My top 5 books of 2019

In 2019, one of my goals was to read 52 books – one for every week. Thankfully, I had many friends with great tastes in short books, so I powered through the year with no problems.

Now that I’m done, here are my top 5 books of 2019:

Educated, by Tara Westover

Tara Westover grew up with a family who didn’t trust hospitals, schools, and the government, and because of this the book contains anecdotes of physical and emotional trauma to a degree that was foreign to me (and I think, most people). Tracing her journey as she pursued an education – a goal violently incongruous with the world she was born into – made me grateful for the privileges I was born with, and inspired me to continue making the most of them.

Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou

I think my experience with this book can be summarized by the fact that I finished it after reading non-stop over a weekend. I left academia to pursue a career in tech because I believe that, while far from perfect, the fact that a bottom line exists, financially, means that the truth will always prevail – stuff either works or it doesn’t. The debacle that happened at Theranos is shocking in it’s depravity but ultimately, evidence that one can’t fool all of the people, all of the time.

High School, by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin

In one of their interviews promoting the book, Tegan and Sara said that they wrote this memoir with the hope that there would be something that everyone would be able to grab on to. They definitely succeeded with me, with their writing giving me nostalgic flashbacks of growing up in the nineties. More importantly, however, High School made me reflect on the person I am today, and how we’re never done with “growing up”. Reading about the lives that Tegan and Sara were living back then, then watching interviews they gave just five years ago, before comparing those images with the kind of women they are today, I get the feeling that nobody really “blooms” – we’re always “blooming”.

Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda

I bought this book for three interns this year. On the surface, it’s the story of how the first touch-screen keyboard was designed, and details the challenges and failures along the way. As someone who grew up in lockstep with the development of the mobile phone, learning about all of this made me feel like my phone had more of a “soul”; that it represented the culmination of a thousand of people’s little hopes and dreams, rather than just an amalgamation of silicon, metal, glass, and plastic that I chuck around and stare at too much. There’s a deeper take to be had, though, and I think Creative Selection provides a really good account of what creating something, anything, should feel like. Instead of the belief that I think many of us have internalized, that creativity is the seamless transition from brain to hand, Creative Selection captures what creation is really like – lots of “better’s good”.

Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino

Unsettling, chilling, captivating and distressingly romantic at the same time. I went into this book blind on a friend’s recommendation, and I recommend you do the same. I do, also, however, recommend that you not read this on public transport like I did. There’s a emotion that I’ve so far only felt from some Japanese books, movies, video games, and animation, and it’s a cloying feeling that implores you to accept the strange or macabre, almost fatalistically, as if starring at an impending train wreck were completely normal, which of course it is. Under the Midnight Sun is such a book, and I found myself fully willing to suspend my disbelief to immerse myself in its slow-burn, dissociative nightmare.

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

To be honest, I’m generally not a huge fan of the “book of someone’s advice” genre. What usually happens is that someone writes about their life story while coming up with some “supporting evidence” entirely post-hoc, before selling it to you, having lacked the decency to at least make it a paperback so it can fit easily in the trash once you’re done with it. However convincing their anecdotes are, what I usually look for is not just how they succeeded, but also what happened to everyone else who followed their advice. Put differently, If I also had to read the books of all the people who have taken so-and-so’s advice to “think big” or “follow your dreams” and didn’t end up rich or famous, how would I feel about that advice?

I think “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is different for three reasons: (a) the stakes are on a different level, (b) Chris Hadfield is the right kind of person to take random advice from, and (c) the advice itself is boringly plausible.

It’s really easy to come up with principles when all you’re risking is the potential to lose a lot of money and fall from the lofty heights of being a billionaire to only having hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s another thing altogether when you’re about to crawl into a space ship that just might crash and burn, scattering your ashes across the earth. And you’d definitely have to believe in your principles when you’ve watched other space ships do just that, as was the case with the Challenger and Columbia disasters. “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is different from other “self-help” books because astronauts like Hadfield are trying to stay alive, and not to “help you get rich” (for $9.99 a month, usually).

I’ve listened to Chris Hadfield share the pride he has in the dock he built with his neighbor, tuned in as he gave impromptu commentary about a NASA launch from a hotel room, and watched him answering student questions in a tiny classroom in Greenland. It seems that very little of his time is spent seeking attention or approval. Rather, he seems to live a purposeful life based on doing things that he finds satisfying, which is a rare gift. With most people who write “books of advice”, I find myself questioning whether I’d want their life. After all, that’s the advice they’re giving – how to be like them. The list of people whose lives I’d like to emulate is very short, but Chris Hadfield is on that list.

Finally, the reason I put stock in the wisdom found in “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is because very little of it is radical. Hadfield offers no “hacks”. Instead, through his anecdotes and recollections, he describes a rational process of how to set goals, overcome adversity and ultimately, find some measure of success. Although his experiences are surreal, the thoughts and actions that guide him throughout his journey are almost mundane: There are no temper tantrums, very little yelling, lots of discipline and plenty of sacrifice. They’re precisely the type of things that most of us don’t want to hear: That it’s just that hard.

Ultimately, I’m most inspired by the assiduousness shown in his account. While many of the memoirs I’ve read feel almost trans-human (“Here’s all the extraordinary things I did to succeed”), “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” made me think: “Oh, I guess that’s just what happens when you work really hard for something, and get a little lucky, too.” The book feels intellectually honest, because it tells a story that is necessarily true: Even though not all of us can be astronauts because not all of us will be lucky enough to be born with the right bodies, or in the right countries, and so on all of us can live a life worth living. Coming back to my original analogy: I would want to read the books of all the people who took Chris Hadfield’s advice but didn’t end up rich and famous, because I think they’d be just as interesting.

Book Review: Disrupted

I’m super late to the party, but after a year in the tech world, it’s time for me to review one of my favorite books: Dan Lyon’s Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-up Bubble.

By way of a summary, here are the top three things I liked about the book:

  1. It’s funny. Dan Lyons is a better writer than I will ever be, and his anecdotes and metaphors are hilarious. My personal favorite lines in the book are the ones where he comments on how phallic Hubspot’s logo is.
  2. It’s revealing. Because of the circumstances surrounding his hiring, Lyons is privy to a lot of what seems like “dirty laundry”. Although the accounts are shared from his perspective and dramatized to be more entertaining, you get the sense that someone, somewhere does feel that way about this kind of stuff that happens behind closed doors. Without giving away any spoilers, the conclusion to the book is also a doozy.
  3. It’s deep. Despite its often whimsical tone, I believe that Disrupted asks important questions about why we work and the way we work, in tech, but also generally. For example, there is a powerful anecdote about a senior leader who wants to create a company that people love working at by way of a “culture code”, but really ends up creating a company that he loves, and strives to convince others that they love working there too.

The book opens with a chapter titled Beach White Male, and details the circumstances around Lyons’s firing from Newsweek. Immediately, you get a sense of Lyons’s ability to dramatize. The narrative, while riveting, is essentially a story about what some guy is thinking as he gets fired and has to pick up the pieces.

Lyons eventually gets hired at a software company called Hubspot, and reading his subsequent account of his time at the company feels sort of like you’re a fly on the wall next to the office water cooler. Disrupted is abound with office drama and “Did that really happen?” moments. However, because Lyons has such a lively (and often sarcastic) writing style, it can get hard to get a sense of what really happened, and the book as a whole has an intentional (I’m assuming) “gossipy” feel.

Despite the cattiness of some of the writing, Lyons raises important points about the future of work, as well as the problems of the present. For me, the most insightful theme was about how large companies often use euphemisms, rituals and precedence to mask unpleasantness, such as an unrewarding task or a difficult conversation or evaluation. Lyons’s description of HEART and VORP, for example, makes one wonder whether the values of a company, consisting of thousands of unique individuals, should really be distilled into a five letter acronym.

In summary, I highly recommend Disrupted, especially if you work in the tech industry. Whether you’re just starting out a career, or someone in power, it might be a welcome long, hard look in the mirror.