Book Recommendations – Volume XII

“However, while staying outdoors will become less and less pleasurable, this is definitely the time of the year to dive into your reading and to get back into the swing of things when it comes to reading good books.”

The end of the Summer is always a bittersweet one. With mixed feelings, August turns to September, fall season will soon be upon us and the daylight will become shorter while the cold weather is drawing near. However, while staying outdoors will become less and less pleasurable, this is definitely the time of the year to dive into your reading and to get back into the swing of things when it comes to reading good books. Colder weather, shorter days, and back to work / school will cause our minds to re-focus our attentions on the tasks at hand in our lives but we should not forget at night or on the weekends to kick back, relax, and enjoy a good book.

These four books that I’ve chosen are all non-fiction, but they tackle different subjects and are relevant to different academic or personal interests such as history, sociology, travel, or entrepreneurship. Each author brings something different to the table as well and the writing style is different along with the kind of narration you can expect. I can definitively say that each of these books is educational and you would not go wrong with reading any of the following books in the upcoming Fall season.

  1. The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat

New York Times op-ed writer and author Ross Douthat is not optimistic about the future. Given that the present involves polarization, stalemates, and a lack of technological innovation, what does humanity have to look forward to? That is the main argument of Douthat’s book ‘The Decadent Society’ on how we may have reached the limits of our own ‘progress’ and that modernity is less fulfilling than we thought it would be. Douthat’s view is that our current culture, innovations, and motivations like originality and that we have become too complacent as a society.

Douthat cites falling birth rates, more reliance on video games / virtual reality, lack of new businesses being started along with increasing government dysfunction leading us all to be ‘comfortably numb’ as the famous Pink Floyd song goes. Douthat’s diagnosis of our current cultural and political malaise is quite convincing from citing Star Wars remakes to the fact that the Trump and Clinton families have stayed relevant for decades in politics with a lack of a fresh face to get us out of our national ennui.

While our ‘modernity’ has left us more comfortable than satisfied, Douthat struggles to mention ways that we can get out of the malaise or the needed policy or cultural changes that should take place to push our horizons more and our boundaries as a society. This was my one main gripe with the book as in the 2nd half or towards the end, a little optimism or forward-thinking would have gone over well but perhaps that was done on purpose. Douthat is not optimistic that much will change in the future and that perhaps it is best to accept our current ‘decadence’ as being set in stone or perhaps to prepare for a fall from grace that would shake more of us out of our slumber. I hope either scenario is not the case. ‘Decadence’ in my perspective gets boring after a while and human beings are creative and innovative at our core so hopefully our current malaise is not permanent as Douthat argues but rather a temporary blip on human history.

2. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

Perhaps the great ‘irony’ of our age will be that a President or a Senator won’t be the one to lead us out of our current decadence. Perhaps it will instead be a foreign-born entrepreneur who rose from nothing to build multiple successful ventures that could transform the way we transport ourselves and how we interact with the cosmos. Entrepreneur Elon Musk may be the one to help lead us out of decadence and he seems to be on the way to making a dent in the wall that prevents us from creating the future. As many people don’t realize, Mr. Musk did not have an easy childhood, moved around multiple times, and even was a mediocre student at times but what he has that all entrepreneurs need is grit, resolve, and determination. To create something out of nothing and build your vision to make it a reality is where Elon has succeeded where many others have failed.

Musk clearly did not do it on his own whether it was Zip2, PayPal, or SolarCity but he was able to create a team and even companies to carry out his lofty vision. His tolerance for risk as an entrepreneur both financially and personally is simply beyond most people’s comprehension. Elon Musk is an entrepreneur so dedicated to making his companies a success that he will pour millions of dollars from a previous venture into his next one to ensure its longevity. Elon is currently the third richest person in the world and this autobiography gives rare insight into what it took for Musk to get to this point today with more than two decades of setbacks, failures, and even a few lawsuits here and there to overcome.

Ashlee Vance does an excellent job highlighting who Musk is as a person, what drives him, how his childhood and family affected him, who were the people around him, how could Tesla and SpaceX change life in the future and how big of an impact could they really have. Vance is illustrative in showing the whole of Elon Musk, both the good and bad, of the visionary entrepreneur. While he disdains any notion of socialism in government policy, he has received millions in government subsidies to help his businesses; His commitment to succeed can sometimes cause him to fall out with others who feel they were not treated well or were not given the recognition that they thought they deserved. A good biography shows both the triumphs and the warts of a man and this one is no different. Overall, this biography is an excellent look into the man behind both Tesla and SpaceX who continues on his quest to change the world by molding its future.

3. The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haass

This book is a love letter to International Relations in 2020 (pre-COVID) by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass. For those new to this field, it is a very enlightening and comprehensive book to ground someone especially in high school or their 1st year in college to know about the basics of the world in terms of foreign affairs and what are some of the main challenges of the 21st century for nation-states. While primarily a guide to the world for those new to international relations, I found that it is a good refresher for more advanced or experienced students of international affairs.

I enjoyed the historical overview, the breakdown of the regions in a succinct manner, and the number of economic, security, and development challenges that the world is grappling with at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Richard Haass would definitely be an excellent professor to have in your Introduction to International Relations / International Relations Theories and this book would be a good starter text to have.

Clocking in at around 400 pages total, no major detail is spared, and no region of the world is left uncovered. If you are not familiar with an issue in IR or a region where you don’t know the culture or the language, Haass’s book is a good way to familiarize yourself and to stay up to date with what is going on regionally or thematically. For those of you in high school interested in the world and geopolitics, this book is a good place to start. For those of you starting college and planning to major in international relations, it is likely you will be reading this book not before too long.

4. Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes

Home is whatever place you can find yourself comfortable in over a long enough period of time. I remember reading this piece of wisdom in Matthew Kepnes’s book and finding it to be quite the piece of truth. As a fellow traveler and shorter-term ‘nomad’ myself, Matthew’s travel memoir appealed to me because of its raw honesty and vulnerability. Life at home is comfortable but it can get dull and repetitive. Life on the road is new and exhilarating but can also lead to a sense of fatigue moving from place to place without settling down roots or losing friends and relationships as you feel the call to move somewhere else.

In my experience, Travel memoirs can be rather hit or miss but this one by Mr. Kepnes is on the mark in terms of the ups and downs of long-term travel and also about staying in a country for a year or more. I was personally away from home in my 20s for over three years and I can only imagine how ten years on the road would fundamentally change who I am, what I value, and how I want to live my life.

I really admire Matthew’s deep understanding on the joys of travel and how lucky we are to be on the road when we can. Travel is a privilege that especially now, we tend to have taken for granted. Once you get started on the path outside your town or country, it can be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. That nomadic yearning to live life on your own terms, on your own pace is a flickering light that can burnish again with renewed intensity often times when we least expect it. This memoir highlights how rewarding travel can be, how much it can develop your personality and your worldview, and why it is so important to listen to your gut at times to know what you want in life.

Some of us travelers are meant to have one foot out of the door at all times and when we stay in one place too long, we tend to get stir crazy. I think what Matthew learned is how important it is to find that balance of being a nomad at heart but finding roots somewhere while keeping the freedom he gained over many years of hard work of being an independent writer, a recognized travel expert, and an overall creator with an ability to work remotely, which may becoming more and more common into the future.

You may think starting the journey is the hardest step to take when you’re going out on the road, but I find it’s true instead how coming home is often the hardest thing you’ll do when the journey comes to an inevitable end at some point. The good thing that Matthew notes in his memoir is that the nomad or the traveler is always within us even after the journey ends and that eternal flame can be rekindled making it easier and easier to get out on the road in the future to have more journeys without feeling that fear of the first step as happens on the first journey out of our comfort zone.

The Power of An Idea

According to the University of Southern California’s Laboratory of Neuroimaging, the average person has about 70,000 thoughts per day. That is about 45 thoughts per minute and 2,700 thoughts per hour. Most likely, 90% of those thoughts are focused on the day-to-day habits and responsibilities that we take upon ourselves out of necessity. Where we go to eat, where we go shop for food, what to clean and how to clean it, and the need to brush, dress, and groom ourselves so that we look presentable to the world. However, what makes us stand out as a species is our ability to pull a few ideas from these thousands of thoughts that end up changing the world in some measurable way.

Thoughts can be random, scattered, and hard to quantify but with concentrated effort and documentation, these thoughts become ideas that later can become a reality. How does an idea turn into a real thing? Well, one part of making an idea real is jotting it down on paper or even on a smartphone today and really spending a lot of time focusing on the plausibility of it. Ideas can make the best sense in the world to you but if they are not popular or don’t transcend just your belief in them, they will go nowhere fast.

Ideas are meant to be tested, changed, and optimized so that people believe in them, for better or for worse. The paradox that is inherent with ideas is that they are very similar to human nature. They can be used for the greatest good or the greatest evil. Ideas are so powerful that wars have been waged over them, millions have lost their lives, and untold amounts of money have been spent to promote or degrade them.

When you really think about it, ideas that are put into action have caused changes to human civilizations throughout the millennia. Whether its education, health, infrastructure, scientific advancement, community building, ideas are at the forefront of upending the status quo and changing human lives, sometimes for the better or sometimes for worse. While I just mentioned the positive advancements that come from ideas, it is also valid that ideas have led to war, poverty, inequality, destruction, and multiple isms that have caused conflict and strife among nations, races, and religions.

You may be reading this article and wondering that maybe it’s best to not contribute your ideas to the world in some way. I think this is a false dichotomy because I like to think that if your ideas are not harming people, are not harming the planet, and can lead to a better community, country or world, then you should try out your ideas and see what happens. The key part to realizing an idea of yours is to see how other people react to it. Are they happier because of your idea? Are they healthier because of it? Are they better educated because of your idea?

You should be asking yourself: Is my idea doing some sort of measurable good for the world and how can I improve upon it? Ideas start out as being imperfect but once you start acting to make those ideas a reality in the world, you will soon learn that implementation of those ideas will take serious hard work and effort. Getting feedback from unbiased users or participants is a key step to see whether the idea is worth merit and whether it is sustainable or not in the long-term. Imposing your idea on the world without substantive feedback or without understanding how your idea fits in to your specific niche will end up in failure.

If you have an idea, remember to write it down and construct how it could work and whether it would be worth pursuing. Similar to starting a business or launching a campaign, you have to test drive the idea first to see if people would be interested in what you have to offer whether they are paying customers or voters from the town you are running your campaign in. Careful assessment and fleshing out of your idea will make a better idea and will make your idea stand out from others that are similar or may be able to usurp yours.

Ideas do not always have to be original but there must be some added benefit or advantage that hasn’t been tried before or could change the status quo in some positive way. There is a rightful stigma against ideas, but it is important to realize that our faith in ideas is crucial to keeping civilization going even when some ideas turn out to be bad for us. Our shared belief in ideas is what leads to massive companies like Google or Apple becoming the most influential or profitable in the world and has led to nation-states forming in the past few centuries such as the United States of America or the United Kingdom.

Without thoughts that turned into ideas which turned into actions, where would humanity be? Our ability to analyze, process, and think about how to change the world or how to introduce something new in the world is what sets us apart from other species on the planet. Essentially, the story of human progress could be argued to revolve around how to maximize the impact and spread of good ideas and how to minimize the influence and the source of bad ideas. Most of us tend to shy away from sharing our ideas or trying them out but I think having a more entrepreneurial and innovative vision is a key part of being self-actualized as a person.

Having a sense of belief in your ideas and how you can leave the world better than you found it is extremely powerful. While working on the ideas of others and promoting them to the world is also very useful, I tend to think that each and every one of us has a good idea that could be fleshed out, tried out, and implemented with the help of others, which would play a key part in making the world a better place.

Because the world is so interconnected, ideas spread so rapidly that it can be overwhelming with how much is out there. However, the ideas that stick around are the ones that take time to develop, that are tweaked with, that refine their logic and their execution, and for which have gained a solid following of people who believe in those ideas. An idea that has a powerful story which resonates with people can also withstand the test of time.

The next time you have an idea, think deeply about it. Maybe you’re on your commute to work or you’re in the bathroom, or you’re on a walk in the local park, but don’t let it slip away if you think that it can serve a positive purpose and if it is actionable. Ideas can come and go in a millisecond so being able to concentrate on the idea, remember it, and write it down as soon as possible could pay off in a big way. Another way to let your ideas form is to focus on the impact that it could have and how people could benefit from the idea(s). I believe that the more observant you are of your surroundings, the better your ideas will be. Another part of gaining traction with your ideas is reading books, whether they were entrepreneurs, inventors, politicians, and reformists from different eras of history.

You may find that your idea is not so unique and may date back a few decades or even a few centuries but maybe that idea never took off. You are eager to learn more about that so you do your research, you find out more about the history of the idea, and you decide why it may be right for the present and into the future based on changes to society. Just because an idea failed in the past doesn’t mean it can’t make a return with a few useful tweaks. From the electric car to virtual reality to smartphones, these kinds of ideas have their roots buried firmly in previous unsuccessful efforts in the past only to be revived because of inventors and thinkers who thought of how to adapt these inventions to the modern era.

Ideas are powerful because of are shared belief in them and how they can change the world. However, without serious action, commitment, and hard work, ideas of ours will just stay like that as ideas alone. Ideas without belief or without support from others will go nowhere. The key to implementing good ideas in our era is that they have been tested, have some measurable benefit to humanity, and have staying power because of their relevance to our societies. If you are not sure that you are an ‘ideas’ person, try to concentrate on your thoughts and remember whether there are any of them in your daily life that could become a reality.

You must decide if any of these ideas of yours could be written down, planned out, implemented, and eventually supported by the work of others. Once you go through that chronological checklist, you will be ready to start putting those ideas into action. Your ideas may ultimately fail and you may get discouraged but if your idea(s) were able to have a kind of positive impact on someone or something because of that thought that you first had go through your mind, you will know that it will have been worth the effort of carrying it out in the first place.

Silicon Valley

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Camera: iPhone 8

LocationBay Area, California (Silicon Valley)