It’s emotional intelligence on steroids

“Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” by Chris Voss

This is a phenomenal book, written by an author who spent the majority of his 24 years career as the lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and its hostage negotiation representative for the National Security Council’s Hostage Working Group. Apart from trained by the bureau, he was also trained in Scotland Yard and Harvard Law School.

But first and foremost, his negotiation techniques come directly from the tried and tested field, from his experience in the deep jungle of Ecuador, to the separatist area of the Philippines, the slumps of Tahiti, to the many occurrences from within the US including bank robberies, a prison coup, and that bomb threat incident that got Washington DC into a lockdown for 48 hours. Indeed, reading this book feels like watching a very intense action movie, with all the detailed, chaotic, and super-tense scenes.

The many real-life lessons in the book also come from business world, board meeting battles, investment negotiations, and the various cases that his students faced, from high stake deals to as menial as asking a salary raise.

Constructed the book using these real-life events, the author, Chris Voss, guides us through the negotiation tactics that worked and also the ones that didn’t, which ones became the FBI’s standard practice and which ones were so disastrous they literally cost lives and became the standard of what NOT to do. It is as if we jump directly into these many negotiation situations ourselves and Voss gives us on-the-job training and provides us with the pointers to the live action, which is exhilarating.

And those techniques that became time-tested and have since molded into something near perfection? Voss teaches them all in this book.

So what are the negotiation techniques? At its core lies active listening. Using a relaxed and friendly tone (or as Voss refer as “midnight FM DJ’s tone”), we first try to establish a rapport early on and listen to what our counterpart actually want, labelling their emotions, and validating their words (with the “I see”, “ok”, “uh-huh”, “yes” words).

We then use mirroring, effective pauses, and calibrated questions to prompt for more reactions and dig for more information, all of which we eventually paraphrase and summarise to show them that we really understand their point of view, in order to create enough trust and feeling of safety for the real conversation to begin.

In between the sequences, Voss teaches us several hacks, such as explaining why getting a “no” early on is important instead of getting two of the three “yes” (counterfeit, confirmation, and commitment). While a non-commitment “yes” can be used to just get away from the situation, a “no” can actually be an initial word to establish a sense of safety, security, and control for our counterpart, an important inner environment to get them relaxed and ready for a fruitful talk.

The sequence then proceeds with the objection of getting a “that’s right” from them after we provide the summary, which would confirm where they stand in this negotiation and thus we can get a better measure of our leverages. Voss highlighted that there are 3 different types of leverage that we could identify in the conversation: positive (the ability to give people what they want), negative (the ability to hurt people), and normative (covers the principles and values that our counterpart have).

Apart from leverages, different types of characters can also play a big role in the negotiation process, which Voss categorised into 3: the analyst, the accommodator, and the assertive. And he provides all the necessary tools on how to deal with each different one of them.

Of course, the sequence is not rigid and should be fluid depending on the conversation, as we size them up, influence their sizing up on us, while keeping an eye on any potential Black Swans – which are clearly shown in the real-life examples. But none of these tools matter if we cannot control our own emotions, which is a critical part of the interaction. As Voss remark, “[i]f you can’t control your own emotions, how can you expect to influence the emotions of another party?”

Negotiation is something we do every single day, whether we realised it or not, no matter how big or small, whether against a high profile counterpart or just bargaining with your own self. It serves two distinct but vital life functions – information gathering and behaviour influencing – where each party wants something from the other side. Hence, this book is a vital one to read, perhaps even one of the most important books you’ll ever going to read, due to its direct practicality for every kind of human interaction in any given situation.

The importance of the lessons in this book can be seen from the 339 notes that I highlighted, almost twice as many as my normal average of 150+ in any book. It is easily the best book that I’ve read this year, and it’s right up there in the list of my favourite of all time.

Bonus interview: Go to School of Greatness podcast, episode 902, where Lewis Howes interviewed Voss to dissect more about the tools in this book.

Bad introduction to Hemingway

“The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway” by Ernest Hemingway

Some say that the notorious reputation of Ernest Hemingway is eclipsed by the brilliant content of his books. Well, if that’s the case then I don’t see it here.

Before reading this book I was expecting it to be different from the author’s mischievous traits. But these short stories only confirm that the writing matches the character of the writer, the self-loathing, misogynistic, egocentric, alcoholic bully, with a hint of racism, that sees life from a cynical point of view.

But I kinda like that edginess about him, he’s like the dark chaotic mess that some people grew to love from a character, like Raymond Reddington or the Joker. It also serves a purpose for the bigger picture, as we can’t appreciate the hopeful optimistic ones if we can’t see the contrasting bleak views.

However, there’s only so much N words that I can handle before I felt enough was enough (at about the 54% mark). But I kept skim reading it though, in a writing flow that continues to be dry and unengaging, with stories short enough that I never get a chance to be emotionally invested in any of them. It’s safe to say that my reading experience really doesn’t match up with all the hype about Hemingway.

So naturally it got me thinking, is this it? Is this really a book written by that legendary writer? Like an abused child still seeking for love and approval, I began to think that maybe these 70 short stories are not the best introduction that reflects the real Hemingway, that the problem is not the book but my inexperience when it comes to reading fiction books.

So perhaps I need to read at least one of his masterpieces before I can judge any further. Because afterall, for every hater there’s a genuine lover of his literary prowess, so there must be something that I’m still missing.

Never in my life that my response to a mediocre book is to put another book by the same author in my reading list. But I guess that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

The big picture of the Renaissance Man

“Leonardo da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most brilliant people that have ever lived. He was a complex person, with a complex mind, who produced complex inventions, and lived in a complex time. So, fittingly this book needs 600 pages to dissect what this person is all about.

The author, Walter Isaacson, hugely base this biography from Leonardo’s legendary notebooks. Isaacson then travelled around the places that Leonardo visited, look up where he looked, eat what he ate, and breathe what he breathed, in order to step into his metaphorical shoes. Isaacson also read every available books, research materials, and, most unusually, the many dissertations on Leonardo. As a result, this massive book can paint the whole essence of this magnificent man’s life, up to a point that his complete life story will make Leonardo, the polymath, to make perfect sense.

The book gives the impression that Leonardo da Vinci is first and foremost a painter, which is what the majority (in which it feels like 60-70%) of the book is about, complete with all the pictures of the paintings and their enigmatic backstories. Everything else that he created or learned or experimented with, were seemingly done to fully understand the mechanism and nature of everything, so that he can paint them better. Everything such as studying the science of optics, light, sky, and soil, even studying the anatomy of human smile, which then perfected Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile in the painting.

Indeed, for the untrained eyes for art (such as myself), Leonardo’s paintings would look normal. Beautiful, but normal. But as the book shows the range of techniques that Leonardo use (and often invented) are nothing short of a genius. This is why Leonardo’s masterpieces are so highly regarded in the art community.

But of course, this is not only what Leonardo is all about, that would be oversimplifying it. In his quest of learning about the human anatomy, for example, he was among the first to fully discovered that the heart, and not the liver, to be the center of the blood system. His engineering experiments were also immensely fascinating, with him often credited for inventing as diverse as the parachute, portable bridges, the first prototype of helicopter, the diving suit, and the first machine gun, to name a few out of so many. And this is not to mention the many more unfinished projects and ideas that he simultaneously did on the side, as a testament to his incredible curiosity.

Moreover, perhaps most interestingly the book also addresses Leonardo’s personal life, to see the man behind the fame and glory. From being a child out of wedlock in the “golden age of bastards” in Florence, to the education that he received and the freedom away from formal schooling for legitimate children. It shows Leonardo’s difficult relationship with his father, his big family’s dynamics, the environmental context of where and when he lived – from the flourishing Florence under the rule of the Medici family, to Milan, Amboise, France, and of course Vinci at the very beginning – as well as the politics that he got involved with.

The book also shows the many great people who influenced him, and his many rivalries, including his bitter one with Michelangelo. And it shows the many human sides of him, such as how he earn money through patronage to live day by day, his homosexuality, the dark twisted sides of him, and also the inner demons that haunt him all his life.

All in all, while his genius is unparalleled, we can see throughout the book that his natural traits and the techniques that he has developed to create order out his chaos were, well, human. And most importantly they are all trainable, even for you and I. And that’s what Isaacson did, where at the very last chapter of the book he neatly analysed and elaborate on 20 of these traits, making it the concluding cherry on top of an already excellent cake.

How to live like the Swedes

“Lagom: Not Too Little, Not Too Much: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life” by Niki Brantmark

Sometimes, we can just tell how advanced a society is just by looking from their philosophy. And the clearer the philosophy is, the easier it is for the people to live it. This is what Lagom is for Sweden.

Lagom is a Swedish philosophy of moderation – not too much, not too little, just right – where it is embodied in pretty much every aspect of their lives. And Niki Brantmark has done an excellent work to fully describe it.

The book itself is a reflection of Lagom, where the contents are not too little, not too much, just right, and they are broken down into many little stand out headings, which makes it easier to read and comprehend. And while Lagom is the traditional philosophy for Sweden, we, the rest of the world, can too live with the minimalist and no-nonsense approach like the Swedes. This is why this book is very important and valuable.

The book covers everything imaginable about the Swedish culture. Things like minimalist interior design, on healing stress with nature, on the importance of sleep and pre-bed time rituals, cold shower, sauna, physical happiness, working environment and culture in Sweden, work-life balance, the clothes that we wear, and reasons to wake up early (Sweden is a nation of early risers).

It is also about developing a friendship with a Swede, being punctual, Swedish desserts and coffee, weddings (including preparations and the charming wedding games), parenting, how they educate their children, even how to battle climate change, reduce waste, and save the world’s resources by recycling everything from garbage to buy secondhand, from riding a bike to carpooling, and so much more.

I especially like their Lagom ideas on what we eat, which is in contrast with the current all-or-nothing diet fads. Yes the Swedes keep a balanced diet, they also try to stay healthy, but they still eat their cinnamon bun alongside their salad. You know, not too much, not too little. They also not restricting children from eating sweets, but of course only in moderation (and only on Saturdays).

And if you want to have equality between men and women, then provide the same facilities, support, and even equal maternity leave so that dads can share the parenting duties 50-50, while treating newborn babies equally from day 1 regardless of the gender. This is why Sweden is one of the most progressive countries in the world.

Moreover, it feels like living life with Lagom can put off so much pressure from us. Kids only learn things when they’re ready, there’s no need to keep up with the latest trends if it’s not convenient, and by all means work hard but when the clock strikes at 5 PM, go home and relax. It’s also about sharing the burden: A house party is a collective thing, where guests bring their own things, they each takes turn for the music and the entertainment. Even in a sleepover guests bring their own linen so it eases the burden on the host.

Therefore, by implementing Lagom we can be kinder and gentler to ourselves and our surroundings. And a society filled with Lagom is also a society that care about our well being and happiness, like a warm and caring grandmother looking out for the whole family. No wonder that Sweden is among the happiest nations on earth.

What’s life like in the world’s epicentrum for running

“Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth” by Adharanand Finn

If you want to learn how to play beautiful football, go to Brazil. If you want to see top level basketball games, go to the US. If you want to master table tennis, go to China. And if you want to learn about running from the best of the best? Go to Kenya.

This book reads like a running journal for the author Adharanand Finn – an editor at the Guardian and a freelance journalist writing for the Guardian, the Independent, and Runner’s World magazine – who is clearly obsessed with running. Like really obsessed, obsessed. Which makes it a thrilling read in the way he describes the races and the preparations that surround them.

And in this book Finn tells the story about when he went to live and train for 6 months in what considered as the Mecca for the sport of running: Iten, Kenya.

Now, I still can’t get pass the fact that Finn never clarify his full intention of going to Iten. That as far as the book tells us he is there, bringing along his wife and small kids, in a personal capacity and not to write a coverage for any media outlet. But in the end of the day this minor detail doesn’t really matter, because the story of his time at Iten are invaluable and refreshing, and we get to see what’s life looks like over there.

Charmingly, everyone he bump into in Iten seems to be a runner. And not just an ordinary one but the winner of this marathon, gold medalist in that olympics, the record breakers of this and that categories. Even that one instance when Finn mistakenly called the wrong number to reach out to a 2:04:00 marathoner, only to discover that the wrong person he called ran a 2:05:00 marathon.

In Iten, there are around 1000 full-time athletes in a town with a population of just 4000 people. The gathering places are full with athletes, not just Kenyan runners but also British, European, and other world class athletes. Moreover, seeing a pack of runners in the streets is a normal scene in Iten. And while there are many competing running clubs there, including one that Finn eventually created, every Thursday morning they all gather together and have a fartlek session. It’s such a nice environment to be in.

Ultimately, this book answers THE big question in the running world: What makes Kenyans different from the rest of the world? The most stand out thing I noticed about the depiction of Iten is the poverty. It is a humble place with humble means, where children have no other choice than to go to school by running miles away from their village, barefooted, in a high altitude (2400 meters / 7900 ft. above sea level), on a hilly landscape, as a normal daily activity.

While running barefooted force us to adjust our body to a proper form of running, which is analyzed extensively in the book, running long distance to school every day in a difficult altitude means these children built their aerobic capacity from such an early age, which, according to a coach in Iten, Renato Canova, “[t]o build your aerobic house, to have enough of an endurance base to run long distances, takes about ten years.” Hence, he then elaborates, “by the time a Kenyan is sixteen, he has built his house.”

Being a relatively under-developed place also plays an advantage to their success in this simplest and most common sport, where Kenyans live an incredibly active childhood by playing outdoors, eat a simple diet of ugali that is low fat but carbohydrate-rich (good fuel for running), have plenty of time to rest and recover (not much distractions), and have limited options of role models outside the successes of the athletics, which explains why running becomes the sole focus and dedication for plenty of aspiring youngsters. And while there are plenty of success stories coming out from Iten, these successful athletes mostly still live the same simple life afterwards to keep their edge, while those who succumbed to the lifestyle of the riches they quickly lost their edge.

Curiously, however, most Kenyan top runners come from 1 ethic group, the Kalenjin. They are a group of nine closely related tribes that inhabit the high-altitude Rift Valley region (where Iten is). The book took a great length at analyzing the many possibilities of why this is. But long story short, it has nothing to do with genes but instead their harsh environment and upbringing, specifically for the boys through the brutal adolescents ceremony, would make all other challenges look easy in comparison.

And thus, as it turns out there is no special superhuman genes or talent that are “blessed” upon the Kenyan runners. But instead, the incredible capabilities that they have are a result of years of training and development in a challenging environment, whether they were intentional or not. Everything is trainable, as they say, and I guess that is why there are so many foreign runners now resided in Iten, to emulate the training environment of the greats.

Furthermore, Finn has a certain eloquence in his style of writing, where all the names he write about in the book can come to life and warm our hearts. In fact, the more I read on the more that characters such as Brother Colm, Godfrey Kiprotich, Charlie Baker, Beatrice, Chris Cheboiboch, Mama Kibet, Anders, Shadrack, Philip, Tom Payn, David Barmasai, Japhet, and many more, have somehow become like a familiar old friend.

And a little google search shows that thanks to this book, a bunch of readers were moved to set up a GoFundMe campaign to pay for Japhet’s airfares for a number of races around Europe. And I felt a sense of friendly pride when discovering that 2 years after the events in the book he, Japhet Koech, eventually won the 2nd place at the Edinburgh Marathon in 2014.

All in all, this is not a book about running techniques, or tricks and tips, per se. But this is more of a story about life as a pro runner, about why and how the best people in the game are training and live their lives. And while this book have a relaxed but serious tone, every once in a while Finn jotted down stories that are simply out of this world. Like that one marathon race in Lewa Safari where runners run alongside zebras, and the organizer needs to use a helicopter to scare away lions and place a shooter, just in case, so that runners in the path of the race won’t get eaten.

How believing in the wrong mindset nearly destroyed me

“Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill

In the quest of reading my unread pile of books, last year I decided to include re-reading at least 1 book every year. And this year I thought to myself what better book to re-read than timeless classics? This is when I choose to re-read a business classic, Think and Grow Rich.

The last time I read this book I was fresh out of high school and was still very naive about the state of the world. And as an idealistic teenager with endless possibilities in front of me, I read the usual “gateway drug” to the cult of millionaire obsession: I read Robert T. Kiyosaki’s books. Which in turn recommended me to this book.

Right on cue with the millionaire obsession cult, in this book Napoleon Hill often mentions about the “secret” to becoming rich. That once we discover this secret, riches will come in abundance. In fact, according to this very book Henry Ford used one of the steps in the secret and bam! Millionaire! So, what is exactly the secret? Well, luckily for us Hill just happens to know them and willing to share with us.

Here’s the summary of it. There are 13 steps towards riches, with every step analysed and elaborated into a great length in the book:

1. You must have a burning desire 2. Absolute faith that you can reach your goal 3. The importance of self talk and self motivation 4. Have specialised knowledge 5. Imagination: don’t be afraid to dream about your success 6. Organized planning 7. Take big decisions 8. Be persistent 9. Surround yourself with people who share your vision 10. Transform sexual desire into a fuel to achieve your goal 11. The subconscious mind: master positivity and let go of negative emotions 12. Associate with smart people and learn from them 13. The sixth sense: listen to your gut feelings.

So, as you can see there’s nothing secret about the whole thing, it’s just some pointers within the usual checklist for success reframed into something mythical. Moreover, I didn’t recall that this book have so many unnecessary paragraphs, with old-school 1930s style of writing that fills its empty spaces with gibberish nonsense. Or worse, plenty of the cliche catchphrases in the book have since been overused so much in marketing gimmicks for get-rich-quick schemes (by the Robert T. Kiyosaki cult, naturally) that the significance of the actually good messages become diluted.

This comes as a shock for me, because I remember loving this book when I was a teenager and it became fundamental to the way I think and approach life in general. But in retrospect, this might not be a good thing after all. Now that I think of it the first step of BURNING DESIRE to get rich, for example, disabled me more than enabled me during my youth. I was so obsessed with the success RESULTS of the millionaires and daydreaming about it for myself (aka step 5) that for the longest of time I focused on the wrong things and not on what actually matters: the grounded PROCESS which made these millionaires rich.

Furthermore, letting go of negative emotions and just be happy-go-lucky positive all the time has contributed to my naive approach on risks. Taking big decisions are also reckless if they are uncalculated ones and just based on your [inexperienced] gut instinct (and I had my fair share of them). And also, being persistent but persistently wrong isn’t helping either, no matter how much I believed in myself. So, with all these catastrophes, it does makes me wonder whether the book taught me the wrong lessons or was it I who learned it the wrong way?

Because to be perfectly fair, organized planning did become my number 1 tool in tackling anything, it still is. Surrounding myself with smart people and learn a lot from them have become my default setting (whether directly or through books and podcasts). Meanwhile, having a specialised knowledge has brought me this far in life, a happier, more in control, and more fulfilled life from what I had imagined back then.

So I guess despite the now-cliche lessons, some key messages of the book remain solid today 84 years since publication, 2 decades since I first read it. 3 stars though, down from 5 at first reading, because in the end of the day I really cannot stand the abstract approach. Not once that the book mention about having the right ideas, in the right market, that solve the right problems, at the right timing, with the support of the right government regulations, receive the right funding, and working hard in the day to day process. You know, the non-magical path to success.

No, instead the examples in the book – from the story of US Declaration of Independence to the story of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – mostly have indirect lessons and have no practical know-how of actually getting rich. Heck, even the secret ingredient for Coca-Cola according to Napoleon Hill is IMAGINATION. And so, all we ended up having as the key to becoming rich is to think hard enough that we will eventually succeed, to visualize the money we intend to accumulate, that we have to dare to dream to become ridiculously rich, even write it down on a piece of paper how rich we want to be, and read it and imagine it every, goddamn, morning. It’s about faith and persistence and the law of attraction. And soon enough it will happen, it will strike like magic.

No wonder that a lot, but not all, of the readers of this book (and its derivatives) mostly become a get-rich-quick junkie, as I did back then, with the usual attitude that “I’m all equipped with the 13 secret steps, all I need now is just the idea” (yes Einstein, that’s the first thing to figure out in the road towards riches). You really are what you read.

In the end, it’s true what they say about reading the same book at different stages in your life, it can expose you to different sets of perspectives that you missed or wasn’t ready to learn the first time around. Or specifically for me, re-reading an old book serves as a review for some of the main principles I hold dearly when I was a teenager, principles that became the root-cause of my past mistakes, mistakes that at one point provide me with huge ambition but no clue to the concrete thing to do next and ended up leaving me stuck, jobless, and directionless for a year after graduated from university, before a certain Jim Rogers book completely altered my life (but that’s a re-reading review for another day).

A gripping account of one of the darkest days in Indonesia

In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the edge of chaos” by Richard Lloyd Parry

Indonesia in 1997-1999 was a country in a heavy turbulence. As the 32-year rule of dictator Suharto came to an end, rules of laws were collapsing, long-frozen conflicts that were suppressed under the chill of the dictatorship were re-emerging, and violence were triggered across the vast archipelago with many believed that the country was on a verge of break up like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

And during this dark period of time the author, Richard Lloyd Parry, travelled around the country as a foreign correspondent and obtains his story directly from the people who suffered from the chaotic mess, as well as experienced it directly himself. And right from the beginning it is immediately clear that Parry has a flair of writing in an exquisitely descriptive manner, which is key for painting the big picture.

First, his bone-chilling report on the Dayak-Madura conflict in West Kalimantan, where he witnessed first hand the level of violence so eerie it made the content of that Joshua Oppenheimer documentary “Jagal” arguably looks like child play. Parry’s coverage gives the feel of real tension like in the movie Hotel Rwanda about the genocide, but with an added twist of black magic, trance, cannibalism, and beast-style massacre. In fact there are many instances when I had to stop reading and gasp to myself holy crap what did I just read? One of them was a very tense point where Parry himself was just one bite away from almost forced to engage in cannibalism.

Second, as the effect of the economic crisis started to creep into society Parry found himself walking in the streets of Yogyakarta and Jakarta, covering the mass student protests against the crisis including the one in Trisakti that culminated in the shooting of the students by the police and triggered a massive riot the day after. Parry then continues with seemingly almost minute-by-minute account of the gripping sequences that eventually lead to the end of the 32 years of New Order.

And third, in the aftermath of the resignation of Suharto, Parry went deep into the jungle in East Timor to be embedded with the guerrilla fighters, and provides the story of the independence movement straight from the freedom fighters’ point of view.

In between the reporting Parry inserted vital backstories to provide us with the bigger context, such as the cultural dynamics in Kalimantan, the effects of the 1997 economic crisis as the mother of all triggers, Indonesia’s political map, an excellent short biography of Suharto (with plenty of fresh information that I, an Indonesian growing up during the dictatorship, had never heard of before), as well as background descriptions of the inner workings of the mystics in Java, complete with all the Javanese prophecies and the few stories of wayang which curiously came to be reflected in real life.

True to Indonesia’s nature, history is never clear and blurry at best. Even the account of what really happened in 1965 coup that gave rise to Suharto has never really been resolved even today in 2021. Yes, they say history is written by the victors, and thus it does makes one think that with the New Order’s dark truths still concealed, was the “regime change” in 1998 really occur or the same regime is still pretty much in control today only with different clothing since the resignation of Suharto?

Naturally, any historical analysis on Indonesia during this period of time are all asking the same questions. Was it really a regime change? Who gave the command to shoot the students? Was the riot and the looting and the rape orchestrated? Why Suharto never went to trial? This is where the book plays its enlightenment role, where Parry addresses these questions with commanding certainty and convincingly pointing to very solid arguments and even proofs. It’ll all make perfect sense once you read the book.

Another life’s cheat sheet from the master

“Mastery” by Robert Greene

According to Robert Greene, there are 48 laws of power and 33 strategies of war. But for mastery? There is just 1 proven formula. And it is so important that he dedicates one whole book to deeply analyse it.

It is the blueprint behind the amazing architecture design, the intricate coding behind the smooth interface, the battle tactics behind the war formation, the inner workings behind how mastery works.

It has so many actionable wisdom and insights that this is by far the slowest book that I read this year, as I keep on pausing to digest, reflect, or simply to take massive notes. Immensely impactful, I expect nothing less from a Robert Greene book.

Homo Deus Part Deux

“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is one of my top favourite books of all time, while Homo Deus was generally disappointing for me. Now Yuval Noah Harari’s 3rd book, 21 lessons for the 21st century, feels more like a summary from the previous 2 books, with the best frame of thoughts of Sapiens are filled with additional commentary and analysis for the prediction onto the future. Hence, in a way this book is like Harari’s 2nd attempt to complete the incomplete Homo Deus, or, dare I say it, with rhyming pun intended, Homo Deus part deux.

True to Harari’s style, in this book he takes some current affairs key ideas and scale them wide to the scope of global macro and everything in it. He then reframe them into 21 lessons in 21 chapters. Let’s jump straight into them shall we.

Lesson 1 evolve around the evolution of the 3 stories of fascism, communism, and liberalism, and how the world evolved from having all 3 in 1938, to 2 in 1968 (with fascism virtually disappeared), to only 1 in 1998 (with communism already collapsed), and zero in 2018 (when the book was written). It covers all the different countries adopting different political systems and all the geopolitics that come with it.

Lesson 2 is about work, specifically analysing the threat of work being replaced by AI. Lesson 3 dives deep into liberty, whether what we have today is pure or fabricated liberty, and what will happen with our liberty once AI takes over. It is also elaborates on the potential of AI which in truth is already embedded within our daily lives, such as in the smart watch we wear to track fitness, the algorithm in Netflix to cater the movie suggestion for us, the google search engine, etc (and fittingly, I’m reading this book on Kindle after buying the book thanks to Amazon recommendation).

Lesson 4 is what we should ideally have after liberty have been sorted out: equality, with one line in particular caught my eyes: “If we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, the key is to regulate the ownership of data.” Meanwhile lesson 5 is about global community, with special focus on facebook and its control over digital community that fits the AI narrative.

Lesson 6 is about the long road towards our modern civilisation, how society has evolved into a more homogenous global civilisation with the same consensus on the likes of medicine, form of money, even sports where Harari put a nice touch of fictitiously organising the 1016 Olympic games where countries weren’t countries yet and the various empires each had such big egos and complications. Harari then elaborates that “when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, remember that this seeming competition between nations actually represents an astonishing global agreement.”

Which brings us to lesson 7, nationalism. Again, old frame of thought that we’ve already learned in Sapiens but with additional commentaries, such as “huge systems cannot function without mass loyalties”, which sums it all about nationalism. The same goes with lesson 8 on religion, where Harari adds more examples into his old frame of thoughts, such as religious conflicts are seldom about theological differences but instead a class war or struggles about power and money. His take on the use of state religion to organise a country is also fascinating.

Lesson 9 is about the dilemma and complications of immigration. Lesson 10 is putting terrorism in a bigger context, where since 9/11 much less people are actually killed by terrorist attacks compared with diabetes, car accidents, and air pollution, but yet they provoke the most profound reactions among countries around the world. It also provides the cause and effects and the reasons for terror attacks, and most importantly how to properly face them.

Lesson 11 in war confirms the suspicion that when it comes to Israel, his home country, Harari is biased, where according to him native Palestinians are Muslim fanatics, the 1967 (illegal) war was successful, that Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance from conquering Damascus during the 2011 Arab Spring when he can easily captured the city was considered the greatest political move. But to be fair, later on in lesson 17 he is critical on the Zionist movement and Israel’s general propaganda on Palestine.

Lesson 12 is an interesting take about humility (or the lack thereof throughout history), especially interesting is his take on the formal Jewish education system that hugely explains why Jewish people stereotypically behave the way they behave. Lesson 13 is the vain attempt to describe God, lesson 14 is his attempt to include secularism in the vanity. Lesson 15 is about ignorance, while lesson 16 is his interesting take on justice, where the lines on the sand of justice in this vast and complicated global web are becoming blurrier than ever (where even the meat that we eat and the clothes that we wear can make us indirectly complicit to unethical and immoral injustice occurring halfway across the globe).

Lesson 17 is about the “post-truth world”, which is arguably one of the most relevant chapters for current time, which also happens to be the most eye opening chapter in the book for me. This line perhaps sums it up best, “if you want reliable information, pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product”, where Harari then elaborates “[y]our attention is first captured by sensational headlines, and then sold to advertisers or politicians.”

Lesson 18 is somewhat the extension of lesson 17, and it is everything about science fiction, where you might not realise it but the ideas that the people in Hollywood planted in our heads are more deeply embedded in our views of the world than we’d like to think. And this thinking transitioned smoothly into lesson 19, education, where “[h]umankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all our old stories are crumbling, and no new story has so far emerged to replace them.” So how better prepare for the future?

Nobody have the definitive answer but Harari provides an intriguing analysis and proposal for what modern education should be. With the essence can be found in this line, “[m]any pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs”—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. More broadly, they believe, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasize general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.”

In lesson 20 we circle back to meaning, to reflect and contemplate the underlying meaning behind every ideology, using vast examples from Bhagavad Gita to Lion King, Zionism, Communist Manifesto, Sikh’s turban, Easter Egg, diamond engagement ring, Ashura reenactment, to buying local but inferior pasta. Or in other words, according to Harari, finding meaning using what practically are fiction stories and the personal identity we build around them. As Hariri commented, “[o]nce personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of a story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, not because of the evidence supporting it, but because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. In history, the roof is sometimes more important than the foundations.”

The final lesson 21 is on meditation, in which Harari provides his own personal story and reflections on the practice. And the book then culminates in a Q&A session with what I assume is himself, addressing several key points that are unable to fit in any of the narratives in the 21 lessons.

All in all, this is a big book, with big ideas, big examples, and big enlightenment. There are definitely a lot of new things to pick up in this 3rd book, although there are also quite a lot of elaborations that went a little too long and can become repetitive after a while. It has genuine 5 stars qualities for some parts of the book but it also has 3 to 4 stars qualities for others. A solid 4.5 would probably give a fair rating, as it’s definitely not a flawless 5. So in the end it’s a 4 stars book for me in an only 5-level ratings system, although it probably doesn’t fully reflect the whole sentiment on the book.

What a fun way to look at medicine

“Let’s Play Doctor: The instant guide to walking, talking, and probing like a real M.D.” by Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg

If you want to become a doctor, then this is not the guide book to read. In fact, you should really go to a proper medical school and earn a medical license and stuff. If you want to read a book about medicine or life as a doctor, still, this is probably not the go-to book. But if you want to read about the funny side of medicine, now that’s what this book is for.

This is the 3rd book in the series after “Why Do Men Have Nipples?” and “Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?”. And this time around the authors, Mark Leyner and Dr. Billy Golberg, guide us through their own version of medical school from the beginning of the class until graduation (at the very last chapter).

In between, they teach us a lot of things. Some are very useful but shouldn’t really be implemented without, you know, a legal license, such as the do-it-yourself step by step guidance from rhinoplasty to tracheostomy, hemorrhoidectomy, tonsillectomy, appendectomy, to root canal, leg amputation, lung-heart transplant, liver transplant, even sex change operation, embalming, breast enlargement, and removing a brain tumor.

Some are applicable, such as the favourite food of geniuses from Mozart to Einstein, and the information/suggestion that “we tend to have orgasms with the right side of our brain. [So] start by reading a college algebra or trigonometry book while masturbating.” While others are information that I have absolutely no idea how to use, such as the presence of more than two testicles is called polyorchidism. Riiight.

But don’t think that this book is all jokes and can’t get serious. Because the book is also filled with Q&A sessions with questions from real doctors, horror stories of malpractices, and testimonials from Dr. Billy’s most embarrassing moments as a doctor. Ok fine, they’re all bizarre and hilarious.

Moreover, the book also covers what at first seem like unrelated matters with medicine, but you’ll be surprised. Matters such as the best magazines to be put in YOUR practice’s waiting room (it is after all a book that teaches you how to become a doctor), the fact that Mao never brushes his teeth and only gargle his mouth with tea, Aristotle Onassis upholstered the bar stool in his yacht with whale penis leather, and many stories like that one doctor who perform his own vasectomy (aided by his wife, which happens to be a nurse), and my favourite dude, that “employee of the month” guy who stapled his own scrotum after an accident and continued to work.

Anyway, curious about the magazine list they suggest for YOUR practice’s waiting room? Here’s a snippet of them: Bite Me (about vampires), Prison Living Magazine (about, well, prison living), and D-cup (take a wild guess). And their mini explanation about why the magazines should be there, are just pure gold.