Smart Thinking, by Art Markman

Smart Thinking is a book by Art Markman about how smart people solve problems.  It is an eye opening read about why a human brain can solve problems that chimpanzee cannot.

  1. Smart thinking is ability to gather and remember good content and knowledge, then apply them in unusual ways.  An example is the Dyson vacuum, which uses a sawdust collection method within a home vacuum context.
  2. Learning and using proverbs can help with smart and out-of-the-box thinking.  Applying knowledge in unusual ways requires out-of-the-box thinking.  Our brains are constructed to naturally perform in-the-box thinking.  That is because the brain is optimized for information retrieval within a context that makes the most sense.  So information about food is easiest to retrieve when one is in the kitchen or at a market because it is the most useful there.  To do out-of-the-box thinking then, one needs to free the brain from the context of its surroundings.  Using proverbs can do this.  Proverbs describe a situation in an abstract way, thereby freeing the brain from the current context and allowing it to freely perform cross-context and out-of-the-box thinking.  
  3. To change a habit, you must replace it with another one.  You cannot replace something with nothing.  For example, "stop smoking" as a goal is not as good as "every time I want to smoke, I work on a jigsaw puzzle instead."  Without another anchoring habit, the old habit will prevail in association with established environment or contexts.  For example, if smoking occurs during TV time, then the urge to light up will be strong during TV time.  Trying to resist the urge to smoke is very difficult, and the brain's association between watching TV and smoking will prevail unless another activity is programmed in its place.  Working on a jigsaw puzzle, or picking up crochet may be other ways to keep the hands busy during TV time and build a new association within the TV-time context.
  4. Causal Thinking separates human intelligence from chimpanzee intelligence.  Humans try to understand the "why" behind how things work.  Chimpanzees observe patterns but do not deduce the "why" behind it.  One example is a puzzle whereby a container with food will eject the food if a straw is inserted from the right.  Chimps in the experiment eventually learned to insert the straw on the right.  But when the puzzle was turned around such that the straw needs to be inserted form the left, the chimp had to start over with trial and error until he could establish the new pattern.  Without understanding the "why," the chimp is unable to solve for a similar situation using prior knowledge. This human curiosity about the "why" allows humans to go beyond pattern matching and allow each generation to improve upon the designs of the previous generation.
  5. Being smart can be learned, and comes with practice.  One can practice causal thinking.  One method is to constantly self-teach when learning new information.  This method forces thorough causal understanding, because without it, self-teach is not possible. When learning new information, it is useful to think of the information in terms of objects, events and causal relationships.  

Search Inside Yourself

Search Inside Yourself is a book written by early Google employee Chade-Meng Tan, whose goal is to "create the conditions of world peace".  And he wants to do this by making people happy, based on the premise that happiness creates peace.  This is essentially a book on meditation written from the point of view of an engineer.  The book is simply and humorously written, but here's an EVEN simpler summary:  5 lessons for those who don't have the time to read an entire book just to be happy.

1. Meditation is scientifically proven to work!
      As befitting an engineer, Meng spends a good amount of time proving why you should meditate.  He explores studies on the "happiest man on earth" and scientifically defines happiness, how to measure it, and how the practice of meditation can increase it.  He then demonstrates how improved happiness yields improved emotional intelligence and how this has a strong correlation with success in the business world (even for engineers).

2. Mindful meditation is not about controlling emotions, it is about observing them at "higher resolution"
      Meng makes the assertion (again through scientific data) that people who are good at meditation do not shut off anger or pain.  They actually react more quickly to those emotions because they are more aware of them.  But by recognizing their emotions more clearly, they are able to recover from the emotions much more quickly and make choices on how they want to react.

3. Meditation is just breathing, and you're doing it right.
     If you're looking for detailed meditation practices, this book is not it.  Meditation is simply focusing your mind, and in this book, that simply involves observing your natural breath.  Two analogies really sticks.  Meditation is like exercise.  You are training your "brain muscles" to focus on something (like your breath).  When you lose focus, you just bring it back.  Losing focus is not failure.  It's an opportunity to exercise you brain and bring focus back.  Like doing bicep curls, losing focus, and then regaining focus is exercise.   Maintaining focus is like riding a bike.  You lose balance, then regain balance.  When you are able to do this quickly, it looks like you are balanced.  Likewise, you will always be losing focus and regaining focus.  When you can constantly regain focus quickly, it looks like you ARE focused.

4. Personal Motivation
    To be happy and successful, you have to know what that means to you.  First step is Alignment: knowing what you're looking for.  The next step is Envisioning: setting a vision for future happiness.  The final step is Resilience: the ability to keep moving towards your goals despite setbacks.   The last bit requires a positive attitude.  Rationally, if 51% of things are going well in your life, you should be happy.  However, negative results have 3 times the impact on our brains compared to positive results.  This makes being happy difficult.  Meng suggests that to counteract this, you think of neutral events as positive.  For example "I'm not in pain right now."  "I am well fed."
5. Habits for Social Interactions
   Empathy has been proven to help people succeed, and it feels good too.  The key to this is approaching people and thinking "This person is just like me."  If you have trouble empathizing, Meng believes that this is something that can be practiced.  You can literally set an alarm every day that says "Wish for people to be happy."  By doing it, you ARE empathizing, and soon this becomes natural.  Again, you are "exercising".

The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, by Gary Chapman and Paul White

The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace is a book by Gary Chapman and Paul White about the five different ways people experience appreciation. It's a re-write of "The Five Love Languages" also by Gary Chapman adapted for the work setting.  While the concept is powerful, the book is very repetitive and tends to provide very obvious examples. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting lessons.

  1. The five languages of appreciation are: 1) Words of Affirmation. 2) Acts of Service. 3) Quality Time. 4) Physical Gifts. 5) Physical Touch.
  2. Each person has a primary and secondary form of appreciation. You can saturate someone's primary form.  In that case their secondary form may be more highly valued.  For example, someone who doles out compliments freely may find their words of affirmation be discounted by those receiving them. In this case, quality time may be more highly valued from this person.
  3. Primary and secondary forms of affirmation tends to be constant over time.  
  4. Primary and secondary forms of affirmation differs depending on context.  Appreciation languages for personal relationships may differ from work relationships. 
  5. Words of Affirmation can include affirmation of acts (a task well done), personality (cheerfulness) and character (honesty). 

Change Your Brain, Change Your Body

Change Your Brain, Change Your Body is book by Dr. Daniel G. Amen about the mind-body connection.  He advocates using holistic healing and supplements to boost brain function in order to heal the body. It's a long and sometimes repetitive read since diet, exercise and adequate sleep are pretty much standard for many ailments. However, he does back up his statements with research studies, which may compel the less-disciplined reader to actually start following a habit of good diet, exercise and sleep. His book is also comprehensive, and will likely touch on some subjects that are less familiar to the reader. For me, the topics of hormones and heart health were new. The book also includes supplement guides for specific areas of the brain and body, which maybe useful to reference. Some key lessons I learned:
  1. Get your beauty sleep.  Getting adequate sleep is the best way to improve skin.  That is because skin cells regenerate during sleep.  "Seniors need less sleep" is a myth too.  Since skin regeneration slows down as we age, seniors need just as much if not more sleep to keep skin looking young. Adequate sleep also helps you lose weight. In one study, women who sleep 7 hours instead of 5 per night lost an average of 6 pounds over 3 weeks without any intentional change in diet or exercise.
  2. Exercise increases the generation of new brain cells.
  3. Eating less sodium is good, but more importantly, potassium and sodium needs to balance. We are often high on sodium and low on potassium.  Therefore, eat high potassium foods such as bananas. At the same time, eat no more than 1 teaspoon of added salt each day.
  4. High Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is good.  Individuals who exercise regularly have a lower resting heart rate and high HRV. In fact, physicians track the HRV of the birthing infant during childbirth. 
  5. Before getting a divorce, get hormone checks for both partners. Hormone levels change as we age and can cause serious disruption in our moods and personalities.


Rework is a book by 37signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  This book has a very unique format. Every other page contains a graphic summarizing one big business idea, then the following page provides a short story to support the idea. In essence, the book is one big stack of flash cards with business lessons. It's possible to read this book out of order and it's a useful reference guide to have on the shelf.

  1. Embrace Constraints.  Throw Less at the Problem.  Limited resources forces you to be creative what you have.
  2. Ignore the Details Early On.  During the early stage of a business, it is important to focus on the key strengths and not try to do too much.
  3. Focus on what Won't change.  Rather than chasing the next big thing, focus on the characteristics of business that will always be in high demand. For example, Amazon.com focuses on fast shipping, great selection, friendly return policies and affordable prices.  Japanese automakers focus on reliability and practicality, and 37signals focus on speed, simplicity and ease of use.  These characteristics are timeless.
  4. Make Tiny Decisions. Big decisions are hard to make and hard to change. So make many choices that are small enough that they're effectively temporary. This way you won't make big mistakes, and you have the chance to adjust as you go.
  5. Underdo your Competition. Instead of adding ever more features, try adding less and aim for simplicity. Examples include single-gear bicycles, the Flip camera, and the iPod shuffle.

A Perfect Mess

A Perfect Mess is a book by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman that explores the hidden benefits of disorder.  The book is a short and easy read that recaps the concept of balance when it comes to mess.  Although no deep studies or revolutionary ideas were revealed, the book does confront the concept of "mess" in culture and its implications on our psyche. People who are uncomfortable with their mess will find solace in the book's message and perhaps perfection in their own mess.
  1. There is an optimal amount of mess.
  2. Tidiness can be expensive.
  3. One person's order is another person's mess.  You can never please everyone with order.  For example, you can organize books alphabetically, chronologically, by genre, or by color of the covers.  All are valid depending on your perspective and intended function.
  4. Mess can apply to both home and work, physical space and processes.  From a messy kitchen and desk, to corporate strategies and sales plans.  In each of these areas, there is a functional and optimal amount of mess.
  5. "Plan early, plan twice."

Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom

Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom is a live lecture by Dr. Christiane Northrup exploring holistic healing. A board certified ob-gyn, Dr. Northrup pokes fun at modern medicine's silo'd healing approach. She examines the American approach, both medically and culturally, towards topics such as psychology, menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause. Her lecture is a lively and humorous commentary on both modern medicine and women in society.
  1. The body is a manifestation of the mind.
  2. The brain structure of male and female brains is the fundamental cause of differing viewpoints between males and females. Male brains are left dominant, and contains fewer connections to the right brain compared to female brains. This allows male brains to shut off right-brain functions and become hyper-focused on left-brain functions such as logic and analysis. In a female brain, the interconnections between right and left brains are so strong it remains on at all times. This allows female brains to naturally juggle multiple angles during problem solving.  
  3. We all have the power to create health. Our bodies are powerful and self-healing.
  4. Women are lunar, because their bodies and hormones follow the cycle of the moon. There is wisdom in the cycle and women should take advantage of this cycle. During ovulation, estrogen and progesterone levels are high. At this time, a women is at the peak of emotional happiness and open to change and new experiences. Before and during menstruation, a women is at an emotional low due to crashing estrogen levels. During this time, all of her life's negative concerns hits her at the same time. This is the optimal time to re-examine negative concerns and determine necessary action, which she can followup on during the following ovulation cycle. If understood and used properly, her cycle can be a monthly "house cleaning" of the emotions and self-reflection.
  5. Forgiveness means letting go of the past. It does not mean what happened is right. Remember this if you have been wronged and are unwilling to let go because you fear that letting go justifies the unjust act. Forgiveness is a necessary first step in healing and does not justify an unjust act.


Womenomics, by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, is a motivational book targeted at women who seek a work/life balance.  While the advice follows that of other work/life balance books, the delivery is uniquely targeted at women.  The book starts with a discussion of market forces that increase the value of women in the workplace. Then identifies the actions that women should take to build true work/life balance.
  1. With baby boomers retiring, there will be a lack of X and Y generation workers to fill existing positions.  Professional women with education and experience will find themselves highly sought after.  Indeed, women are more educated than ever before, holding over 55% of undergraduate and graduate degrees.
  2. The "female" management style, which is often more collaborative and communication focused, is increasingly important in today's information based work environments.  Studies of Norwegian and British firms have shown that leadership teams with more women generate more revenue and profits than their counterparts.  
  3. Women make decisions on over 85% of household spending. Firms that employ women will be more successful at catering to women's tastes and therefore win more of their spending.
  4. Guilt is a useless emotion.  
  5. The number one demand from working women is flexible hours.  


Outliers is a book by Malcolm Gladwell that answers the question: "How did outrageously successful people, these outliers, get to where they are?" Through exploration of athletes, entrepreneurs, and scientists, Gladwell makes the case that these successful outliers is a product of every society through a combination of upbringing, opportunities and timing. The popular notion that personal success is the result of genius and hardwork is faulty. Rather, Genius and hardwork is only the beginnings of a potentially successful life. The person's community and society plays a larger part in determining success.
  1. The perfect birth date for a Canadian hockey player is in January. Due to the January 1 cut-off date for the Canadian drafting season, boys born in January will always be larger than their counterparts during selection. This small difference in size in the beginning then triggers a waterfall of advantages for the January boy. This drafting cut-off has since been updated to four different dates throughout the year. But arbitrarily selected cut-off dates in society can have profound impacts on an individual's chances in life.
  2. Chinese children test better in math because of their language structure and rice-agriculture past. Chinese numbers are all single syllabic and logically constructed. As a result, Chinese-speaking toddlers can easily count to 100 while English-speaking toddlers can only count to the twenties. Math is also a subject that requires persistence, and persistence is a highly-valued Chinese trait as evidenced by folklore and poems throughout Chinese history. Gladwell postures that the importance of persistence was a construct of rice-agriculture, which requires heavy management and rewards the harder working farmer. These two features of Chinese culture, emphasis on persistence and a simple and logical language for numbers, gives Chinese children a distinct advantage when it comes to mathematics.
  3. Disasters are most often caused by a series seven micro events rather than one large event. This was the case for airplane crashes, which are usually caused by some combination of poor weather, tired pilots, decreased visibility, equipment failure on the plane, equipment failure on the airport, and mis-communication.
  4. Twenty-one is the perfect age to be when societal opportunities present itself. Consider Rockefeller and Carnegie who were born in the 1830s and in perfect maturity to take advantage of the oil boom. Or Bill Gates, Bill Joy, James Gosling and Steve Jobs, all born in 1954-1955 and in perfect maturity to take advantage of the computer revolution. A twenty-one year old is young enough to accept the risks of a new opportunity while old enough to appreciate new opportunities. Twenty-one year-olds are also old enough to have earned 10,000 hours of practice in some discipline in preparation for said opportunity.
  5. You don't need to be the smartest, you just need to practice for 10,000 hours. Those who succeed are all smart enough, but not necessarily geniuses. At some IQ mark, increased genius has a diminishing return. Rather, practice of 10,000 hours is what differentiates the winners. This is true in musical "geniuses," computer "geniuses" or even science "geniuses."


Urbanized is a 2011 Gary Hustwit's film that looks at the issues are strategies behind urban design.  The film explores urban design projects from around the world.
  1. Fifty percent of human population live in urban areas. This number is projected to increase to 75% in 20 years.  Countries who manage this migration poorly will end up with many slums.  
  2. Slums are areas without infrastructure such as plumbing, sewers and electricity.  The highest risk of slums is health and sanitation.
  3. Supplying elegant housing can be affordable too.  In the Chile region of Lo Barnechea, low income housing was enabled at $10,000 per unit in an otherwise extremely expensive area.  By involving families in the design process, the builders provided partially finished units that families were happy with.  The collaboration helped builders properly prioritize housing details such as installing bath tubs instead of water heaters, and allow residents to upgrade to water heaters on their own later.
  4. Bus-style subways costs 40 times less than underground subways and has the added benefit of flexibility. As the city grows and shifts, new dedicated bus lanes and terminals can be easily added. An example is the Transmilenio system in Bogota, Colombia. 
  5. Human eyes can see 100m by 100m comfortably.  Beyond 100m the ability to discern detail drops off dramatically.  That is why most established plazas and squares in the old world are within the 100m by 100m size.

Hug Your People

Hug Your People is a business book by Jack Mitchell, the CEO of luxury retailer Mitchells. In his book, Mitchell uses human stories of his associates to educate the reader about the importance of "hugs" in a high morale work place.  Hugs include any act of personalized kindness which may take the form of a kind word, a compliment, a gift, a card, a handshake, a bear hug, a letter, or a bonus.

Five Lessons from Hug Your People:

  1. Set Expectations instead of Rules.  Expectations are based on Trust, a good foundation for lasting relationships. Rules are based on Distrust, not a good place to start.
  2. Hire Nice people, especially relevant for the retail business Mitchell is in. Nice people care about others, and build strong lasting relationships. You can train people how to be nice and give 'hugs.'  But the person has to be willing in the first place.  
  3. Get to Know at least 100 associates you work with.  Know them by first and last names, and learn about their family, passions and aspirations.
  4. Start and End meetings and emails with a personal touch.  Ask about family, passions and aspirations. Ask associates to share a personal update at the beginning of each meeting to get on the same page and learn more about each other. 
  5. Take a Trip to the Moon. See yourself interacting with others from a different perspective. 

Should I get an MBA?

It's been a year since I graduated from Presidio.  People considering MBAs ask me whether doing an MBA is worth it and whether Presidio is worth it.  So I'll share my thoughts lest it helps you decide on this fork in the road.

The real value of an MBA depends on two factors:
1. Personal Growth
2. Network

Personal Growth
Presidio helped me grow as a person.  My MBA experience helped me understand people and the world in a different context from my engineering undergrad.  In pure engineering, issues are black and white.  There is a right and wrong answer that yields a working or non-working product. And while there are trade-offs involved, there is often a formula, or at least a partial formula, that is useful for optimization.  In business, there are many more moving parts with no correct answers.  The answer is always "it depends."  Much of the depending is linked to other people.  So having a context for working with others in a group is important.  My MBA helped me understand how to work with others most optimally.  I learned the difference between managing and leading.  I picked up frameworks for understanding human group psychology using tools such as 5 Dynamics.   I learned the importance of words, stories and cultural context in team work and leadership.  While the one-line conclusions of such lessons may hardly surprise you, hearing the lesson and living the lesson are two very different things.  During my MBA, I had a chance to read about, discuss and actually live these teamwork and leadership lessons.   And because Presidio is a young school, I had a chance to experience change management as a part of the organization.  While you may have a chance to learn these lessons in your career, having a safe place to explore these lessons is valuable. Since MBA is the broadest grad degree available, no matter your undergrad and career background, you will have a chance to learn outside your comfort zone and expertise area.  You will also connect with others who have expertise different from your own.  And that brings me to the next value factor, network.

Every school has its network.  In a world where select MIT and Stanford classes are available online for free, this alumni network is ultimately what you are paying for.  Only one year out of graduation, I do not have enough data yet to gauge the value of my network.  At Presidio, we had a small but very tight-knit network of people who want to make a real difference on the planet.  I found my startup co-founder at Presidio, and connected with a potential customer through the network.  It is still too soon to tell the end of the story.  However, the network is important to examine in the course of an MBA selection.  Generally, a larger, more established school will give you a larger network, and a smaller, more niche school will connect you with a tighter group of passionate people who share your values.  Both are valuable, depending on what you want to achieve.

Feel free to leave me a comment if you have questions. I'm happy to share my experience about Presidio.