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📚 Three Book Recs for These Uncertain Times
How to be creative about the future, know the tools of progress today, and learn from our past
A fractured peace in Europe. A pandemic turned endemic. Dramatically changing ways of working. Rising prices. A pivot to a new epoch of Great Powers’ struggles. All in the backdrop of the slow perils of a changing climate. We live in interesting times.
Perhaps you always feel like that when you are in the thick of things – when was there ever a boring news cycle? – yet I suspect that the defining themes of the 2020s are falling into place. They appear to be ones that require more sacrifice, courage, coalition building, and purposeful direction than the first twenty years of this century did.
This is new for many of us – this decade will pivot the century’s course. How do we make sense of it all? How do we build the future we want from the seat we are in? And I’ve talked to some parents who wonder what it means to raise children in an age like this. Some even feel guilty for leaving this type of scary inheritance. This reminds me of a quote I saw recently:
Perhaps there is a kind of triumph ahead of us and the next generation that involves rising to the occasion in a way we haven’t experienced in our lifetime yet. More purpose and less undirected individualism. Less progress for progress’s sake and more solace in a shared direction. Where the world will fall on the comfort vs. sacrifice spectrum and how it will be distributed is very unwritten - yet this is a new feeling many of us are forcing ourselves to explore as we search for positive, action-oriented framing for it.
That is a heady intro to what amounts to a post with a few book recommendations – yet if we are to raise dragon slayers or indeed be them ourselves, it will require more context and forethought than the previous “summer times.” At the very least, reading is a self-defense mechanism for me and is more productive than doomscrolling (even as I keep up my infodiet). So here are three books I’ve read so far in 2022 that have helped me contextualize world events.
Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything - Even Things That Seem Impossible Today
(Amazon link: https://amzn.to/35xXXiE)
Released last Tuesday, the jacket cover testimonials are a who’s who of reasoned wisdom: Daniel Pink, Adam Grant, Nir Eyal, Sid Meier. It’s a fun bit of brain candy that trains your mind on how to have an imagination. It’s not about being right in any predictions; it’s about having a positive relationship with what might be ahead. It includes a series of exercises so you can play with specific scenarios and predictions that are 10 years in the future.
Who wrote it: Jane McGonigal is a future forecaster and designer of reality games. Incredibly well connected in San Francisco academia, she’s helped bring celebrity status to the concept of a Futurist. She also ran a large-scale simulation in the 2010s around what a respiratory disease pandemic might look like in the 2020s – so, there’s street cred if I ever saw it.
Why you should read it: The book describes a simple playbook for becoming more imaginative, which leads to creativity and optimism about the future.
If you are nervous about the future, this provides a toolkit for controlling anxiety.
If you lack imagination about what the future looks like, this helps you get started.
If you lack the motivation and time to think about the future, this provides plenty of justification for doing so.
My thoughts: I rarely think far into the future. I’ve rolled my eyes at professionals who have 10-year career goals. I’m so caught up in the present news cycle that I don’t ever have the mechanics that force me to extrapolate. In tech, 3-year roadmaps are considered science fiction – conventional wisdom is that our industry “moves too fast” for such durability to plans.
McGonigal changed my mind. Her pitch is that creating 10-year plans is not about being correct, but instead, it’s a tool to spark creativity and imagination. This insight – that you can’t be creative or imaginative unless you get over the blockers preventing you from being comfortable with future predictions – is powerful. The book is well worth reading even just to play with new ideas in your mind. I found myself leaping from idea to idea and applying them to my own work and personal life. Rarely have I read a book that made me grok what inspiration feels like.
The book is more of a warm conversation with McGonigal rather than a serious piece of academic work – the engineer in me screams for a bit more rigor and McGonigal spends quite a bit of time justifying why her methods will work. And she tries to cover every potential state of human experience in her readership base – from optimistic to pessimistic, science-minded to skeptic – so don’t expect a focused audience or an author who assumes her readers are sophisticated. I wondered if her Coursera course was just a better fit for this material than a book. Yet despite all that, her work provides me with such a gift as the 2020s come into focus – a way to play around with that time horizon for myself and the world I want.
(Amazon link: https://amzn.to/35xXXiE)
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
(Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3qUOFVj)
Economic sanctions, inflation, and the tools of monetary and fiscal policy are more top-of-mind now than at any time since 2008. Appropriate then that I finally got this off my Want to Read List as it was written and popularized during the last great economic shock. It tracks the history and mechanics of modern finance, focusing almost exclusively on the positive impacts on growth and well-being. It’s the origin story of capitalism that breaks down all the components into its simple parts – currency, bonds, stocks, fiscal policy et cetera.
Who wrote it: Niall Ferguson is an academic with over 15 published works of history and economic explainers. He’s made a career of telling the story of modern finance to a wider audience.
Why you should read it: Most urgently, this book will help you understand today’s economic news – whether that be inflation, supply shocks, or economic sanctions and the tradeoffs behind them. If you are familiar with economics, then the history part will be the most interesting aspect of this book. If you are not, then this is a great primer on the mechanics of capitalism. The focus is on the tools that governments have at their disposal to grow a prosperous and equitable economy; it’s not for your personal finances or investing.
My thoughts: It was interesting to read a book from a champion of high finance written during a period when he felt the need to defend his profession and the world order. I found the historical context around the monetary policies to be fascinating – and a healthy reminder that the system exists for a reason and has been tuned over time already. His primary takeaway seems to be to critics of capitalism: Be careful what you wish for.
At times, Ferguson had a hard time balancing brevity and depth (it’s an ambitious scope yet he felt the need to keep the book approachable and medium-length). But reading this book will make you smarter on one of the primary tools of power that will be exercised in the 2020s.
It also gave me pause on the current euphoria over crypto and web3 – the high-minded ideals of a financial system unchained from government or any intentional body is not what the world needs to face the coming dragons. I’ve been noodling a lot on whether tech is focused on the right problems and it’s something I want to explore over the coming months. What should we do if there is indeed a fundamental misalignment in our most important industry’s priorities and the needs of the decade?
(Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3qUOFVj)
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
(Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3LvRGmH)
54-hour audiobook; good thing I’ve picked up long-distance running. This is one of the most famous pieces of historical writing of the twentieth century – it follows the rise of Nazi Germany from the birth of Hitler to the fall of Germany in 1945. It’s distinctly a journalist’s vs. historian/academic’s perspective – and it covers themes of how a society deals with propaganda, how weak institutions can be exploited, the normal themes that emerge in Great Powers’ struggles, and the standard playbook for outmaneuvering Western democracy.
Who wrote it: William Shirer lived through the rise of Germany as the CBS European correspondent in the 1930s – including as an embedded journalist with the Nazi’s war machine as it rolled into France. He’s a journalist, not an academic, so expect a tone that transports you to the world of that time in chronological order and not a treatise around a central idea. Shriver had access to the post-war testimony of various Nazi leaders and the Nazi archives which were for the most part captured intact. He was also able to correspond with individuals to clear up matters of fact.
Be aware that it was written during the 1960s and some norms of that time have been left in place that are downright cringe-worthy today (e.g. fixed mindset of the values of different races, role of women, homosexuality as deviant behavior). Some of the conclusions are controversial, especially in academic circles, but Shirer’s opinions are a small minority of the text vs. a journalistic frame of events. There is plenty of room to draw your own insights.
Why you should read it: The first half of the book – up to 1939 – are by far the most relevant. The parallels apply both to the modern information wars and the European security situation with Russia. The playbook of an autocratic regime is remarkably unchanged from this period. Secondly, the actions of Western democracy in the face of powerful yet at the end of the day asymmetric adversary trying to undermine it is a cautionary tale and you can see its shadows on today’s leaders’ decisions.
My Thoughts: I started reading this book in January of this year hoping to learn more about propaganda and polarized societies. And then Russia invaded Ukraine right as I was listening to Germany’s takeover of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The parallels in modus operandi were stunning.
The book has me thinking more about responsibility for the course of world events. Will the 2020s be dictated by the critical actions of a few people in key situations and places or is there a role for collective action and sacrifice? Or perhaps both will be required for a positive outcome and if so how do they interplay? I think there is a clear cautionary tale from the 1930s that can help us today. We cannot control every player in the game, yet we can elect who gets to stand up to them. This makes some of the wedge issues of the day seem unimportant in comparison.
(Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3LvRGmH)
Thanks for reading and I hope you pick up one of these recs or it inspires you to create your own list of curiosity explorers beyond just news and analysis. I think 2022 is the inflection year and trends are emerging that cannot be held back. After all, to paraphrase one of my favorite hobbits, who likewise lived in interesting times:
“It does not do to ignore dragons when you live next to one.”
Feel free to reach out to me, too - to discuss, suggest your own recs, or let me know about ways you’ve gotten involved and built a community that discusses 10-year futures.