Science, Psychology, Poetry, Business: My Favorite Reads in 2016

Inspired by friend Leila Janah’s annual list of best books, I decided to put together one of my own. Below is a list of books, some of which are my all-time favorites, that stood out so much for me in 2016 that I wanted to share them with you.

The personal library of retired John Hopkins University Humanities professor Richard A. Macksey, housed in his home in Maryland, USA.

You’re Surely Joking, Mr. Feynman (Autobiography)

by Richard Feynman. A thrilling autobiography of the man who seems to be one of the most interesting in the world: a genius physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, trading ideas with Einstein, cracking safeguards holding atomic secrets, playing drums in Brazil.

“Since then I never pay attention to anything by ‘experts.’ I calculate everything myself.”
— Richard Feynman

Creativity, Inc. (Business)

by Ed Catmull. How do you build a culture of originality and creativity in a business — when such company is an entertainment behemoth with over 1200 employees? Ed Catmul, president of Pixar, does a masterful job in detailing how.

“Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better (…) If you don’t strive to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”
Ed Catmull

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (Biography)

by Michael Lewis. In 2004, Michael Lewis wrote the best-seller Moneyball, detailing the story of how the low-budget Oakland Athletics defied the odds challenged baseball giants through statistics and data. Little did he know then that the ideas behind the construct of the book, and much of the winning system used by the Oakland Athletics, was built on the ideas of two geniuses on their own right, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The Undoing Project talks about their fruitful friendship and work, which gave rise some of the greatest theories about decision-making in the twentieth century.

“We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible, because we are unable to imagine any chain of events that could cause it to occur. The defect, often, is in our imagination.”
— Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

The Four Quartets (Poetry)

by T.S. Eliot. One of my favorite poets, Eliot is often times impenetrable, with so much intellectual and philosophical density. But once you get him, his poetry speaks to your soul.

“Time present and time past
 Are both perhaps present in time future
 And time future contained in time past.”
“We shall not cease from exploration
 And the end of all our exploring
 Will be to arrive where we started
 And know the place for the first time.”
T. S. Eliot

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Fiction)

by Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a literary masterpiece. The writing is complex, with a deep web of relationships, character development, and plot. But much like with Eliot, once you are past those initial hurdles, you are in for one of the most beautiful works of literature. It is as if first you go through the jungle — cutting down wood, being bitten by mosquitoes, and running from snakes — only to, after exhaustion, find a gorgeous well that gives you rest and nourishment. One of the best books ever written.

“And both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love…” (…) “He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.” (…) ‘Things have a life of their own,’ the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. ‘It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.’” (…) “It’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment.”
— Gabriel García Márquez

The Secret of Our Success (Science)

by Joseph Henrich. By proposing that the secret to our success lies in our collective brains as opposed to some innate, individual and enterprising ability to thrive, Henrich, a Harvard Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, challenges commonly-held assumptions related to our success as a species. The reading is long, but worth every page.

“Evolutionary models, which are built to mathematically capture the logic of natural selection, predict that learners ought to use what’s called conformist transmission to tackle a variety of learning problems. As long as individual learning, institutions, direct experience, and other cultural learning mechanisms tend to produce adaptive practices, beliefs, and motivations, then conformist transmission can help leaners aggregate the information that is distributed across a group.”
— Joseph Henrich

Originals (Business)

by Adam Grant. Originals shows you how to confront conformity. Trailblazers, made, not born, have a series of prominent characteristics in common — which are made explicit in the book. A brilliant social scientist, Grant shows the steps you can take in order to unleash and sustain originality.

“Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit. If you’re risk averse and have some doubts about the feasibility of your ideas, it’s likely that your business will be built to last. If you’re a freewheeling gambler, your startup is far more fragile. Like the Warby Parker crew, the entrepreneurs whose companies topped Fast Company’s recent most innovative lists typically stayed in their day jobs even after they launched. Former track star Phil Knight started selling running shoes out of the trunk of his car in 1964, yet kept working as an accountant until 1969. After inventing the original Apple I computer, Steve Wozniak started the company with Steve Jobs in 1976 but continued working full time in his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard until 1977.”
— Adam Grant

Presence (Psychology)

by Amy Cuddy. We have all felt the malignant tentacles of Impostor’s Syndrome many times in our lives. Cuddy, a Professor at Harvard Business School, shows us how to access our personal power by harnessing the power of presence. The book, filled with personal anecdotes, psychology and organizational behavior research, is a potentially life-changing narrative.

“Our search for presence isn’t about finding charisma or extraversion or carefully managing the impression we’re making on other people. It’s about the honest, powerful connection that we create internally, with ourselves.” (…) “A confident person — knowing and believing in her identity — carries tools, not weapons.”
— Amy Cuddy

Stumbling on Happiness (Psychology)

by Daniel Gilbert. I had the great honor of working as a Research Assistant in the laboratory of Professor Gilbert while I was in graduate school. This book is a gem. “Gilbert explains why we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become.”

“Our brain accepts what the eyes see and our eye looks for whatever our brain wants.”
— Daniel Gilbert

The War of Art (Advice)

by Steven Pressfield. The War of Art is short, 160 pages, with one to five-page long chapters that make it for a wonderfully engaging read. The book does exactly what the subtitle says it does — it helps you break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles. Pressfield teaches your how to tame what he calls The Resistance, or those invisible forces within that tell you that we cannot write. If you are looking to unleash the creative genius within, this is the book to read.

“Did you ever see Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’s film about angels among us? (City of Angels with Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage was the American version.) I believe it. I believe there are angels. They’re here, but we can’t see them.
“Angels work for God. It’s their job to help us. Wake us up. Bump us along.
“Angels are agents of evolution. The Kabbalah describes angels as bundles of light, meaning intelligence, consciousness. Kabbalists believe that above every blade of grass is an angel crying ‘Grow! Grow!’ I’ll go further. I believe that above the entire human race is one super-angel, crying ‘Evolve! Evolve!’
“Angels are like muses. They know stuff we don’t. They want to help us. They’re on the other side of a pane of glass, shouting to get our attention. But we can’t hear them. We’re too distracted by our own nonsense.
“Ah, but when we begin.
“When we make a start.
“When we conceive an enterprise and commit to it in the face of our fears, something wonderful happens. A crack appears in the membrane. Like the first craze when a chick pecks at the inside of its shell. Angel midwives congregate around us; they assist as we give birth to ourselves, to that person we were born to be, to the one whose destiny was encoded in our soul, our daimon, our genius.
“When we make a beginning, we get out of our own way and allow the angels to come in and do their job. They can speak to us now and it makes them happy. It makes God happy. Eternity, as Blake might have told us, has opened a portal into time.
“And we’re it.”
— Steven Pressfield