What I’ve been reading — Flash Boys, Home Game, How Children Succeed, The Lean Startup

Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis. flashFlash Boys is Lewis’s newest book — it was released on Monday, preceded by a feature story on 60 Minutes — and details how high-frequency traders are “rigging” the stock market. I, of course, bought it immediately, as Lewis’s work is all essentially self-recommending. I haven’t had the chance to make much progress yet, but so far, so good: it’s in Lewis’s typical clean, elegant prose, and covers subject matter (financial chicanery through the eyes of colorful outsiders) right in his wheelhouse. I’ll put up a more extensive review once I’ve finished the book.

Home Game, also by Michael Lewis, is something altogether different, and I read it last fall when I was home with our new baby. It’s hard to recommend the book as the subject matter — Lewis’s own unique approach to fatherhood, which mostly involves him detailing ways he feels inadequate or at least overmatched by the prospect — is quite narrow, and the book itself feels a bit like an attempt to cash in on his success as it is a collection of disparate thoughts and events, some recalled years later for his older children and others recorded in somewhat real time for his younger ones. Of course, there remain moments of insight, such as when Lewis details a father’s feelings of paralysis and uselessness while his wife suffers through labor and deliver, and the book was an easy read at a time when I am still amazed I had the brainpower to read much of anything. It’s a good book for expecting and recent dads, though Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon covers somewhat similar territory in similar though more complete and better organized fashion.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. This surprisingly riveting book is about a shift in thinking about the best way to educate and prepare children for their lives, specifically a shift away from a sole focus on raw IQ — evidenced by making three year-olds do countless math problems or other pure “cognitive development” activities — to methods that, for lack of a better term, try to help them develop supporting skills like character, diligence, curiosity, and, most of all grit and determination. I’m no education expert and reading a book of competing educational studies is not how I’d like to spend my time, but Tough supports his argument with fantastic stories of real people. I was alerted to this book by this fantastic review (which contains several excerpts) of Tough’s book which focuses on Elizabeth Spiegel, an inner-city chess teacher and one of Tough’s heroes. But this isn’t just a Hollywood style narrative; it’s far more complex, and far more rewarding.

Slowing down, examining impulses, and considering alternatives sounds reasonable but it’s “quite rare in contemporary American Schools.”

If you believe that your school’s mission or your job as a teacher is simply to convey information, then it probably doesn’t seem necessary to subject your students to that kind of rigorous self-analysis. But if you’re trying to help them change their character, then conveying information isn’t enough. And while Spiegel didn’t use the word character to describe what she was teaching, there was a remarkable amount of overlap between the strengths David Levin and Dominic Randolph emphasized and the skills that Spiegel tried to inculcate in her students. Every day, in the classroom and at tournaments, I saw Spiegel trying to teach her students grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism.

Quick hits: The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries: Something of a phenomenon in start-up circles, I found the idea behind this book OK while the book itself lacked details and was light on practical advice for entrepreneurs and early investors, though maybe the overarching message of “do it, do it now, and do it fast” is motivation that will serve the many “Lean” devotees well enough … Double Your Profits, by Bob Fifer: It doesn’t get any more real world than this book, which consists of around 200 relentless pages of 2-3 page chapters advising how to slash and cut your way to profitability. Despite a few of the recommendations being out there, I actually found this a far more rewarding read than the Lean Startup, but maybe that says more about me than the books themselves. (Supposedly the private equity fund 3G Capital, Warren Buffett’s partners in his acquisition of Heinz, are devotees of this book and make it assigned reading to all of their new hires.) I will add that if the title “Double Your Profits” doesn’t sound like it’d interest you, then trust your gut: this book is not for the faint of heart.

  • Andy B

    I *am* an education professional (a tutor specializing in high school math–I help pick up the kids the system has failed). I hadn’t heard of the Tough book, but props to him for spreading the good word. The key is that the educators he writes about are thinking about students first, while the people who run most of our education system think about curriculum first. “High school graduates should know X Y and Z” versus “How can we help our students learn?” Shockingly, the latter method works a lot better….

  • Any plans to read Capital by Thomas Piketty?

  • Brett H

    Other than what you mentioned above, are there parenting books/articles you recommend?