Book Review – Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The title gives away much of what the book is all about. Although it doesn’t reveal any groundbreaking fact or insight that no other books has, Think Again is a helpful reminder that we all need to re-evaluate our thinking and our life regularly.

Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania and majors in organizational psychology. In addition to penning several books, including Think Again, he received his tenure at the age of 28, authored many papers and research in his field, and was the highest ranked professor at Wharton from 2012 to 2018. In terms of credibility, there shouldn’t be much to worry about. Back to the book itself. The tenet of Think Again is to encourage readers to think like a scientist with a great deal of humility. To think like a scientist, we need to avoid being too invested in our own opinions. As scientists usually possess a healthy dose of doubt and tend to review formed opinions regularly with concrete data and new facts, that’s what Adam Grant wants us to do. Whatever we learned needs to be revisited and, if necessary, unlearned. The world becomes increasingly complicated. Virtually all the issues that we discuss in our life are multi-faceted and complex; which requires constant investigation and evolution of thinking when new data and theses come up. Yet, many of us, including myself, succumb to mental laziness. We get stuck in the way we think and the opinions we formed in the long past. Changing our minds is often accompanied by admitting that we were wrong and that we made mistakes. Such an admission can be unpleasant and is not what many of us are willing to do. But Adam Grant, using academic research, argues that we must do the hard thing and constantly challenge/review our opinions, for our own benefits.

About a decade ago, when I was fresh out of school, I held beliefs that would make me ashamed now. Back then, success in life was to get a job at a big company, to have a fancy title and to have a lot of money. That success, in turn, would make me happy. Three years into my career, I got depressed. I resigned from a job that paid me well at the time, took almost two months’ sabbatical and accepted a job in a much smaller job market. My life got better. I learned more about the holes and the shortcomings in my thinking which evolved a bit, but there was still a lot of room for improvement. I was still haunted by the idea of pursuing my passion and figuring out the one thing that I should do in my life, like many of us are by all the self-help books and the speeches by the lucky ones such as Steve Jobs. It took me years to finally be at peace with not knowing what I was born to do in this world. Instead, I am happy with being healthy, working towards a future life with my girlfriend and having the freedom that my parents don’t have. Whether that state of mind will persist in the future remains to be seen. But I guess that’s in line with what Adam Grant talks about in the book.

All in all, a nice read for the weekend. It is simple to digest, but the lessons it brings can be profound. Really recommend it.

“If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. You’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of your understanding. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data. In the past century alone, the application of scientific principles has led to dramatic progress. Biological scientists discovered penicillin. Rocket scientists sent us to the moon. Computer scientists built the internet. But being a scientist is not just a profession. It’s a frame of mind—a mode of thinking that differs from preaching, prosecuting, and politicking”

“Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity. No matter how much brainpower you have, if you lack the motivation to change your mind, you’ll miss many occasions to think again. Research reveals that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes, because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“In preacher mode, changing our minds is a mark of moral weakness; in scientist mode, it’s a sign of intellectual integrity. In prosecutor mode, allowing ourselves to be persuaded is admitting defeat; in scientist mode, it’s a step toward the truth. In politician mode, we flip-flop in response to carrots and sticks; in scientist mode, we shift in the face of sharper logic and stronger data.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“When we lack the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence, we sometimes lack the knowledge and skills to judge excellence. This insight should immediately put your favorite confident ignoramuses in their place. Before we poke fun at them, though, it’s worth remembering that we all have moments when we are them.

We’re all novices at many things, but we’re not always blind to that fact. We tend to overestimate ourselves on desirable skills, like the ability to carry on a riveting conversation. We’re also prone to overconfidence in situations where it’s easy to confuse experience for expertise, like driving, typing, trivia, and managing emotions. Yet we underestimate ourselves when we can easily recognize that we lack experience—like painting, driving a race car, and rapidly reciting the alphabet backward. Absolute beginners rarely fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap. If you don’t know a thing about football, you probably don’t walk around believing you know more than the coach.”

“It’s when we progress from novice to amateur that we become overconfident. A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In too many domains of our lives, we never gain enough expertise to question our opinions or discover what we don’t know. We have just enough information to feel self-assured about making pronouncements and passing judgment, failing to realize that we’ve climbed to the top of Mount Stupid without making it over to the other side.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“Arrogance is ignorance plus conviction,” blogger Tim Urban explains. “While humility is a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, arrogance is a rubber shield that life experience simply bounces off of. Humility is often misunderstood. It’s not a matter of having low self-confidence. One of the Latin roots of humility means “from the earth.” It’s about being grounded—recognizing that we’re flawed and fallible. Confidence is a measure of how much you believe in yourself. Evidence shows that’s distinct from how much you believe in your methods. You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present. That’s the sweet spot of confidence.”

“Beware of getting stranded at the summit of Mount Stupid. Don’t confuse confidence with competence. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a good reminder that the better you think you are, the greater the risk that you’re overestimating yourself—and the greater the odds that you’ll stop improving. To prevent overconfidence in your knowledge, reflect on how well you can explain a given subject.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.
Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“One possibility is that when we’re searching for happiness, we get too busy evaluating life to actually experience it. Instead of savoring our moments of joy, we ruminate about why our lives aren’t more joyful. A second likely culprit is that we spend too much time striving for peak happiness, overlooking the fact that happiness depends more on the frequency of positive emotions than their intensity.”

“At work and in life, the best we can do is plan for what we want to learn and contribute over the next year or two, and stay open to what might come next. To adapt an analogy from E. L. Doctorow, writing out a plan for your life “is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

Book review: The Spotify Play: How Daniel Elk Beat Apple, Google & Amazon In The Race For Audio Dominance

As Spotify is one of the stocks in my portfolio, I have extra motivation to read this book. To get to know more about this company that is largely shrouded by secrecy. The book was written by a couple of Swedish interviews through many interviews and investigation of filings. It’s normal to read this kind of unofficial account of a company with a grain of salt or some skepticism, but it’s far from easy to write about a company when current or former employees are shackled by NDAs and when the founders or executives refuse to cooperate.

The book covered Spotify’s history from the very beginning to when it started to increase investments in podcasts. It started with Spotify’s founders, Daniel Elk and Martin Lorentzon, who each sold a startup and became a couple of millionaires, before they even worked together on a secret idea that would later become Spotify. Back when it just got off the ground, there was no playbook for a music streaming service like Spotify, well not legally. Hence, the young startup had to engineer both an app that was user-friendly and a business model that could yield profitability and work well with music labels. As Daniel Elk insisted on, for the right reason, having a free version of Spotify, which let users stream music for free, music labels in the beginning were highly skeptical and reluctant to cooperate. The prospect of Spotify generating enough ads money on the other side of the business to pay loyalties wasn’t appealing at best or practical at least. Through negotiations with the powerful music labels, Spotify came up with their Freemium model that still exists to this day.

“Eventually, Daniel had to compromise by adding a paid service. Three people at Spotify drove him to that shift in strategy: Spotify’s “dynamic duo”—Niklas Ivarsson and Petra Hansson—and the New York-based advisor Ken Parks. After scores of meetings with labels and legal consultants, they are said to have convinced Daniel that a paid version was the only way forward. The alternative would simply cost too much, in both cash and company shares, and never lead to a sustainable business. The freemium model that would define Spotify was thus born out of a tit-for-tat dialogue with the labels, with Niklas and Petra painstakingly hammering out the details of a new template. The industry hated the free service, but was prepared to put up with it as a means to an end, with Spotify vowing to convert free users to an ad-free, premium version.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

In the first few years of its existence, Spotify came close to being belly up financially a couple of times. Back in the latter half of the 2000s, Spotify’s model was a new concept to investors. An investment in Spotify without an agreement with major music labels presented a significant risk. If Spotify had operated without official licenses, it would have embroiled itself and investors’ money in a mountain of legal trouble. Yet, just before the 2008 financial crisis hit, the company labored to put together a funding deal to keep the lights on.

At the Spotify office, around forty employees toasted to the news with glasses of sparkling wine. Daniel was visibly relieved, according to one account.

“That was lucky. If we hadn’t gotten funded, you guys wouldn’t have received your salaries,” he reportedly told his colleagues afterward.

In fact, the timing was immaculate. A few months later, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, setting off the worst financial crisis in more than seventy years.

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

A few years later, death came close again. This time, it was the ability to see shift in consumer behavior and to react fast that saved Spotify. After the iPhone was invented in 2007, a few years later, consumers started to consume music more on their little computers that could sit comfortable in their hands or pockets. Spotify at the time only had a desktop version. The company’s analytics team found out that their customers didn’t spend enough time on the desktop version on their mobile to be converted into paid users. If they hadn’t reacted and desktop use had kept plummeted, their revenue would have dropped. Without an expansion in paid users, Spotify would have had a hard time convincing potential investors for more cash. The trouble became compounded because having a mobile version required additional licenses from music labels. Somehow, the company pulled through what Daniel Elk called “switching out the engines mid-flight”

“At Jarla House in Stockholm, the analytics team had set up a wide range of dashboards visualizing the music service’s performance in real time. Starting in early 2012, Henrik and his team watched as the inflow of new users switched from desktop—where they could listen for free—to mobile, where Spotify only offered a free trial for forty-eight hours. That clearly wasn’t enough time to convert them into subscribers. Of the new users who tried Spotify on a smartphone, only a small percent would stay on and pay for the service. The conversion rate on desktop—the backbone of Spotify’s business—was much higher. But that was of little comfort if desktop use would keep dropping dramatically.”

“During the summer of 2012, music listening on Spotify plateaued as it usually did during the season. But when fall began, a growing number of users did not return. The analytics team suspected that a large number of them were now using their computers less often, opting for their phones instead. It was an early indication that the massive shift to mobile computing was beginning to pick up speed.”

“At this point, Spotify’s licensing team had spent more than six months negotiating deals for what they called a “mobile free tier.” It was not an easy task. While the record labels were making hundreds of millions of dollars every year in payouts from Spotify, they still disliked the idea of millions of people listening to music without ever being forced to pay. Now, Spotify wanted to expand their free service to include all smartphones, not just the ones belonging to paying subscribers.”

“The data became more and more distressing for Spotify. In the late summer of 2013, more listeners went “mobile only,” by now a common term. Smartphones now appeared to have become a real alternative to computers. Gustav Söderström would later describe this period as “the summer when Europe went mobile. Spotify’s number of active users—the lifeline that kept investors funding the company—was now shrinking. Internal estimates showed that Spotify’s user growth nearly halted between the second and third quarters of 2013.”

“A few years later, Daniel would admit that Spotify would have gone bust within six months if things hadn’t changed. To him, this was one of Spotify’s crowning achievements. Originally conceived as a desktop product, the company managed to adapt to the mobile era—and they did it “mid-flight,” under constant pressure from competitors and from the music industry, which at this time still swallowed around 80 percent of all of Spotify’s revenues.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

The book also touched upon various topics such as challenging negotiations with the music labels, struggle to convince artists that Spotify’s interest was aligned with them, the fight against Apple, the effort to overcome operational chaos before IPO and the negotiations to acquire Soundcloud & Tidal that didn’t come through. Personally, I was interested in the book because I liked to study businesses and as mentioned, because I own Spotify stock. This isn’t an official account approved by the company. Consequently, I am not very sure how much of what was written is true. I don’t believe the authors were out to spread rumors, but on the other hand, I cannot have 100% confidence either. The writing is nothing spectacular. The beginning of Spotify was covered at length, but its more recent history didn’t receive as much attention. Furthermore, I don’t really think the title is correct. Yes, Spotify is a known brand, especially with young audience nowadays, but it’s a long way from being the dominant force in audio. Whoever will emerge victorious in the audio streaming war still remains to be seen. Hence, I would give it a 3/5, but would not put it under the “I highly recommend” category.

“The many problems varied. Spotify had grown quickly, and its organizational structure was, in places, haphazard. Its internal accounting system would have fit a medium-sized business operating in a handful of countries, but not a global market leader with business in nearly sixty countries. If a staffer in the finance department wanted to break down marketing costs for a single country for the year 2014, there would be no way of doing it.

Moreover, it was difficult for Spotify to accurately estimate its own costs. Over the coming years, the company would retroactively write up their royalty payments by more than $60 million due to accounting errors. Spotify had a hard time forecasting how the business would perform. During some quarters, subscriber growth came in well below its own estimates; during others, the number of subscribers surged past the growth team’s targets.”

“A number of sources interviewed for this book would describe how Daniel had a hard time knowing how to handle dustups among his lieutenants. Nearly a decade after Spotify started making big-name hires, many continued to recount how Daniel would let conflicts fester until the warring parties found their own solution. It was, still, a kind of natural selection in a corporate setting. The atmosphere is toxic at times. Daniel tends to give people overlapping responsibilities, then he lets them fight over who gets to do the work,” as one person would recall.

”No one is actually accountable for anything because virtually all decisions must take place though a bewildering process of group consensus, where people who are ignorant of the topic at hand somehow have just as much of a say as the experts,” one former employee at the New York office would post in November of 2019.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

Deal with Sony

“Secret internal documents, which would not emerge until the publication of the Swedish edition of this book, reveal that Sony had negotiated an option—triggered four years down the line—to purchase what would amount to 2.5 percent of Spotify at a heavy discount. The label’s payoff came in the spring of 2015, when Sony paid just under $8 million for shares that, a few months later, would become worth twenty-five times more. Largely as a result of this deal, Sony would become the label with the largest Spotify holdings by the time the company went public in 2018.”

“For the right to stream Sony’s music catalogue in the US, Spotify agrees to pay a $25 million advance for the two-year duration of the contract: $9 million the first year, and $16 million the second. The advance is to be paid in installments every three months, and Spotify can only recoup this money if it meets or beats its revenue targets. The contract, however, does not stipulate how Sony Music can use the advance money. Some industry insiders claim that advance money is generally spent on things other than payouts to artists. Others wonder what happens to the “breakage,” or the part of the advance that is left with the label, when Spotify fails to reach its revenue goals. Is it attributed to streams and distributed to artists, or kept entirely by the label?”

“The contract also stipulates that Spotify give Sony free ad space worth $9 million over three years. Sony can use that space to promote its own artists or resell it at any price they want. Spotify also promises to make a further $15 million of ads available for purchase by Sony at a discounted rate. On top of this, Spotify must also offer Sony a portion of its unsold ad inventory for free, to allow the label to promote its artists.”

“The contract also states that Spotify’s smallest payout per stream will be 0.2 cents. But this measure can’t be used to calculate how much Spotify pays for the artists’ streams. It’s only used when it results in a larger payout than the label’s regular cut of Spotify’s total revenue. In essence, it’s a type of minimum guarantee. If too many users get stuck in the free tier, and Spotify’s average revenue per user falls below a certain level, Sony Music can ask to be paid per stream instead.”

Excerpt From: Sven Carlsson. “The Spotify Play.”

Book Review: Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets From Inside Amazon

I always cherish a read that reports honestly on the culture of a company, pulling the curtain and providing details on what works, what processes the company used to forge the culture or the “tribe” that they have. Working Backwards is such a book. It was written by two insider Amazon veterans who lived the experience. From a small startup in Seattle that sold books online in the 1990s, Amazon has grown over time to become a household name in the world, a brand trusted by many and a competitor feared by rivals. It’s marching nicely towards generating $400+ billion in annual sales and currently employing over 1 million people. When a company consists of a small team of folks, management and the instillation of culture are straightforward. However, it’s another issue to manage more than 1 million people and still maintain the culture. How did Amazon do so?

“Our culture is four things: customer obsession instead of competitor obsession; willingness to think long term, with a longer investment horizon than most of our peers; eagerness to invent, which of course goes hand in hand with failure; and then, finally, taking professional pride in operational excellence.”

Excerpt From: Colin Bryar. “Working Backwards.”

When it comes to culture and corporate values, you may feel that a lot of companies just put together a list of sensible and sound-good sentences. That’s true. What makes one company different from another is how much the day-to-day operation is guided by its culture and how much the leaders exemplify it. From the very beginning, Jeff Bezos already showed the importance of customer obsession, setting the tone for the #1 value at Amazon for years to come. When employees see the CEO walk the walk, instead of just talking the talk, they believe in what he or she says and follows accordingly.

“From the tone of customer emails to the condition of the books and their packaging, Jeff had one simple rule: “It has to be perfect.” He’d remind his team that one bad customer experience would undo the goodwill of hundreds of perfect ones. When a coffee-table book arrived from the distributor with a scratch across the dust jacket, Jeff had customer service write to the customer to apologize and explain that, since coffee-table books are meant for display, a replacement copy was already on order, but shipment would be delayed—unless time was of the essence and they preferred the scratched copy right away. The customer loved the response, and decided to wait for the perfect copy while expressing their delight at receiving this surprise consideration.”

“Another of Jeff’s frequent exhortations to his small staff was that Amazon should always underpromise and overdeliver, to ensure that customer expectations were exceeded. One example of this principle was that the website clearly described standard shipping as U.S. Postal Service First-Class Mail. In actuality, all these shipments were sent by Priority Mail—a far more expensive option that guaranteed delivery within two to three business days anywhere in the United States. This was called out as a complimentary upgrade in the shipment-confirmation email. Thank-you emails for the upgrade included one that read, “You guys R going to make a billion dollars.” When Jeff saw it he roared with laughter, then printed a copy to take back to his office.”

Excerpt From: Colin Bryar. “Working Backwards.”

One of Amazon’s core values is Hire and Develop The Best. In the very beginning, staff was handpicked by Jeff Bezos, who has a notoriously high standard. As the hiring need grew substantially, Jeff couldn’t get involved in every hire any more. At one point, they ” had new people hiring new people hiring new people.” It became much more challenging to ensure the quality of every hire. Hence, The Bar Raiser program was created. The program’s purpose is to create a formal, scalable and repeatable process that can help with hiring the right people. Essentially, in addition to the normal practices such as having detailed Job Descriptions, phone screening and multi-team interviews, Amazon trains a team of interviewers whose goal is to identify in every new hire something that he or she can do better than a member of the existing team. The Bar Raiser cannot be the hiring manager or recruiter, but has the veto power to ultimately reject an applicant; though such a power is reportedly rarely exercised. It’s similar to having a new set of eyes that can review your work, whether it’s an essay or a code, and help remove the gut feelings out of the process as much as possible.

As Amazon’s business became increasingly multi-faceted and complex, how did the firm organize teams internally to be nimble, effective and innovative? The answers are: single-threaded leadership and two-pizza teams. The concept of single-threaded leadership is fairly simple: appoint someone to own a major initiative and remove all other responsibilities. Unburdened by other responsibilities, these single threaded leaders can devote all the time and energy to make their initiatives work and grow. More importantly, when a company wants to come up with new ideas, there is no way to gauge the results of the ideas without bringing them to real life and there is no point of doing so when there is nobody focused completely on that task alone. Andy Sassy, who will become the next CEO of Amazon in Q3 2021, used to be Jeff Bezos’ shadow and the single threaded leader for AWS. Other major successes at Amazon such as Prime, Kindle and Amazon Digital all resulted from having dedicated teams and leaders build them up from the ground.

“Amazon’s SVP of Devices, Dave Limp, summed up nicely what might happen next: “The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.”

And there is the two-pizza team. It’s normal in a working environment to depend on somebody else for your job. However, if there are too many dependencies, they will slow down the innovation process and reduce the efficiency of the whole company. To address that issue, Amazon came up with the two-pizza team concept. The idea is to have a small enough team that they can be fed with two pizzas. Each team is tasked with removing its dependencies and building out infrastructure and innovating. The sooner a team becomes unshackled by dependency on others, the sooner it can dedicate its resources to actual work and innovation. Each team functions like a small startup or a self-sustaining API that can work together if necessary, but doesn’t rely on others to be effective.

The next element of the Amazon Magic is my favorite: the importance of writing. At Amazon, Power Point is replaced by 6-page memos. The point is that writing a memo helps crystalize and sharpen ideas, as well as removes the limitations of a Power Point. Of course, Amazon still delivers presentations to partners, but internally, they rely on memos to ensure that the presenters think through the ideas/problems and don’t waste anybody’s time with half-baked thoughts. Another practice is to write a PR/FAQ for every new product/service idea. The idea is to envision the end result or customer experience that could come from a new idea, put it down to a one-page press release and work backwards to the details in an FAQ section.

I cannot tell you how many times I came up with an idea and after putting it to words on this blog, I realized how little I thought about it. Every time I write about something on this blog, it still may not be accurate, but the end product is much better than my original thought. At work, I also see it first hand. People have a lot of ideas in their head and shoot out ideas to everyone else. I am pretty confident that they didn’t take the time to work through the nuts and bolts, the logic, the challenges and ramifications of their ideas.

“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related. Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas”

“Pressed against this functional ceiling, yet needing to convey the depth and breadth of their team’s underlying work, a presenter—having spent considerable time pruning away content until it fits the PP format—fills it back in, verbally. As a result, the public speaking skills of the presenter, and the graphics arts expertise behind their slide deck, have an undue—and highly variable—effect on how well their ideas are understood. No matter how much work a team invests in developing a proposal or business analysis, its ultimate success can therefore hinge upon factors irrelevant to the issue at hand.

We’ve all seen presenters interrupted and questioned mid-presentation, then struggle to regain their balance by saying things like, “We’ll address that in a few slides.” The flow becomes turbulent, the audience frustrated, the presenter flustered. We all want to deep dive on important points but have to wait through the whole presentation before being satisfied that our questions won’t be answered somewhere later on. In virtually every PP presentation, we have to take handwritten notes throughout in order to record the verbal give-and-take that actually supplies the bulk of the information we need.

“Pressed against this functional ceiling, yet needing to convey the depth and breadth of their team’s underlying work, a presenter—having spent considerable time pruning away content until it fits the PP format—fills it back in, verbally. As a result, the public speaking skills of the presenter, and the graphics arts expertise behind their slide deck, have an undue—and highly variable—effect on how well their ideas are understood. No matter how much work a team invests in developing a proposal or business analysis, its ultimate success can therefore hinge upon factors irrelevant to the issue at hand.

We’ve all seen presenters interrupted and questioned mid-presentation, then struggle to regain their balance by saying things like, “We’ll address that in a few slides.” The flow becomes turbulent, the audience frustrated, the presenter flustered. We all want to deep dive on important points but have to wait through the whole presentation before being satisfied that our questions won’t be answered somewhere later on. In virtually every PP presentation, we have to take handwritten notes throughout in order to record the verbal give-and-take that actually supplies the bulk of the information we need. “The slide deck alone is usually insufficient to convey or serve as a record of the complete argument at hand.”

There are more great points, examples and details about Amazon’s culture from the book, apart from some of my favorite above. The book also touches on the value of thinking long term, being patient, removing defections at every level or controlling the input variables. With what I think are sensible decisions and policies, there is little wonder why Amazon is a success that it is today. In my opinion, there is no greater competitive advantage than having a robust culture that can foster a company’s mission and vision. You can replicate parts of operations or strategy, but it’s much harder to replicate a culture. Amazon managed to put together a strong culture, evidenced by their financial success and brand name, and it’s something that rivals will find highly challenging, if not impossible, to mirror.

This is a great read for business students or any curious mind that wants to know more about one of the greatest companies on Earth. If you are looking for such a read, I highly recommend it.

Disclosure: I own a position on Amazon.

Book Review: Exercised – Why Something We Never Evolved To Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

I learned of this book from a Twitter account that I follow. The book looks at exercise from the anthropology and biology perspective to answer a few key questions such as:

  • Did we evolve over thousands of years to exercise? Or did we evolve not to spend more energy than we should? Why is exercise such a struggle for many?
  • Why is sitting harmful to our body?
  • How much exercise is enough? What exercise should we do?

The book is jam-packed with research and studies that serve as corroborating evidence of the points that the author tries to make. It must have taken him a long time to dig into hundreds of research like that, including trips to remote places so that he could live with ethnic tribes whose lifestyle is so different from ours dominated by modern technologies. Clearly, the author knows what he is talking about. Even though it’s very research-oriented, the book is well-written and engaging. I do admit that I got tired at times due to its overwhelming length and the number of topics packed in one volume, but for the most part, it was time well spent and an enjoyable read.

The core message of the book is nothing new: Exercise is great for our health and rewarding. But this book offers a little bit more insights into how we can integrate exercise into our daily routine more easily, why certain things happen and how we should design exercise that can benefit us more, especially when we age. I am fairly certain that readers will get away from reading this book with some new knowledge. Below are some of my notes:

“Imagine you have been asked to conduct a scientific study on how much, when, and why “normal” people exercise. Because we tend to think of ourselves and our societies as normal, you’d probably collect data on the exercise habits of people like you and me. This approach is the norm in many fields of inquiry. For example, because most psychologists live and work in the United States and Europe, about 96 percent of the subjects in psychological studies are also from the United States and Europe.

Such a narrow perspective is appropriate if we are interested only in contemporary Westerners, but people in Western industrialized countries aren’t necessarily representative of the other 88 percent of the world’s population. Moreover, today’s world is profoundly different from that of the past, calling into question who among us is “normal” by historical or evolutionary standards. Imagine trying to explain cell phones and Facebook to your great-great-great-grandparents. If we really want to know what ordinary humans do and think about exercise, we need to sample everyday people from a variety of cultures instead of focusing solely on contemporary Americans and Europeans who are, comparatively speaking, WEIRD (Western, Education, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic)

Excerpt From: Lieberman, Daniel. “Exercised : Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

“Which brings us back to physical inactivity. From the perspective of natural selection, when calories are limited, it always makes sense to divert energy from nonessential physical activity toward reproduction or other functions that maximize reproductive success even if these trade-offs lead to ill health and shorter life spans. Stated simply, we evolved to be as inactive as possible. Or to be more precise, our bodies were selected to spend enough but not too much energy on nonreproductive functions including physical activity”

“So let’s banish the myth that resting, relaxing, taking it easy, or whatever you want to call inactivity is an unnatural, indolent absence of physical activity. Let’s also refrain from stigmatizing anyone for being normal by avoiding nonessential exertion. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go. According to a 2016 survey, three out of four Americans think obesity is caused by a lack of willpower to exercise and control appetite.27 Despite stereotypes of non-exercisers as lazy couch potatoes, it is deeply and profoundly normal to avoid unnecessarily wasting energy. Rather than blame and shame each other for taking the escalator, we’d do better to recognize that our tendencies to avoid exertion are ancient instincts that make total sense from an evolutionary perspective.”

Excerpt From: Lieberman, Daniel. “Exercised : Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

“Although most fat is healthy, obesity can turn fat from friend into inflammatory foe. The biggest danger is when fat cells malfunction from overswelling. The body has a finite number of fat cells that expand like balloons. If we store normal amounts of fat, both subcutaneous and organ fat cells stay reasonably sized and harmless. However, when fat cells grow too large, they distend and become dysfunctional like an overinflated garbage bag, attracting white blood cells that trigger inflammation”

“A second way lengthy periods of sitting may incite widespread, low-grade inflammation is by slowing the rate we take up fats and sugars from the bloodstream. When was the last time you had a meal? If it was within the last four or so hours, you are in a postprandial state, which means your body is still digesting that food and transporting its constituent fats and sugars into your blood. Whatever fat and sugar you don’t use now will eventually get stored as fat, but if you are moving, even moderately, your body’s cells burn these fuels more rapidly. Light, intermittent activities such as taking short breaks from sitting and perhaps even the muscular effort it takes to squat or kneel reduce levels of fat and sugar in your blood more than if you sit inertly and passively for long.38 Such modest extra demands appear to be beneficial because although fat and sugar are essential fuels, they trigger inflammation when their concentrations in blood are too high.39 Put simply, regular movement, including getting up every once in a while, helps prevent chronic inflammation by keeping down postprandial levels of fat and sugar.

Excerpt From: Lieberman, Daniel. “Exercised : Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

“These ubiquitous miniature batteries, which power all life on earth, are called ATPs (adenosine triphosphates). As the name implies, each ATP consists of a tiny molecule (an adenosine) attached to three molecules of phosphate (a phosphorus atom surrounded by oxygen atoms). These three phosphates are bound to each other in a chain, one on top of the other, storing energy in the chemical bonds between each phosphate. When the last of these phosphates is broken off using water, the tiny quantity of energy that binds it to the second phosphate is liberated along with one hydrogen ion (H+), leaving behind an ADP (adenosine diphosphate). This liberated energy powers almost everything done by every cell in the body like firing nerves, making proteins, and contracting muscles. And, critically, ATPs are rechargeable. By breaking down chemical bonds in sugar and fat molecules, cells acquire the energy to restore ADPs to ATPs by adding back the lost phosphate. The problem is, however, that regardless of whether we are hyenas or humans, the faster we run, the more our bodies struggle to recharge these ATPs, thus curtailing our speed after a short while.”

“Sugar is synonymous with sweetness, but it’s first and foremost a fuel used to recharge ATPs through a process termed glycolysis (from glyco for “sugar” and lysis for “break down”). During glycolysis, enzymes swiftly snip sugar molecules in half, liberating the energy from those bonds to charge two ATPs. Restoring ATPs from sugar doesn’t require oxygen and is rapid enough to provide almost half the energy used during a thirty-second sprint. In fact, a fit human can store enough sugar to run nearly fifteen miles. But there is a consequential catch: during glycolysis the leftover halves of each sugar, molecules known as pyruvates, accumulate faster than cells can handle. As pyruvates pile up to intolerable levels, enzymes convert each pyruvate into a molecule called lactate along with a hydrogen ion (H+). Although lactate is harmless and eventually used to recharge ATPs, those hydrogen ions make muscle cells increasingly acidic, causing fatigue, pain, and decreased function. Within about thirty seconds, a sprinter’s legs feel as if they are burning. It then takes a lengthy period of time to slowly neutralize the acid and shuttle the surplus lactate into the third, final, but long-term aerobic energy process”

Excerpt From: Lieberman, Daniel. “Exercised : Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

“If you keep up a regimen of two sessions a week of HIIT, your muscles will gradually improve their ability to produce high, rapid forces in part by augmenting how many fibers contract simultaneously when stimulated by nerves. In addition, your muscles will change composition. Although HIIT cannot stimulate your body to produce more fast-twitch muscle fibers, the ones you have will thicken, making you stronger and hence faster. On average, sprinters’ muscles are more than 20 percent thicker than distance runners. HIIT can also modify slower, more fatigue-resistant pink fibers into faster, more fatigable white fibers; lengthen fibers slightly, thus boosting their shortening speed; and increase the percentage of fibers in a muscle that contracts, thereby increasing force. But these and other changes don’t happen on their own, and require constant effort to maintain. If you want to run faster, you have to try to run faster.”

“The benefits of regular HIIT go well beyond its effect on muscles. Among other payoffs, HIIT increases the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently by making its chambers larger and more elastic. HIIT also augments the number, size, and elasticity of arteries and increases the number of tiny capillaries that infuse muscles. HIIT further improves muscles’ ability to transport glucose from the bloodstream and increases the number of mitochondria within each muscle, thus supplying more energy. These and other adaptations lower blood pressure and help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and more. The more we study the effects of HIIT, the more it appears that HIIT should be part of any fitness regimen, regardless of whether you are an Olympian or an average person struggling to get fit.”

Excerpt From: Lieberman, Daniel. “Exercised : Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

“And therein lies an important lesson about why we exercise. Because exercise by definition isn’t necessary, we mostly do it for emotional or physical rewards, and on that horrid April day in 2018, the only rewards were emotional—all stemming from the event’s social nature. For the last few million years humans rarely engaged in hours of moderate to vigorous exertion alone. When hunter-gatherer women forage, they usually go in groups, gossiping and otherwise enjoying each other’s company as they walk to find food, dig tubers, pick berries, and more. Men often travel in parties of two or more when they hunt or collect honey. Farmers work in teams when they plow, plant, weed, and harvest. So when friends or CrossFitters work out together in the gym, teams play a friendly game of soccer, or several people chat for mile after mile as they walk or run, they are continuing a long tradition of social physical activity.”

Excerpt From: Lieberman, Daniel. “Exercised : Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

“In the end, the 2018 HHS panel concluded that some physical activity is better than none, that more physical activity provides additional health benefits, and that for “substantial health benefits” adults should do at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of the two. (Moderate-intensity aerobic activity is defined as between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate; vigorous-intensity aerobic activity is 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.) They also reaffirmed the long-standing recommendation that children need an hour of exercise a day. Finally, they recommended everyone also do some weights twice a week.”

Excerpt From: Lieberman, Daniel. “Exercised : Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding

“Aerobic exercise additionally stimulates the growth and upkeep of just about every other system in the body. Within muscles, it increases the number of mitochondria, promotes the growth of muscle fibers, and increases their ability to store carbohydrates and burn fat. In terms of metabolism, it burns harmful organ fat, improves the body’s ability to use sugar, lowers levels of inflammation, and beneficially adjusts the levels of many hormones including estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, and growth hormone. Weight-bearing aerobic activities (alas, not swimming) stimulate bones to grow larger and denser when we are young and to repair themselves as we age, and they strengthen other connective tissues. In moderation, aerobic exercise stimulates the immune system, providing enhanced ability to ward off some infectious diseases. And last but not least, aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain and elevates the production of molecules that stimulate brain cell growth, maintenance, and function. A good cardio workout really does improve cognition and mood.”

Excerpt From: Lieberman, Daniel. “Exercised : Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Source: HHS

Book review: Operaatio Elop and Turning The Flywheel

Operaatio Elop

This book is based on interviews with more than 100 people who had indirect or direct experience with Nokia at the time. It’s about what happened between 2010 and 2013 under the reign of the former CEO – Stephen Elop and how Nokia fell apart in a matter of years. The book was originally in Finnish only, but some volunteers created an English version and that version was generously shared with the world for free here.

Nokia was at the peak of its power back in 2005 to 2007. At the time, there were seismic changes in the cut-throat personal phone industry with the introduction of Android and iOS, the iPhones, iPad and the App Store. Nokia, at the time, started to realize it had problems at hand and the CEO wasn’t up to the task. The search for a new CEO culminated with the appointment of a Canadian named Stephen Elop. Stephen introduced a host of initiatives during his time, but couldn’t turn around the fortune of the Finnish giant. The tumultuous reign ended with the controversial acquisition of Nokia by Microsoft, a shocking fate for a brand that just a few years prior had been among the top 5 in the world.

Nokia had a lengthy list of problems. The Board had insufficient industry experience and the Chairman was widely regarded as one of the main culprits for the fall of Nokia. Their go-to-market strategies faltered. For example, Nokia couldn’t have the same relationship with network providers in the US. It didn’t launch early enough the dual SIM feature in India. It also missed a critical Lunar New Year shopping period in China one year. Moreover, their product development couldn’t deliver. They didn’t have the advanced chip used by other competitors at the time. Their feature phones slowly became a thing of the past, but their smartphones couldn’t sell. Nokia couldn’t get developers to develop apps for their new phones and as a consequence, the lack of useful apps rendered their phones less appealing to consumers. The vicious cycle kept going on. Their partnership with Microsoft wasn’t perfect as Windows had a modest market share and developers didn’t have a lot of love for Microsoft at the time.

Nokia had many capabilities and assets at the time. Yet, it failed to address internal problems and respond appropriately to the changes in the external environment. This is a lesson for businesses. Past achievements mean little for survival when there is a lack of responses to the changing environment.

The author made it clear that the book mainly offered another perspective on Nokia and its collapse, rather than had exclusive truth on what actually happened. Also, even though many could fault Elop for the collapse and they might be right, given his managerial blunders, the book made it clear that with all the challenges the company faced at the time, it’s unclear if anyone could do better than him. That’s kinda what I feel. Hindsight bias is the easiest. Anyone could look back and critique others on what they should or shouldn’t have done, especially all these analysts I see on Twitter. The fact and the matter is that inside a company, there is a lot going on. Managing a multi-national company is no easy feat. We can and should keep the powerful honest and in check, but we shouldn’t be too arrogant.

Out of the three members of the appointment committee, only Ollila had experience in the technology industry, but even he, according to many, was not in touch with the service-driven internet-age mode of operation.

“Two of Nokia’s fiercest competitors, Apple and Google, obviously had boards more competent in global technology and internet knowhow than Nokia. To aggravate the situation, the Nokia Board of Directors was manned more with fine titles than substance. Scardino was the only American on the board despite the fact that the highest level of software competence was found in the US”

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

The situation was worst for the company’s biggest money maker, its smartphone operating system Symbian. With over 6 million lines of code, the software platform had become unmanageable. Hardware design and Symbian software development were almost in a state war and were at each other’s neck daily.

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

“For example, the normal trial-and-error software development technique was no longer used in Symbian software development. A person who was in charge of software development says that the problem was in the management which adjusted and fine-tuned projects ad nauseam. Even according to Nokia’s internal evaluation, the projects with the least management level involvement were the ones best on schedule. When the engineers were left alone to do their work, the results came forth.”

An employee working in the strategy department resorted to check the true status of upcoming phone projects from a friend working in development, because the official status given could not be trusted. Nokia was the emperor with new clothes, but nobody dared to say it out loud.

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

“In just three months Nokia had made the decision that would seal its destiny. This decision were prepared by a man who had only worked for the company for five months — a CEO who had come from outside the industry.”

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

“The N9 became an awkward pain point to Elop. Critics liked the phone but Nokia could not promote it because there was a fear that it would dilute the success of the Lumia phones. It looked like the success of the N9 came as a surprise to Elop. It would have been difficult to imagine how consumers would be interested in a device that was a dead end with a limited supply of applications. When Elop had been asked in London why anyone would buy the first and the last MeeGo phone, the man with a flu had responded: “I guess you just answered your own question.”

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

Carolina Milanesi is an analyst who has been following Nokia for several years. She believes the crucial mistake at Nokia was to cling to Symbian for too long. The end result could have been different if the Symbian ramp-down had begun in already early 2010 and all development and marketing investment shifted to MeeGo.

“The credibility vanished. Developers were faced with a dilemma: Why build Symbian applications when the market fell from under the platform? Why build Windows Phone applications when there was no market?”

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

Missing the Chinese New Year — the best shopping season of the year — was a pivotal mistake by Nokia in a situation where their market share on the Chinese smartphones market was already less than one percent.

The most significant markets for Nokia’s mobile phones were in India. Nokia made a critical mistake in bringing dual-SIM phones late to the market. According to Ramashish Ray, who was responsible for retail sales in India, Nokia was two years late: “Slow reaction to market reality, leadership bureaucracy and the diffusion of the decision making to too many forums”, Ray lists the reasons for the delay of the dual-SIM phones.

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

Nokia’s phones were not killed off by a murderer from Canada. What killed them was the arrogance born in Nokia’s own country, concentrating on costs, unclear responsibilities, and bad decisions made by the company’s board.

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

Turning The Flywheel

Unlike Operaatio Elop, Turning The Flywheel is a very short book. It is a summary of the Flywheel concept that Jim Collins discussed at length in his previous book: Good to Great. This concept essentially looks at a few select activities that a company must do, in relation to one another, so that the company can stay competitive. For instance, Amazon manages to sell goods at a lower price and in a big variety. That attracts consumers; which in turn attracts merchants to Amazon. Because of the bigger bargaining power, Amazon can lower the prices and expand its catalogue. The cycle keeps going on.

Each pillar in the Flywheel can constitute several critical capabilities of a company. I consider this concept as a useful practice for management to really think about what a company can do and should focus on. By no means does it mean that the Flywheel is an answer to everything. Businesses still need to pay attention to the external environment. We already saw with my review of Operaatio Elop above that Nokia, despite having resources and capabilities, still failed to adapt to the changing environment and collapsed. It’s the job of the management to constantly assess whether the current capabilities are still up to date and can help the company respond to the external challenges.

The book should serve as a launchpad and guide readers to more materials and references on business strategies and the Flywheel concept. If you’re new to it, it should be a helpful read.

“A Promised Land” review

I finished this book around 10am today, but I felt like I needed some time for it to sink in. This book is in and of itself a great read due to the quality of the writing, but the content makes me think so much about my life and what is going on in the US. I’ll try to lay out my thoughts below, but overall, I do recommend this book, whether you are a Democrats, Republican, Independent, American or a foreigner. It’s quite lengthy and I skipped some personal anecdotes from the President, but I do think he did a good job taking the readers through his journey and laying out the context for key moments in his presidency.

Obama is a decent man

Whether anyone agrees or disagrees with what President Obama did while he was in office, it’s hard to argue that he is a decent man. Yes, I am aware that making this statement after his own book carries a degree of bias, but there is no better evidence than comparing him against his successor. In the book, he talked about the time when the Birthism scandal got started and how Republicans, Trump and the media, in one way or another, added life to that ridiculous scandal. The President didn’t want to dignify it with a response for while, but after so much distraction, he finally hosted a press conference where he addressed the issue. Here is how it went:

“I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest. But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press. We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do. We’ve got big problems to solve. And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them—not on this.”

“The room was quiet for a moment. I exited through the sliding doors that led back into the communications team’s offices, where I encountered a group of junior members of our press shop who’d been watching my remarks on a TV monitor. They all looked to be in their twenties. Some had worked on my campaign; others had only recently joined the administration, compelled by the idea of serving their country. I stopped and made eye contact with each one of them.”

“We’re better than this,” I said. “Remember that.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

“We’re better than this. Remember that”. That’s a presidential response. Despite the tough coverage from the press during his years as the President, Barack Obama never called the press “The enemies of the people” like someone did the last four years. He didn’t use language or resort to actions that were beneath his office. Instead, he told his staff to live up to what the Americans people expected from the government. Just think about what has transpired in the last four years and what Obama did there. They can’t be any more different.

Another example was that you didn’t see in his administration the types of scandals that we have grown so accustomed to in the last 4 years. In his book, the President wrote

“Without exception, we avoided scandal. I’d made clear at the start of my administration that I’d have zero tolerance for ethical lapses, and people who had a problem with that didn’t join us in the first place. Even so, I appointed a former Harvard Law School classmate of mine, Norm Eisen, as special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, just to help keep everybody—including me—on track. Cheerful and punctilious, with sharp features and the wide, unblinking eyes of a zealot, Norm was perfect for the job—the kind of guy who relished the well-earned nickname “Dr. No.” When asked once what sorts of out-of-town conferences were okay for administration officials to attend, his response was short and to the point:

“If it sounds fun, you can’t go.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

The US government attracts scrutiny and media coverage rivaled by none. It’s easy to verify the appointment and existence of Dr No. Plus, if that had been true, you would have heard from it on the news already from former staff in Obama’s time. I don’t remember reading about all corruption scandals on a daily basis under Obama, but that has become somewhat a disappointing and dangerous routine under Trump. Regardless of differences in ideologies and party affiliations, I just don’t understand how Americans could hate a President, who worked to uphold the dignity of the Office of the President, and love someone, who has been essentially destroying it.

The system is currently set up to aid the obstructionists

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but being angry at how Republicans cared about nothing, but how to obstruct the President in doing his job. Not that they had better ideas or contributed to the issues at hand. They just obstructed because they could and wanted to. Mitch McConnell infamously said that his number one goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. His brazen obstructionist attitude was on display in this incident:

“As far as anyone could tell, he had no close friends even in his own caucus; nor did he appear to have any strong convictions beyond an almost religious opposition to any version of campaign finance reform. Joe told me of one run-in he’d had on the Senate floor after the Republican leader blocked a bill Joe was sponsoring; when Joe tried to explain the bill’s merits, McConnell raised his hand like a traffic cop and said, “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care.” But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness—all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

President Obama inherited the 2008 economic downturn right after he took office. He tried to work with Republicans for the Recovery Act to save the country, the economy and the citizens. Yet, he ran into a resilient lack of cooperation from the other side of the aisle. There wasn’t any debate to make the proposal better. Just flat out obstruction.

“GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee boycotted hearings on the Recovery Act, claiming that they weren’t being seriously consulted. Republican attacks on the bill in the press became less restrained. Joe reported that Mitch McConnell had been cracking the whip, preventing members of his caucus from even talking to the White House about the stimulus package, and Democratic House members said they’d heard the same thing from their GOP counterparts.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

When the President was trying to get his landmark healthcare bill to pass Congress, here was how GOP tried to sabotage his effort

“McConnell and Boehner had already announced their vigorous opposition to our legislative efforts, arguing that it represented an attempted “government takeover” of the healthcare system. Frank Luntz, a well-known Republican strategist, had circulated a memo stating that after market-testing no fewer than forty anti-reform messages, he’d concluded that invoking a “government takeover” was the best way to discredit the healthcare legislation. From that point on, conservatives followed the script, repeating the phrase like an incantation. Senator Jim DeMint, the conservative firebrand from South Carolina, was more transparent about his party’s intentions. “If we’re able to stop Obama on this,” he announced on a nationwide conference call with conservative activists, “it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

“Unsurprisingly, given the atmosphere, the group of three GOP senators who’d been invited to participate in bipartisan talks with Baucus was now down to two: Chuck Grassley and Olympia Snowe, the moderate from Maine. My team and I did everything we could to help Baucus win their support. I had Grassley and Snowe over to the White House repeatedly and called them every few weeks to take their temperature”…

“The only upside to all this was that it helped me cure Max Baucus of his obsession with trying to placate Chuck Grassley. In a last-stab Oval Office meeting with the two of them in early September, I listened patiently as Grassley ticked off five new reasons why he still had problems with the latest version of the bill.

“Let me ask you a question, Chuck,” I said finally. “If Max took every one of your latest suggestions, could you support the bill?”

“Well…”

“Are there any changes—any at all—that would get us your vote?”

There was an awkward silence before Grassley looked up and met my gaze.

“I guess not, Mr. President.”

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

This is how Congress actually works, it seems. To be clear, Democrats aren’t innocent angels either. I am sure they did their fair share of obstruction when a Republican President was in charge. But this is the kind of challenges that hold America back. The way Congress is set up, I believe, to foster collaboration and avoid an authoritarian party with all the power. Yet, over the years, it has grown into a mechanism perfectly set up to aid those who want to exploit it for political and personal gain. The filibuster which requires 60 votes in the Senate to advance a bill gives a minority of Senators enhanced power in negotiations. If those Senators acted out of compassion and real care about the fate of the country and all Americans, there wouldn’t be any issues. Unfortunately, some Senators just vote for special interests that keep them in power. How could someone like Mitch McConnell be voted in office for the 7th term? After all those years when he was in office, Kentucky is still the worst state in the country in so many areas and the country, like it or not, is in the worse shape now than it was in the past. How could one man hold up the progress of the entire country and do damages that would take years and years to fix, if possible?

I have been following the American politics for a while and here is how I have seen it work. Some lawmakers do everything possible to appeal to special interests whose money allows them to campaign regardless of facts. Because there is so much noise on the media on a daily basis, voters can’t keep up. They cannot tell what is real and what is not. I can’t blame them. But exploitative lawmakers rely on the deluge of information (and misinformation) and money from donors to bend the truth in their favor and scare voters from voting in voters’ interest. Because of how the Senate is set up, voters from a less populated state like Idaho or Kentucky can vote in a Senator with enormous power, power that is often used to protect donors’ interests, not those of Americans overall. As long as rich and powerful donors are pleased, country be damned, democracy be damned. We have seen it over the years.

From a policy perspective, we were pleased with the outcome. While it was painful to keep the tax cuts for the wealthy in place for another two years, we’d managed to extend tax relief for middle-class families while leveraging an additional $212 billion worth of economic stimulus specifically targeted at those Americans most in need—the kind of package we’d have no chance of passing through a Republican-controlled House as a stand-alone bill.

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

The system really needs overhauling. But what happened to Obama is happening now. The Republican-controlled Senate already signaled that they would not let Joe Biden appoint his staff, unless they are conservative enough. What Obama should have done is, and he actually admitted in his book, to eliminate the filibuster and change the Senate rules. But that’s a stopgap measure for a problem that runs deeper than that.

The flip side of a diverse population

America often boasts about the diversity in this country, the source of creativity and ideas that propel this country into another level, compared to many nations on Earth. Yet, nothing is perfect and even diversity has its downside. Different backgrounds and upbringings shape different points of view. Such a difference leads to the lack of homogeneity. A lot of people resist changes in this country simply because: why do I have to make sacrifices for strangers? Think about all the issues in this country, from taxes, health care, immigration, etc…and you can see it mostly boils down to people not feeling the need to look out for one another, even though they are all Americans. White voters, Asian Americans (Indian Americans are very different from Vietnamese Americans), Latino Americans, European Americans and African Americans have different priorities and when it comes to changes, many of them resist because of the question: why should I have to go and sacrifice first, and not others?

Exploitative lawmakers don’t try to fix this issue. They take advantage of it, appeal to a portion of voters and rely on the flawed system we have here for their own interests. Those lawmakers, in many cases, contribute to the divisiveness that is plaguing this country. Were voters more united and were the system designed to encourage inclusion, not the winner-takes-all mentality, the country wouldn’t be in the shape that it is now.

Reading this book, I was a bit emotional. I love this country and am grateful for what it has given me. President Obama talked about how lucky he always feels when he became the President with Hussein as his middle name. He talked about the endless possibilities that America offers. Those are what brought me here. I also appreciate his book, because his stories are proof that it matters to do the right things and to be a good person. I am sure he has flaws and his presidency wasn’t all perfect. Nonetheless, given what he stood for and what Trump stood for, I don’t think there is any question which model children should follow. Also, President Obama singled out some Democrats and Republicans who did the right thing and voted the tough votes, even though it meant the end of their political careers. The last lawmaker I saw from this breed is Doug Jones. He voted to impeach Trump even though it meant the final nail in his political coffin. He lost the Senate seat in Alabama. But that’s the kind of courage we need. Sadly, it becomes rare in the government.

Having lived in the US since 2016, I felt sad by the fact that we moved from having a President like Barack Obama to Trump. Sad by the fact that the country now is more polarized and divided than when I came over and it was already worse when I followed the 2012 Election Night, 8 years ago. As I think about my future in the US, I ponder whether I should stay here for the long term given all the things I have read and come to know. Even if I become an American, would it matter? Would the things I have seen be fixed fast enough for me to live in a society true to the values I endorse? I don’t and shouldn’t need this book to have all these thoughts, but they just came to me through out my reading and when I finished the last page. Good books do that and this is one of them.

“Each person held aloft a single lit candle—the city’s traditional way to express its appreciation for that year’s peace prize winner. It was a magical sight, as if a pool of stars had descended from the sky; and as Michelle and I leaned out to wave, the night air brisk on our cheeks, the crowd cheering wildly, I couldn’t help but think about the daily fighting that continued to consume Iraq and Afghanistan and all the cruelty and suffering and injustice that my administration had barely even begun to deal with. The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to such chaos seemed laughable; on some level, the crowds below were cheering an illusion. And yet, in the flickering of those candles, I saw something else. I saw an expression of the spirit of millions of people around the world: the U.S. soldier manning a post in Kandahar, the mother in Iran teaching her daughter to read, the Russian pro-democracy activist mustering his courage for an upcoming demonstration—all those who refused to give up on the idea that life could be better, and that whatever the risks and hardships, they had a role to play.

Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.

Try anyway.

Source: A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Book Review – The Psychology of Money. Likely the best book I read this year

I waited for this book to come out for a while, and it surely doesn’t disappoint. The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel is an excellent book on personal finance, our thinking towards money and how that drives a lot of our decisions in life. Not only does the book contain a lot of wisdoms and high quality content, but it is also well and crisply written that you can finish it in a weekend, unlike a lot of other books that are unnecessarily lengthy.

If you care about growing your net worth, investing and making important decisions in your life (who doesn’t?), I really recommend this book. It will transform what you think about money and life. Below are a few nuggets from the book. Have a nice weekend!

The premise of this book is that doing well with money has a little to do with how smart you are and a lot to do with how you behave. And behavior is hard to teach, even to really smart people.

Few people make financial decisions purely with a spreadsheet. They make them at the dinner table, or in a company meeting. Places where personal history, your own unique view of the world, ego, pride, marketing, and odd incentives are scrambled together into a narrative that works for you.

Excerpt From: Morgan Housel. “The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness.”

“At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have … enough.”

The idea of having “enough” might look like conservatism, leaving opportunity and potential on the table. I don’t think that’s right. “Enough” is realizing that the opposite—an insatiable appetite for more—will push you to the point of regret.

Excerpt From: Morgan Housel. “The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness.”

Think of it like this, and one of the most powerful ways to increase your savings isn’t to raise your income. It’s to raise your humility.

Be nicer and less flashy. No one is impressed with your possessions as much as you are. You might think you want a fancy car or a nice watch. But what you probably want is respect and admiration. And you’re more likely to gain those things through kindness and humility than horsepower and chrome.

Go out of your way to find humility when things are going right and forgiveness/compassion when they go wrong. Because it’s never as good or as bad as it looks. The world is big and complex. Luck and risk are both real and hard to identify. Do so when judging both yourself and others

Less ego, more wealth. Saving money is the gap between your ego and your income, and wealth is what you don’t see. So wealth is created by suppressing what you could buy today in order to have more stuff or more options in the future. No matter how much you earn, you will never build wealth unless you can put a lid on how much fun you can have with your money right now, today

Excerpt From: Morgan Housel. “The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness.”

Jim Simons, head of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, has compounded money at 66% annually since 1988. No one comes close to this record. As we just saw, Buffett has compounded at roughly 22% annually, a third as much. Simons’ net worth, as I write, is $21 billion. He is—and I know how ridiculous this sounds given the numbers we’re dealing with—75% less rich than Buffett.

Why the difference, if Simons is such a better investor? Because Simons did not find his investment stride until he was 50 years old

Excerpt From: Morgan Housel. “The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness.”

Savings in the bank that earn 0% interest might actually generate an extraordinary return if they give you the flexibility to take a job with a lower salary but more purpose, or wait for investment opportunities that come when those without flexibility turn desperate.

If you have flexibility you can wait for good opportunities, both in your career and for your investments. You’ll have a better chance of being able to learn a new skill when it’s necessary. You’ll feel less urgency to chase competitors who can do things you can’t, and have more leeway to find your passion and your niche at your own pace. You can find a new routine, a slower pace, and think about life with a different set of assumptions. The ability to do those things when most others can’t is one of the few things that will set you apart in a world where intelligence is no longer a sustainable advantage

Excerpt From: Morgan Housel. “The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness.”

The idea is that you have to take risk to get ahead, but no risk that can wipe you out is ever worth taking. The odds are in your favor when playing Russian roulette. But the downside is not worth the potential upside. There is no margin of safety that can compensate for the risk.

Room for error does more than just widen the target around what you think might happen. It also helps protect you from things you’d never imagine, which can be the most troublesome events we face.

Excerpt From: Morgan Housel. “The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness.”

Look for books to read? Check out those I have read lately

The Anatomy of The Swipe: Making Money Move

We are so accustomed to having quick card-based transactions that if a transaction takes more than a couple of seconds, it will be a terrible customer experience. What many folks don’t know is that there are a lot of things that happen behind every transaction. It involves several parties, including but not limited to a cardholder, an issuing bank, an issuer processor, a network, a merchant processor, a merchant bank and a merchant. During the brief couple of seconds when a cardholder waits at a cashier, information goes from a card reader all the way back to at least an issuer processor through a card network (Visa, Mastercard) and a merchant processor, and back to the card reader. But it’s not finished yet. The process continues at least a couple of days after the transaction when the involved parties go through the clearing and settlement steps.

The payment world is so complex that there are startups that decouple individual steps of the whole process and carve out a niche market for themselves by specializing in such steps and improved efficiency. Take neobanks for example. They offer checking accounts with virtually no fees because they aren’t regulated and can operate without fixed costs such as branches.

I tried in the past to learn about payment systems, but not until this book did I find a reliable source that can break down abstract concepts in a digestible manner. If you are interested in payments or fintech, do yourself a favor and read this book

The reason why you can take money out of just about any ATM is because of the Durbin Amendment and its requirement that every debit card must have a secondary unaffiliated network. This law was put in to give consumers more choice in finding an ATM network. For example, if you have a debit card from Visa and the ATM doesn’t support Visa’s ATM networks, then it can run on Mastercard’s ATM network, Cirrus.

The term “Clearing” is used primarily by Issuers, but can also be referred to as “Capture” by Merchant Acquirers. Clearing happens toward the end of the day for most Merchants and will factor in tips, transaction reversals, and returns. This is basically the Merchant confirming these transactions are valid and that these funds are ready to be moved or “settled.”

Settlement is the actual movement of money from the cardholder’s bank account, the Issuing Bank, to the Merchant’s bank account, the Acquiring Bank. This movement of money typically happens via Fedwire as instructed by the payment networks.

Key term: 3D Secure

This is a standard for offering cardholders one more layer of security for online transactions. When card numbers are entered into a website to pay for something, 3D Secure will require the cardholder to enter one more form of authentication, such as a one-time-use PIN or passcode, similar to how two-factor authentication works for websites. More recently, the card networks are requiring Merchants and card Issuers to roll out a service called 3D Secure. The technology is standard in Europe but not yet in the US.

More recently, the card networks are requiring Merchants and card Issuers to roll out a service called 3D Secure. The technology is standard in Europe but not yet in the US.

The main reason is that these new “neo-banks” aren’t actually banks but rather tech companies that partner with regional banks such as Sutton Bank, Bancorp, or Meta Bank. These regional banks have less than $10 billion in assets and are able to charge a higher Interchange rate because they are considered exempt from the Interchange rules set forth in the Durbin Amendment and are considered “unregulated.”

TAPE SUCKS: Inside Data Domain, A Silicon Valley Growth Story

This book was written by Frank Slootman, former CEO of Data Domain. Frank took the company public and was the CEO when it was sold to EMC. He then went on to take the rein at ServiceNow and is currently assuming the top job at Snowflake. This book is his account of his time as CEO at Data Domain. It is a pretty short book, but it includes an honest and crisp account of how he scaled the company and dealt with startup issues. I like this book because it isn’t lengthy. I think it’s because of his direct nature as a Dutchman. Frank wrote about the lessons he learned along the way with little “fat” or lengthy unrelated anecdotes. He was straight to the point. His lessons outlined in the book should be helpful to aspirational entrepreneurs and CEOs.

Snowflake is expected to go public next week. If you are interested in that company and its CEO, you should give it a read.

My morning routine

The author interviewed a plethora of celebrities and successful folks to learn about their productivity hacks in the morning. Humans are creatures of habits. We all have our habits and routines and these successful men and women aren’t any exception. I don’t think what this book offers is unique in a sense that you can find these hacks on Google at any time. What it does is perhaps to catalogue all these hacks in one place so that you can choose to look at the routines of the folks you like. Plus, if you already studied about productivity tips before, it’s very likely you’d know what to do in general. What is missing is just our determination and discipline.

With that being said, if you are new to the productivity improvement game, this book may be of value. However, it’s pretty pricey compared to the two books I listed above, given the value and satisfaction in return. I’d try to Google the topic before I book this book

7 Powers: The Foundations of Business Strategy

This is a classic book about business strategy. It covers 7 aspects of a successful strategy framework developed by Hamilton Helmer. The aspects include Economies of Scale, Network Effect, Counter Positioning, Switching Costs, Branding, Cornered Resource and Process Power. I think it’s a valuable read to anyone who is interested in analyzing businesses and companies. Of course, the book would be more valuable to newcomers than those who already studied strategy before. For instance, if you are familiar with the concept of Network Effect, Porter’s Five Forces and Switching Costs, this book will serve more as a reminder than a revelation. Nonetheless, it costs only $9 for a Kindle version from which you can take great notes on business strategy.

The Motley Fool Investment Guide

Even though this book costs $15 for a Kindle version, I actually think if you are new to investing and you want to grow your net worth, you should start reading this book. This book covers very important topics of investing. It talks about why you should invest in or avoid mutual funds. It also discusses the appeal of blue chips and small-cap stocks. If you haven’t learned much about the main financial statements (income statement, cash flow or balance sheet), the book provides an overview of these statements and what they mean in general. In my personal experience, although news outlets have coverage of companies’ financials, as an investor, you should do your own homework and practice reading reports as well as financial statements. Additionally, this book touches upon options such as shorting and longing a stock. They aren’t my preferences, but it doesn’t hurt to know what they are and what they do. Of course, the book has to talk about the power of compound interest, which is why we need to invest early and be patient.

I really recommend this book if you want to venture into investment.

Book Review: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

The book is about essentialism, the idea that you should take control of your life, have the courage to choose to do what’s only the most important and essential to you and ignore the rest. In a sense, I think it’s pretty similar to minimalism because they both emphasize the need to remove what’s not essential and the need to keep what is. While minimalism seems to be associated more with design or art, essentialism seems broader as it can be applied to work or life. The ability to focus on only what’s important and maintain the power of choice in life will help make a person happier and more fulfilled.

The book has four main parts: 1) it discusses the concept in general, 2) it talks about how to differentiate the vital from the trivial, 3) it lays out how we can remove the trivial and 4) it offers tips on how to make the viral easier to practice. Under each part are some sub-chapters that discuss a factor that contributes to the big topic at hand such as the importance of sleep, the value of having a child-like mind, why we should build in buffer in whatever we do while anticipating for unpredictable trouble. Even though some may lament the various topics he touched upon as lengthy and unnecessary, I do think it’s helpful to break down a big topic into smaller chunks and look at an issue from different angles to have a better understanding. There’s nobody stopping audience from skipping a few pages, you know.

If a reader reads about minimalism or the value of focus, he or she will unlikely be wowed by the book. Experienced readers, especially in the topic that this book is about, will say that this book should be only 20 pages long, instead of 200. But if somebody hasn’t been very well-versed in essentialism, focus or minimalism, this book may be of value.

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

Excerpt From: Mckeown, Greg. “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” Apple Books.

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. ”

Excerpt From: Mckeown, Greg. “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” Apple Books.

Essentialism the more clearly I have seen courage as key to the process of elimination. Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service. It is just the stuff of one more dinner party conversation. It is skin deep. Anyone can talk about the importance of focusing on the things that matter most— and many people do, but to see people who dare to live it is rare

Excerpt From: Mckeown, Greg. “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” Apple Books.

Before I sign off, here are a few examples of essentialism in business

Netflix

Read the following to see how Netflix is focused on only thing

Google

Do you notice how simple and completely focused Google’s interface is on only searches?

Apple

Notice the infinity screen on iPhone and the no-fee feature of Apple Card

Aldi

I wrote about the intense focus of Aldi to lower costs and pass on savings to consumers

Book review: The Wealthy Barber Returns

I saw a hedge fund manager recommend this book on Twitter, but accidentally grabbed the newer version instead of the recommended original. Nonetheless, here is my review. This short and easy-to-read book which is a compliment contains some common sense regarding personal finance. If you just begin to dip into the personal finance space, this book can be a good place to start, though I am sure there are better books. If you want to enrich your personal finance knowledge, there may be some ideas from the book that can be interesting. If you live in Canada, this book may even be more interesting as the author spent a significant part of the book discussing matters specific to the Canadian systems only.

The two main take-away points from this book, if that’s all you will leave it with, are this: 1/ live below your means and 2/ save early.

There is no surer way to approach financial independence than keeping your expenses below your income. In fact, the lower your expense is than your income, the better. It’s quite common to see folks who spend most or all of their income every month. Those are the paycheck-to-paycheck folks. When life throws them a twist as it very often goes, there will be no saving for a rainy day. If you look at the current pandemic (as it is still going on), not only is it not a rainy day, it is a freaking storm. People lose jobs and health insurance. Income is gone, but bills are still there to pay. In fact, 40% of Americans are reported not to have $400 for an emergency. That’s so crazy to think about. Even though the idea of living below your means is so laughably obvious, the reality clearly shows that it is a foreign concept to many.

The book emphasizes a key trick in making sure that you save money every month: save before you spend the rest, not spend and save the rest. Say, if you earn $3,000 a month, put 10-20% somewhere as savings and spend the rest. That approach allows you to save at least $300 a month. After two months, at least you can say that you are NOT among people who don’t have $400 in cash for an emergency. On the other hand, if you decide to save whatever is left after the first 28-29 days of the month, you likely won’t save much. As human beings, we are terrible in self-control.

“You don’t have to become a miser and live a life of austerity. You just have to exercise a little discipline and a little common sense. You’re probably wondering, “If that’s the case, why aren’t there more successful savers? Why haven’t we all been able to slightly reduce our spending?” The blunt answer? A little discipline and a little common sense are a little more than most of us can muster.”

Excerpt From: David Chilton. “The Wealthy Barber Returns.” Apple Books.

The second key take-away is that you should start saving early. The earlier and more consistent you save, the better. Instead of typing out why you should, I’ll let these charts from JP Morgan demonstrate the power of compounding interest, which is usually called “the 8th wonder of the world”

chart jp morgan retirement
Source: Business Insider

As you can see, the earlier and longer you save, the more compounding interest works in your favor. To reach $1 million at retirement, you can either save $361 monthly, starting at the age of 20, or save $1,400+ a month at the age of 40. Which one do you feel is more daunting? Especially given the more responsibilities and expenses that come with being older? Exactly!

There are other topics addressed in the book such as:

  • If someone asks you to do something that involves spending, practice saying “I can’t afford it”
  • When you should take out a line of credit
  • What is good debt and what is bad debt?
  • A basic primer on index funds and why you should strongly consider them as an investment vehicle

Overall, I think the book does offer value. I can see that it’s even more helpful to teenagers who are interested in building wealth and strategizing their life to financial independence and happier life. To those who may argue that saving fir the future will come at the expense of today’s sacrifice and the enjoyment of life, here is what the book argues, which I agree with

One of the most damaging misconceptions in personal finance is that saving for the future requires sacrifices today that lessen people’s enjoyment of life. Surprisingly, it’s quite the opposite! People who live within their means tend to be happier and less stressed. That’s true not only for the obvious reason — they know their financial futures look bright — but also because they’re not consumed with consumption. They’re not in the emotionally and financially draining race to acquire the most stuff they possibly can. A race that, it should be noted, has no finish line and thus no winner.

Excerpt From: David Chilton. “The Wealthy Barber Returns.” Apple Books.