52 Lessons From 100 Books Read in 2020

Fey with one of my books. Taken by me.
  1. Like energy, complexity can only be transferred, not eliminated. In product design, this means making something simpler for the user means making the underlying mechanisms more complex. (Living with ComplexityDonald Norman)
  2. If you ask the average person what they would have been in a past life, even the most modest people are likely to say something like a Jacobean cleric or 18th-century squire or a knight. But the overwhelming probability is that they would have been a peasant. It can be hard for us to appreciate how arduous, pain-filled, and devoid of comfort most people’s lives were between the start of settled agriculture and the last century. We have made unfathomable strides in improving the lives of billions of people and we have all the knowledge we need to improve the lives of billions more. (The Two Cultures — C P Snow)
  3. The police only get involved in fights that generate paperwork. (The Utopia of RulesDavid Graeber)
  4. The rate at which you think is fixed. You can’t force yourself to think faster just because you’re under pressure. In fact, pressure is likely to lead to panic, freezing, and overall worse thinking. Good decisions require careful thinking and that takes time. If you want to improve your thinking, focus on quality, not speed. (Slack — Tom DeMarco)
  5. We engage in moral reasons not to figure out why we came to a particular conclusion, but to identify reasons someone else should be persuaded to share the same viewpoint. (The Righteous Mind — Jonathan Haidt)
  6. A dangerous misconception in investing is that any given asset has a single reasonable price. In reality, the rational price for any given asset depends on the time frame of the person buying it. Someone who plans to sell within minutes has different concerns than someone investing for their retirement decades away. Financial bubbles occur when investors with a long timeframe start copying those with a much shorter one. (The Psychology of MoneyMorgan Housel)
  7. Avoid single points of failure. If something can break, it eventually will. (The Psychology of MoneyMorgan Housel)
  8. Never risk what you have and need for what you don’t have and could live without. (The Psychology of MoneyMorgan Housel)
  9. During times of external conflict (such as a war or pandemic), people can experience much greater social cohesion than normal. This can lead to people experiencing better mental health when living through a crisis because they feel truly connected to others. During a crisis, status differences feel less relevant, people feel needed, and we discover what we’re made of. (Tribe — Sebastian Junger)
  10. When you supply the reference point, you control the message. (The WSJ Guide to Information Graphics)
  11. When editing the design/copy of a webpage, start with the assumption that everything is noise to the average viewer. Eliminate anything that isn’t making a real contribution to whatever problem the page is trying to solve. (Don’t Make Me Think — Steve Krug)
  12. Be upfront about…anything you’d rather not be upfront about.’ Refers to website copy, but I think it’s a good approach much of the time. (Don’t Make Me Think — Steve Krug)
  13. Societies benefit from a norm of generalised reciprocity in which people do things for each other because they know someone will come through when they need help. Generalised reciprocity (“do unto others as you would have others do unto you”) is more efficient than a society where people need to expect immediate reciprocity. Dense social networks where gossip facilitates reputation cultivation enable generalised reciprocity. (Bowling Alone — Robert Putnam)
  14. The more socially homogenous a community is, the less likely its members are to be civically engaged. (Bowling Alone — Robert Putnam)
  15. Researchers will sometimes assess how much people trust their neighbours by asking them to estimate the chances of a wallet dropped in the street being returned to them. People’s responses have more to do with the kinds of interactions they have with their neighbours (if they have them at all) than with how trustworthy they actually are. (Bowling Alone — Robert Putnam)
  16. Complex transport systems, in particular those running underground with no discernable landmarks, require maps that simplify routes as much as possible. For this reason, transit cartography tends to focus on the simplification of physical features into diagrammatic forms. (Transit Maps of the World — Mark Ovenden)
  17. If you never find yourself having wasted an effort, you’re only doing things with a too high chance of success. Try doing riskier things with higher potential payoffs. (Inadequate Equilibria — Eliezer Yudkowsky)
  18. In any reasonably developed field, for any given person, it’s almost always easier to identify the most correct existing expertise than it is to make a worthwhile original contribution. (Inadequate Equilibria — Eliezer Yudkowsky)
  19. Systems tend to be inexploitable with respect to the resources that large ecosystems of competent agents are trying their hardest to pursue, like fame and money, regardless of how adequate or inadequate they are.’ If you look at a system from the outside and think you can do better than the people acting within it, you’re probably missing a big part of the picture. (Inadequate Equilibria — Eliezer Yudkowsky)
  20. Horror is fear of the unknown. Terror is fear of the known. (For One Week Only — Ric Meyers)
  21. All people are driven by four core needs: acquisition, bonding, learning, and defending. (The Personal MBA — Josh Kaufman)
  22. Someone being nice to you doesn’t automatically make them a good person. Being nice is a choice people make. It’s not an innate trait. (The Gift of Fear Gavin de Becker)
  23. Sometimes we show that we find a situation concerning through the use of dark humour. This happens when we’re scared to admit we find something unsettling and don’t want to feel silly if we’re wrong. It can be useful to pay attention to when we or people around us use dark humour in case it’s a sign of something being amiss. (The Gift of Fear Gavin de Becker)
  24. The way to make friends with fear is to get better at trusting your intuitions and learning important signs of danger. It doesn’t do us any good to be scared all the time, always vigilant for possible threats. In that state, we don’t pay attention to our fear because it’s always there. Fear is a signal, not a state. (The Gift of Fear Gavin de Becker)
  25. Anxiety is caused by uncertainty. The way to reduce it is to look for ways to increase our certainty about a given issue, or to try to accept that the thins we worry about rarely happen. (The Gift of Fear Gavin de Becker)
  26. Any scientist of any age who wants to make important discoveries must study important problems. Dull or piffling problems yield dull or piffling answers. It is not enough that a problem should be interesting — almost any problem is interesting if it is studied in sufficient depth.’ (Advice to a Young ScientistPeter Medawar)
  27. Many people find/found maths class boring in school. But this is the fault of the way the subject is taught, not the subject itself. Maths is the only subject we teach without any discussion of its history, philosophy, thematic development, aesthetic criteria, or current status. It’s also perhaps the only subject where we ignore primary sources and just use textbooks which show end results, not the process it took to get to them. (A Mathematician’s LamentPaul Lockhart)
  28. ‘Slack’ consists of spare resources such as time or money. Having slack seems less efficient, but it allows for greater adaptability and sustainability. If we have slack, we can respond to changing information and take new opportunities. We can ensure we’re doing the right things, instead of just being busy. ‘Slack represents operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long term health.’(Slack — Tom DeMarco)
  29. The events, procedures and results that constitute the science have no common structure; there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere. In science, anything goes. We might well call this epistemological anarchism. (Against Method — Paul Feyerabend)
  30. Having a regular writing schedule is the cornerstone of productive writing. Expecting yourself to be able to write a lot when you just manage to find a big block of time for it is a form of procrastination. Showing up at set times leads to more inspiration — in one study, people who were forced to write to a schedule had far more creative ideas than those who waited for the mood to strike them. I know this when it comes to work, but I’m bad at sticking to a writing schedule for blogging. (How to Write a Lot — Paul Silvia)
  31. The city park stood apart from other venues by dint of its emphasis not just on idle fun, but on betterment…Nature stood for goodness, order and peaceful living…The park thereby civilized the city by naturalizing it.’ (The Invention of the Park — Karen Jones and John Wills)
  32. If you want to come up with something creative, you need to start by understanding an existing system extremely well, stepping outside of it to reimagine things, then using what you discover as the basis for something new. By its nature, creativity has to involve going against established order and doing things which might not work. (Intuition Pumps Daniel Dennett)
  33. Folk psychology: the internal sense we have of how other people (and other agents) act in accordance with beliefs and goals, choosing the course of action which fits with their beliefs and desired. It’s what we consider common knowledge about minds. (Intuition Pumps Daniel Dennett)
  34. It’s hard to overstate the influence widespread availability of artificial light had on society. For most of human history, people could do almost nothing after dark and would use any possible fuel source for illumination. Fireflies in cages, dried salmon, dead petrels, pine knots, and wood splinters were all options. (Brilliant — Jane Brox)
  35. Relative risks tend to convey an exaggerated importance, and absolute risks should be provided for clarity.’ (The Art of StatisticsDavid Spiegelhalter)
  36. Our ability to trust the people around us influences our happiness more than income. One way to gauge this is by asking people if they think a dropped wallet would be returned to them. Their responses tend to have more to do with the quality and frequency of their interactions with neighbours than with how scrupulous people around them are. (Happy CityCharles Montgomery)
  37. We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure.’ (How to Read and Why — Harold Bloom)
  38. Technological creativity is not a given, it’s the exception. Most societies at most times have not been fruitful at devising new technology. For a society to be technologically creative, it needs to fulfil three factors: a supply of smart and resourceful people, incentives for invention, and tolerance towards difference. (The Lever of Riches — Joel Mokyr)
  39. In 100 AD, the city of Rome had better street paving, sewage disposal, water supplies, and fire safety than any of the capital cities of Europe did in 1800 AD. (The Lever of Riches — Joel Mokyr)
  40. There are two types of technological progress: inventions dependent on the overall state of knowledge which can only be made once the background is there, and purely empirical ones which could come about at any point in history. (The Lever of Riches — Joel Mokyr)
  41. The lifecycle of a technologically advanced society consists of three stages. In the first, new technologies overcome old ones due to their greater efficiency. In the second, new technology continues to take hold, but increasingly through the force of creative destruction, meaning the incentive grows to prevent it. In the third state, old technology develops protective mechanisms to prevent itself from being superseded even by better new technology. Technological creativity ceases. (The Lever of Riches — Joel Mokyr)
  42. Pirates had the right to democratically elect their leaders nearly 150 years before Britain achieved the same thing. They also ensured separation of powers, with captains in charge during battle and quartermasters in charge the rest of the time. (The Invisible Hook Peter Leeson)
  43. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfilment think it is a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favour radical change.’ (The True BelieverEric Hoffer)
  44. Arsenic is toxic to all living things with a central nervous system, plus the majority of plants. (The Arsenic Century James Whorton)
  45. Although the state form is sometimes perceived as somehow natural and inevitable, it only represents the last 5% of human history. For the other 95%, people lived in small, mobile, dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers. (Against the Grain James C Scott)
  46. Good definition of a complex system: a system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behaviour, sophisticated information processing, and adaption via learning or evolution. (ComplexityMelanie Mitchell)
  47. Encouraging a rampant belief in conspiracy theories is a form of censorship. (This is not PropagandaPeter Pomerantsev)
  48. What makes writer creative is the way they respond to interpretations of their work, not whether what they say is true or not. Creativity lies in the ability to be read in different ways without a given reading being incorrect as such. (Confessions of a Young Novelist Umberto Eco)
  49. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.’ (A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit)
  50. Useful questions to ask when making a plan: What are our biggest, riskiest assumptions? Where is the uncertainty? What could I do to learn something that would replace risks or assumptions with real information? (User Story Mapping Jeff Patton)
  51. You turn a space into a place by arranging it in such a way that people entering it know how to use it and what you expect of them. The way a space is arranged dictates how people use it. (How to Make Sense of Any MessAbby Covert)

Content strategist @ Farnam Street by day. Essays here sometimes. Berlin. More writing/ say hi: rosieleizrowice.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store