Words That Shaped Me
2017 — A Year in Books
I believe the best way to learn is to teach. 2017 was likely the year I’ve learned the most in my life, and in order to cement that learning, I’d like to share some of the wisdom I gained this year by exploring some of the best books I read.
In 2017 I read 42 books (full list here). This was short of my goal of 52 books, but still far more than I’ve read in probably the last 5+ years combined. While I’m proud of myself, I still don’t find it that impressive particularly because two years ago one of my best friends read 120 books in a year. I know this because I helped him move, and he used these giant stacks of memoirs and economic textbooks as nightstands and end tables in his apartment because he had so many. It was insane.
Which brings me to my first lesson — if you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room. Surround yourself with people who are smarter, work harder, or are better learners than you. Even without you consciously being aware, you’ll start to improve yourself because humans are wired to blend into the groups we choose. It’s evolutionary biology in action and explains why we all care so much about Facebook likes or Instagram comments. Anyway, onto the most interesting things I’ve learned this year. I’ve listed the general themes that emerged across the books I read this year, and the titles from which they emerged.
Wealth is a result of knowledge, not money. “Learning” is like your income, and “knowledge” is like your savings account.
Everything (well nearly everything) you learned in economics is flat out wrong. Starting with the pretense that the economy is this fixed thing that can be mapped through regression analysis and by understanding the rational decisions of all players in the market.
The economy works more like a biological system, using evolution to explore the fitness landscape and create emergent properties to provide for the needs of everyone. The simple three step formula of differentiate, select, and amplify is used to determine which business models will survive. Wealth is merely a scorecard — a byproduct of the process of knowledge accumulation as new business models emerge to fulfill our needs. Just as the fittest genes which accommodate our needs survive and replicate, so too do the business models which do the same.
Origins of Wealth is an incredibly detailed, comprehensive, and systematic explanation of the fact that wealth is derived from knowledge, but it can also be proven logically as Buckminster Fuller detailed in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth with the following. Let’s say you and Bill Gates are on the Titanic. The ship starts sinking (spoiler alert) and like Jack and Rose, you and Bill Gates are in the freezing cold water. There is only room for you on a piece of driftwood, and thus Bill Gates like Jack is on the brink of death floating in the water. He offers you every single dollar in his bank accounts, every Microsoft share he owns, and every other asset in his name in exchange for your place on that “lifeboat”. What is you answer?
Of course you say no to him as choosing otherwise would make you one of the wealthiest people in the world, but only for minutes before you die. Thus wealth cannot merely be material, because there are things you would not trade for it. Now let’s say you (aka Rose) are some super-genius who has developed the knowledge to create a structure that floats using nothing but some strands from your clothes and water. In that scenario, Bill Gates would gladly trade every ounce of his monetary wealth for your knowledge. Thus knowledge is more valuable than material wealth, and in fact is where wealth derives from. You can trade knowledge for wealth.
What’s important to understand about this is that individually you can never be poor, and as a society we can only get smarter and wealthier. Individually as a healthy person — i.e. excluding dementia, amnesia, etc. — you cannot suddenly forget everything you’ve ever learned. Think of “learning” like your income, and “knowledge” as your savings account. Barring disease or death, there is no way you can “spend” this (i.e. deduct from your savings). Thus, you can only become smarter and grow wealthier the more you learn.
Collectively, we stand on the shoulders of all the scientists, mathematicians, inventors, philosophers, and every other human who has gone before us. Together we are smarter, and now that information is able to be distributed more easily, our ability to gain more knowledge can only accelerate. This was an incredibly encouraging and inspiring revelation for me this year.
Understanding consciousness is the best tool for understanding how the world (and you) works
The number one thing I hope to do in my 20’s is try to understand the way the world works — not understanding economic models or government philosophies — but how the world actually works. Nothing has helped me do this more than understanding Spiral Dynamics and levels of consciousness.
A Brief History of Everything was the first metaphysics book I had ever read. Quite simply, Ken Wilber has made the world simpler for me. Wilber’s framework has helped me understand everything from the Trump election, to the Charlottesville protests, to dinner conversations at Thanksgiving with random relatives.
I urge you to read these books or Wilber’s summary of Spiral Dynamics, but I’ll try to do the impossible and briefly summarize it here. Individually and as a society, we are all at different levels of consciousness. Everyone starts at zero (beige) when we’re born, and we climb throughout our lives. Some people — Jesus, Buddah, your favorite Tibetan monk — climb to the highest levels of consciousness (turquoise) although this is very rare (~0.1% of the population). Society has done the same throughout history. The following examples will hopefully clarify what I mean.
Individually — every baby is born thinking they are the center of the universe. They literally cannot understand a concept other than self. They survive on instincts and cling to their mothers for nourishment and nurture. As they grow, they start to understand that the world is greater than just themselves.
If you sit across from a 5 year-old and hold up a book that is orange on the front and blue on the back cover and ask them “What color is this book to you?” They will respond, “orange.” If you then ask, “What color is this book to me?” They will respond, “orange.” They cannot imagine the world through another’s eyes yet.
Now ask the same questions at age 7 and the responses are typically correctly “orange” and “blue.” This is an evolution in consciousness and continues as we age and develop. The spiral climbs as people begin to care for their local communities, the global community, the biosphere, and all the way up until God-like consciousness.
Societally — The same concepts can be described at a societal level as well. The following chain should help demonstrate how we’ve developed our collective consciousness.
If you grew up in an an Agrarian Society (~10,000BC), magical powers commanded the earth. “The rain god will provide” but hopefully “the sky god will not punish us with lightning”. In Ancient Greece/Rome (~800BC), God’s had magical powers, but democracy, republics, and forms of government besides God-kings began to emerge.
If you lived in the Dark Ages (~500AD), feudal kings rule and serfdom (aka slavery) existed, but eventually the Magna Carta is signed and their power began to be checked. During The Renaissance/Enlightenment (~1400-1800AD), we began to see the world through not only a religious, but a scientific view. The Rights of Man and the Declaration of Independence implied that men have inalienable rights that kings or rulers cannot take from them.
In the 1880’s the United States fought a Civil War to end slavery. In the 20th Century alone we’ve given women the right to vote, the civil rights movement recognized that regardless of color or creed, we should treat each other equally. In the 21st century, we’ve extended this to sexuality by allowing gay people to get married. These should seem self-explanatory regarding increasing consciousness and can be mapped to colors in Spiral Dynamics.
A good heuristic to if you’re gaining in consciousness is how often you’ve reassessed your core beliefs. No book(s) have shaped my view of the world or my core values more deeply than Conversations With God did this year. What I learned most is that everyone is right given their view of the world. Let me repeat — everyone is right given their view of the world. The 5 year old with the orange/blue book is technically wrong because they said my side of the book was orange, but they cannot help this at their stage of development. It’s not important that everyone achieves God-like consciousness, but that at any position up the spiral in consciousness, people are acting in accordance with the greatest vision of the grandest version of themselves. This is what we should aspire to as a society.
To me there is no difference between the gang-banger in Chicago and the ISIS jihadist in Mosul. Fundamentally, they are (mainly) male youths who feel they’ve been shunned by society, have limited options for making something of themselves, and thus channel their anger towards destructive causes which they think will bring them money, power, glory, and/or salvation. Immediately condemning them and trying to destroy or incarcerate them is not nearly as effective as understanding how their worldview was shaped and fixing the structural issues that caused them to get to this point in the first place. I’m absolutely not condoning their behavior, but these books have merely helped me be more empathetic to everyone’s view of the world.
While there are fundamental truths about consciousness, what I love most about reading on this topic — literally 0% chance two years ago I would’ve ever thought I’d be in the metaphysics section of a bookstore — is that you can take only what works for you. Even if you get one tiny thing that improves your mindset or worldview and think the rest is garbage, that’s still net positive. In 2017 I gained a treasure trove of insights from reading about consciousness.
Micro decisions create tremendously powerful (and sometimes scary) macro effects. Incentives are powerful and people do things without even really knowing why they’re doing them or the effects their decisions have.
Emergence is the idea that small systems that interact create larger systems with entirely new properties. Through emergence, 1+1 can equal 3. The books listed above, while not explicitly about this concept, touched on some of the powerful effects of emergence. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and “One man can change the world” can be true in both the positive and negative senses. Let me explain.
Sugarscape was not only the most fascinating thing I read in Origins of Wealth, but arguably the most fascinating thing I read this year — or ever. Two researchers created an artificial economy through a computer simulation where agents were given nothing more than a need to consume sugar in order to survive. The agents were randomly placed on a grid within the computer simulation, along with random amounts of “sugar” within the grid. What emerges when the simulation was run is a society with wealth gaps like we have in our economy, evolved markets, boom-bust cycles, investment banks, and many of other fascinating emergent properties — all from only a couple of simple inputs. Seriously, clink this link and read it for yourself.
Coup d’Etat explicitly states that it’s not a book on political theory, but rather a practical handbook on how to initiate a coup. Apparently, annotated copies have even been found on the desks of dictators who’ve overthrown governments, in case you were wondering if this was true.
What’s scary/fascinating about the book is, given the right conditions, how relatively few people you need to nullify in order to take control of a government. Most of a government is made up of mid-level bureaucrats who care only about getting their paycheck, feeding their families, and improving their career, regardless of who is in the ultimate seat of power.
As a result, Luttwak states that you really need to only nullify or persuade the handful of top officials in a government. Everyone else in their department will simply follow instructions given to them by their boss so that they don’t lose their jobs. They are completely agnostic to who is in power or what they stand for. As a result everyone down the chain of command who could be capable of stopping a coup traditionally falls in line with whatever the cabinet member in charge of their department states. Thus if you are an aspiring dictator, you simply need to gain some key allies and/or swiftly replace the officials only at the absolute top of government to control the vast majority of the bureaucratic machine that effectively runs a nation. Crazy.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander discusses the plight of African American males in the U.S. and their mass incarceration. I like to believe people are good and consciously there is only a small minority of overtly racist people in America. Maybe that’s naive, but also maybe availability bias from the airtime Donald Trump and the Charlottesville protests have gotten makes it seem like there are more of these people than there actually are. Hopefully I’m right.
Subconsciously though, statistics tell a different story from whatever I believe about conscious racism. The U.S. incarcerates far more people than any other civilized country, and the overwhelmingly majority of these people are African-American males arrested for drug related charges. This is despite the fact that drug usage amongst whites and blacks are virtually equal, with whites actually using slightly more than blacks on average in some cases.
Why is this? Alexander masterfully traces a lineage of individual decisions and issues from the slave trade to Reagan’s war on drugs, which have created a judicial machine which incentivizes incarcerating people and making it extremely hard for them to 1) change the system or 2) become productive members of society after incarceration. Local police departments are incentivized to arrest people in order to receive more funding for equipment— use it or lose it essentially — and prosecutors are incentivized to obtain guilty pleas. What emerges is a system which is deeply lopsided against minority males.
The book was truly eye-opening and even a little uncomfortable as a white-male. Thus, why I highly recommend it to everyone. However, the most remarkable thing is the emergence of this giant incarceration machine which is the result of a thousand individual laws passed, court rulings enforced, and individual decisions to arrest people.
It’s been an incredible year for learning in 2017. I’ve stopped watching and reading news, watched far less TV, and have never been happier and smarter. Some of most profound values and beliefs about the world have been replaced with concepts that make me view the world in a radically different way. That’s a scary thing to be honest, but I’ve never been happier or mentally healthier than I am now as a result. The best part is intellectual capital, like financial capital compounds, so the more I read the more profound the effects and the easier it gets. My goal next year is 26 books — fewer, but each hopefully more packed with insight. Here’s to an even better and more fruitful 2018.
Other random tidbits of knowledge.
Associated books: Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? — Graham Allison; Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel — Tom Wainwright
- Between 2011–2013, China both produced and used more cement than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century.
- In 2011, a Chinese construction firm built a 30-story skyscraper in just 15 days. In 2014, another firm built a 57-story skyscraper in just 19 days.
- China built the equivalent of Europe’s entire housing stock in just 15 years.
- Between 1980 and 2001, China lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty.
- China is now adding a new billionaire every week, and now has more billionaires than the U.S.
- The amount of coco plant required to make 1 kilo of cocaine costs ~$800 and costs ~$120,000 by the time it is sold on the street. That’s a 30,000% markup.
- The ratio between an effective dose of a drug (i.e. amount to get you high) to the amount that would kill you is as follows: Alcohol — 10:1 e.g. if 2 shots gets you drunk, 20 might kill you; Cocaine — 15:1; LSD — 1000:1; Marijuana — Infinity. No one is known to have died of a marijuana overdose before.
- Approximately two-thirds of heroine addicts started by using prescription painkillers.
- In the 1960’s — more than 80% of heroine addicts were men. Now slightly more than 50% are women.
- In 1970 — less than 50% of heroine users were white. Now ~90% of users are white.