9 insights from reading 50 books in less than a year
…and other lessons inspired by Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google)
You can find my notes on each book here.
I work at Waymo (formerly Google’s Self-Driving Car).
When I first started here, I kept running into Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) quite often…
I asked him for a book recommendation and he suggested The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose — which is an almost 1000 page book on physics.
I bought the book immediately and anxiously waited for it to arrive. A few weeks later I finished only the intro and realized I was not going to get through this book easily.
The publisher touts that Einstein and Newton would have this on their bookshelf if they were alive, so you can imagine the difficulty.
At that point I decided to come up with a plan for effectively reading prior to tackling such a tough book.
That’s when I officially began my 100 book challenge.
In August 2017 I set a goal of finishing 100 books by January 2019.
I was going to write a Medium post after reading all 100 books, but a friend urged me to write something at the halfway point. Shout out to Kris Gage; the success of her recent article also inspired me to write this.
Below are handful of insights and lessons that I’ve gathered during my journey to read more often.
To see the complete list of books I read scroll to the bottom!
1) Listening counts as reading in my book
I’ve always had an aversion to audiobooks since it felt like I wasn’t really “reading” the book. Once I stopped caring I realized that listening to audiobooks was a more efficient and effective way for me to learn.
Know yourself: Figure out how you best consume & retain content (whether it be physical book, Kindle, mobile, or audiobook) and form a routine around it.
The way I combat that is by taking notes on every single audiobook I’ve listened to. When I take notes I’m synthesizing and summarizing content from the book real time. This way it sticks for much longer and is more powerful then just underlining or bookmarking a physical copy.
I’ve included these notes here and the bottom of the post as well.
2) Fiction can be more impactful than nonfiction
Great fiction books put you in a world that’s not your own and force you to have empathy for the characters.
One of my all time favorite fiction books, Dark Matter, helped me to understand love in a way that non-fiction books never have. It instantly improved my current relationship by changing my perspective on always thinking the grass is greener on the other side.
If you don’t typically read fiction I’d ask someone you trust to recommend a fiction book and start there.
3) I’ve never liked 100% of any book
If I finish a book and liked at least 70% I’ll consider it a success and rate it 5 stars on Amazon.
When I notice a book is getting to into the weeds I’ll increase the speed on Audible or pick up the pace if it’s a physical copy.
This happened to me while reading both the bio for Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet. The level of detail was absolutely overwhelming, but overall these are both amazing books and I’d recommend them to the right person at the right time.
4) You can’t listen to everything
There are times when I have to purchase the physical copy (or Kindle version) of a book, because just listening won’t do the job. Below are some classic examples of this:
- Books that have lots of graphs and charts. There’s nothing worse than hearing the narrator refer to chart 1b and 2a every 3 minutes.
- Tough, technical, or philosophical reads that require heavy pondering in order to understand the author.
- If the narrator has a voice I don’t find pleasant and I just can’t force myself to listen to their voice.
On the flip side there are some types of books that are especially well suited for audio format:
- Biographies. I listened to bios on Steve Jobs, Malala, and Warren Buffet and it was a great experience.
- Business/self-help books. Many business and self-help books are of a fluffier nature and can be listened to while still grasping the full meaning.
- Books I wouldn’t otherwise physically read. About 20% of the books I’ve finished so far are books I wouldn’t have been able to read manually. I just wasn’t interested in the topic enough beforehand to warrant the initial energy to start and sustain myself through the book. It’s much easier to finish a bad audio book than it is to finish a bad physical book.
5) It’s a great way to find a mentor
In my case, I realized that although I could learn a lot from Sergey, he wouldn’t actually be my perfect mentor because he’s achieved things aren’t aligned with my vision of how I see myself in 10 to 20 years. That was a tough pill to swallow, but important part of my growth nonetheless.
The majority of suggestions that your dream mentor gives out probably go un-acted upon. Just look at me, I received a high quality suggestion from an extremely smart person and haven’t even followed my own advice. Reading a book takes effort and if you follow through you prove to your would-be mentor that your worth investing time into.
Asking people you admire for book recommendations, actually reading them, and reporting back with updates, questions, and more suggestions is a great way to receive mentorship from the smartest and most successful people in the world.
The key here is self-awareness. Before you go asking for book recommendations you’ll have to know exactly why you’re asking that particular person for a suggestion.
6) Take risks when choosing new books to read
Books that are not popular or have bad reviews on Amazon might be really helpful for you at certain stages in your life.
Our Lot, was a book I decided to buy after hearing the author speak on NPR. The book only has 9 reviews, but was easily one of my favorites and held my attention the whole way through.
Just because someone decided to write about something for 200+ pages doesn’t mean it’s good writing, true writing, or relevant to you in anyway. It surprised me how many books had typos and even factual errors.
7) Only read for yourself
People often suggest that I take up graduate school since I’d do well with the amount of reading that’s required. This assumption is completely incorrect because once I’m forced to read I’ll slip into a state of procrastination and avoid it all cost.
If you’re not reading for yourself then I urge you to strongly consider why. At the end of the day you’re the one who matters, so if you’re reading to show off a number it’s not worth it. This is ironic because it seems I’m doing just that, however I wasn’t planning on writing anything until a friend urged me to, so spare me this one time!
It’s not about the number of books. You don’t even have to read a large quantity. One good book at the right time can change your life forever.
One reason reading frequently is important is that you increase your chances of actually reading something life changing in the first place.
8) Come to the book prepared
Read a summary of the book before you dive into the whole text.
Jumping into a book headfirst puts you at a slight disadvantage because you’ll have to figure out the context as you read.
A quick glance at the back cover combined with the author’s Wiki page will do just fine. You’ll want to know what type of opinions the author is known for so you don’t get emotional reading the book and can digest the information objectively.
9) How to give & receive book suggestions
When I first started my reading challenge I asked everyone I knew for suggestions. This was a terrible idea because I realized people suggested books they liked. Not books they thought would be useful to me based on my current stage in life.
Only ask people who you trust and respect for book recommendations because you should absolutely be ready to read anything they suggest.
I’ve found that when people ask me for suggestions I start by figuring out where they are in life. I’m not going to just blindly recommend “Man’s Search for Meaning” to everyone who asks me. I actually used to do this until people started telling me they read it and didn’t like it.
Then I had an epiphany that even the “best” books are only “subjectively” the best. I realized that books can be good objectively, but they can only be great subjectively. Keep this in mind when receiving and giving book recommendations.
Please clap & share if any of these pointers help you 🙂
Summary of Insights
- Fiction can be more impactful than nonfiction: If you don’t typically read fiction I’d ask someone you trust to recommend a fiction book and start there.
- It’s rare to like 100% of any book.
- Listening counts as reading in my book. Don’t listen to critics, just do what works for you.
- Some books just aren’t meant for listening. See #4 above for more details.
- Asking people you admire for book recommendations, actually reading them, and reporting back with updates, questions, and more suggestions is a great way to receive mentorship from the smartest and most successful people in the world.
- Books that are not popular or have bad reviews on Amazon might be really helpful for you at certain stages in your life.
- One reason reading frequently is important is that you increase your chances of actually reading something life changing in the first place.
- A quick glance at the back cover combined with the author’s Wiki page before reading a book will set you up for success.
- Only ask people who you trust and respect for book recommendations because you should absolutely be ready to read anything they suggest.
- Bonus Insight: Browsing the table of contents and treating the chapters as separate articles is a good way to figure out what parts of the book you’re truly interested in.
THE 50 — Books in bold are my favorite
1) Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products
2) Man’s Search for Meaning
3) Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas
4) Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism
5) Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE
6) The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now
7) The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape
8) Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
9) Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work and Family Life
10) Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us
11) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
12) The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood
13) The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation
Settle for More
14) iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It
15) Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor: A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making It Work!
16) The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple
17) The Pentagon’s Brain
18) Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
19) How Google Works
20) The Color Purple
21) Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
22) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
23) Poverty in America: A Handbook
24) Dark Matter
25) Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
26) We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
27) Never Split the Difference
28) Twelve Years a Slave
29) The Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests
30) Last Chance to See
31) Light Falls: Space, Time, and an Obsession of Einstein
33) Einstein’s Dreams
34) Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story
35) The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
36) The Internet of Money
37) Long Story Short: The Only Storytelling Guide You’ll Ever Need
38) Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money
39) How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes
40) Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception
41) Between the World and Me
42) Assata: An Autobiography
43) The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
44) Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat
45) TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking
46) I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
47) Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead
48) Steve Jobs
49) Brave New World
50) The Circle