Business, Culture

What I learned reading 550+ books for work and life

An illustration of a person listening to audiobooks while commuting and doing chores.

Are you an avid reader of nonfiction books or looking to become one? Want to supercharge your professional and personal growth? 

Olof Hoverfält found a way to absorb over a hundred books per year without dedicating time to it. In this blog post, he reveals five key insights for improving one’s critical yet creative thinking. Brace yourself for a story about learning to learn at scale –  and a bunch of book recommendations to keep your mind sharp and your heart in the right place.

Olof works in Reaktor’s Strategy & Business Design practice, combining business strategy, design thinking, and lean startup methodologies to create new value and competitive advantage. He recently made waves with his viral wardrobe data project, exploring consumption habits and sustainability.

One of the most valuable human capabilities is independent thinking. Books are a great way of improving it, which is why I have pushed my reading to the very limit for the past years. Turns out, you can read and adopt a whole lot more than you first thought possible. 

I found audiobooks back in 2015. In terms of reading, that would prove to change everything. After two years of experimentation, I had found a way to read 100 books a year without deprioritizing anything else. Audiobooks turned out to be perfect for turning all the cognitive idling slots of my daily life into productive action. I shared my learnings in my blog post Optimizing Audiobooks — How to read and learn more without making time for it

Up until today, I have over 550 audiobooks and 2 824 hours of raw listening time under my belt. It constitutes 1,5 years of dedicated full-time work. A lot of information has stuck, most has not. But it’s the lasting changes in thinking that make all the difference. With the help of books, I’d like to think I have grown much better equipped to understand, enjoy, and improve the world around me with all its wickedness and wonder. I have found five ways to make the most out of what I read, and this blog post is all about exploring them in detail:

  1. Read to recognize, not to memorize
  2. Extract mental models, not analogies
  3. Seek constructive contradiction
  4. Create a visual reference
  5. Apply and iterate proactively

I read books ranging from business strategy, business design, artificial intelligence, behavioral economics, and cognitive science to philosophy and self. Most of my readings relate to my professional domain: structuring and solving complex opportunities and problems brought about by digital technology. 

I work as a consultant in Reaktor’s Strategy & Business Design practice. We combine business strategy, design methodologies, and mindsets with a creative yet critical approach to crafting business viability. In essence, we seek to bridge the worlds of strategy and design without compromising either. It is no easy task, so I read to help break new ground.

5 steps to turn books into your superpower 

This is my story of learning to learn at scale. Through trial and error, I’ve found ways to boost my brainpower with books. 

If you’re curious about the literature I have read, take a glance at my digital bookshelf on Miro. We’ll get back to it later since creating such a visual reference has been one of my biggest realizations. And if you feel overwhelmed by the idea of high-volume reading, head over to the end of this post for some very practical tips to get started. But now, onto my learnings:

1. Read to recognize, not to memorize

If you’re an active reader of nonfiction, you might recognize the agony of trying to remember the overwhelming amount of thoughts and insights you are exposed to. Maybe you’ve attempted building mind maps, summarizing key points, and building reference indices to them. I certainly did. Yet, my first key learning is to stop doing that.

Come to accept that the world provides an endless feed of things to explore and learn, and there’s simply no way to hoard, contain, or control it. In our contemporary information age, reading in the pursuit of growth is not about learning facts or references by heart but about building, expanding, revising, and rejecting your ways of thinking.

We need the bits and pieces from literature, but the real intellectual contribution lies in structuring and understanding how the parts are connected – in making sense of it all. It is the gradual growth and diversification of your thinking that counts. It does not come from memorizing things; it comes from recognizing what you see for what it is, what it’s not, and what it could be in a broader perspective. 

It is good to read multiple books on the same topic. The more you know, the easier it gradually becomes to take in and assimilate additional knowledge. Your fifth book on the same subject is a much easier read than the first one. Reading also becomes significantly more manageable once you start to understand referenced concepts and mental models of a particular genre. It is not unlike learning the slang of another language. It also carries very precise and nuanced concepts and representations available only to those in the scene. 

When I read nowadays, I no longer try to “record all” but instead “add what sticks.”

My top 5 books for a nuanced basic understanding of AI and its implications

Book cover of Competing in the age of AICompeting in the Age of AI: Strategy and Leadership When Algorithms and Networks Run the World
Marco Iansiti, Karim R. Lakhani, 2020

A good account of how AI fundamentally changes some aspects of value creation and delivery. A useful read for business leaders who want to understand AI’s implications for business strategy and operating models. Read more.

Book cover of the algorithmic leaderThe Algorithmic Leader: How to Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You
Mike Walsh, 2019

Great perspective specifically for business leaders on the changes in mindset required to lead knowledge work in a fundamentally different realm of algorithmic decision-making. The book includes ten excellent and very actionable principles for doing so. Read more.

book cover of on intelligenceOn Intelligence
Jeff Hawkins, 2004

A neuroscience perspective and a theory of the human brain as a memory-prediction system. Much has happened in AI and especially deep learning since 2004, but this book still provides good food for conceptual thought for understanding and comparing human and artificial intelligence. Read more.

book cover of the alignment problemThe Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values
Brian Christian, 2020.

One of the best practical-level contributions to the discussion around ethical issues brought about by machine learning. The book gives a nuanced view discussing both underlying human biases, the implications of ML potentially internalizing them at scale, and what we might try to do about it. Read more. 

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order
Kai-Fu Lee, 2019

An interesting depiction of the state and stakes of AI globally in 2019. Good help in seeking to understand the big picture, the vast resources put into AI research, the impact of the differences in regulatory environments, and the potentially enormous geopolitical significance of AI. Read more.

2. Extract mental models, not analogies

Mental models make up our toolbox for thinking. According to Wikipedia, a mental model is “an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. Mental models can help shape behavior and set an approach to solving problems (similar to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.” From a cognitive perspective, we use our vast collection of learned mental models to survive and make progress at work and in our daily lives. It is a critical toolbox – the engine of your craft. Size matters, but so does quality. And this is where books come in.

Much like machine learning applications, our human mental models may be difficult and time-consuming to build but quick and easy to use. This is why we should pay special attention to how we create them rather than how we use them. A faulty or misapplied mental model can create more harm than good, and the mishap can go unnoticed. The risk and potential impact of such sloppy thinking increases as the model’s scope and level of abstraction increase.

Books are an excellent way to continuously build, shape, replace and reject the mental models in your toolbox. A good book provides coherent and well-grounded argumentation for ways of thinking. It is wrapped into narratives, along with notes on the applicability of said models.

Higher-level mental models build on lower-level models in a cascading way. As a very simple example: one needs to understand the mental model of “fixed and variable costs” to understand the mental model of “economies of scale” that partly relies on it. A bad lower-level building block ends up corrupting the higher-level derived ones, too. This is why expanding your toolbox of mental models is so valuable. Remember to keep a humble and critical mindset to avoid mixing in some bad building blocks.

One source of potential bad building blocks is analogies. While great as inspiration, analogies should not be confused with mental models. Arguing through analogy can be detrimental. For instance, while referring to data as the new oil can be a handy metaphor for its significance for the world economy, it is outright wrong in many other ways. It is a form of trivialization that attempts to make something complex understandable. However, it also loses its representativeness of the real world while doing so. It is dangerous to use such analogies to aid one’s thinking as if they were mental models.

Rather than using analogies, one should seek to argue from first principles. It is precisely what a good toolbox of mental models enables.

My top 5 books on cognitive science and metacognition aka “thinking about thinking”

book cover of The opposable mindThe Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking
Roger L. Martin, 2007

An excellent guide to “integrative thinking,” which is all about creatively resolving the tension in opposing models of thought by forming entirely new and superior ones. The book is essentially about combining different kinds of knowledge to build stronger mental models. Read more.

book cover of rebel ideasRebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking
Matthew Syed, 2019

Another excellent book on “cognitive diversity” and the ability to think differently about the world around us. This book provides good examples and advice to strengthen thinking in teams and on an individual level. An excellent read for anyone building multi-functional teams to tackle complex problems. Read more.

book cover of how we learnHow We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine… for Now
Stanislas Dehaene, 2018

A great perspective that combines computer science, neurobiology, and cognitive psychology, explaining how we learn and how to best use our brain’s “learning algorithms.” An excellent foundation for understanding your own build-up of mental models. Read more. 

book cover of black box thinkingBlack Box Thinking: Why Some People Never Learn from Their Mistakes – But Some Do
Matthew Syed, 2015

A good perspective on the mindset needed to truly learn from our mistakes, about the genuine willingness to engage with failure. Combines anthropology, psychology, complexity theory, and a host of practical examples into a coherent narrative about critical learning. Read more.

book cover of The Skeptics' Guide to the UniverseThe Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake
Steven Novella, 2018

A general and accessible guide to critical thinking. This is a good read for everyone, be it to sharpen your healthy skepticism, or to build ways to combat sloppy or superstitial thinking that may be blocking your progress at work or in life. Read more. 

3. Seek constructive contradiction

It is crucial to have a critical mindset when reading. It doesn’t mean you should always disagree with new things, but that you should evaluate information based on the merits and soundness of its underlying argumentation. It is, of course, difficult when you’re encountering a topic you know very little about: most of what you take in is new, and you still lack an internal body of knowledge to contrast it with. However, as you grow familiar with the topic, seek to build a nuanced understanding of it. 

Broaden your mind by finding contradictions and reading both sides of an argument. Seek the roots of an idea and its critique. Treat opposing views as a chance to sharpen your thinking rather than taking sides. In economics, read Keynes and Hayek, in moral philosophy, read Nietzsche and Kant, and in business development, read business strategy and human-centered design (although these two are not opposed but somewhat challenging to integrate in large organizations).

Don’t imitate; think for yourself. Seek the truth. Seek constructive contradiction.

Active constructive criticism is particularly valuable in an environment that is not only increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) but where deliberate attempts at distorting thinking at very fundamental levels are widespread. Being swayed by bad argumentation, or even worse, internalizing it into a faulty mental model, is likely to lead to trouble at some point.

Of course, it is more than ok to read just for the sake of relaxation from time to time. I, too, sometimes read fiction to leave learning aside for a while. And I have to confess I occasionally do this with nonfiction too: I slip and read a book without being actively critical. Rather reckless, I know.

5 pairs of books that provide contradicting views on the same issue

On strategy

Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy
Joan Magretta, 2011

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant
W. Chan Kim, 1994

While not directly contradicting, Porter’s competitive strategy (revisited in this book) and Blue Ocean Strategy (that seeks to make competition irrelevant) have their fundamental differences. You need both to evaluate the best approach for a given situation. Read more here and here.

On creating new value

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t
Nate Silver, 2012

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
Peter Thiel, Blake Masters, 2014

Two famous authors and two rather opposite approaches to creating new value. One is about creating an edge, supercharging the understanding of what is, the other is about specifically creating something new rather than improving on what is. Read more here and here.

On building a new business

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
Eric Ries, 2011

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
Ben Horowitz, 2014

Two wildly popular books on building a new business. These are not in ideological nor methodological contradiction but are rather great complements. They jointly offer both the conceptually ideal and the brutally real of starting a business. Read more here and here.

On self-confidence

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges
Amy Cuddy, 2015

The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connections, and Courage
Brené Brown, 2013

Two takes by researchers on strengthening self-confidence, one from the perspective of underconfidence, one from overconfidence with hidden insecurity. Gravely trivialized, one prescribes more confidence, one less confidence. Read more here and here.

On economic theory

The Road to Serfdom
Friedrich A. Hayek, 1944

The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money
John Maynard Keynes, 1935

In a sense, these are polar opposites of economic policy and the role and scope of government. And, of course, profound classics. Both make sense and have their merits, yet they prescribe directly contradicting approaches to building a healthy economy. Great comparative reads. Read more here and here.

4. Create a visual reference

Real-life bookshelves provide a very functional kind of intellectual value: they are a representation of your mental models. Just a glance at your bookshelf may trigger broad inspiration and recollection. Sadly, in the age of digital books, this tangible reminder has disappeared.

Since almost all my books are online and a Goodreads list is insufficient, I ended up reconstructing a virtual bookshelf on Miro. I use the book covers and an overarching folksonomy of the topics I find interesting. It’s openly available here.

A digital bookshelf built on Miro

My digital bookshelf turned out to be of immense help, not only as an overview of great books but as a reference to their substance. As I mentioned before, I used to develop ways to synthesize the key points of each book. I now know it doesn’t work at scale.

Since I have always marked interesting points and passages (clips in audiobooks and highlights in Kindle books) while reading, a basic insight relevance filter is already in place. I learned through experience that I don’t need another layer of synthesis. The book cover is enough as an index of the insights and mental models the book provides. When I need to, the clips or highlights I’ve marked down are just a click away.

The visual reference has helped me in my work as a consultant, facing a complex problem with many potential solution approaches. For instance, we once ran a new business strategy project in the financial industry where we had to tap into not only business strategy and human-centered design but behavioral economics and psychology, too. Some of the books on my Miro board are from that particular project. They stay there as reminders and inspiration – perhaps to be discovered again in the next project. 

My top 5 books bridging business strategy and human-centered design

Book cover of HBR's 10 Must Reads on StrategyHBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy
Porter, Various contributors, 2010

A great collection of foundational articles on strategy, on topics from what strategy is and its schools of thought, all the way “down” to implementation and decision-making, and from Porter’s five competitive forces to Blue ocean strategy. Great refresher or diverse introduction. Read more.

Book cover of The Design of BusinessThe Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage
Roger L. Martin, 2009

A perspective on the need for – and use of – design thinking to bring in the human factor to complement analytical thinking in driving innovation. Roger Martin popularized the term “Design Thinking”, along with Tim Brown and David Kelley of IDEO. Read more.

book cover of The Lean Startup:The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
Eric Ries, 2011

Most have heard of the Lean Startup, but rather few senior business leaders seem to truly understand its mindset and practice. Despite its name, the book is increasingly relevant for incumbent companies. Read more.

Unlocking the Customer Value Chain: How Decoupling Drives Consumer Disruption
Thales S. Teixeira, 2019

A new perspective on disruptive innovation (not Christensen’s), where innovation is based on decoupling and recoupling activities along the customer value chain. A neat combination of the classic value chain, and a human-centered design approach to understanding and designing value. Read more.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Robert M. Sapolsky, 2017

A neurobiological deep dive into the question of why we do the things we do. It provides perspectives at the level of the individual, the group, and society at large on what drives human behavior, for good and for bad. This is not a guide to human-centered design, but a perspective to guide such work. Read more.

5. Apply and iterate proactively

A lot of learning happens outside books: at work, in hobbies, and everyday life. Hence, you should put your elevated thinking to good use and apply your honed mental models in reality. This may mean solving wicked problems at work, figuring out how to deal with a difficult neighbor constructively, or starting to see the wonder in even the mundane things around you. The key is to maintain a continuous dialogue between the world of thought and the world of action and impact – theory and practice, that is. 

There is no turning back once you get into the habit of proactive metacognition. From a professional perspective, I would like to believe this is a rather good path. People with a high capacity for independent thinking are likely to be valued regardless of profession or position. Don’t just read without application or repeat without development. Strike a good balance and apply and iterate proactively.

My top five books on self-development

book cover of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates UsDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Daniel H. Pink, 2009

This book on intrinsic motivation has become somewhat of a classic and is nowadays more of a requirement than a novel perspective on motivation at work. A simple and structured way to reflect on your current work environment. Read more.

book cover of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldRange: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
David Epstein, 2019

An excellent exploration of how in various fields from athletics, art, and music to innovation and science, generalists ultimately outperform specialists. This is primarily the case in complex and unpredictable environments, where focused repetition is counterproductive, but where cultivated inefficiency is needed in order to explore and find the best ways. Read more.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990

Many people have heard about Flow and claim to recognize it, but rather few seem to have read the theory. In addition to describing the famous state of flow and optimal performance, the book gives great insights and advice on the circumstances necessary for flow, and how to go about improving them. Read more.

Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization
Scott Barry Kaufman, 2020

Psychologist Kaufman reexamines and extends Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs (which he actually never drew as a pyramid) to a new metaphor for self-actualization. Read more.

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It
Ethan Kross, 2021

A fascinating explanation of our inner voice and the silent conversations we have with ourselves. Negative and disorienting self-talk, “chatter”, can cause various forms of harm and dysfunction. Kross presents ways to better control your conscious mind and to turn your inner conversations in your favor. Read more.

Tips for readers (pun definitely intended)

This might all feel a bit overwhelming if you’re not yet used to high-volume reading. But don’t worry, every adventure starts with a small step. If you feel like boosting your reading habits, here are three tips to get you off to a great start:

1. Start simple and familiar

Pick a topic you are both interested in and already somewhat knowledgeable about. Pick a popular book within this topic. Popularity is not a guarantee of quality, but popular books are easy to find when your discovery logic is not yet formed. Ask colleagues and friends, and check a few user reviews on Goodreads. Avoid getting stuck optimizing your pick. Then just start reading without pressure to internalize everything. If you want to get up to speed with audiobooks, here’s my previous blog post.

2. Build a habit

Keep reading – it becomes easier the more you do it. A new habit is more effortless to form when connected to an existing one. Find a recurring daily context in which reading or listening comes naturally: it might be your morning commute, your jogging routine, or your daily winding down before bedtime (for which Kindle Paperwhite with a very faintly lit screen without backlight is excellent).

The point is to build a habit of reading that is not attached to any specific book. Then your routine stays while your books change. Also, start marking interesting passages (clips on Audible or highlights on Kindle). Don’t overthink; just mark what you like. Do make sure to place your clips at the exact right spot in your audiobooks. 

3. Make your progress visual

Map the books you have already read. You are probably not starting from zero, and I bet there are quite a few that you don’t remember off the top of your head. Goodreads is a great place to build your virtual bookshelf and keep track of your past, present, and future reading. You may also find it helpful to set up shelves around your favorite topics.

Over time, it might make sense to create some kind of a visual bookshelf, perhaps something similar to mine (built with Miro, which offers three boards for free; Mural is also a good alternative). If you invent a novel visual way for keeping track of books and/or thoughts, I would love to hear about it.

This has been my story of learning how to learn at scale. I don’t know where it might lead to next, but I’ll continue reading and updating my digital bookshelf. Should it be of any help or inspiration, please feel free to check it out from time to time. I add roughly 8 new books per month.

If you have similar ambitions, learnings, tips, remarks, or critiques, I would love to hear about them! I’m always up for new book recommendations as well. You can leave a comment directly on the board. Please feel free to become my friend on Goodreads or Linkedin. 

My top 5 books on whatever unrelated but amazing I’ve come across so far

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future
David Attenborough, 2020

An awe-inspiring exploration of our planet, our impact on it, and what to do about it. A captivating story told in the way many of us have come to love. I strongly recommend the audiobook, read by Sir David Attenborough himself. Read more.

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold
Stephen Fry, 2017

A vivid and highly entertaining way to learn the major Greek myths, and a whole bunch of modern things that have gotten their name from this mythology. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Stephen Fry himself. This is the first book in a series of three: Mythos, Heroes, and Troy. Read more.

A Promised Land
Barack Obama, 2020

An intriguing story of President Obama’s life up to and in the White House. A soothing voice of empathy and sharp thinking in a world that somehow seems to have forgotten both. Read more.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Matthew Walker, 2017

A neuroscientist’s exploration of sleep and how it affects our physical and mental well-being. Unlike most things, sleep is something that touches all of us. Whether you have issues sleeping or sleep like a log anywhere, this is both a fascinating and an educating read. Read more.

The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida
Lawrence E. Cahoone,2013

This audio course from Great Courses is, indeed, great. If you are into philosophy, this is a good account of the Western tradition. It is humbling to go through the vast amount of constructive, conflicting, and sometimes confused thinking that went into shaping our modern schools of thought. Read more.

Never miss a post