The Importance of Reading to Gain Perspective

I am currently reading The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan by Sebastion Mallaby. An 800 page book about a 20th century economist and central banker would understandably not interest most people. I am really enjoying it however, and I think it is a book that those in the financial industry should read. This is because The Man Who Knew is incredibly valuable in the perspective it provides.

It is easy to lose perspective and get caught up in the day-to-day. It is easy to think that every issue is new and that each event that happens to us is the most significant thing. However, this is simply not the case. Ryan Holiday notes the following:

Perhaps the reason you're having trouble is you forgot the purpose of reading. It’s not just for fun. Human beings have been recording their knowledge in book form for more than 5,000 years. That means that whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error–find that point. Benefit from that perspective.

A recent example would be the Dow Jones Industrial Average pass 20,000 for the first time ever. A big deal right? Well, maybe not so much. Morgan Housel and Michael Batnick observed that for the Dow to reach 2,000,000 in this century, it needs to compound at 5.7%. Considering the Dow has grown 7.14% a year for the last 75 years, this is certainly possible. 

This is why books like The Man Who Knew, When Genius Failed, The Match King, Barbarians at the Gate, and America’s Bank are important. Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Circumstances do change, and it is certainly imperative to understand that change is inevitable, but reading books about the history of one’s industry can add a perspective that will be valuable for approaching future problems. With that in mind, I would encourage you to read The Man Who Knew by Sebastion Mallaby. 

Three Years of Reading

From October 1st, 2013 to October 1st, 2016 I kept track of every book I read. The final tally was 211 books. My favorites, in no particular order, were the following:

  1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain
  2. The Compound Effect - Darren Hardy
  3. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
  4. Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand
  5. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets - Nassim Taleb
  6. Liar's Poker - Michael Lewis
  7. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference - Malcolm Gladwell
  8. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
  9. Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman
  10. Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
  11. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  12. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King - Rich Cohen
  13. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
  14. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival - John Vaillant
  15. The 48 Laws of Power - Robert Greene
  16. East of Eden - John Steinbeck
  17. Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 3 - Robert Caro
  18. When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi
  19. Sunny's Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World - Tim Sultan
  20. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything - Joshua Foer
  21. The Power of One: A Novel - Bryce Courtenay

Here are a few things I learned about reading from the past three years:

  • Read a wide variety of both fiction and nonfiction.
  • If you don’t enjoy reading, you aren’t reading the right books.
  • The problem you are struggling with? Somewhere at some time someone had the same problem and wrote a book on it. Go find that book and read it.
  • Few things create instant rapport like having read the same book as someone else.
  • Kindles are really great but not the same.
  • Certain books deserve rereading.

Deliberate Practice

I just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. It was excellent. This passage really caught my attention:

In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question (on plateauing) by describing the three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the tasks and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot. During that autonomous stage, you lose conscious control over what you’re doing. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Your mind has one less thing to worry about. In fact, the autonomous stages seems to be one of those handy features that evolution worked out for our benefit. The less you have to focus on the repetitive tasks of everyday life, the more you can concentrate on the stuff that really matters, the stuff that you haven’t seen before. And so, once we’re just good enough at typing, we move it to the back of our mind’s filing cabinet and stop paying it any attention. You can actually see this shift take place in fMRI scans of people learning new skills. As a task becomes automated, the parts of the brain involved in conscious reasoning become less active and other parts of the brain take over. You could call it the “OK plateau,” the point at which you decide you’re Ok with how good you are at something, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.

But what if we are not OK with how good we are at something? What if we still want to improve? What if we still want to get better?

The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing - to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.

This is what experts do.

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”

Overall, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a worthwhile read. In addition, another book on my list regarding this same topic is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. The bottom line is this: in order to learn on a expert level, we must literally think about how we think.

America's Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve by Roger Lowenstein

An excerpt from America’s Bank by Roger Lowenstein:

When America last had a central bank, in 1836 (the year before J.P. Morgan Sr.’s birth), the country was a financial innocent. Its credit was borrowed in Europe; its stock market barely existed; its most common mode of transportation was the horse. The United States of 1913 was entirely different. The frontier had vanished; industrialization was a fact. Ford’s was churning out 170,000 Model Ts a year. The New York Stock Exchange listed more than three hundred companies, and corporate news was disseminated on glass-domed stock tickers. The banking industry had mushroomed, thanks in large part to the greater willingness of people to deposit their savings. The heady progress of finance was, however, an unfulfilled promise to the great wash of industrial workers. Capital in its formative stage was undemocratic. Workers’ pensions and other forms of savings were practically nonexistent. Leisure time was the province of the wealthy. America had far more banks than ever, but banks existed to serve business.

What struck me the most reading about “the struggle to create America’s bank,” was the similarities to the issues being debated today. In many cases the exact same questions are still being asked: what role does government have in business? Is Wall Street too powerful? Should we consider a gold standard or use fiat money? The excerpt from the book could practically be taken from the news today:

When America first established the Federal Reserve, in 1913, the country was a financial innocent. The Great Depression had not yet occurred; its stock market barely existed; airplanes were yet to become an accessible mode of transportation. The United States of 2016 is entirely different. The frontier has vanished; Silicon Valley is a fact. Musk is hoping to churn out some 300,000 Model 3s next year. The New York Stock Exchange lists more than two thousand companies, and corporate news is disseminated almost instantaneously via the internet. The banking industry has mushroomed, thanks in large part to a decrease in barriers of entry and a proliferation in financial technology. The heady progress of finance is, however, an unfulfilled promise to a great wash of workers. Capital is somewhat undemocratic. Workers’ pensions, 401ks, and other forms of savings are practically nonexistent. America has far more banks than ever, but banks exist to serve business.

Nothing is new, and everything is different. Frank Vanderlip is now Jamie Dimon. President Woodrow Wilson is President Barack Obama. Charles Hamlin is Janet Yellen. While we have all heard some version of “past performance is not indicative of future results,” it is important to read about financial history in order to gain some perspective. With the Federal Reserve garnering the attention of the financial industry with their every move, America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve by Roger Lowenstein is a one place to start.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

I am currently about halfway through Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, and I am finding it incredibly interesting. It is a compilation of several dozen routines of famous artists, musicians, and other creative people. I am really enjoying reading the details of the different artists, and I am learning a lot. Currey writes the following in the introduction:

The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resource: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. This was one of William Jame’s favorite subjects. He thought you wanted to put part of your life on autopilot; by forming good habits, he said, we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”

Currey hits the nail on the head so to speak. Routines are important because they enable us to manage our limited resources. Self-control and self-discipline are like muscles: they fatigue with use. Routines allow us to minimize thinking about each little decision and preserve our energy for the big decisions. “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” wrote W. H. Auden. This is why President Obama sticks mostly to a grey or blue suit. He has bigger decisions to worry about. “My wife makes fun of how routinized I’ve become,” President Obama says. Taking it one step further, Cal Newport suggests we should plan out each minute of our day, noting “the best knowledge workers view their time like the best investors view their capital, as a resource to wield for maximum returns.” This includes planning out open-ended activities and time for relaxation. As we noted in a post before, Tim Ferriss writes “alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survive, let alone thrive. Capacity, interest, and mental endurance all wax and wane. Plan accordingly.”

Daily Rituals focuses a bit more on artists and creative work; however, routines are just as important for other goals as well. When I was studying for the CFP® examination, I had a specific routine for my study plan. In addition, I wrote out a specific routine for the day of the exam so I could focus my energy on the examination questions. However, as Shane Parrish noted, “if you’re looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you’re out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things.” While there are a few general principles that always apply, each individual has their own preferences, and one’s routine will most likely evolve over time. Overall, Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is an entertaining read and an interesting starting point to explore more routine ideas.