Reading List

This is a curated list of material that I enthusiastically recommend to my readers, listed in suggested reading order (a suggestion you may choose to ignore). Every one of these books is one that I have actually read, and in each case I briefly explain why I think you should read the book. For a full list of books on my bookshelf, check out my Goodreads profile.

The Path of Least Resistance

by Robert Fritz

In this brilliant book, Robert Fritz lays out a blueprint for how you, as an individual, can become a creative force in your own life. He suggests that people fall into two, very distinctive modes of living, the first being the reactive-responsive mode and the second being the creative mode. In the reactive-responsive mode, individuals are always reacting to circumstances that are outside of their control, and this forces them into a structure where they are forever victims of what seems “possible” at any given time. Those in the creative mode, however, have learned to start with what they want, consider the stark truth of their current reality, and use this understanding to their advantage, to move inexorably towards accomplishing their vision. Creators seeks to create because of their belief that their creations must come into existence, and not because of any external need or approval. Takeaway: The Path of Least Resistance sets out a wonderful life-philosophy and provides an excellent guide for aspiring leaders.

Dare to Lead

by Brené Brown

The author presents a refreshing perspective on leadership, defining a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential”. Leading requires the courage to be vulnerable, which isn’t about winning or losing, but showing up even — and especially — when you can’t control the outcome. The author builds upon this theme to explain that the ability to be vulnerable is at the root of building trust and developing empathy. The real barrier to daring leadership, she says, is our armor — the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to demonstrate vulnerability. Takeaway: Dare to Lead is a treasure trove of sage advice, but one idea that really struck a chord with me was that that curiosity could be seen as the antidote to the ego.

The knower in us (our ego) either races to beat everyone in the room with an answer that may or may not address the real issues, or thinks: “I don’t want to talk about this because I’m not sure how it’s going to go or how people are going to react. I might not say the right thing or have the right answers.”

Curiosity says: “No worries. I love a wild ride. I’m up for wherever this goes. And I’m in for however long it takes to get to the heart of the problem. I don’t have to know the answers or say the right thing, I just have to keep listening and keep questioning.”

Thinking, Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

The author introduces the reader to how the average person’s thinking process actually works. He explains that real people are far from rational, especially when estimating the likelihood of events in the future. There are essentially two distinct systems of thinking, one — System 1 — that is fast, intuitive, biased and sometimes wrong (but doesn’t know it), and another — System 2 — that is slower and does the math, but is often too lazy to question the conclusions drawn by System 1. Takeaway: Recognize the fallacies of thinking that you might fall prey to, and guard against them diligently. An understanding of statistics may not hurt either.

How Big Things Get Done

by Bent Flyvbjerg & Dan Gardner

This is a succinct and useful guide to anyone leading projects of their own. The authors leverage data and real-world experience to call out what sets up any large project for success (or failure). Although anchored on multi-year construction projects, the advice given here is surprisingly versatile, and broadly applicable. Takeaway: Transform your project into modular lego blocks; relentlessly tinker, iterate repeatedly, actively experiment, and keep asking why during the planning phase…and don’t skip this phase; value the experience brought in by experts (who’ve done it before) and technology (that has worked reliably in the past); forecast unknown unknowns by taking the ‘outside’ view and considering reference classes. And of course, hire the right person for the job and get your team right from the start.

Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life

by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger is well known as body-builder, actor and politician. Of late, he’s also been popular as a motivational speaker and guide. In his self-narrated audio book, Schwarzenegger effectively exhorts readers to create a vision for their lives and put in the hard work and discipline needed to make their vision a reality. The message of this book is quite simple at its core, but the fact that it’s Schwarzenegger saying it makes a huge difference. Takeaway: This book has a very simple and practical message that comes from the heart and is something that is so grounded that you can easily believe in it. Most critically, Arnold Schwarzenegger implies in no uncertain terms that no matter who you are, you have the capacity to do what it takes. This makes it very different from other self-help books where the ideas posited are too abstract, or the author speaks of circumstances you simply cannot relate to.

The Little Book of Talent

by Daniel Coyle

This is an extremely terse list of tips for honing your skills, that you would be able to finish reading within a couple of hours. The author offers practical advice that you can digest and apply in your day-to-day life. Takeaway: As with any other book in this genre, the value you get from it depends on how much of the advice contained within you intentionally apply. I recommend re-reading this book multiple times with intervals in between. Which tips do you find surprising? Which of the unsurprising ones do you not follow, based on a self-assessment — and why do you think that is?

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

by Eric S. Raymond

This is an essay that takes us back to the early days of Linux development, but remains just as pertinent in today’s world of software development. It discusses two distinct styles of software development, top-down and bottom-up. Takeaway: For software to be truly successful in this world, you need to loosen your control over it and encourage it to grow organically to meet the needs of its users.

The Goal

by Eliyahu M. Goldratt

A favorite amongst management books, this is a memorable introduction to the idea that the goal of an organization must be defined as a process of ongoing improvement. Presented as a novel in which the protagonist is trying to save his factory from getting shut down, it embodies the principle of ‘working backwards’ by ‘breaking constraints’. Takeaway: Once you internalize these ideas, you will apply them to every aspect of your life and will be amazed that you managed without them for so long.

Zero to One

by Peter Thiel, Blake Masters

This is one of the best and most concise books on what it means to create a business. It introduces a number of ideas that might seem contrarian at the outset, but are completely justified upon closer examination. For instance, he says, “Monopoly is […] not a pathology or an exception. Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.” This might run counter to common intuition considering popular outcry against monopolies, but it becomes clear when you give the issue careful consideration: the goal of a business is to become as successful as it possibly could be. Takeaway: It is helpful to come to terms with the idea that in a capitalistic society, the goal of a business is not altruistic, it is to create value for its customers and maximize profits for its owners.


by Robert Sapolsky

The author’s objective in this masterpiece is quite simple: to explain all of human behavior. But explaining human behavior is no simple feat, and the journey takes us through a vast terrain, ranging from neurobiology to evolution and everything in between. The author pulls this off with masterful storytelling, and doesn’t hesitate to discuss thorny societal issues such as xenophobia and our legal justice system. Takeaway: Everything is related. Human behavior is best seen as a vast, complex, entangled system where cause-and-effect is seldom clearcut, but rather, everything is subtly influenced by a multitude of factors. [P.S. I recommend the audiobook version on Audible, narrated by Michael Goldstrom.]

Thinking in Bets

by Annie Duke

This book shines a spotlight on a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of our everyday lives – the decisions that we make. If you approached decisions as hoops you need to jump through to get things done, this book will make you see them for they really are – forks in the road where you need to bet on a path in the face of incomplete or erroneous information. Life isn’t a combination of skill and luck; rather, it is a combination of skill and probabilities – and you can make intelligent bets knowing the odds. Takeaway: Avoid conflating decisions and outcomes. Good decisions will sometimes lead to bad outcomes (or the other way around). You should hone your decision-making process, while accepting that you can’t control every throw of the dice.

The Elements of Journalism

by Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel

It is easy to get caught up in the information deluge of the digital age, and become confused about the purpose and nature of journalism as a discipline. In this book, the authors return to first principles, and explain the essence of journalism as it has evolved over time. Journalism isn’t about who produces the information, it is about the discipline of verification that the producer of information is committed to. The authors assert with conviction that in the end, democracy lives or dies with a free press. Takeaway: Whether or not you have a journalistic bent, this book is a great resource for educating oneself on what to expect from journalists, and our own rights and responsibilities as citizens.

The Effective Engineer

by Edmond Lau

The main point of this book is that being an effective engineer isn’t about writing great code, but about having the greatest impact. The central idea here is that of leverage. Using a suitable lever, you may apply a small amount of force and achieve disproportionate outcomes, thus maximizing your return on investment. Moreover, your time is your most precious asset that you need to spend carefully on high leverage tasks. Takeaway: Optimize your career for learning, not for a high-paying job. Adopt a growth mindset that sees intelligence as something you can continue to build. Hiring and developing great teams is one of the highest leverage activities you can embark upon.

How Great Leaders Inspire Action

by Simon Sinek

This is the TED Talk in which Simon Sinek describes his framework of why-how-what – that is, start with why something matters if you want people to follow your lead. If you want to build a great product, you need to explain with conviction why it is a problem worth solving, followed by how you are going to do it. What you actually build ends up being the least important bit of the equation. Takeaway: You will seldom regret spending an extraordinary portion of your time explaining why it is important to solve a problem (and repeating yourself); don’t hop over this crucial step.

The Selfish Gene

by Richard Dawkins

This is the best modern-day exposition on how evolution operates through natural selection. Until I seriously attempted to understand this topic, I didn’t realize that I had some mistaken assumptions about ‘natural selection’. For example, evolution results in greater complexity over time, but that does not necessarily align with any subjective notion of ‘progress’. Evolution does not necessarily lead to an efficient design, just a design that ‘works’ to propagate the gene. The gene is the fundamental unit of natural selection, and evolution is the inevitable consequence of any self-replicating behavior having a small nonzero error rate. Takeaway: Selection as a pathway to emergent design is an idea that works well even in software. It is sometimes useful to sacrifice efficiency in the short term, let solutions compete with each other and allow the solution with greater ‘fitness’ to win in an organic fashion.

The Ancestor’s Tale

by Richard Dawkins

In this book, Richard Dawkins traces our ancestry back over the years to visit our forebears. Not only is this ‘pilgrimage’ enjoyable in its own right, you might also learn some things that surprise you. For instance, every living organism on the planet today is effectively your ‘cousin’ – so no, you did not descend from the apes that roam the world today; rather, you, together with other apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos, descended from a common ancestor that lived a very long time ago. Organisms don’t evolve in isolation, but do so as a result of complex (and sometimes improbable) interactions between the phenotypic effects of genes and their ever-changing environment. Takeaway: Life can be seen as a complex interaction between billions of self-replicating bits that want to procreate. Sometimes, they play adversarial roles against each other, but more often than not, they find ways to co-operate and thrive.

The Story of Human Language

by John McWhorter

This audiobook (lecture series) is an excellent exposition on the nature of spoken language. The author provides a witty and extensive introduction to various aspects of language and its evolution over generations. Contrary to popular assumption, language is in constant flux. Vowels shift (ex: ‘food’ and ‘feed’ were originally pronounced with a long ‘oh’ and ‘eh’ respectively), consonants get dropped, especially difficult to pronounce combinations like ‘lib-rary’. There is an effect called semantic drift whereby meanings of words change over time. Concrete nouns like pas (originally meaning ‘step’) get coerced into qualifiers (indicating a negative – Je ne comprends pas) because of how it frequently gets used in a particular context. The meaning of words like awesome (‘extremely impressive’), nice (in the last century, ‘fine or subtle’), silly (in 1400s, ‘blessed’) have changed drastically over time. Takeaway: Human language is an ever-changing beast; in the bigger scheme of things, how we express ourselves today is just a fleeting aspect of humanity.

The Origin of Consciousness

by Julian Jaynes

Its intimidating title notwithstanding (shortened above for brevity), this book offered a powerful model to think about consciousness, and understand what it is. In an interesting twist, I found the introductory chapter to be mind-blowing in the sense that it elevated my understanding of consciousness by pointing out what it is not. Ultimately, the brain is a physical organ that creates an illusion of consciousness through the power of self-reference. It is also a complex system that has many parts that operate independently, but cooperate with each other to create an illusion of oneness. Sometimes this illusion can be broken. Takeaway: It occurred to me as I digested the ideas in this book that I could actually think without being conscious – that is, without accepting that small delay of doubt between thought and action – and I found this kind of ‘living in the moment’ quite liberating. Further, I realized that what I thought of as ‘thoughts’ were actually my conscious reflections on thoughts that had already been had. All of my real thinking actually happened in the background, without my notice.

How We Learn

by Stanislas Dehaene

The author presents a precise and enjoyable account of what learning means and how we, as humans, manage to do it. Citing cutting edge research, the author explains how millions of years of evolution have built into all humans a variety of models and predispositions, and how environmental factors shape and refine our abilities in early years of childhood. The author debunks several popular beliefs such as babies being ‘blank slates’, arguing that humans are born with innate neurological circuits designed to make sense of objects, arithmetic and empirical statistics. Takeaway: This is a worthwhile book for anyone curious about the human learning process, especially for those who’d like to contrast it with artificial intelligence algorithms.

Artificial Intelligence

by Melanie Mitchell

This is a lucid and accessible account of the evolution of the field of artificial intelligence, or AI, that succeeds brilliantly in its goal of explaining where we stand today – as of 2019 – in our quest to build machines with ‘general intelligence’. The author takes us on a tour of different tools and techniques developed over the years, and gives us powerful insights into their inner workings, successes and shortcomings. Takeaway: I recommend this book highly to anyone new to the field, wanting to understand what’s what, and also to the casual reader who simply wants to learn about the evolution of AI and separate hype from reality.

The Code Breaker

by Walter Isaacson

With the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21, gene editing has finally come of age. Effective vaccines using mRNA (“messenger” ribonucleic acid) have been developed and distributed for the first time in human history. What these vaccines do is deliver synthetic mRNA to the cytoplasm of the cell, where they train the cell to recognize spike proteins unique to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The author presents the story of Jennifer Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with Emmanuelle Charpentier, and her pioneering work that led to the development of the powerful gene-editing tool known as CRISPR. With gene-editing portending a critical inflection-point in the story of the human race, the author also discusses the ethical challenges associated with human germline editing, now within reach. Takeaway: Unlike most biographies, this book deals with current events that are changing the world as we speak. This gives us the rare opportunity of learning about the challenges (both technical and ethical) in real time, and becoming a part of that story.

Cognitive Bias Field Manual

This is a short article that calls out some of the biases that result from the many ways in which our brains have evolved over millions of years. It may be useful to note that bias is what helps us make decisions in the face of limited data, and it isn’t inherently bad. For instance, our biases are what have helped us survive in the face of a multitude of dangers in our natural habitats through our evolutionary history. What we must be prepared to do, however, is to gain a deeper understanding our our own proclivity towards certain kinds of biases and devise mechanisms to counteract them where it makes sense to do so. Takeaway: Don’t blindly trust your own judgment.

The Ethical Algorithm

by Michael Kearns, Aaron Roth

This book provides a delicious overview of the landscape of ethics in the domain of algorithms, especially in the modern era of machine learning and statistical techniques where no human can legitimately claim authorship of algorithms. It provides an excellent introduction to the pitfalls that we might encounter if we were to take a naive approach towards privacy and fairness. The authors provide a variety of real world examples to drive home their points. Takeaway: Challenges with privacy, fairness and ethics in the modern world of Big Data are fair more complicated than they might seem on the surface.

Deep Work

by Cal Newport

The idea that we need to be able to spend focused time on the most important tasks while eschewing all kinds of distractions, is one that is close to my heart. This book explains why this idea is important, and offers suggestions for executing on it. Takeaway: Develop the habits and discipline to eliminate distractions and focus your mind on what’s important. Donald Knuth says on his website, “My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every six months.”

On Liberty

by John Stuart Mill

This book espouses in unequivocal terms the supremacy of the individual on the world’s stage. The author explains the meaning of liberty as the freedom of an individual to do whatsoever he or she desires, so long as this desire does not seek to curtail the freedom of any other individual. This elegant explanation serves as a precise ruler for each one of us to measure our actions against, especially in a society that continues to change in its norms and values, year over year. Takeaway: It is helpful to understand in depth ideas such as liberty, but also pay special attention to the blind spots of such enlightened philosophers. Consider for instance, that the author casually dismisses the idea that the notion of liberty would apply to supposedly ‘uncivilized’ societies: “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”.

The Laws of Human Nature

by Robert Greene

This book is a brilliant and captivating account of many historical characters, and their behaviors that epitomize a set of laws of human nature. What I like most about this book is that it is extremely matter of fact with a healthy disregard for moral platitudes. Every anecdote associated with a character is followed by an analysis that surfaces the individual’s psychology, and presents us with lessons to be learned. Takeaway: This book is an invaluable resource for anyone who seeks to understand the world around them and be successful in their pursuits.

Never Split the Difference

by Chris Voss

In this book, the author — a former FBI hostage negotiator — offers a “field-tested” approach to negotiating. You don’t tend to see too many books written on this topic (or perhaps I’ve never sought them out) so I found it extremely helpful to get some sense of how I could improve my ability to negotiate in day-to-day situations. This is perhaps ironic, considering how much we might be able to improve our professional and personal lives if only we honed our ability to engage more effectively with others. Takeaway: Negotiating is more of a science than an art, leaning on human psychology. It is worth investing some energy in understanding how we might turn situations to our advantage.

I Am a Strange Loop

by Douglas Hofstadter

This book provides the best explanation for consciousness that I have chanced upon. Many works of philosophy and science (?) seek to paint consciousness as something extremely mysterious. In contrast, Douglas Hofstadter explains consciousness in simple physical terms – no magical machinery or soul stuff. What’s more, I find rather convincing his position that consciousness is a natural and emergent property of self-referential thinking (aka strange loops). Takeaway: While many philosophers appear to get stuck in nonsensical loops of subject-object ambiguity, Hofstadter cuts through all of it and offers us something real. I found his ideas regarding how the consciousness of his late wife continues to live in his memories on rather touching.

Mathematics for Human Flourishing

by Francis Su

This is not a book of mathematics. Rather, it is a beautiful ode to the human mind in its full splendor, with mathematics as the fundamental tool, both created as well as wielded by humankind in its pursuit for excellence. Takeaway: You might read Jane Austen for the sheer delight of digesting her words and the nuances gently treading between them. This book is of the same ilk, and I love that it is about mathematics.

Games People Play

by Eric Berne

In this book, the author, a Canadian-born psychiatrist who created the theory of transactional analysis, helps us understand some of our deep proclivities towards certain kinds of behaviors stemming from our early childhood, and how these behaviors influence our social interactions. While it doesn’t seem to end on a very optimistic note, I find the idea encouraging that we might be able to look inward and discover the sources of our best and worst behaviors using the tools presented in this book. Takeaway: I have often found it helpful to consider the ego state — adult, parent, child — driving my own behavior, and leverage an understanding of it to alter my behavior in positive ways. Understanding constitutes the first step towards sustainable positive change.