Decision making tools to help us focus on what’s important

“Essentialism” by Greg McKeown

The simple premise of the book is pretty straight forward: it is only after we stop trying to do everything and stop saying yes to everyone, that we can direct our energy to the few things that really matter to us, the essentials.

It is about priority, the discipline pursuit of less, about getting the right things done, and doing them mindfully and wholesomely. And everything else become fairly insignificant.

I must admit that while reading the early chapters I was at first skeptical of this book, as its simple message is just another minimalism mantra that I’ve already read in several books. But as I read on, I soon realize that McKeown relies more on data and scientific findings rather than just the general zen feeling of the outcome (which have profoundly changed my life nonetheless). And the more the book progresses the more practical it gets, which starts with the concept of trade-offs.

In a perfect world we can easily eliminate all of the non-essentials. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and instead in every decision that we make we will more likely to face trade-offs. As McKeown explains, “by definition, a trade-off involves two things we want. Do you want more pay or more vacation time? Do you want to finish this next e-mail or be on time to your meeting? Do you want it done faster or better?” “Obviously”, McKeown continues, “when faced with the choice between two things we want, the preferred answer is yes to both. But as much as we’d like to, we simply cannot have it all.”

So yes, most of the time we have to choose. And this just happens to be the core specialty of this book: the intricate process of decision making.

The book provides us with the scientific and psychological researches about the underlying determinants behind our decision making process – such as learned helplessness, Pareto Principle, the Power Law theory, sunk-cost bias, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow – and guide us to the process of (re)gaining control over our options.

It then teaches us several decision making skills, such as to look at information like a journalist (by following a lead, by listening to what is not being said, by finding the essence of the information), or the 90 Percent Rule (if it’s not a hell yeah, then it’s a no – only the 90% mark out of 100% will do), or decluttering methods that would make Marie Kondo blushed, or simple methods like clarifying our purpose so that it’s changed from pretty clear to really clear.

It then analyzes some crucial factors of decision making such as the power of sleep, with the short chapter on sleep provides a more compacted findings than the 2 books on sleep that I’ve read. The fact that this book put the science of sleep into the overall context of Essentialism makes it relatively more actionable that Shawn Stevenson’s and Ariana Huffington’s excellent stand alone book on the subject.

For example, to succeed at something we need to put 10,000 hours of hard work on it (a theory founded by K. Anders Ericsson by studying violinists, and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell). But this book provides the 2nd part of the study that was rarely highlighted: that the very best violinists actually sleep an average of 8.6 hours. It was sleep that gave them the edge.

Moreover, the book also provides so many tools for the execution, including the very useful “buffer” theory and the “slowest hiker” efficiency, that ensure our execution can be efficient and precise. It also highlighted the importance of routines to switch our task to Basal Ganglia part of the brain and make it automatic and thus freeing up our minds (akin to Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habits), and a sub-chapter on triggers that would make Marshall Goldsmith proud.

The book also provides an abundance of many more examples from various walks of life, with examples from the morning routines of some of the most successful people, to the investment decisions of Warren Buffett (whom owes 90% of his wealth only from 10 investments), what Stephen R. Covey did for his daughter (that leaves a profound inspiration for my parenting style), how Britain and Norway handle their oil proceeds differently, to what Nelson Mandela did in his 27 years in prison (eliminating everything non-essential including his resentment to work on 1 clear goal: to eliminate apartheid in South Africa), or how the right NO spoken at the right time can change the course of history (such as the bus incident with Rosa Parks).

Neurologically speaking our attention span, willpower, and cognitive bandwidth are not unlimited. Hence, it is only by focusing on the essentials that we can produce deep work, flows, and other things that lead to extraordinary performances. In fact, one of the biggest differences between the average person and billionaires and top athletes is that they prioritize their time and effort differently. And this book gives us the clarity on how to do them.

Learning about retail business from the very best

“Made in America” by Sam Walton

Good ol’ Sam Walton. During my university years, whenever I visit any book store this book will always be in the top 5 books there, if not the 1st. No matter if it’s the biggest Borders (don’t you just miss Borders?) or a tiny airport bookshop. But I always thought what could this book – one that is written by the owner of Wal-Mart – possibly teach me?

And throughout the years this book kept being mentioned by some of the brightest and most successful people as one of their main inspirations, a must read business classic, with the latest one (that I read) referred to by Jeff Bezos. So after more than a decade wondering, I finally decide to read the book. And what could it possibly teach me, someone who isn’t in the retail industry? As it turns out, quite a lot.

This book was written at the last few moments of Sam Walton’s life when he became ill, with him reminiscing about his journey in building his ultimate baby, the merchant giant Wal-Mart. And there’s so much to learn from this humble billionaire. First and foremost, there are many lessons about the business: on supply chain, logistics, accounting stuff, how to size up your competitors, how to expand, all the way to their choice of locations and addressing some of the infamous stigmas, such as the one that claim Wal-Mart kills small mom and pop stores, and provide answers that make perfect sense.

The book also highlight the way he organises the structure of Wal-Mart that benefitted the family and the employees, about the fun company culture that he establishes, how they revamp every small town’s atmosphere, how they still focus on one store at a time even when they’ve become a huge corporation, and the one thing he asks to his grand children and great-grand children NOT to do, or else he will come back and haunt them: selling their Wal-Mart stocks to finance their extravagance, that would leave the family’s controlling stake vulnerable to hostile take over.

Then there are also lessons from their failures, the most expensive mistake he ever made, the tiny details of franchise and lease contracts that can safe you or screw you, how to nurture good business relationships (even with your competitors), what NOT to do through extracting lessons from failed competitors, and most importantly for Wal-Mart’s key to success (which become the core of this book): his many, many lessons on pricing, and controlling the so-called absentee ownership.

In fact, he is not shy to share most (if not all) of his formula to success, as he believed that competition makes everyone better. For example, in describing Wal-Mart’s early strategy on pricing, which became one of the key engines of growth for his stores: “The basic discounter’s idea was to attract customers into the store by pricing these items—toothpaste, mouthwash, headache remedies, soap, shampoo—right down at cost. Those were what the early discounters called your “image” items. That’s what you pushed in your newspaper advertising—like the twenty-seven-cent Crest at Springdale—and you stacked it high in the stores to call attention to what a great deal it was. Word would get around that you had really low prices. Everything else in the store was priced low too, but it had a 30 percent margin. Health and beauty aids were priced to give away.”

Furthermore, this autobiography is also lessons about hard work from early age, and lessons on frugality where despite of his riches he still drives an old pickup truk, buys his clothes at Wal-Mart, and refuses to fly first class even though he can afford to (but then again he also owns a private jet that he flew himself, but one that he purchased only after weighting the cost of travel that would be more efficient if he flew himself).

The book is also part testimonials by his family, friends, partners and associates, even his competitors, with nice little anecdotes along the way. One of my favourite stories is when he was caught taking notes in his competitor’s store, Price Club, and how he dealt with it with such grace and humor (and responded by Price Club’s owner with equal respect and warmth).

Indeed, Sam Walton has this folksy charm and wit that makes him instantly likable, as well as a wise grandfather vibe that is reflected in the way he writes the book. It is as if he is telling about his life’s stories to his grandchildren in one delightful seating, with lessons that are also applicable to any other areas in business and in life. And so, as it turns out, you don’t need to be in the retail industry to appreciate the abundance of knowledge coming out of this book.

Such a fun book to read!

“Stuff You Should Know: An incomplete compendium of mostly interesting things” by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant

Just like their many brilliant podcast episodes, this book is both enlightening and entertaining, it’s amusing without being condescending, it’s a bit skeptical but still comical.

The book covers a wide range of stuffs that we should know, from the equation for blackouts from a tequila (important), how to slow down the ageing process, whether there will be a trillionaire, all the way to answering whether Paul McCartney really died, and who the hell was John Frum and why was he so influential in Vanuatu. I cannot believe that they can even make few dull subjects such as taxation and the smell of dogs become hella interesting.

It also covers some other stuffs that aren’t that urgent for us to know but still fun, like we can fix a scratched CD with a toothpaste (I know, way too late), that the British have 3000 ways to describe “drunk”, the many types and names of facial hair, and the juicy conspiracy theory of an incident at The Price is Right whose winner guessed the price correctly at exactly $23,743.

And what about them jokes, eh? I’m not going to spoil anything, but let’s just say the chapter about how to use your pet rock, and their illustration of a pet rock, made me laugh a little longer than I should. In fact the many illustrations in the book are just downright hilarious.

Meanwhile, every once in a while the book gives us pithy sayings that set us straight in the right path in life and away from troubles. Sayings such as  “never get into a shouting match with someone whose job involves a microphone.” Or “you’re usually better off going with the guy who has all the spreadsheets.” Or “nothing good has ever happened in the back of a van in the woods.” Wise, wise words.

Weirdly, I automatically read every word of the book using Josh’s voice in my head. Because the choice of words, the jokes, all of it, you know, it’s all Josh-like. Unless, of course, the parts where it is better to say it with an Italian accent, then it’s Chuck’s voice taking over.

Anyway, the book is a light read but with a lot of knowledge to absorb, what’s not to like? I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I also came out of it gaining several potential band names, which is not useful at all for me but hey you’ll never know.

The human story behind legendary names

“Figuring” by Maria Popova

This is a beautifully written book, an art, in fact, that expressed itself through the eloquence of words. It is one of a kind book, that brings us into a journey of mesmerising flows akin to what I’ve been accustomed to with Brainpickings for more than a decade.

The book dissects multiple knowledge and wrap them up into a very gripping narrative that reads like a novel, which was seemingly unconnected at first but later brilliantly gel together into a pattern that sets the tone for the remaining of the book.

I never knew that the many historical figures mentioned in the book ever crossed path with one another, and this makes many interesting revelations. It is quite simply Maria Popova at her finest.

How to develop fact-based world view

“Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think” by Hans Rosling

Factfulness in a nutshell, taken from the book

Hans Rosling is a phenomenal human being. He’s a Swedish physician and epidemiologist whom had worked in many poorest villages in the world – like in Mozambique, Zaire, and Tanzania – had taught and gave speeches in many more places around the world from his native Sweden to India to Canada to Iran to Vietnam, and also had worked with many UN agencies, influencing global elites from Melinda Gates, to Mark Zuckeberg, to Al Gore, to Fidel Castro, and the many Davos crowds along the way.

He is one of the most qualified persons to teach about global health, and perhaps one of few people who have the right to be pessimistic about the world, considering what he had witnessed and experienced directly in the world. But yet, his life’s work and mission is the total opposite of that. In a world where the majority of news headlines are giving us the impression that the state of the world is getting worse by the day, Rosling appears with the counter perception with undisputed arguments: through data and charts.

This book is the culmination of this mission. With a kind and worldly professor vibe, which is reflected in the relaxed tone of his writing (and the fun fact that he’s a proud sword swallower),  he breaks down the paragraphs into bite size sub-chapters that makes the book easy to digest. And then with every argument he makes, he backs it up with the statistics and the charts that comes with it. And oh how he loves his charts. He has every imaginable charts there is in the world, from life expectancy, immunization, to plane crash deaths, legal slavery, to guitar per capita, new movies, even the projection of his grandson’s height.

Moreover, Rosling created 4 income levels to make it easier to analyse the condition of countries over the world, with Level 1 to Level 4 progress. Level 1 is extreme poverty: $1 per day (roughly 1 billion people live like this today). Level 2: $4 a day (roughly 3 billion people live like this today). Level 3: $16 per day (roughly 2 billion people live like this today). Level 4: more than $64 a day (roughly 1 billion people live like this today).

So, the state of the world is not getting worse, in fact if we look at the many charts in the book it is strikingly obvious that we’ve never had it better than today. For example, contrary to popular belief the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved in the past 20 years. In the year 1800 around 85% of humanity lived on Level 1, but just 20 years ago it was down to 29%, while today it is 9%. Global life expectancy has also grown from an average age of 30 years old in 1800, to 60 years in 1973, to 72 years as at the writing of the book in 2016-2017. Even the label developing and developed countries are technically wrong, since today 75% of people live in middle-income countries, or between Level 2 and Level 3. “Not poor, not rich, but somewhere in the middle and starting to live a reasonable life.”

Rosling then teaches us how to read the data more closely. For example, we can measure the “temperature” of a society from the child mortality rate, because children are very fragile and there are so many things that can kill them. He reasoned, “[w]hen only 14 children die out of 1000 in Malaysia, this means that the other 986 survive. Their parents and their society manage to protect them from all the dangers that could have killed them: germs, starvation, violence, and so on. So this number 14 tells us that most families in Malaysia have enough food, their sewage systems don’t leak into their drinking water, they have good access to primary health care, and mothers can read and write. It doesn’t just tell us about the health of children. It measures the quality of the whole society.”

Moreover, in a Daniel Kahneman-esque approach, Rosling also challenges our cognitive biases on seeing the world with such negative judgements. He explained “[i]n large part, it is because of our negativity instinct: our instinct to notice the bad more than the good. There are three things going on here: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better.”

Particularly on addressing the role of the media on selective reporting, he made a good point on the unavailability of breaking news in the past: “When Europeans slaughtered indigenous peoples across America a few centuries ago, it didn’t make the news back in the old world. When central planning resulted in mass famine in rural China, millions starved to death while the youngsters in Europe waving communist red flags knew nothing about it. When in the past whole species or ecosystems were destroyed, no one realized or even cared. Alongside all the other improvements, our surveillance of suffering has improved tremendously. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite.”

And of course there’s the common adage that bad news sell more than good news. For instance, the media report on plane crashes, that made some people afraid of flying. In 2016 a total of 40 million commercial passenger flights landed safely at their destinations, with 10 ended in fatal accidents. But of course, the 10 that didn’t make it were the ones the media wrote about, the 0.000025% of the total.

However, this is not saying that the true state of the world is all rosy and that the media is manipulating us all, this is not being optimistic for optimism’s sake. Instead, he acknowledged that everything is not fine, and that we should still be very concerned. “As long as there are plane crashes, preventable child deaths, endangered species, climate change deniers, male chauvinists, crazy dictators, toxic waste, journalists in prison, and girls not getting an education because of their gender, as long as any such terrible things exist, we cannot relax.”

But, he elaborates, “it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made.” So instead, he explain it in a simple analogy: we should see the world like we see a premature baby in incubator. Yes her health is critical and it’s bad, we should not relax and stop worrying. But the baby’s condition is improving day by day in the intensive care, so yes the situation is improving. It is both bad and better at the same time. In this light, his brilliant explanation and analysis on the reality of climate change and refugee crisis have completely changed the way I see these problems.

In this sense, he labels himself with a word that he made up himself: a possibilist. “It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.” True to his mission, he dedicate several chapters on teaching us to become a possibilist, including training us to refrain from reacting from URGENT news or message or sale or offer that prompt us to make quick (and rash and uncalculated) decisions NOW!

Hans Rosling sadly passed away in 2017, 2 months before the book was published, making this book his last ever contribution to society. In fact, his last days were spent reading and editing the draft that would become this book. And towards the end of the book he provides 5 global risks that we should worry about, the 1st of which was global pandemic, which in 2016-2017 he amazingly described a scenario similar with Covid-19 that we are experiencing right now.

Like many others, I first knew about this book because it is the book that Bill Gates gave away to all graduates in US college and universities in 2018. And after reading it, I get it. I understand why Gates specifically chose this book.

The orderly side of a chaotic reputation

“12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos” by Jordan B. Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a polarizing figure. In a world where extreme opinions become the norm, his matter-of-fact stance are often criticized by the liberals as dangerous ideas. Without ever reading or listening from himself directly I had thought that Peterson was just one of those provocative right wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh or nut job Alex Jones.

But then I listened to a podcast interview with him, and the few little things he said have actually been fact-checked and deeply analysed before he talks, and actually makes sense. Then I watched some of the several controversial videos of him, and the many criticism of him seems like taken wildly out of context.

For example when asked in an interview by a feminist whether a transgender woman is a real woman, his answer was: depends on the definition, for instance according to the biological definition a real woman is someone who can produce babies, so in that regards transgender woman is not a real woman. A bold and harsh fact, one that perhaps is not politically correct to say in this hyper-sensitive era, which eventually gives him the label of transphobic without intending to do so (because he then clarifies that he supports the choice that transgenders make, but that was not the question, and from the look of it never the intention of the interviewer).

Still, I felt indifferent. Few years passed and then I stumbled upon yet another meme of Peterson accused of some controversial stance (controversial in the context of identity politics), with me proceeded to read one of the media articles covering it. And again it feels incomplete, so I listened to another (longer) podcast interview with him to figure out the man behind the controversy.

But no matter how much snippets about him that I watched, read, or listened to, I will never get the big picture, as the things that he said and the reputation that he end up having doesn’t seem to match. That is, I thought, unless I finally read his book. And true to my tsundoku-ist nature I just happen to already bought this book a while ago. And so, I decided to give it a go.

In a world where good causes become overblown and over-exploited by the so-called social justice warriors, where the very causes that fight for human rights and equality are suddenly used for extreme entitlement and to play victim – which makes quite a lot of liberal minded people become frustrated when looking at the reverse injustice -, Jordan Peterson seems to serve as some kind of a voice of the harsh truth, an orderly reason to the chaotic reality.

And this book, with all its flaws, represents his compilation of just this: 12 rules to bring back order to the chaos occurring in our personal world. Here are the rules:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone is today.
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
  8. Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Now, as you may have noticed, in a glimpse these rules look nothing more than a back-to-basics kind of self-help advice. And you’re absolutely right. The book turns out to be such a dull one for a man as controversial as Peterson. I had expected something more edgy just like his spicy talks and debates. Moreover, the elaboration of the rules oftentimes can get way offtrack from the theme of the rules, while at other times it is filled by only meaningless gibberish and cliches.

Only occasionally that we hit upon Peterson’s true nature that provide our judgements and biases with sobering cold shower of raw truth. But when it does, it’s mind blowing, like his theory of unspeakable primordial calculator, or his description of the evolution of lie, or his interpretation and elaboration of the story “There’s no such thing as a dragon.”

And so, as it turns out, Peterson is a fantastic speaker and debater, but he’s just not that good of a writer. In fact, if you only read the 12 list above, you wouldn’t miss that much. But, BUT, it’s maybe worth sticking with the book, skim read it if you must, as the occasional bursts of brilliance really live up to his reputation as a clinical psychologist and a former Harvard professor that was popular with the students. It is also provide a glimpse of Peterson’s private life, which he’s surprisingly quite open (even vulnerable) with the stories of his family, friends, even his dog Sikko, and what happened to his daughter Mikhaila, that could give us more puzzle piece of information to the big picture about this man.

All in all, like Peterson himself, is it hard to put a label on this book. Some parts are no doubt worthy of a 5 star, others a dull 1, while most of the stuff written here are a borderline between 3 and 4 stars. So, for a book with thin margins between good and bad, I thought I’d resort to pettiness: 3 star for the overall average, and most specifically for hating Elmo (“that creepy whiny puppet”). Oh, never ever change Mr Peterson.

The definitive manual book for introverts

“Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” by Susan Cain

This book gives us the tools to still be our introvert self and use it to our advantage.

It is the same approach that Mahatma Gandhi uses to mobilize a whole nation against a mighty colonial power, what makes Warren Buffett can keep his head above the irrational herd, what gives Isaac Newton the focus to discover the theory of gravity or Albert Einstein to discover his theory of relativity, what provides JK Rowling and George Orwell their observational skills and the solitude to write them down.

So, what are introvert and extrovert? According to psychologist Carl Jung, introvert people are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, while extrovert people to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they interpret from the events happening around them, while extroverts plunge directly into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their energy by being alone, while extroverts recharge theirs by socializing. It is one of the very essence of our personality, a natural trait that cannot be forced no matter how much you try.

Take the story of introverted Rosa Parks, for example, how her calm demeanor was the perfect fit for the bus protest incident and would not have been successful had the person sitting there was the extrovert and fiery Martin Luther King Jr. Nor would it be a success if the preaching role of Dr King was forced upon the quiet Ms Parks. Indeed, it is about the best way to measure our response in accordance to our true nature, as both Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks proceeded to influence the civil rights movement with their own comfortable demeanor.

But how can someone be a natural extrovert while other be a natural introvert? Introversion-extroversion can be detected from the early age, from looking at how sensitive babies are towards the stimulus of their environment, with high-reactivity nature represents one biological basis of introversion. This is what commonly acknowledged as “being a sensitive person.” The more high-reactive a baby is (i.e. introverted) the quieter they become as they don’t seek any more stimulants, while extroverted babies (and hence, adults) constantly seek more stimulants from outside of their brain to feel more alive.

Furthermore, according to the author, Susan Cain, “[h]igh-reactive kids [i.e. introverts] who enjoy good parenting, child care, and a stable home environment tend to have fewer emotional problems and more social skills than their lower-reactive peers, studies show. Often they’re exceedingly empathic, caring, and cooperative.” Cain then elaborates, “[t]hey work well with others. They are kind, conscientious, and easily disturbed by cruelty, injustice, and irresponsibility. They’re successful at the things that matter to them. They don’t necessarily turn into class presidents or stars of the school play… though this can happen, too: “For some it’s becoming the leader of their class. For others it takes the form of doing well academically or being well-liked.””

However, in a society where extroverts are the model aspiration, being an introvert can be challenging. The book dedicate one whole chapter on the history of extrovert culture that began in the US, that covers examples of how society came to worship extrovert traits and personalities – from Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins to the Harvard Business School culture – which creates the stigma that the model of success are those who conform to this nature.

The book then analyses the cultural aspect of introversion-extroversion, with Western culture praise more of extroversion and Eastern culture promotes introversion. It also cover the risk takers and risk averse traits that can be heavily linked to extroversion and introversion, which adds a new angle on the irrational exuberance culture among majority extroverted Wall Street geniuses that fail to think rationally in the face of risk. As Cain remarks, “just as the amygdala [the emotional, flight-or-fight, part of the brain] of a high-reactive person is more sensitive than average to novelty, so do extroverts seem to be more susceptible than introverts to the reward-seeking cravings of the old brain. In fact, some scientists are starting to explore the idea that reward-sensitivity is not only an interesting feature of extroversion; it is what makes an extrovert an extrovert.”

In other words, extroverts are characterized by their tendency to seek outside reward, from the no 1 champion status to sexual highs to cold cash. Hence, their greater economic, political, and hedonistic ambitions compared with introverts. As Cain elaborates, “even their sociability is a function of reward-sensitivity, according to this view—extroverts socialize because human connection is inherently gratifying.”

However, although extroverts and introverts have contrasting personalities they can still co-exist nicely – whether it’s family, friendship, work environment, or romantic relationship -, with the book discusses through plenty of case studies where both successful and failed relationship occur. For instance, the book point out the psychological findings that introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts, while extroverts prefer those they compete with. This will be very useful in plenty of social contexts, especially in negotiation.

It also elaborates on how introverts can fully utilize our natural traits. For example, it’s so happened that for introverts they can “fake” extroversion, which stems from psychological theories covered neatly in the book, like the Free Trait Theory and Fixed Trait Theory. But in the end of the day, that will eat us inside. Instead, I found the most inspiration in the curious case of Jon Berghoff, a highly introverted person that becomes the best regional salesman by not faking an extroverted traits, but by comfortably using his introvert way of heart-to-heart communication that speaks to his strengths.

This book is such an enlightenment that I suddenly can spot the extroverts and introverts in my surroundings, complete on the spectrum of calm extrovert, anxious extrovert, calm introvert, and anxious introvert that the book brilliantly describes. All the behaviour that they are making, their reaction on things, their decision making, the choice of people they surround themselves with, the problems they are making, etc, all become clear.

And in the end of the day, as the book shows, what matters it not the cards that have been give to us, but how we use them. Likewise, it’s not about certain personality traits that would makes you successful or not, it’s how you maximize the one that you already have – whether it’s extrovert or introvert – with the right mindset and attitude, at the right environment, with the right crowd. As Susan Cain remarks, “[w]e often marvel at how introverted, geeky kids “blossom” into secure and happy adults. We liken it to a metamorphosis. However, maybe it’s not the children who change but their environments. As adults, they get to select the careers, spouses, and social circles that suit them. They don’t have to live in whatever culture they’re plunked into.”

So much to learn from the maestro philosopher of modern football

“Pep Guardiola: Another way of winning” by Guillem Balague

This is a very enjoyable book to read. As a diehard football fan with a weakness for tactics and philosophy behind every play, this book really hit the spot for me. And there’s arguably no better person to analyse when it comes to tactical mastery than Pep Guardiola.

And he really doesn’t disappoints. The book eloquently portray the complete picture of Pep Guardiola, from the days of his childhood, to La Masía, to becoming the captain of Barcelona, to exile, to assembling what in my opinion as the most exciting team ever play the game of football (Barcelona 2008-2012, that won 14 trophies in just under 4 years). All the struggles, the hard works, the fighting, the opportunities, the doubts, the glories, the pressure, the ecstatic joys, the meticulously planned rules, the passion for the club all written grippingly by Guillem Balague.

The same template is repeated with the coverage of Pep’s time in Bayern München (2013-2016, that won 7 trophies in 3 years) where Pep’s footballing philosophy was implemented with much greater varieties and insane evolution of the modern game. For instance, at one match he deployed a 2-3-5 formation that left only 2 defenders, Xabi Alonso as a holding midfielder plus 2 full backs that turned into midfielders, and the remaining 5 as strikers (a pyramid formation last used in the 1890s!), or another match where Bayern changed formation 7 times, or that match against Juventus where Pep used 4 wingers at once (and won).

The book also illustrate the difficulties of managing star players and their inflated egos, especially when there are more than 1 star competing for the same spots, as well as the difficulties of transferring Pep’s philosophy onto several rigid or entitled players. And it also portrays a vivid picture of the pressure that football managers constantly receive from the fans, the club hierarchies, and the media.

While the football stories are fantastic, I actually learn a lot more from the way Guardiola conduct himself. From his discipline, intellect, and respect for others, to the way he carry himself in many different situations, to how he meticulously planning ahead of the opportunities and risks, how he revamp the club to embody his footballing philosophy (even arranging different lunch seating all the time to ensure no small groups formed within the squad), down to practicing the small specific moves after analysing the opponent and/or the situation. Lessons that can be implemented in many other areas of life.

Perhaps my favourite part of the book is when on top of having learned from being managed by top coaches such as Cruyff, Robson, Van Gaal, Mazzone, and Capello, before taking the job as a coach Guardiola still travels around Argentina to learn a lot from coaching legends Ricardo La Volpe, César Luis Menotti, and of course the fabled meeting with Marcelo Bielsa where he spent 11 hours in Bielsa’s villa and came out of it bringing a book full of notes from cover to cover. My other favourite part of the book is at the very last chapter when Pep talked on Catalan radio in memory of Johan Cruyff that has just recently died, which reveals a lot about Pep’s footballing philosophy that is heavily influenced by Cruyff’s way of thinking.

The only drawback for me is the untidy timeline of the book. Yes it reads like a documentary, with all the back and forth in the timeline, which is fine. Exciting, in fact. But it is exactly because of this that many topics become overlapping, with the unnecessary intention of seeing several events from different vantage points (from Pep, from the players, from the club president, etc).

For example, it occurs in the story of Pep vs Mourinho, which was already told in the early chapters but then repeated in part III chapter 6, and it is also occurs in the story of problems with Zlatan Ibrahimović that was scattered across the chapters that makes it confusing in which season did he exactly played for Barca. But it is perhaps most obviously occur in the story of the end of Pep’s tenure in Barca, which was told at such gruesome length right at the beginning of the book, which then proceeded to be re-told again 4-5 more times.

But nevertheless, in the end of the day it is a beautifully written book, a very thorough book. A book that paid attention to so much details that Pep himself probably could not express his life and his philosophy this well. It is a book that teaches us a lot about the modern game of football and its arguably maestro inventor. And it is a very passionate book written by someone who clearly live and breathe football.

The book ends with one chapter about Pep’s move to Manchester City in 2016 and his potential set up for the English Premier League team. And as we all now know in 2021, Pep eventually has a tremendous success at City, with this season the club is on the way of winning Pep’s 3rd league crown, his 9th trophy overall in 5 seasons. And so, his success story continues.

Connecting the dots between terrorism and the spread of hardliners

“The Wahhabi Code: How the Saudis spread extremism globally” by Terence Ward

Mind map of the Wahhabi sect, taken from the book

Imagine for a moment, a scenario where a gang of radical thugs living in a desert proceeded to raid the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, kill hundreds of its citizens, eventually destroy 98% of its rich historical sites, and turn the center of Islam from a cosmopolitan and high tolerance society into the epicentrum of their radical views.

Meanwhile, thanks to unbelievable luck they strike the largest oil reserves in the world under their occupied lands, and they get to use the petro-dollar to buy their ways into a massive PR campaign and billions of dollar worth of funding worldwide to spread their radical interpretation as the only true path, ignoring (nay, destroying) the 1400 years of evolution that had previously made Islam as an advanced, sophisticated, and diverse religion. Any competing views get demonised, and any protests are labeled apostasy of Islam since they control the two holy cities (and hence becomes the de facto emperor of Islam).

This, in essence, is Wahhabism in a nutshell.

This book tells the comprehensive history of Wahhabism that began with Muhammad Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), whom founded the puritanical sect that bears his name. As the author, Terence Ward, says, Wahhab “stressed the absolute sovereignty of God , tawhid or “God’s unity,” and rejected any veneration of saints, holy figures, or even the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH].” With this thinking he began to evangelizes the Arabian Peninsula during the eighteenth century where he calls for a return to the “purity” of the Salaf, the practices of the first generation of Muslims in the year 622.

By contrast, before the Wahhabi revolution Islam had experienced more than a thousand years of evolution that have produced the Golden Age of Islam, with all the scientific discoveries, healthy intellectual debates among different schools of thoughts, equality and prosperity across the Muslim World from Cordoba to Cairo to Baghdad to Damascus to Samarkand. Even the holy city of Mecca, the book remarks, used to be the center of the Sufi universe, “where music, dance, and ecstatic prayer celebrated the divine and faithful gathered at shrines and graves of saints.”

But this were all changed after World War 1. When the great war first broke out British agents encouraged Arab revolts from within the Ottoman Empire (its opponent in the war) including Ibn Saud (1875-1953) whom joint forces with the descendants of Muhammad Abdul Wahhab to conquer the lands in Arabia (historically the insignificant backyard of the Ottoman Empire, before the discovery of oil). An Anglo-Saud friendship treaty was soon signed, and the treaty insisted that Ibn Saud respect Britain’s Gulf protectorates (Qatar, Kuwait, and the Emirates) but it conveniently neglected to mention about the Sharifate of Mecca to the west. Hence, with Britain’s blessing, Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi ally were left free to attack, occupy, and plunder the Holy City.

Mecca and Medina were at the time protected by Sharif Hussein bin Ali, heir of the Hashemite family that had ruled Mecca and Medina for 700 years and 37 generations. And true to the Arab revolt, Sharif Hussein had also allied with Britain and proclaimed the great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman thanks to the persuasion of Lawrence of Arabia.

In return, the British promised him full support for the Arab independence movement, and even offered him the title of “King of the Arabs.” But once the war ended, the British and the French created the Sykes-Picot agreement to divide the Arab lands of Palestine, Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon into their own colonial states. Feeling that the Arab cause has been betrayed, Sharif Hussein refused to ratify the treaty.

And thus, by letting the Saud-Wahhabi clan to invade, plunder, and occupy Mecca, Medina and the Hejaz, the British backstab Sharif Hussein once again, and practically chose a more obedient servant to guard the oil wells. Ibn Saud was later awarded a knighthood for his loyalty and service to the British crown, while Sharif Hussein had no choice but to flee into exile and eventually died in Jordan. Some Arabs point to the British support of Ibn Saud (instead of the Hashemite family) as the pivotal act that led to the crisis within Islam now.

After the state of Saudi Arabia was declared, Wahhabism was proclaimed as the official religion, where rigid sharia law is imposed in the kingdom. And in less than 100 years the Saudi-Wahhabi partnership destroyed the countries’ rich and mystic past, including 400-500 historical sites. The Prophet’s (PBUH) house, for example, was destroyed, homes of the Prophet’s wives are now parking lots and public toilet, while the house of the Prophet’s loyal companion Abubakr is now a site of a hotel.

Moreover, in the 1970s thanks to the abundant flood of oil revenues Saudi’s Ministry of Religious Affairs proclaimed Dawa Wahhabiyya (the Wahhabi Mission) and the royal family unleashed charities to fund Wahhabi schools, missionaries, and mosques across the world. Within 3 decades, Ward observed, the Saudis have launched 5 projects to spread Wahhabism:

  1. Pakistan 1977, when General Zia ul-Haq seized power he imposed sharia law and gave freedom in the country to create countless Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasas across the country to fill the gap of a collapsed education system and indoctrinate young children. They also targeted refugee camps full of Afghans fleeing from the Soviet invasion (this is where the Taliban were born).
  2. Afghanistan 1994, 50 of the indoctrinated Afghan refugees and their leader Mullah Omar launched out offensives to take back Afghanistan, taking Kabul in 1996. By 1997 Saudi employees were travelling there for free as tourists on government-paid holidays with their families, to “witness the true Islam.” In 1998 Mullah Omar was invited on Hajj by the Saudi monarch, and ordered to destroy Bamiyan Buddhas, which they did in March 2001, to comply with Wahhabi’s “no-icon” vision. The free tourism program ended abruptly on 11 September 2001.
  3. Al Qaeda’s global jihad financed by Wahhabi funders, which began in Afghanistan and climaxed with the 9/11 attack. 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, including Osama bin Laden.
  4. ISIS. It began with US invasion on Iraq in 2003. The Shia-majority country was ruled by Sunni Saddam Hussein and his cronies, and after US invasion Shia Nouri Al Maliki became Prime Minister. The Sunni ex-Saddam loyalists were captured and radicalized in the many Iraqi prisons under US watch. And after their release, these loyalists turned into a Saudi-funded fighters against Shia government in Iraq and Shia Assad in Syria. Ward remarks, “when ISIS fighters entered newly captured Syrian towns and Iraqi villages, they burned the old secular schoolbooks. Starting with a clean slate, they gave the shell-shocked students fresh new textbooks, all imported from Saudi Arabia.”
  5. The spread of Wahhabism in the world, with Saudi money and Wahhabi-trained imams installed in Western Europe, from Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Marseilles to Birmingham. The Wahhabi mission also operates across the Middle East and North Africa, in Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia (which is comprehensively discussed in chapter 12), and other places in Europe such as Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania. As the book remark, “Support has come from the Saudi government; the royal family; Saudi charities; and Saudi-sponsored organizations including the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, and the International Islamic Relief Organization, providing the hardware of impressive edifices and the software of preaching and teaching.” Over the next 4 decades since the 1970s, in non-Muslim-majority countries alone, Saudi Arabia have built 1359 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 universities, and 2000 schools.

Curiously, the final US Senate report on 9/11 attack excluded 28 pages of evidence about Saudi Arabia’s connections to the hijackers. As Ward remarks, “[t]he pages revealed what we have known for a long time: Saudis officials had assisted some hijackers with funds once they came to America. After all, two hijackers had the phone number of the Aspen office of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud.”

Now what could possibly be the explanation for that censorship? The answer remains the same as for the British in the early 20th century as in today: oil. Today, thanks to their massive oil leverage the royal House of Saud plays the dangerous double game of becoming an ally of the West while simultaneously allowing funding into terrorist networks, in which Ward commented “[i]n Palermo, Sicilians pay for “protection” the same way.”

This book is surprisingly short for having such an abundant information (only 136 pages long), but it is very concise and so full of enlightening information that I’ve probably highlighted around 70% of the entire book. And there is no way of covering all the nuggets without over-exceeding the word count for this review. For example, after a thorough introduction of the rise of Wahhabism, it digs deeper into how exactly Wahhabi donations are being made, it links the Wahhabi money to the most unthink of connections such as the Mumbai attack 2008 or Boko Haram or the destruction of the many UNESCO heritage sites in Timbuktu (known as the city of 333 saints from its ancient Sufi tradition), and perhaps the most eye opening one for me is the connection between the House of Saud and Erdoğan in Turkey (which explains a lot of his behaviour and his supporters’ behaviour).

The book is not perfect, however, as I discovered in chapter 8 where the author shows a little too much affection for Ayatollah Khomeini (very respectfully paint him as the brilliant and compassionate leader of the Iranian revolution, while in truth he’s no different than the rigid Wahhabis). Ward also portray Shia as a non-violent followers of Ali, “the true heir of the succession”, while in reality nothing was set in stone and both Sunni and Shia have their fair share of violence. Hence, a small grain of salt is needed to put the objectivity of his views in its right place.

Nevertheless, it is still a very important piece of puzzle to read in order to understand the big picture of global terrorism, the never ending war in the Middle East, the rise of Islamic hardliners around the world, and the dynamics of global politics that come with it. And it is especially useful to learn the many contexts from the book, in order for me to fully understand the recent breaking news that MBS has been proven guilty by the US investigators of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, but with no further action has been taken so far by both the US and Turkey.

How Goldman Sachs becomes the most powerful institution in the world

“Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs came to rule the world” by William D. Cohan”

This is a very thorough biography of arguably the most powerful financial institution in the world, Goldman Sachs.

Despite written with the co-operation of the top people at Goldman, it doesn’t censor any wrongdoings and instead it reveals the complete spectrum of the firm from the ugly side of the vampire squid to the absolute masters of the universe, which have mold them into what they are today whether we like it or not.

It reminds me of George Orwell who said “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Although this is not an autobiography the logic still applies, and “something disgraceful” are in abundance.

As with any other story of the best of the best, their journey is a very long and treacherous one, from a peddler with a horse-drawn cart to small family business shop selling clothes to sole proprietorship to investment banking novice to growing pains and eventually to the distinguishable master of power and money. And the book captured their story quite magnificently.

It is filled with all the family drama, the infighting with partners, the cheating and backstabbing, the trading scandals, trading successes, the profitless years, the profitable years, the Penn Central fiasco, the sex scandals, civil lawsuits, suicide, succession problems, the high divorce rate, their involvement in propping up financial house of cards of crook Robert Maxwell, the many boardroom battles, the leadership coup, the insider trading cases that look like the episodes of TV series Billions, hostile takeovers, mergers and acquisition wars, the many more deals done by Goldman which often occurred alongside their law firm Sullivan & Cromwell that oftentimes look like the episodes of Suits, and the seemingly minute-by-minute account of the subprime mortgage bubble and crash.

It also filled with the background stories of its larger-than-life characters that are worthy of a TV series, from childhood to the road to Goldman and until their progressive rise from bottom to the very top of the ladder of the company. Characters such as Sidney Weinberg, Gus Levy, Bob Rubin, the two Johns, the new two Johns, Bob Freeman, Steve Friedman, Jon Corzine, Hank Paulson, Lloyd Blankfein – all of whom became a legend in Wall Street -, as well as many other names that became prominent in their own right, such as Christian Siva-Jothy.

The book adds nice little details and plot twists along the way, such as how Goldman Sachs and its arch enemy Lehman Brothers used to be closed allies, the sweet story of how Bob Rubin’s parents met, how the men in Gus Levy’s era acted literally like the Wolf of Wall Street, Senior Partner Sydney Weinberg’s role as advisor for presidents (FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson), the Goldman-Washington revolving door, how the HR office’s telephone never stops ringing during the “amnesty period” for office extramarital affairs, the endurance test of 20 interviews before recruitment, how they train their new recruits, or how close it was for Goldman Sachs to go bankrupt (several times).

While the way Goldman people themselves explained how they do several trades is nothing short of amazing, the book also paints the many scenes at the trading floor including during the Word War 2 and the free for all trading culture in Goldman’s trading room in the 1990s. And for every investment banking or M&A deals, the book analysed them in minute details.

Moreover, in writing the book, the author, William D. Cohan, uses all the best of the best reference, including the famous “Goldman Sachs: The culture of success” by Lisa Endlich when discussing about the Goldman way, “When Genius Failed” by Roger Lowenstein for the LTCM debacle, “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis for the subprime mortgage crash, and even THAT anti-Goldman Rolling Stones article by Matt Taibbi for the Goldman image problem.

All in all, the coverage feels so rich and complete that by the end of the 611 pages book if the author says “and that’s it, that’s everything covered” I’d believe him.

Ultimately, reading this book is like reading war stories and its brilliant tacticians. The morality and humanity of whether or not we should go to war in the first place is out of the question, and instead as the war is already happening the question now becomes who are the best and what strategies are they using? To that end, in the context of corporate America at its most vicious environment of predatory capitalism, Goldman Sachs emerge as the undisputed master of the game and the rulers of the world. Love it, absolutely love it.