Reading Notes May/June 2015

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I’m hoping to post every month a list of the books I’ve read along with a few thoughts and some memorable quotes. Some of these books were consumed via audio and others were read in physical book or Kindle formats. As I’ve spent more time riding my bike or going for 3-5 mile runs, I’ve been able to get through quite a bit of audio books. I also try to listen when I walk the dog and when I commute. It’s harder for me to take notes when I’m listening, but these posts will force me to go back and revisit the books in text format.

Because this edition spans two months, it’ll be longer than the usual.

Double Your Profits: In Six Months or Less by Bob Fifer
This was one of the more exciting reads for me this year. It’s written by a consultant who helps companies cut costs. He offers direct, no-nonsense observations and tactical advice to companies looking to improve their profit margin. I took a few to heart such as:

  • Set arbitrary, non-negotiable budgets. People will find a way to be resourceful.
  • In a meritocracy, the bottom half complains. In a seniority or other system, the top-performing half complains.
  • Strategic cost are things that clearly bring in business and improve the bottom line (salespeople, advertising, and commercializable R&D); non-strategic costs are the costs necessary to run the business but don’t clearly bring in more business; split all costs into strategic and non-strategic costs; outspend your competition on strategic costs.

I’ve been able to quickly apply many of Fifer’s lessons at my company, and the pursuit of a meritocratic culture has been very energizing.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
I didn’t particularly enjoy this book as it felt like a never-ending New Yorker article, but I liked listening to the stories of how we as a civilization have pieced together, over time, the various periods in Earth’s history and the causes for the mass extinction of species in each. We are but a blip in the history of the Earth, and yet, it’s scary that we’ve managed to have such broad impact on its ecology and may already have trigger the next wave of mass extinctions.

The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success by William N. Thorndike Jr.
I picked this book up after reading Warren Buffet’s biography. It was a very quick read and it highlights CEOs of various industries who all seemed to follow similar traits:

  • They shunned the spotlight and did not have outsized personalities (like a Jack Welch)
  • They were extremely conscious of cost and kept very lean operations (e.g. nondescript, low-cost offices or a handful of people running a multi-billion dollar cable company)
  • They were contrarians and often ignored what Wall Street analysts recommended
  • They were all savvy at the game of capital allocation, dispensing resources to areas that saw the greatest returns.

I found the characters fairly forgettable on their own, but as a group, their virtues are easy to remember.

The Lessons of History by William and Ariel Durant
I loved this book. So many incredible nuggets can be found in this small volume, which itself was culled from a lifetime of research (The Story of Civilization series) by the renowned historians William and Ariel Durant. After listening to the audio book, I immediately bought the physical book and these days keep it within arm’s reach so I can re-read a page or two when I have some time. Every paragraph seems to pack a new insight that I can reflect on for some time. Spanning topics related to history such as “History and the Earth”, “Race and History”, “Government and History”, etc., the Durants highlight patterns in history through clear examples and expound upon the unchanging nature of man.

Here are some quotes that have stuck with me:

  • The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.
  • The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact…Man, not the earth, makes civilization.
  • It is not the race that makes the civilization, it is the civilization that makes the people: circumstances geographical, economic, and political create a culture, and the culture creates a human type.
  • Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group.
  • To the geologic eye all surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ.

Why Can’t Elephants Dance by Louis Gerstner
This memoir by the CEO who turned around IBM in its darkest hour was a really enjoyable and quick read. Gerstner is a no-nonsense guy with a great leadership mind who instilled a sense of urgency into a stagnating corporate culture. Assessing the dire situation of the company, he eschewed talks of vision and quickly set about taking action, bringing IBM back from a period of heavy losses and setting it on course towards growth and profitability. Some quotes I liked:

  • I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.
  • Execution—getting the task done, making it happen—is the most unappreciated skill of an effective business leader.
  • I’ve had a lot of experience turning around troubled companies, and one of the first things I learned was that whatever hard or painful things you have to do, do them quickly and make sure everyone knows what you are doing and why. Whether dwelling on a problem, hiding a problem, or dribbling out partial solutions to a problem while you wait for a high tide to raise your boat — dithering and delay almost always compound a negative situation.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
I was a bit hesitant to start this book, which, at over 900 pages amounted to almost 27 hours on audio. I thought I would lose interest in the middle and give up. Fortunately, I found this Teddy Roosevelt’s biography, which ends with him taking over the Presidency after the death of William McKinley, quite entertaining and inspiring. I keep thinking about the qualities that made Roosevelt such a fascinating character: his incredible discipline when it came to writing and reading (he was a voracious reader and author of many critically-acclaimed books); his love of physical activity and the outdoors; and his zeal and limitless energy when it came to making things happen, especially as a government official. What I liked most about the book was that Roosevelt’s love of life and his constant nose for adventure made me want to take more chances and push myself in different ways.

Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholder 1965-2013 by Warren Buffet
It took me a while to get through all of them, but going through the entire collection of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters was probably one of the most educational experiences I’ve ever had. Buffet’s letters are a true joy to read. Here’s why:

  • Knowing that he ends up as a mega-rich billionaire, I had so much fun working through the chronology of Berkshire Hathaway, starting as a failing textile business and working its way into insurance, See’s Candies, and a myriad collection of other businesses and securities investments that snowball into one of the world’s most formidable corporations.
  • Buffet takes the time to explain various financial concepts to his shareholders. These include the basics of insurance, different types of accounting rules, derivatives, business valuations, taxes, and value investing. He repeats many of his lessons over and over again throughout the years, and it’s great to see that he sticks to the fundamentals when he talks through his investment decisions (e.g. buying great businesses at a fair prices vs. buying fair businesses at a great price). He also makes clear his disdain for those who erode shareholder value, whether they’re executives who greedily award themselves options while lobbying to make sure options aren’t counted as an expense or various financial wizards (investment bankers, PE/LBO firms, mutual fund advisors) who promise shareholders great returns for a great deal of activity while in reality delivering mediocre to poor results (and fattening their own pockets in the process through fees).
  • Buffet sprinkles his letters with various pop culture references, self-deprecating remarks, and jokes that reminded me that this wasn’t a guy who was only about the money as much as he was about having a good time while using money as a scorecard. I finished The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life as I was reading the shareholder letters, and what struck me was that Buffet’s greatest success wasn’t the billions he reaped, but instead, it was that he happened upon a game that he absolutely loved and could excel at for the rest of his life.

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