Three books that changed my life

by Jonathan Brun

Identifying my favorite book, music, movie, or female hair colour remains a challenge. Recently visited subjects or people often occupy more prominence in your thoughts than events that occurred years ago. That being said, there are three books that help define the way I see society at large, humans at large and success in the modern (post 1950) world.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs and Steel won the Pulitzer Prize and the author, Jared Diamond, is widely recognized as an important intellectual. Though my endorsement of the book will not affect its sales, I must say that it had an important impact on me when I read it four years ago.

The book attempts (rather successfully) to explain why Europe, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world developed the way they did. The main contributing factors are boiled down to geography, domesticable animals (pigs and chickens for protein and disease immunology; cows, horses and ox for work power), domesticable plants (rice, wheat: carbohydrates), proximity of enemies, and proximity of allies.

The real impact of this book is that it removes – at least for me – any notion of racism or inherent supremacy. The explanations provided are logical, factual and fit with basic evolutionary theory. Once you have examined the arguments, you may find it difficult to criticize Africa or Asia for their current state of affairs.

The book also lead me to conclude that if Asians had colonized North America prior to Europeans, the massacres would not have been any different. Largely it satisfies a lingering feeling most of us have but are unable to answer without the scent of racism: why are whites on top?

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature was a New York Times Notable book and built upon evolutionary theories by Richard Dawkins and others. The basic premise is that our genes and more importantly, their desire to propagate, is the determining factor of our actions. The book synthesizes innumerable studies on a variety of animals. As with most amazing books, it manages to create a coherent picture out of thousands of different scientific voices.

The applications of the findings are wide ranging from mating rituals to social interactions and power struggles. This book answered a lingering question that I could not adequately address, why do humans do stupid things? By stupid, I simply mean things that are not logical on the surface: mating with a poor person, an ugly person, destroying the environment, allowing a powerful young prodigy to overtake the master, monogamy, social structures, fiefdom, and a million other trends. Now, I tend to believe in evolutionary biology (though it has a few gaps) and its application to human behavior patterns. Amazing stuff!

Good to Great: What makes some companies make the leap and others don’t is a great description of what it takes to create company and make a difference in the modern world. Based on 5 years of research by Jim Collins and his management sleuths the book outlines what makes a great company (and probably society): A level 5 leader without an ego, great people (not great skills), scalability, perfect execution of one task, simple metrics to analyze success, the willingness to face the facts and debate without hard feelings and the use of technology as an accelerator, but not as an end all.

The end story is that simplicity and deduction is what matters in business and life.


UPDATE: I have changed my mind and am no longer certain that this book is any good, let alone great.