What I read in 2015 (and how it changed how I read, work and write)

A version of this post was originally published on Medium.  

Well what do you know, a New Year’s resolution that stuck…

About this time last year I decided that I would like to read more books. Not a sudden epiphany, this?—?I’d always wished that I had more time to read. I’d slipped into the habit of reading articles and Twitter during the day and books were relegated to downtime?—?bedtime and when on holiday.

Not good enough.

On holiday I would rip through several books in a week. These binges always felt so good?—?both the reading and the side effects: delight, useful insights, new knowledge.

So why wasn’t I doing it more the rest of the time?

It’s a question of habit, I decided. Habits are hard to build and hard to break?—?that’s why they’re useful. It’s getting going with a new behaviour and then knowing that you’ve got going that’s the hardest. The less you focus on growing a new habit and then maintaining it, the more chance of falling off the habit-wagon. This was something I’d learned from a spate of reading about how our minds work a few years ago, when Brilliant Noise was commissioned to write the #smartereveryday series of books for Nokia (now Microsoft Mobile). (To find out more about habits and effectiveness take a look at the free Design Your Day e-book, or for more depth read The Power of Habit, Willpower, and Your Brain At Work. Also a hot pre-order tip?—?How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb is out this month and will be incredible.)

One thing that had worked for me in establishing previous habits was using data. Setting goals and recording them. At just the right moment I rediscovered my Goodreads account?—?a social network for reading, effectively, that I’d updated and used sporadically before. Was there a way of setting a reading target? There was?—?an annual reading challenge.

After a bit of thought, I settled on a target of 52 books as achievable. Reading a book a week was unlikely?—?I run a young company and from time to time it takes every bit of energy and every hour of the day?—?sometimes for a few weeks. However, I knew that I would make up for these periods of reading less while on holiday. And when I do read, I read pretty quickly. So 52 books felt like a stretch, but not a ridiculous one.

I passed 52 books last week at the start of the Christmas holidays, and reached 58 by the end of the year.

In the spirit of an agile retrospective I’m going to run through what went well, what I will do differently this year (because I’m going to set the challenge again this year), what I learned and what still puzzles me about reading and this challenge.

What went well

  • It worked. Having a target and publicly recording each time I finished a book was motivating. It’s not like running a marathon or losing weight?—?and I didn’t share with Facebook or Twitter every time I notched up another book, just like I don’t share every time I finish a run. It’s the combination of the goal as a reminder and guiding lots of little micro-decisions (I’ll read instead of watching TV, or checking Twitter, reading feeds).
  • Reading more books is wonderful. I love cinema and I love great TV (Fargo season 2 and Narcos were particular highlights this year), but there are more great books about than there are great movies or box-sets. There more good books than you will have a chance to read in your lifetime?—?with some good choices you’ll always be reading something good. Watching TV is a bit how I think being a football fan must be like?—?you have to sit through a lot of tedium to get some moments or runs of pure brilliance.
  • Reading helped my work. I was surprised I read more fiction than non-fiction, somehow I thought it would be the other way around. However, what I did read was brilliant and directly supported me in my work at Brilliant Noise. The strategy books helped clarify my thinking and work on a strategy method and Scaling Up came at the right moment to help make sense of 2015 and planning for 2016 (actually haven’t finished this one yet). Reading a good business book?—?there are more middling-to-poor ones than really good ones?—?is partly about exploring new ideas or other’s experiences and partly about having the space to reflect on your own work.

What will I do differently this year

  • Find ways to read more on paper. Not because it is better in any particular way, but I’m curious about what reading books on paper is good for?—?or how it is different and useful to me.
  • Set a slightly higher target. I’ll probably hit 60 books in the last few days of this year and my reading has got faster over the last 12 months, so I’ll need to aim higher. Not sure how much higher?—?maybe 66 or 70.
  • Read more non-fiction and business books. There’s definitely room for more of these, although I have less patience with badly written business book than a slightly clumsy novel?—?so I tend to abandon them faster and end up sticking with the few that actually deserve to be a whole book rather than an essay.
  • Keep a reading journal. In one of the books I read this year about writing, the author recommended keeping a writing journal while working on a book. I think a reading journal would help me get more from reading?—?I leave notes and highlights in Amazon that are useful if I decide to return to them, but I don’t do that as much as I should.
  • Write more. I’ve dropped out of at least two NanoWriMos?—?the write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge?—?as November always seems to be such a busy month. With more preparation and planning?—?or attempting the challenge in a different month?—?I think I could do it. In part, I think all this reading is about preparing to write fiction (I already write several thousand words a week in reports, plans, articles and communications for my business).

What did I learn

  • I love reading about writing. So yes I want to write. I’ve read a lot of books about writing this year. It’s a genre I enjoy, even though I rarely write fiction?—?in fact I mostly do it on my holidays, a bit like the way I used to read.
  • While I love paper, e-books work better for me. I have a stack of paper books in my study waiting to be read, but I find it hard to get to them. I move between my Kindle Voyage, iPad Air and iPhone 6S Plus Kindle apps, and the excellent Audible audiobook app. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, convenience in being able to have a quick read whenever I have a spare minute on my phone, moving between whichever device suits me at that moment, being able to highlight text and also to get the book I want, or the next in a series instantly. Second, I can change the font and layout of pages on apps and the Kindle to help me read in the way I want?—?thinner columns and larger text look uglier from a distance, but I read a lot faster in this way (and I know this because the predicted reading time for chapter or a book on the Kindle device and apps gives you the data).
  • Sometimes you’re not in the mood for a book?—?come back to it later. Two science fiction books?—?both “hard sci-fi”, meaning filled with technical detail and actual science?—?turned me off on the first attempt. This happened with Seveneves and The Martian, but I returned to both a few weeks later and couldn’t put them down. Glad I didn’t just give up add them to my DNF (did not finish) shelf on Goodreads.
  • Reading a lot is about focus. Reading for long periods takes a bit of focus, but it gets better with practice. By the end of the year I’ve found that I can focus on a book even with annoying background noise quickly and stay in it for longer.
  • The more you read, the faster and more deftly you read. There’s a lot to be said for reading slowly (Francine Prose talks about this in her excellent book Reading Like a Writer. It is lovely though to be able to read quickly and to be able to decide when it is a good idea to sprint or slowly walk through a passage or chapter. There’s something to do with mindfulness in this?—?or meta-cognition?—?reading something and understanding the depth or quality of attention it requires, that you want to give it and applying just the right amount. That’s what you might call reading deftly?—?not speed-reading for the sake of speed?—?but having the mastery of reading and understanding and experiencing a text.
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things rewarded re-reading. I’m going to have to write a separate post about my love for this book?—?I read it last year, so it doesn’t appear on the list of books I read in 2015, although I think I read?—?or listened to it on Audible?—?three or four times over the year. It’s the best book ever written for a founder-CEO or people running small, growth businesses.

What still puzzles me

  • Not finishing books. I’m not quite sure when it’s a good idea actually stop reading a book for good?—?instead of leaving it to pick up another day. I buy more books than I read. The nature of the reading challenge incentivises me to finish books, so that I can mark them as read and get a notch further along toward my target. Sometimes deciding not to finish a book can be a positive. It’s not worth the time and attention?—?in that it’s not informing you, challenging you or entertaining you. This can be as much to do with taste as anything. The Girl on The Train just didn’t work for me?—?something about the characters turned me off and the writing didn’t connect with me. But I’m no literary snob, I finished a several-year project to read all 20-or-so of the Jack Reacher novels this year, and as much as they seem formulaic I’ve really enjoyed them and hugely admire the writing style of Lee Child. Like Elmore Leonard, Child makes sure the writing gets out of the way of the reader?—?but that’s easier said than done. Leonard and Child’s restrained style rewards the slow reading, Francine Prose talks about?—?it’s only by looking closely that you can spot the craftsmanship.
  • Reflecting on what I’ve read. Maybe the reading journal will answer this, but would it be useful to spend more time reflecting on a book?—?what I learned, what I noticed about the writing?
  • How many books to have on the go at the same time. The “Currently Reading” shelf of my Goodreads profile makes me realise just how many books I read at the same time?—?some are on pause, as it were?—?but often there are 13 or 14 on the list. Should I have a cap on these? Focus on just three or four books at a time until they are finished?
  • How to prioritise what I read. Choosing a new book is a serendipitous affair. I have a “Want to Read” list on Goodreads, several samples of books on my Kindle and an Amazon wish-list. Sometimes I will hear a recommendation of a book and I will start reading the book right away. Would it be better to have a list of books I want to read, to prioritise them in some way? Or is serendipity doing just fine, thank you?

And these were my favourite books that I read this year..

Fiction

  1. Station Eleven: A beautifully written story about the end of the world that flits between the before and after of the fall of civilisation. I read it twice and it’s just lovely.
  2. Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller: A dazzling debut novel from Claire Fuller, who I was delighted to meet at the Curious Arts Festival in the summer. Out in paperback very soon, if that’s your format of choice. I grabbed the Kindle version and a hardback copy at the Festival because I thought it was so wonderful.
  3. The Son, by Philip Meyer: Three generations of a bloody Texas family history told in parallel. Grabs you and pulls you into its violent world. Just when you think you have a fix on a character, it turns your assumptions on their head by introducing another point of view.

NB: I’m a third of the way through The Killing of Bobbi Lomax at the moment?—?and if I’d finished it before I wrote this list it might have been a contender for top three fiction books of the year too?—?another amazing debut novel.

Business

  1. Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt: A kick up the corporate behind for the wafflers and befuddlers of business strategy. Helped me re-articulate the importance of strong strategy and stick to ours. Strongest line for me was:

The first natural advantage of good strategy arises because other organisations often don’t have one. And because they don’t expect you to have one either.

  1. No Ordinary Disruption: A practical, evidence supported analysis from the McKinsey Global Institute of four major forces of change that are affecting business today: digitisation, globalisation, an ageing population and urbanisation.
  2. Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Hermina Ibarra: Andrew Hill of the FT recommended this book, and I confess I wouldn’t have bought it on the basis of the title. It draws on the insight that leaders have to model their behaviours before they really grasp them. It’s a useful guide to leadership behaviours and really got me thinking.

Non-fiction

  1. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. I’ve read most of Jon Ronson’s books and I think they just keep getting better. This book takes the trend of social media shaming and looks at it from all sorts of angles. Ronson combines honesty and curiosity in a brilliant way.
  2. Postcapitalism, by Paul Mason. While he doesn’t have all the answers, he has a pretty strong overview of the issues facing global capitalism. Even the FT recommended this book?—?and so do I.
  3. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. A kind of meta-history of humanity, this followed on nicely from a similar book, War: What is Good For? I read last year. It is just fascinating to look at the challenges of today through the perspective of the whole span of our species history.

I’ll finish with an old school, blogger’s hat-tip to the Farnham Street blog?—?I think the posts there about reading helped nudge me into developing this habit of reading more.

Images: apart from the montage of book covers I read, the photographs I took on a visit to the incredible new Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Instagram for writing

image

Two dots to connect on this one. The other day a friend mentioned that “Instagram comments are the new blogging” for some young people. Then the Wunderkammer email (worth subscribing to) offered a story about journalists using it to post stories.

Initially sceptical when his editor suggested he use Instagram to share reportage from a trip to East Africa, Neil Shea was eventually won over. He notes how it affected his style:

I didn’t want to choke his story with factlets. So I wrote for mood and tone, distilling the transformative event of the man’s life into 268 words. I used simple techniques of lede and arc and kicker that I’d learned a long time ago, in the newsroom. I examined each word to see if it deserved a place. Mostly I kept hitting delete.

Take a look at more of of Neil’s Instagram reporting in his feed.

It’s quite inspiring – maybe something I’d like to try.

Reading up on the blockchain

 

*Updated – apologies for errors – still testing new writing apps.*

There are good reads to be had in the business press this week on the Blockchain – you can call the technology blockchain and the instances of it blockchains, but in these early days of the word, it seems to often be referred to with that determinant and a capital – the technology that makes cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Both The Economist and the FT carry useful analysis.

Blockchain, rather than Bitcoin, is the most interesting phenomenon, describing the latter with deft description that I love from the Economist as a “machine for creating trust”:

To understand the power of blockchain systems, and the things they can do, it is important to distinguish between three things that are commonly muddled up, namely the bitcoin currency, the specific blockchain that underpins it and the idea of blockchains in general. A helpful analogy is with Napster, the pioneering but illegal “peer-to-peer” file-sharing service that went on line in 1999, providing free access to millions of music tracks. Napster itself was swiftly shut down, but it inspired a host of other peer-to-peer services. Many of these were also used for pirating music and films. Yet despite its dubious origins, peer-to-peer technology found legitimate uses, powering internet startups such as Skype (for telephony) and Spotify (for music streaming)—and also, as it happens, bitcoin.

The blockchain is an even more potent technology. In essence it is a shared, trusted, public ledger that everyone can inspect, but which no single user controls. The participants in a blockchain system collectively keep the ledger up to date: it can be amended only according to strict rules and by general agreement. Bitcoin’s blockchain ledger prevents double-spending and keeps track of transactions continuously. It is what makes possible a currency without a central bank.

If you want to delve deeper into the Blockchain, this list by Rob Myers explores Decentralised Applications (DApps) and Decentralised Autonomous Organisations Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs). These ideas – made possible by blockchains are essentially apps and companies that are owned by no one. The thought experiment that illustrates these for now mind-bending ideas is the self-owned self-driving car, operating on an Uber-like DApp, owned by no one, the car is crowd-funded, re-pays its investors and adapts its algorithms, location and other things autonomously.

Beware, all of these terms are becoming buzzwords and will doubtless seem as annoying as big data and its hype-y predecessors eventually became. But don’t let that distract you from the potential of this fascinating technology.

Links – paywalled, but free articles for registrants and also worth coughing up some currency, crypto- or otherwise:

Excellent podcast on innovation

Disruption is a word worn thin by overuse. “Verbal inflation”, Michael Raynor (a long-time collaborator of Clayton Christensen) calls the effect in this Andreessen Horowitz podcast where he talks about his work on disruption theory and how to apply it to planning and prediction (also covered in his book The Innovator’s Manifesto).

Podcast: a16z: Holy Non Sequiturs, Batman: What Disruption Theory Is … and Isn’t

  

The opportunity in avoiding catastrophe

  An article in the FT by Martin Wolf made a point that I’d not heard before: avoiding climate change would bring massive benefits to the global economy (with the side benefit of averting a great deal of human catastrophe).

Even more interesting is that one obvious move is about subsidies – not subsidising renewable energy, but stopping subsidising fossil fuels.

This is Wolf’s article in The Financial Times:

This [energy] revolution will not happen without state support. It would be helped by eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels, estimated by the International Monetary Fund at $5.3tn for 2015 (6.5 per cent of global output), with the inclusion of spillover effects, such as air pollution. This is three orders of magnitude larger than state spending on research and development in renewable energy.

5.3 trillion US dollars. That’s 3.26 trillion pounds. That’s almost seven times the valuation of Apple, the most valuable company in the world. 3.5 times the amount the UK government spent on bailing out the banks, every year.

: : The article’s worth registering on the FT site to read if you don’t have a subscription. Also Why Are We Waiting, by Nicholas Stern, published earlier this year by MIT Press is cited often if you want to find out more.

Unstructured writing and thinking

It’s interesting working with your children on their revision. You get to re-learn basic French, discover the reason you learnt algebra (in order to help your children revise algebra, apparently) and also the basics of structuring narratives and essays.

Much of my blogging – when it breaks out* – is off the cuff, exploring an idea through prose. Very often I’ll cut the concluding part of a blog post and paste it to the beginning of the post and then change the headline. By the end of the post, I’ve actually figured out what the post is about.

My children have been taught to write a small plan for their essays and stories at the beginning, even – or especially – in exams. It’s something I could do with trying out more in some of my writing, I guess. Although when I write texts longer than a couple of thousand words I write in a plan – using Scrivener.

Choosing when to write in a structured and an unstructured way is important. Unstructured writing can be a formidable tool for reflection and exploring an idea. As I wrote recently on Medium, I’ve started using journal-like writing instead of using priority lists and plans to work what needs to be focused on and to work my way through complex issues and problems.

Writing in an unstructured way like this – starting a piece of writing without knowing where you are going – helps the subconscious get involved, while allowing the conscious mind to create a little order, a little post-rationalisation for gut-feel decisions, or a little pre-emptive rationalising to set the stage for big decisions to be made.

Writing in an unstructured way is basically a conversation with yourself. But without the rocking, muttering and shouted expletives that can make colleagues feel uncomfortable and draw the attention of the authorities, if you live in a society where mental health issues are noted and help given by the state. Social accpetable external monologuing, then.

* I am currently experiencing perfect conditions for blogging: (1) I am ill, which always seems to help – I started this blog in 2005 when I was bed-bound with ‘flu – body in ruins, but mind impatient to get on with something; (2) the aforementioned revision with the kids: my son’s revising for exams so now our living room has transformed from a games and TV entertainment hub into a quiet study centre – it’s nice that even with a headful of cold I can sit down here with them and read and write. Maybe I should make this permanent. They’d hate me forever, but we’d all get a lot of work done; (3) I’m trying out new tech – my half-term, man ‘flu-constrained personal project is to rationalise the large number of writing apps I have on my devices and settle on one or two. I might write about the results of that later…

  

Robo-journo beta open to all

  
The first report generated by software rather than a human reporter appeared in March last year. It was about an earthquake in Southern California.

Now a company called Automated Insights has made a beta version of its software available for anyone to try, says Wired:

Wordsmith, a platform that provides so-called robot journalists to organisations, is now available to the public.

The platform, owned by Automated Insights, provides “auto generated, data-heavy articles” on topics such as quarterly earnings and college sports. A beta version is available now on Wordsmith’s website, with a full launch expected in January 2016. The technology is already used by companies such as the Associated Press and Yahoo.

Anything that can be turned into a flow chart can be automated, as I heard Ben Hammersly put it at Learnfest this summer.

How many online petitions does it take…

Tracking online petitions…

Of 20,000 online petitions submitted to the UK government over 18 months:

…the vast majority of petitions do not achieve any measure of success; over 99 percent fail to get the 10,000 signatures required for an official response and only 0.1 percent attain the 100,000 required for a parliamentary debate.

Having a vision when you can’t see where you’re going

Buzzfeed’s a company I follow as closely as I can – for a couple of reasons. It’s understood content and the Web better than any other media organisation (“sharing is distribution ”) and also it is constantly having to reinvent itself as the Web evolves.

On Friday, CEO Jonas Perretti publicly posted a letter to his company:

During the explosive growth of the past year, it’s been easy to lose sight of the big picture. We don’t have an existing model to copy, because we are building something that has never existed before and wasn’t even possible before social networks and smartphones became the primary way people consume news and entertainment around the world.

The post goes on to calibrate the company’s vision as a “cross-platform global network” for media. That Buzzfeed’s vision and identity changes over time is a strength – more than many CEOs Perretti acknowledges uncertainty about their destination and the route they’ll take.

   

Progressive policies are worthless without real culture change

Andrew Hill at the FT challenges companies offering amazing-sounding benefits that are unlikely to ever really be used by employees without the backing of leaders and some serious culture change:

The need to have enough people available for vital work puts a natural limit on the ability of everyone to bunk off at once. But, without guidance, it may also lash them more firmly to their desks.

Sir Richard Branson was rightly lampooned for making unlimited leave at Virgin conditional on staff being “a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project”.

Discussing the Netflix policy of giving parents unlimited time off in the first year after a child, Hill says that unless leaders at the company take up the policy, or there are other nudges to encourage staff, it will be a hollow offer. The policy may be there, but culture will stop people using it…