Holiday time reading 2023

In the holidays we are all seeking a bit more peace with respect to closing the year and a bit more hope with respect to a future year. Reading a good book to complement those feelings and to unwind has an obvious appeal. 

My good books make me think in new ways and about new things. Those that know me, know my unwinding books come on the serious side of the line. Some folks claim that RCU, my initials, stands for “Really Can’t Unwind,” and there might be some truth to that.

The top trio of books highlighted below come from thinking about the world as a bigger and wider place than we give it credit – this is systems thinking. My hope is that this type of thinking can expand our capabilities to deal with growing challenges because our world leadership often suffers from tunnel vision and doesn’t think ahead. Encapsulated by Peter Senge, one of the systems thinking gurus, when he says that today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.

The second three books give you ‘scaffolding’ content that can elevate your knowledge, skills and abilities to a slightly higher level. And the last two books are simply feelgood reads.

These three are big picture books

(Our language is full of rich ambiguity, my grandkids love big picture books of a different sort)

Peter Senge | The Fifth Discipline. Peter Senge is an MIT professor who is in the business academic superstar category. This is a timeless classic. The first four disciplines are personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning. These are good, and line up with TAI Superteams principles, but what is really good is the fifth discipline – systems thinking that integrates the other four. The book is full of deep thinking (aka critical thinking). Yes, to a hammer everything looks like a nail, but trust me systems thinking is an enormously important discipline and will play an increasingly big part in our future.

Mustafa Suleyman | The Coming Wave. The content here is a combination of deep thinking on AI and synthetic biology. Together, he thinks, these two ‘will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen’. The DeepMind co-founder sees these breakthroughs, for all their potential, as empowering to multiple bad actors. So, our future, both depends on these technologies and is imperilled by them.

Francis Fukuyama | Liberalism and Its Discontents. I’m ashamed to say I really don’t ‘get’ politics in a bunch of countries, including my own. This book is aimed at explaining how liberalism has increasingly underdelivered, and how populism has entered our world by filling a gap and can only grow and how this balance may play out. So, this helps if you’re like me and you want to learn a bit more where the world is heading.

These are the ‘scaffolding’ books

Ayelet Fischbach | Get it Done. I interviewed Ayelet this year as part of TAI’s Wider Perspectives series. She is one of the world’s top experts on human motivation. It’s fascinating how drilling deeper into human cognition continues to surprise. We are a complicated species. There are a lot of secret sauce things she reveals here in the ever-shifting dynamics of goal pursuit and aligning our choices, decisions, and feelings.

Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein | Noise.  I share the thesis here which is that noise in human judgment has a ubiquitous presence that is consistently under-estimated. The authors write that noise arises for multiple reasons, notably cognitive biasesmoodgroup dynamics and emotional reactions. This book is heavy going at times but important. By the way, one benefit of AI is that noise can be significantly reduced from what human processes generate.

Dan Ariely | Misbelief. The world isn’t fully post-truth, but truth has been debased for sure in the past decade or so. The link with social media is pretty overwhelming. Here is the explanation of the psychological machine that takes people and changes them in ways that seem difficult to understand. So, this is a good explainer of conspiracy theories. He calls the process “the funnel of misbelief.” The introduction to the book (‘Demonized’) is an amazing story of that effect on Dan himself who was falsely characterised as a villain of a Covid conspiracy.

These are the feelgood books

Mitch Albom |The Five People you meet in Heaven. This is all about a character’s look back on life. Think of a new version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. It has developed a big following over the years by touching on the alternative histories that our lives produce, and the people caught in the connections, like in the film Sliding Doors. How everything we do affects others. It’s a bit schmalzy but it works as an uplifting and thought-provoking piece.

Susan Cain |Quiet. The power of the introvert in a world that can’t stop talking. This feels good because we can cut ourselves some slack by being on the quiet side of the line. In a world where we are overwhelmed with noise and attempts to grab our attention, getting lost in a book is a source of peace.

Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude

Marvel Proust

To close, a reflection. The obvious thing about reading is that it’s time on your own, in some level of solitude. Paul Tillich puts it as ‘Language has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone’. I like that.

Recent research from University of Reading published in Scientific Reports, suggests that solitude has both benefits and costs for wellbeing and there is no clear optimal balance between solitude and social time. The research draws two conclusions. We need both time alone and time with others to experience the full range of well-being. And solitude works best when motivated by personal choice rather than enforced by external factors.

So maybe we should schedule that glorious reading time this Christmas.

May you have a peaceful holiday season with a good mix of rest & recreation, and social & solitude time.

And below is the full list of books that I’ve curated over the years with a bit of grading and narrative to help with priorities.

BOOK SUGGESTIONS | ROGER URWIN 
2022 Suggestions
Azeem AzharThe exponential gap
This book covers the ‘exponential gap’ between the power of new technology and humans’ ability to keep up. I worry about the speeding up in speeding up and its consequences in our degraded environment, fast-moving social problems and cyber risks. Basically, we need to shape technology to put it back in the service of society and build a world in which we are the ones who decide what we want from the tools we build.
Susan CainBittersweet. How sorrow and longing make us whole This book got me both into a darker place before emerging into a lighter place. This book helps you into places ‘where light and dark meet’ and into spaces that are more sensitive, creative, and spiritual. And in reflecting on that, yes that did reduce my weltschmerz.
Lynda GrattonRedefining work
As we develop our new way of working with hybrid arrangements, we need to get up to speed on the future of work. I found the audio version of this book easy to absorb and well-framed. The pandemic has given us some silver linings, our work future is one of them.
Kim Stanley RobinsonThe Ministry for the Future.
This is fiction with a bit of non-fiction thrown in. KSR is well-known for science fiction which is a fast-paced thriller plotline weaving in climate change, geo-engineering, politics, and societal futures. In a world needing imagination on climate change this is both realistic and optimistic.
Vaclav SmilNumbers don’t lie | 71 things you need to know about the world.
The book title drew me in. But Vaclav Smil is a renowned Czech-Canadian scientist and policy analyst with tremendous understanding of our inter-connected world and the book is an easier read than you’d think. And if you like this, you will also like How the world really works.
Gaia VinceNomad century. How climate change will reshape our world. This is a tough read, so be careful. But my ‘Weltschmerz’ (literally ‘world pain’ that the realities of life are grim because of too much suffering and evil) finds an outlet in reading this in understanding this century’s future blighted as it is. It remains a beautiful world. This is a highly imaginative account of the world we are creating, and the part migration will play in adapting.
2018-2021 Book Suggestions
Beinhocker, EricThe Origin of Wealth*
Berners Lee, MikeThere is no Planet B***
Highly readable account of climate change mixing science and economics to help suggest solutions that everyone can contribute towards. This book is ground-breaking in putting our values under scrutiny and into the mix with support for the importance of kindness and fairness.
Bernstein, PeterAgainst the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk*
Bookstaber, EricThe End of Theory*
University of California Chief Risk Officer Bookstaber, explains the nature of systemic risk and what happens in crises, like the GFC, when systems seize up, and how agent-based modelling can address some of the issues. The failings of economics are an essential theme.
Brynjolffson & McAfeeMachine, Platform, Crowd** This book is a very clear introduction to the new technologies that are disruptive given scale and need and suggests where industry business models will undergo their Uber-moments, usually when platforms and networks break through.
Carney, MarkValues: Building a Better World for All*** This is a well-framed and researched book about society adapting its goals to suit its values in a world in which financial value has out-muscled non-financial values. It is particularly strong in showing how to learn from the pandemic through principles of solidarity and fairness.
Dalio, RayPrinciples**
Controversial account of how organisations can be simplified into machines with equations that might be seen as de-personalising. But Dalio is a huge fan of culture and talent and his radical transparency model works for Bridgewater where decisions are fine-tuned by ‘believability’.
Desai, MihirWisdom of Finance*
El Erian, MohamedWhen Markets Collide
Fukuyama, FrancisIdentity*
Friedman, ThomasThank you for Being Late
Gawande, AtulChecklist Manifesto*
Gladwell, MalcolmTipping Point
Gladwell, MalcolmOutliers
Haidt, JonathanThe Righteous Mind**
Haidt reveals the soft nature of our belief system in which feelings come first, socialising second, thinking third. His identification of individuals flags the moral foundations in core values of caring, fairness and loyalty in groups. He identifies libertarian principles as innate to individuals.
Harari, Yuval NoahSapiens
Harari, Yuval Noah21 Lessons for the 21st Century**
This is a stunning tour de force across work, equality, civilisation, nationalism, religion, immigration, war, post-truth, education and meaning; and a few more.All it misses is global pandemics. ‘Clarity is power’ is key and he identifies pathways to the redesign of life itself.
Harford, TimHow to Make the World add Up | Ten Rules for Thinking Differently About Numbers**
Harford is of course the ‘Undercover Economist’. The steady erosion of standards in the presentation of facts and numbers has meant this book has become essential. Search your feelings, get the back story and be curious and other principles are well-presented and illustrated.
Hastings, Reid & Meyer, ErinNo Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention
Heimans & TimmsNew Power
Henderson, RebeccaCapitalism Reimagined in a World on Fire**
A book preaching the importance of fairness in business and society, strong institutions, and a guiding purpose and synthesised into how businesses can make these changes themselves and through collaboration. Lots on climate change and inequality. It is overly optimistic though.
Ilmanen, AnttiExpected Returns*
Kahneman, DanielThinking Fast and Slow*
Kay, JohnOther People’s Money
Kay & KingRadical Uncertainty
Kerr, JamesLegacy – 15 Lessons in Leadership*
King, MervynThe End of Alchemy
Lo, AndrewAdaptive Markets*
Lovegrove, NickThe Mosaic Principle
Malhotra, DeepakThe Peacemakers Code**
Malhotra is the Harvard Business Professor in negotiation, deal-making and conflict resolution who turns storyteller in this science fiction about alien invasion. The story is fast-paced fiction and has significance for society’s ability to face up to existential challenges through co-operation.
Mauboussin, MichaelMore than you Know
Mayer, ColinProsperity*
Mazzucato, MarianaThe Value of Everything; Making and Taking in the Global Economy*
McGrath, RitaSeeing Around Corners; How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen**
This is about the build-up in disruptions and how assiduous attention to factors at play in disruptions helps with prescience. The methods generate scenarios that enable organisations and individuals to pivot more quickly and join the disruptors and avoid being the disrupted.
Moyo, DambisaHow Boards Work: And How they can Work Better in a Chaotic World
Mulgan, GeoffBig Mind
Page, ScottThe Diversity Bonus
Pink, DanDrive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us*
Pinker, StevenEnlightenment Now
Raworth, KateDoughnut Economics***
Doughnut economics, is a visual framework for sustainable development – shaped like a doughnut or lifebelt – combining planetary boundaries and social boundaries and providing a framework for how different parts of our ecosystem can contribute to a sustainable future.
Rosling, HansFactfulness*
Silver, NateSignal and Noise*
Stout, LynnThe Shareholder Value Myth
Suskind, DanielThe End of Work
Syed, MatthewRebel Ideas*** This is in the Malcolm Gladwell genre and explains through story-telling how teams can accomplish more than individuals but all too often fail in cognitive diversity by not using multiple frames of reference. The merits of dominant and prestige (servant) leaders is telling.
Taleb, Nassim NicholasFooled by Randomness**
An accurate account of the part played by noise in life, industry and investing. In this work he writes clearly on the part played by cognitive dissonance in seeing soft data as gospel; and the part played by unexpected events (black swans) and radical uncertainty as later picked up by Kay.
Tegmark, MaxLife 3.0**
This explains the future of AI from its current applications to massive extensions and on to generalised AI and the consequences in terms of the singularity. It is aimed at keeping AI constructive to our humanity but leaves a few doubts as to whether AI can stay a benign force.
Tippett, KristaBecoming Wise; An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living*
West, GeoffreyScale*

Top 5 ***= don’t even think of not reading this
Next 10 **= required and essential reading
Next 20 *= essential reading
Next 15 = plain good reading