As a product manager, I often find myself immersed in the day-to-day challenges and tasks of my job. But every now and then, I like to step back and broaden my perspective by reading books outside of my field. This year, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of 5-star books that have helped me think about the world in new ways and challenged my assumptions. For a change, these books cover a wide range of topics that do NOT include product management. From global politics and the future of professions, to coping with difficult emotions and the weaponization of social media, each one has had a profound impact on me (some personally, some professionally, some both). So to end the year on a high note, I’ll share some highlights from seven books I rated 5 stars in 2022:
- Prisoners of Geography;
- The Future of Professions;
- Reasons to Stay Alive;
- Big Feelings;
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
(For books about product management, you’re better served with my standing list of books for product managers and product leaders.)
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics
This book provides a fascinating and accessible overview of how geography has shaped the histories and current affairs of various countries and regions, and I found it to be a valuable way of gaining a more nuanced view of the world. The 10 chapters / maps are Russia, China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India & Pakistan, Korea & Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic. It’s equal parts enlightening and scary to look into the 2022 events with the perspective from this 2015 book.
It is no surprise that, after seizing Crimea, Russia went on to encourage the uprisings by pro-Russians in the Ukrainian eastern industrial heartlands in Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia could easily drive militarily all the way to the eastern bank of the Dnieper River in Kiev. But it does not need the headache that would bring. It is far less painful, and cheaper, to encourage unrest in the eastern borders of Ukraine and remind Kiev who controls energy supplies, to ensure that Kiev’s infatuation with the flirtatious West does not turn into a marriage consummated in the chambers of the EU or NATO.Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography.
The Future of Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts
In a coffee chat with a colleague who had just joined the Legal department, we exchanged book recommendations. I recommended “AI Superpowers”, and he recommended this book. One of the authors was famously bashed by senior officials at the Law Society of England and Wales when, in the mid-1990s, he predicted that email would become the dominant way in which clients and lawyers would communicate. Maybe give him a little bit more credit this time? In this book, Richard and Daniel Susskind (father and son) extend their views on the impact of technology to professions beyond just the legal profession. It became particularly relevant with the exploding popularity of ChatGPT, though I had already read it at that time.
In relation to our current professions, we argue that the professions will undergo two parallel sets of changes. The first will be dominated by automation. Traditional ways of working will be streamlined and optimized through the application of technology. The second will be dominated by innovation. Increasingly capable systems will transform the work of professionals, giving birth to new ways of sharing practical expertise.— Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, The Future of Professions.
Reasons to Stay Alive
I was drawn to the book by the author’s has personal experience with mental health struggles, and found his candid and honest portrayal of his own journey to be relatable and inspiring. I was also interested in the book because it offers practical advice and strategies for coping with mental health challenges, and I hoped that it might provide me with additional tools and perspectives to help me navigate my own struggles. Ultimately, I found it to be a powerful and thought-provoking read that has had a lasting impact on my own understanding and approach to mental health.
Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people seem to cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.— Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive.
Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay
After reading “Reasons to Stay Alive”, I explored other books on the topic of mental health, which led me to “Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay”. The book’s focus on “big feelings” resonated with me, and I found it to be a valuable resource for understanding the science of emotions and how they can impact our lives. The book goes around the seven “big feelings” of the modern world — uncertainty, comparison, anger, burnout, perfectionism, despair, and regret — and some of them struck a chord in very specific terms with what I’m still navigating. Overall, I found the book to be insightful, and a helpful accessory to professional help in addressing my own mental health struggles.
Sitting with uncertainty forces you to confront the fact that you don’t have all the answers. Especially if you’re an overachiever who likes to feel in control, that can be frightening. You can’t predict the future, which means you also can’t perfectly plan for it. But here’s the thing: you don’t need to have all the answers right now.— Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, Big Feelings.
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media
As a product manager, I’m always thinking about the ways in which technology can shape and influence public discourse, and I was curious to learn more about how social media has been weaponized in this context. The book provided a fascinating and eye-opening look at the ways in which social media has been used to spread misinformation, manipulate public opinion, and foment conflict, and I found it to be a valuable resource for understanding the complex dynamics at play in this realm. I also appreciated the book’s exploration of the ways in which Twitter specifically has played a role in political events, from the Arab Spring to the U.S. presidential election, and how it has influenced the way that we communicate and interact with one another online.
Attacking an adversary’s most important center of gravity—the spirit of its people—no longer requires massive bombing runs or reams of propaganda. All it takes is a smartphone and a few idle seconds. And anyone can do it.— P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar.
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
I found out about this book from a fleeting note about it in “How to Take Smart Notes”. In this book, the authors explore the psychology of scarcity — “having less than you feel you need”, chiefly time and money — and how it clouds decision-making. The promise of the book sounded interesting on two accounts:
- personally, to understand my own behaviours in the face of scarcity;
- professionally, as a product manager, as a lens into the why behind certain user behaviours.
Focus is a positive: scarcity focuses us on what seems, at that moment, to matter most. Tunneling is not: scarcity leads us to tunnel and neglect other, possibly more important, things.— Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
In a coffee chat with a software engineer in my team, I happened to mention my amateur interest in urban planning. Little did I know she used to be an architect and knows her share about the topic — and went on to recommend to me this book by Jane Jacobs. Though it revolves around American cities, the principles related with my perception of a reality I know more of — European cities.
Great cities are not like towns only larger; they are not like suburbs only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.
A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighbourhoods always do, must have three main qualities:
First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. […]
Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. […]
And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers.— Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
I hope these highlights inspired your own readings. Also, if the above makes you think I’ll enjoy reading a book you’ve read, feel free to reach out with your recommendations.
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