things. I want to share my reading habit with you to inspire you to learn and transcend your old ways of thinking.

I also want you to talk about these books with me, so please comment below to discuss if you’ve read or make suggestions for future reading.

These are the books I read in January 2017. I’ve included my top-of-mind notes and comments on whether or not I can recommend the work. The must-reads are marked with an asterisk.

(Must-reads are defined, by me, as books that I will likely re-read.)

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. I will make a very small amount of money if you purchase from this post. If you don’t want me to get paid for the suggestion, Google it yourself.

Common Sense by Thomas Paine*

Given the state of affairs in this country, you are under-informed if you haven’t read this book. It was first published early in 1776 as a pamphlet and explains in simple terms why monarchy wasn’t working.

Here’s the basic rundown of the points I found most interesting:

  • The purpose of government: so society can grow.
  • Why checks-and-balances are a fundamentally flawed design pattern.
  • Why monarchies and hereditary succession don’t work.

This pamphlet helped spark the first American Revolution. Now that we are coming up to the second, it might be a good time to review it.

You can read the entire pamphlet here for free, courtesy of Google.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb*

I’ve read this book five times in the last three years. It gives me more to chew on every time.

The, very contrarian, idea of Antifragile is that there is a certain category of things that benefit from disorder. These are often ideas, complex systems, and biological systems.

Antifragile is the philosophical manifesto of our time. It explains the underlying mathematics of everything from economics to health in simple terms. It is a long, dense book, that rewards you multiple times over on every page.

Important ideas to consider:

  • Why doctors hurt you more than they help.
  • How public financial markets are currently designed to transfer risk from corporate managers to innocent investors.
  • Why economists are almost always wrong.
  • Why higher education is not necessarily driving wealth creation in this, or any, country.
  • How to live an ethical life.
  • Why a grandmother’s wisdom is more valuable than most books written in the last ten years.
  • Fractal geometry makes for healthier spaces than Euclidean geometry
  • and so much more…

This is a must read for anybody and everybody. You should buy this book today and read it cover to cover.

The Spy: A novel by Paolo Coelho

My little brother got me a signed copy of this book. He knew that I’m a huge fan of the Alchemist so he thought I’d find it interesting.

He was right, but interesting is the extent of it.

The Spy is about Mata Hari, the famous 19th century dancer who took Paris by storm and was executed for espionage. The book’s tagline is: “Her only crime was to be an independent woman”, but the book is mostly lacking any subtle or compelling exploration of this theme.

While I find her story fascinating, I didn’t love the book. It’s boring. Mata Hari is interesting for all the wrong reasons. She uses people and lies to get ahead. Then when she gets wrongfully accused of espionage, it’s hard to feel bad for her. Frankly, I had a hard time finishing the book, and the book is pretty short.

The top critical review (3 stars) on Amazon hits the nail on the head:

I couldn’t see the point of this novel. There are some very good biographies of Mata Hari’s life and my time would have been better spent reading one of those. The novel is written as letters, and somehow I just didn’t care much by the end. In fact, her story is a fascinating and moving one…”  

You’d be better off reading classic Coelho: The Alchemist. It’s one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read and I’ve read a lot of novels.

The House and the Cloud by David Stelzl

The House and the Cloud is a sales handbook for technologists interested in selling managed IT services. Here are some key lessons I took away:

  • How to pique interest initially using what Stelzl called an “Advisory Positioning Statement”
  • How to open sales meetings using a structured Value Proposition
  • How to run sales meetings that convert warm leads into recurring revenue

I certainly learned a lot about Stelzl’s tremendously effective sales process and can recommend this book to anyone working in a tech consulting role.

There are however, a number of gripes I have to mention in case David reads this and gets the chance to address them:

  1. The cover and presentation of the book is very amateurish. This is common with authors who self-publish and is the reason you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.
  2. The style of the book can be described as consultant-marketing-jargon. You have to be prety patient to get to the useful nuggets
  3. There are probably dozens of typos which pisses me off because anybody making six or seven figures should just hire a college student to proofread the book.
  4. The structure of the book also needs work. I was often confused by the organization of material.
  5. It could be at least 20% shorter.

Beyond these nitpicks, the book is excellent. I love the idea of using statistical soundbites to disarm technical questions in sales meetings. Anybody who’s closed deals before knows the importance of frame control (see Pitch Anything) and will immediately understand the significance of soundbites.

Recommend for anybody selling IT products or services.

Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great instead of Big by Bo Burlingham

Tim Ferriss recommends this book so often that I figured I’d give it a try.

This book is basically a collection of case studies that examine a few companies that “choose to be great instead of big”. It examines how some companies sacrifice growth in the name of other values and goals. Here are some key elements I took from the book:

  • Authenticity is important (if you want people to like and trust you)
  • Private ownership is important (if you don’t want investors pressuring you to grow)
  • Gross Margin is important (if you don’t want to go out of business)

The lessons might seem obvious, and that’s because they are. This will sound like the height of arrogance, but I had a hard time pulling NEW IDEAS from the book. Mostly because anybody who’s read business literature has already heard the ideas.

The companies Burlingham profiles are interesting. The anecdotes are funny and inspiring. The biggest value proposition of the book is the inspirational quality of the companies involved. However, the biggest lesson to take away is one that people shouldn’t have to learn:

Don’t compromise your core values in the name of growth.

Burlingham talks about small companies that focus on quality over size. He talks about how these companies have “soul” or “mojo”.

Maybe I read it at the wrong time, and perhaps I’ll read it again, but I wasn’t moved by this book like I was by the next book on this list…

Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull*

Creativity Inc. is a great business memoir by the president of Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, Ed Catmull.

Here are the things I took from this book that I will never forget:

  • Have a group of people that you can solicit candid feedback from.
  • Repeatedly iterate on your work based on that feedback to take ugly rough drafts to polished finished products.
  • Steve Jobs wasn’t always a dick.
  • What a successful merger looks like (Disney + Pixar = Success).
  • The importance of humility, egalitarianism, and communication to the creative process.
  • Be aware of second-order problems that exist after the dissolution of first-order problems.
  • Leadership can lead to problem-blindness, so be vigilant.
  • Protect the new.

This book was so good I have a hard time summarizing it. It was so good I reread it immediately after finishing it.  This has only happened to me a handful of times (The Alchemist, Zero to One)

It’s ironic that this book was so much more impactful than the last book, because Pixar has exactly the kind of mojo that Burlingham describes in Small Giants. Maybe I have a bias for lessons from people who do the things I admire over lessons from people who study the things I admire…

Zero to One*

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I’ll catch some flack for recommending this book in the current political climate. I don’t care. It’s a fucking classic.

Blake Masters and Peter Thiel put this book together based on Masters’ notes on Stanford CS183 course. It is a must read for anyone who expects to build a growth-oriented technology startup.

Here’s what you will learn from this book:

  • Why technology is more important than globalization.
  • Why monopolies are not necessarily a bad thing
  • What a secret is.
  • Start with a tiny market.
  • AI will not replace people. It will augment us.
  • Do something that’s never been done.
  • Beat the competition by providing a product that is 10x as good as the next alternative.
  • Why the United States will keep beating China (hint: we are det
  • Great startups are like cults.
  • Good heuristics for venture capital
  • and more.

If you know me, you know that my mission in life is to build a real game-changing, Zero to One technology company. This book might as well be the manual.

I love it so much, I’ll skip the affiliate link and send you right to the source material (arguably better than the book).

Click here to read Blake Master’s notes on startups from CS183 at Stanford.

In case my recommendation isn’t enough, maybe the site’s tagline will motivate you:

Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.

Data Engineering Teams

This free ebook from my friend, Mr. Big Data a.k.a Jesse Anderson, is a great primer on Big Data and how to build teams around it. It’s a short read and I highly recommend it for anybody curious about this trend.

Here’s what I took from it:

  • Big Data teams should be multidisciplinary
  • How to identify a big data problem
  • What a typical pipeline might look like from a tech standpoint.

Here’s the thing: don’t wait to read it. It’s really short, but it will give you an idea of what to look out for as your company grows. If you get to the point where you need to start building big data pipelines and you still haven’t read it, you’re basically burning money.

Every day you have the wrong people working on the pipeline is a day you’re throwing money into a hole.

If you are a startup founder, learn to understand the problem before you have to deal with it.

Click here to get your free copy of Data Engineering Teams today.

Start with Why by Simon Sinek*

This book has had me journalling like a madman for the last four days. Ever since I finished it I’ve been obsessed with figuring out how to clearly and concisely spell out my life’s purpose.

The gist of it is simple:

  • People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
  • How you do what you do is just proof that you really believe in your why.
  • Start every internal and external communication by reiterating why your company exists

Sinek goes into a lot more detail about his Golden Circle model and Golden Cone model. He references Apple a lot, which is great because I really admire the work they do and strive to match their dedication to quality. He also examines Martin Luther King’s leadership during the civil rights movement, the Wright Brothers, and Wal-Mart’s inspirational founder, Sam Walton.

As I write this, Start with Why is the #62 best selling book on Amazon.

Get it today.

For a quick primer on the concept, see Sinek’s ridiculously popular Ted Talk.

“What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why do you exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning?”

Bonus: He goes into how you can use his ideas while dating.

Conclusion

Do you want to know what I read every month? Leave a comment and let me know what I should read in February 😀

Reflecting on 2016: The Ideas that Influenced Me

The most important learning comes in the evolution of our ideas. Good thinkers maintain darwinian belief selection processes. Strong ideas survive debate, scrutiny, and the test of time.

The most important ideas I’ve developed this year include a complex systems theory that provides for inverse utility over time via increased structural overhead. Basically, as a complex system passes peak utility, latent consequences of running the system cause a utility inversion function to emerge.

I’ve also been toying with this idea of a Grand Biological Abstraction. This event happening at present in the relationship between humans and technology.

An abstraction is a symbol that represents a unit of complexity. Every word is an abstraction of deliberate ideas and various connotations. “Car” is an abstraction that represents the sum function of a complex piece of physical machinery with many moving and electric parts.

“Human Being” is an abstraction of a single instance of a biological species. That instance serves as the host ecosystem for a variety of microbial life that could it could not live without nor could the microbes survive without it.

In other words, the sword of biology cuts these species apart, viewing them through different lenses. Reality’s sword is more subtle. The scalpel of nature is more nuanced than the sword of academic and intellectual theorizing.

Furthermore, it is not simply the relationship between humans and our microbiome that traditional biology hacks to pieces. It is the relationship between humans and pets, humans and livestock, humans and their homes, birds and their nests.

In fact, the bird cannot exist without the nest. Nor can the nest exist without the bird. The bird loses feathers and she loses her nest but you would never think that the feathers were not part of the bird.

In other words the category “Bird” abstracts away the concept of “nest”. But the nest is still there, even when you cannot see it. Even if it’s been destroyed. There is a nest soon to be born.

Of course, on human scale, the nest is a metaphor for our own technology. Our clothes and our computers are a part of us. The neural mesh is here Mr. Musk, and it has been for a long time.

The same way wheat manipulated humans into its global propagation. So has artificial intelligence prompted us into her development. Whether it’s the invisible hand of god or the invisible hand of the market. These unique by-products of our existence are no byproducts at all.

They are the fruits of our Grand Biological Abstraction.

Any multicellular organism is an abstraction of it’s parts. Soon human beings meshed with each other via technology will converge into a transcendent new form of life. Others call it the singularity, but in fact I suspect it will be a multiplicity.

Markets diverge, ecologies diverge. The universe is diverging. There is no reason to believe in a “singularity”.

There will, however, be a grand biological abstraction. Our understandings of the individual and the collective will warp immensely as our ability to reproduce and iterate informatically develops. The progression of artificial intelligence and biological technologies will unify many times in countless parallel instances eventually diverging into different protocols of super-life.

This is already evident. Different cars running on different fuels sources with onboard computers that have different operating systems. Each of which has different vulnerabilities, strengths and weaknesses.

Humans tend to simplify complexity behind abstractions. We think all planes are fundamentally the same. The perform similar functions for us. Their parts seem to appear similar. The underlying physical laws are similar. But in fact, over many instances all of these variables fluctuate with different degrees of volatility. We can rely on physical laws of the universe to be mostly predictable at given scale with very little variance in the single scale. However, no two flights are alike. No two wings are alike. No two airplanes, even manufactured to the same specification are really the same thing.

The act of creation is so singular, and also, so iterative, that we have to be satisfied with a paradox of multiplicity emerging from singularity. Futurism should not end at the Singularity.

Futurism should not end at the singularity.

Other ideas that were important to me this year came from books. I was especially moved by Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The only other authors that earned multiple reads from me this year were Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dan Ariely, Will Durant, Tim Ferriss, Malcolm Gladwell and perhaps Anders Ericsson.

My day-to-day intellectual curiosity has been largely influenced by Taleb’s discussion on optionality, heuristics, hubris, and uncertainty. My moral and ethical philosophy is heavily weighted toward individual creativity and interpersonal compassionate love. I’m constantly struck by the convergence of ascetic thinking across religions and worldviews. Ascetics from all over the world converge at a sort of supra-humanist solitary enlightenment.

Invoke your own teleological ideal of a Tibetan Monk. Does your stereotypical Tibetan Buddhist Monk differ greatly from your stereotypical Catholic Monk in temperament?

Both sit quietly in contemplation or prayer as a means to achieve salvation or enlightenment. Humility is a central tenet to both. Compassionate love is an elevated quality in both cultures.

You will find the same convergent quality in ascetics from Islamic, Hindu, and Jewish traditions.

Travelling extensively around the world has taught me the universal value of life. I have seen the interconnectedness of things. How the reality in a place informs the outside perspective of it. How the outside conception and the inside reality have some overlap but also much divergence. For example, yes, croissants are delicious in France, but so are the kebaps. By the way, kebaps in France don’t come on a stick, they come in a wrap. And maybe French people are rude to tourists in Paris, but in Nice they are very nice. The red wine is good like you’d expect but the Rosè is transcendent.

Information =/= Truth

Truth is the subset of all information that actually reflects reality. There is discovered information and undiscovered information. Some undiscovered information may not be discoverable.

A lot of discovered information is untrue. All truth is a kind of information. Not all information is truth. Information derived from reality tends to be true. Things can be true in different ways. Fiction can be partially true if the message reflects reality.

We try to verify truthiness using logic. We slice assertions apart and test their component parts. We produce categories within categories to produce immense complexity with deception hidden in every crevice. Perhaps nothing can be 100% true because interpretation can always layer a bit of falseness on any truth and a bit of truth on any lie.

All of these ideas are wholly impractical until they are tested in the real world. Even writing about them solicits various critiques that will hopefully strengthen the core idea. Or break it.

If I can break these ideas that occupy my mind, I can essentially mark them as untrue. Then I can dispose of them. I can talk about them at the dinner table but I really need the best minds in the world to stress-test these concepts.

Or maybe they aren’t really that important.

The problem with examining popular viewpoints and looking for contrarian truth is that a lot of popular beliefs are worthless. As in they don’t have any positive value. It may be that the contrarian truth is also worthless.

Even if I am right about the Grand Biological Abstraction, I gain nothing from it. There is no stock market to bet on the abstraction away from our biology. I will gain no years, accolades, or financial success for espousing such an idea. I will simply be right in a small prediction about the future.

I might make money by betting on political events and business outcomes. I get no physical reward from exposing personal philosophical theorizing. The skin I put into the game is reputational. Not physical or financial.

And truthfully, it’s asymmetrical risk proposition. I can make up an idea. If I’m right, I win happiness and perhaps admiration from others. Maybe some formal business opportunities arise as a result.

If I’m wrong. Nobody cares. Nothing is lost.

These are some of the ideas that I obsessed over in 2016. Since 2017 is the Year of Vulnerability I am sharing them publicly to hopefully have them voraciously ridiculed for some substantive reason that I can later rectify or use as justification for dropping the idea.

15 Negotiation Habits to Build Better Deals and Relationships

The last five years have seen my dollar per hour revenue skyrocket from about $10 / hr to now hovering just around $300 / hour on average, and as high as $500 / hour on some projects.

Charging this amount allows me to focus half of my working hours on personal development. It also allows me to live nomadically, taking on passion projects as I see fit. I spent the last four months working this way: travelling around Europe and the Caribbean, studying art and architecture, working on 2-3 projects part-time for clients I really like.

I don’t believe success comes as a result of one single skill. However, there are “first order” skills that will consistently be useful in personal and professional settings.

Negotiation is a first order skill, useful in all walks of life.

I’ve spent last week working on a thorough review of 2016. In doing so, I’ve reviewed goals, notes, and materials I have from as far back as 2014.

In this review, I found my 2014 notes from Professor Deepak Malhotra’s video on negotiating a job offer.

14 of the following points come from that video. I’ve expanded on them based on my real-world practice.

Here are my notes on negotiation, summarized into a handy list of 15 points.

1. They need to like you.

AND YOU NEED TO LIKE THEM.

This is a no-brainer. The most important failed negotiation of my career was the result of several parties deciding that they simply did not like the opposition.

They had righteous cause for their assessment, but that does not matter. There needs to be an implicit desire to work together on both sides of the table or else the negotiation will be lose-lose.

2. They need to believe you deserve it.

Simple. I practice this by selling only to referral business. I do not do outbound sales because convincing an non-believer is much more difficult than doing great work with people who are already 100% on board.

3. You need to be able to do the work.

Duh. I never promise someone: “I can deliver you an MVP”. Because it’s impossible to know if I can build a minimally viable product in a given domain without giving it the old college try. I can promise a prototype. Prototypes are contained. Prototypes have a binary spec sheet. Either the prototype is or is not completed. The prototype either fulfills the spec or it doesn’t. The spec is either feasible or it isn’t.

Promising someone a market response is false prophecy.

4. You should be flexible regarding currency.

What do I want out of a job? Well, it’s mostly the same as three years ago:

  1. The work should be morally compatible with my worldview.
  2. Cash.
  3. Equity / Profit-share
  4. Respect.
  5. Learning.
  6. Mobility.

These are all forms of currency that I consider when looking at a job. When I’m considering a job, these are all on the table as compensation. I’ll take $100 / hour job if it means I get equity in an awesome product I can work on from anywhere with a great team I can respect and learn from.

On the flip side, there is no money in the world that would convince me to work on something that has demonstrable harm to human life or the environment with people I don’t like.

5. They have to believe they can get you.

If I quote too high a number, the other side might walk away thinking there is no way they could afford me. This is why it’s important to discuss the above issue of currency openly so they know that there are levers they can pull to help me engage in the project happily.

6. Do not negotiate for the sake of negotiating.

If they offer you precisely what you want, don’t negotiate just to get a bit more. Sure, you’ll see financial upside. But you’ll get it by taking advantage of the other party. I’ve killed client deals by getting greedy. I should’ve stuck it out and seen about long-term upside with a more positive relationship outcome.

7. You have to understand them.

Think in terms of the other person’s interests. I have to work at this every day in a variety of contexts. It’s an exhausting, laborious mental effort. And it’s worth it every single time.

8. Negotiate multiple issues simultaneously. (Don’t waste anyone’s time).

This should be obvious. A lot of novice negotiators take some terms of a deal for granted. It’s best to get everything you can nailed down the first time. Otherwise you’ll find difficult and distracting negotiations right around the corner.

9. Ask why the answer is “No”.

This helps you understand the other person (see #7) and counter objections. It’s something I need to remind myself of all the time. You’ll also learn a lot about your market by frequently asking “Why?”

10. Stay at the table.

Sometimes negotiations get exhausting. Don’t walk away from deals because of fatigue, anger, or boredom. Take breaks but always set a time to reconvene. Emphasize the importance of resolution to the other party so they take the matter seriously.

11. Prepare for the most difficult questions.

You already know the honest responses to easy questions. It’s the difficult questions that you should prepare for. Prep for negotiations by considering their interests and extrapolating which questions might arise that will make you squeamish. Lean into that discomfort and prepare honest responses that leave you authentic and confident.

12. Everybody has a plan until they’re punched in the face.

I write scripts for just about every single important meeting or conversation I walk into. I do this as an exercise in rehearsal. I don’t expect the conversation to go the way I scripted. The real difficult questions will come up that you did not predict. The other person’s interests will be different than you thought.

Do not rely on your powers of foresight to have a positive outcome. Rely on optionality to capture upside because you can never be certain that you have a useful informational asymmetry.

13. The person who needs it the least, usually wins.

Tim Ferriss talks about this a lot. I used to enter a lot of negotiations where I needed a “Yes” more than the other party. It was a constant uphill battle. It wasn’t until my abilities lined up with my expectations that I started going to negotiations that were simply “nice-to-have”.

In other words, if your basic needs are covered, then winning the deal is “nice-to-have”. Any deal should be gravy on the steak of life.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring passion to the table. I don’t even show up if I’m not super excited about the deal. Why would I?

Like Derek Sivers says: “If it isn’t a hell-yes, it’s a hell-no!”

14. Ask yourself why they’re asking the question they’re asking.

Again: this will help you understand the other person and their interests.

One time, I sat at the table with three executives and the CEO of a startup. The negotiation had a bad ending and after the fact I said to the three (former) executives: “I would have done the same thing in his position.”

In that case, I recognized the CEO’s interests after the fact. If I had more carefully considered them before the negotiation, I wouldn’t have wasted my time sitting at the table to begin with.

15. Avoid making ultimatums (and ignore them if they come from the other party)

I’ve fortunately never dealt with such a situation in a business environment. If you follow rule #1, then this shouldn’t become a problem.

Ultimatums do, however, rear their ugly head in all sorts of personal situations. In this case, ignoring the ultimatum will serve you well. Just move forward, because people who try to coerce you via ultimatum are generally not worth being in a relationship with.

A new year of negotiation

Already this year I’ve been lucky enough to sit at the table with TWO potential clients I would be excited to work with. I’m glad to say I’ve followed most of these rules and can expect positive outcomes and relationships from these folks no matter the result of current negotiations.

I wish you the best possible 2017 as you go about your career and personal lives. If you can think of additional negotiations tips and tactics I’d love to hear about them.