I love to read, but unfortunately I find that I retain way less than I wish. This is an attempt to remember better by summarizing what’s stuck out to me through a series of notecards. If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to compare notes and hear what you think!
Know My Name
By Chanel Miller | January 2020
Know My Name hits home particularly hard since the assault occurred while I was attending Stanford; I distinctly remember when the story broke via the FoHo and feeling shocked by how quickly and how much detail of the assault was revealed through public records.
At the time, the assault seemed to be the worst of it. Yet what surprised me was how traumatizing the actual process of the trial is on top of the assault – Miller takes us through how her life was completely disrupted through arbitrarily delays and character attacks. For me, Know My Name crystallized the urgency for not only preventing sexual assault but also to reform the system that deters so many victims from pursuing justice.
The Lean Startup
By Eric Ries | February 2020
The Lean Startup almost feels like required reading in Silicon Valley, and I’m glad to finally have belatedly read it after hearing about it for ages. I appreciate how Ries calls out his specific definition of “startups” as not limited to the prototypical college-kids-in-a-garage, but broadened to include any endeavor which seeks to operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty. It helped me reflect on recent work experiences, particularly around how to achieve the golden standard of the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.
Certain methods Ries suggests trying that stuck out to me include: reducing batch size and selecting “people-centric” metrics. The goal? Reducing batch sizes can help shrink the time to get and bake in feedback, while aiming for “people-centric” metrics help communicate better true impact of changes and avoid hiding behind vanity metrics.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong | February 2020
I’d read Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds last year on my friend Shannon’s recommendation. I appreciated how he could so vividly paint intimate vignettes of life and love. With his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I was eager to see if I’d like it more.
He does not disappoint: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is elegant and incisive, lyrical and raw. While it didn’t quite suit my taste (sometimes the language is too beautiful), I learned so much just by watching Vuong as a master of his craft – plating each word with delicacy and surgical precision to evoke exactly what he wants you to feel.
The Customer-Driven Playbook
By Travis Lowdermilk and Jessica Rich | February 2020
I loved this playbook because it is full of actionable suggestions for teams; it distills many of the same practices and principles (i.e. “how might we”s) that I found to be highly successful when I worked as a user researcher/design intern. In particular, I really liked how Lowdermilk and Rich formalize their approach on helping teams get crisp on what the parameters would be for their products:
“We believe that [type of customers] will be successful solving [problem] using [feature] while doing [job-to-be-done]. We will know they were successful when we see [criteria].”
Other delightful tools and tips include: defining sufficient hypothesis validation as “when you cease to be surprised by people’s feedback”; Concept Value Testing; Impact/Effort Matrix; asking the “magic wand question”; how to collect and schematize customer evidence in order for it to be useful; and using GoPros on customer visits to document because they are inobtrusive and the wide-angle helps capture sense of space.
The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes
By Arthur Conan Doyle | March 2020
I’d received this complete collection nearly a decade ago as a gift but never got a chance to read it; I grew up more familiar with Agatha Christie’s Poirot than Holmes. It was so wonderful to go to the original text and see Doyle establish what would become the foundation of this detective genre. How incredible it is that he was able to set the tone and conventions for an entire lineage of work across media! Shortly after finishing this collection, I’d watched Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and was delighted to see how my expectations of a whodunnit, defined by Doyle’s work, were so thoroughly upended to really amplify the payoff of the twist. I’m really glad to have read the original source text whose influence has permeated other literature, television, film, and pop culture.
By Ali Wong | March 2020
I loved listening to this in audiobook format, narrated by Wong herself. I’d binged her Netflix standup specials and seen her on her Milk and Money Tour, so it was really fun to get another peek into the person behind it all. What really stuck out to me was understanding better how she hustled in her early years, going to every open mic to hone her material and never shied from tanking and failing. That because she loved performing standup so much, bombing never really mattered in the end.
Children of Blood and Bone
By Tomi Adeyemi | March 2020
This was such a fun read. I never watched Avatar: The Last Airbender as a kid, but I binged the whole television series the summer before I started college and fell in love with its magic. Learning about Adeyemi’s Orïsha feels like diving back into that world. The questing, the adventure, the allegory of ongoing social issues through fantasy: all are things I loved about Children of Blood and Bone. It goes one step further than Avatar in raising the stakes for its characters, never shying away from depicting loss and brutality that is the natural result of the injustice both seek to highlight. It feels more mature and honest, even if reading it feels gutwrenching.
By Tommy Orange | April 2020
Reading There There brought up so many memories for me, ranging from: being back in the Bay Area and riding BART daily, to attending powwows and watching tiny tots in regalia, to revisiting conversations I’d had with close friends around racial and national identity, to being as entranced as Orvil was the first time I’d listened to A Tribe Called Red on the drive back from watching Manahatta.
I loved how Orange articulated questions I’ve held for a long time, but could never quite find the right words: if identity is about connection to a tradition or culture, how can you do that in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s stuck in the past? How can you connect to a heritage that you don’t know if you can claim in a way that doesn’t feel like “dress-up” or posturing? What does it mean to belong to a group? How are these questions complicated or elucidated by multiracial identity?
Works that connect to There There for me: This Land by Rebecca Nagle, that helped me understand Native identity as political nationhood rather than racial blood quantum. Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldúa, that helped me understand mixed cultures.
The Culture Code
By Daniel Coyle | April 2020
The Culture Code helped me deconstruct some characteristics of teams I’ve been on to better understand why they worked (or didn’t work) well. It laid them out in a framework that made it more generalizable, such as the difference between designing for high-proficiency (i.e. consistent) versus high-creativity (i.e. innovative) teams.
What I also loved were Coyle’s concrete recommendations for how to cultivate both. Some of these include: build purpose by spotlighting a small, effortful behavior; name priorities and the behaviors that support them; send consistent, ultra-clear signals of the shared goal; hold rehearsals; use BrainTrusts to highlight problems but not solutions (allow the team to maintain ownership); and prioritize candor instead of brutal honesty (i.e. aim to be “smaller, more targeted, less personal, less judgmental, and equally impactful”).
Born a Crime
By Trevor Noah | April 2020
I listened to the audiobook version of Born a Crime, and I loved it even more than the book because of Noah’s wonderful, comedic narration.
I’m amazed by his resourceful hustle creating a complex network of lending based on pirated CDs, but even moreso his ability to realize that to continue (while “successful” in a near-term profit sense) wasn’t productive towards getting him out and to where he wanted to go. I think it resonated so much because I find myself often struggling to discern whether I’m optimizing shortsightedly or truly growing. It felt brave to see him walk away from that hustle towards his true north.
I also loved Born a Crime because it so obviously paints a loving picture of his mother for feeding his body and mind despite whatever challenges they faced. It felt close to home and made me reminisce on my upbringing and my parents’ ethos to similarly expand our worldview, whether through going to the free days at the museums or spending lots of time at local nature reserves.
By Louisa May Alcott | April 2020
I’d had Little Women recommended to me since I was little, but I never approached it since that genre of classic American literature hadn’t appealed to me. I finally read it on a housemate’s recommendation, and I’ve found myself touched by so many precious moments, surprised by how modern the text feels, and reminded by its little moral lessons on how to be better:
- “So they agreed to stop complaining, to enjoy the blessings already possessed, and try to deserve them, lest they should be taken away entirely, instead of increased.”
- Love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride.
- Laurie liked her the better for it, and found himself both admiring and respecting the brave patience that made the most of opportunity, and the cheerful spirit that covered poverty with flowers.
- “It’s wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can’t have the one you want.”
- Recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks – the scrapes they have helped you out of, … the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions.
- “Conceit spoils the finest genius.”
- “Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life become a beautiful success.”
- For to be independent, and earn the praise of those she loved, were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.
- “You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money.”
- “Rome took all the vanity out of me…. Talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won’t be a common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try any more.”
- Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety; it shows itself in acts, rather than in words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations.
- “My dear, don’t let the sun go down upon your anger; forgive each other, help each other, and begin again to-morrow.”
- “Watch yourself, be the first to ask pardon if you both err, and guard against the little piques, misunderstandings, and hasty words that often pave the way for bitter sorrow and regret.” … Pride was hard to swallow…. For a minute, she felt as if she really couldn’t do it; then came the thought, “This is the beginning, I’ll do my part, and have nothing to reproach myself with.”
- “Be comforted, dear heart! there is always light behind the clouds.”
- Laurie smiled, but he liked the spirit with which she took up a new purpose, when a long cherished one died, and spent no time lamenting.
- She could not say, “I’m glad to go,” for life was very sweet to her; she could only sob out, “I’ll try to be willing,” while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this great sorrow broke over them together.
- But you see Jo wasn’t a heroine; she was only a struggling human girl…. It’s highly virtuous to say we’ll be good, but we can’t do it all at once, and it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together, before some of us even get our feet set in the right way.
On doing right:
- Amy was a young pilgrim, and just now her burden seemed very heavy. She tried to forget herself, to keep cheerful, and be satisfied with doing right, though no one saw or praised her for it.
- She did what many of us don’t always do – took the sermon to heart, and straight-way put it in practice.
- That was hard; when we make little sacrifices we like to have them appreciated, at least; and for a minute Amy was sorry she had done it, feeling virtue was not always its own reward. But it is, … for her spirits began to rise, and her table to blossom under her skilful hands; … that one little act seemed to have cleared the atmosphere amazingly.
- Mr. Bhaer was … slow to offer his own opinions, not because they were unsettled, but too sincere and earnest to be lightly spoken…. It cost him an effort to speak out then and there, because his conscience would not let him be silent…. Greatness is … “truth, reverence, and good-will.”
- “I almost wish I hadn’t any conscience, it’s so inconvenient.” … Instead of wishing that, thank God that “father and mother were particular,” and pity from your heart those who have no such guardians to hedge them round with principles which may seem like prison walls to impatient youth, but which will prove sure foundations to build character upon in womanhood.
- “You men tell us we are angels, and say we can make you what we will; but the instant we honestly try to do you good, you laugh at us, and won’t listen, which proves how much your flattery is worth.”
- This household happiness did not come all at once, but John and Meg had found the key to it, and each year … unlock[ed] the treasures of real home-love and mutual helpfulness.
- “Have I been all that do you, Jo?” … “Oh, Beth, so much, so much!” … “Then I don’t feel as if I’d wasted my life…. it’s such a comfort to know that some one loves me so much, and feels as if I’d helped them.” “More than any one in the world, Beth. I used to think I couldn’t let you go; but I’m learning to feel that I don’t lose you, that you’ll be more to me than ever” … then and there Jo renounced her old ambition, pledged herself to a new and better one, acknowledging the poverty of other desires, and feeling the blessed solace of a belief in the immortality of love.
- What could be harder for a restless, ambitous girl, than to give up her own hopes, plans and desires, and cheerfully live for others?
- “Forgive me, dear, I can’t help seeing that you are very lonely” … “I care more to be loved…. It’s very curious, but the more I try to satisfy myself with all sorts of natural affections, the more I seem to want. I’d no idea hearts could take in so many – mine is so elastic, it never seems full now, and I used to be quite contented with my family; I don’t understand it.”
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
By J.K. Rowling | April 2020
I jumped into the Harry Potter series at The Order of the Phoenix when I was a kid, so I never read the earlier books. Along with my house, I am re-reading the whole series and simultaneously re-watching the movies. I’m amazed by the moral gems tucked in them. It’s been an entertaining escape and makes this quarantine feel a little more enjoyable like summer breaks in school!
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (Ch 18: Dobby’s Reward)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
By J.K. Rowling | May 2020
The prior books were a quick read and fairly lighthearted, and this marked such a stark tonal shift in the books. I remember not liking this book the first read because of Harry’s attitude, and I couldn’t remember the movie well enough to amend my negative feelings toward the book. But upon re-reading it, I feel like I understand Harry’s rage at feeling abandoned yet again. It’s really fascinating to, when binge-reading them all, see these characters really grow up and go through adolescence. Probably now with a few years since I first read it, I’m appreciating these books in helping me reflect on growing up (rather than being a companion alongside that time). I’m reminded of this with Dumbledore’s quotation:
“Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young… and I seem to have forgotten lately.” (Ch 37: The Lost Prophecy)
And of course, another wise insight that I overlooked the first time:
“He regarded him as a servant unworthy of much interest or notice. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.” (Ch 37: The Lost Prophecy)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
By J.K. Rowling | May 2020
In the same way I really liked Little Women as wisdom for adults disguised as a children’s novel, The Half-Blood Prince had some stellar moments for reflection:
“Ah, Harry, how often this happens, even between the best of friends! Each of us believes that what he has to say is much more important than the other might have to contribute!” (Ch 17: A Sluggish Memory)
And I’m bookmarking this passage for how artfully Dumbledore responds. I remember as a kid feeling so similarly to Harry when admitting mistakes, and now it serves as a reminder of the power of a “thank you” and how to respond to disappointment:
A hot, prickly feeling of shame spread from the top of Harry’s head all the way down his body. Dumbledore had not raised his voice, he did not even sound angry, but Harry would have preferred him to yell; this cold disappointment was worse than anything…. “Thank you for saying that, Harry,” said Dumbledore quietly. (Ch 20: Lord Voldemort’s Request)
By Cathy Park Hong | May 2020
Hong writes with a poet’s voice, which stitches her personal experience, historical context, and formal analyses of other artworks into a tapestry whose complexities upoh close examination expands into a global truth. As she describes her own Asian American reckoning, I’m reminded of my own that crystallized when I took Professor Marci Kwon’s class on Asian American art in college.
Hong puts into language ideas and phenomena that I experience yet struggle to articulate what and why, such as on:
[M]inor feelings: the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head. (Chapter: Stand Up)
I also appreciate her take on artistry and who is allowed to say what. Why is it, for example, that some artists are taken seriously on “universal” subjects while artists of color are relegated to “ethnic” literature or art? This reminded me of a blog post by N.K. Jemisin on how her fantasy book was shelved instead into the African American section at a library.
On the subject of how to act ethically and responsibly especially within cross-cultural exchange, Hong then quotes Trinh T. Minh-ha in Chapter “Bad English”:
When you decide to speak nearby, rather than speak about, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the possible gap between you and those who populate your film…. This allows the other person to come in and fill that space as they wish.
I love how candid she is in underscoring Asian America not just as the afflicted but also the afflictor of race-based discrimination, and in navigating that position:
Can I write honestly? Not only about how much I’ve been hurt but how I have hurt others? And can I do it without steeping myself in guilt, since guilt demands absolution and is therefore self-serving? In other words, can I apologize without demanding your forgiveness? Where do I begin? (Chapter: Bad English)
For me, it’s a great reminder of the questions to constantly ask myself not just as an artist but also as a human moving through this world.
By Charles Montgomery | May 2020
The central thesis of Happy City is, unsurprisingly, that we should understand and leverage the built environment in its role in architecting our happiness or eudaimonia. Not only is eudaimonia a useful vector to improve immediate quality of life for everyone, but it may have downstream effects that allow us to be far more environmentally sustainable, economically productive, and socially just. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of eudaimonia, but Montgomery defines it as the intersection of happiness and purpose, and which encompasses self-acceptance, community, control, personal growth, autonomy, and meaning. The city and physical landscape around us often pre-defines our ability to attain many of these components. For example, I think it’s easiest see this with community, control, and autonomy.
It wasn’t surprising to me that community affects happiness. It reminds me of a quotation from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in this beautiful monologue by Kristin Scott Thomas’ character: “People are all we’ve got.” Yet what was fascinating to me was that Montgomery hammered home how it wasn’t just close ties that shape your happiness; your relationships with strangers, neighbors, and people with whom you have casual social contact also define it. Those low-stakes acquaintanceships locate you in a place and your conception of that environment. Do you feel like you can trust them or feel safe around them? And the answer to that impacts your evaluation of security and comfort more than fact itself. So a large question for city designers is: how can we build an environment that helps people adopts many social roles in their communities? If the city forces us to drive for hours a day and super-commute, then that erodes our free time to participate in our communities and meet friends. And if we live so spread out that every meet-up has an overhead cost, it creates friction for people to maintain friendships, to volunteer, to join clubs. But of course, just as much as we need social stimulation, we need a balance of restful isolation. We need the ability to regulate the two on demand.
When Montgomery talks about people’s need to exercise control, he gives the example of how we all want the ability to regulate our social contact with each other. Cities often get a bad rap because they’re painted as noisy and crowded, and low-density suburbs are a way of de-crowding. While it’s easy to chalk up the call for reducing density to our need for privacy, he distinguishes between density and crowding. Whereas density is a physical fact, crowding is psychological. It was helpful to read about an example of how where a window looks out onto can dramatically change people’s perception of how crowded it is without any change to density; if it looks out onto a tree or nature, people rate crowding far lower than if it were to open onto someone else’s window. In fact, window views had higher effect on reducing crowding than a dramatic increase in actual square footage. It gave me a lot of hope for thinking about ways to help people feel like they have their own private space to retreat to while still accruing the benefits of density like walkable, lively, and interesting with opportunities for light social roles and casual interactions.
Finally, Montgomery also highlights the need for autonomy. At first I struggled to distinguish how control and autonomy are different, but I think a helpful framing is to think of control as the ability to regulate our social interactions to attain both vibrancy and peace when we so choose, and autonomy as the ability for us to live full, independent lives. For example, we don’t design most cities to encourage happiness-promoting modes of transportation: walking or biking. Instead, sprawl makes it hard for anyone to get around except by car. This has really bad implications for anyone who can’t drive (i.e. children, teens, seniors, and people who don’t want to). For example, how does a kid get exercise if they don’t have a park within walking or biking distance? Or even if they can, walking and biking is still unsafe because of the risk of getting hit by a car or of getting racially profiled and killed? That means without kids can’t be autonomous since they must rely on someone to shuttle them, which ties up everyone’s ability to live independent lives.
Montgomery also underscores how distance, which we take to be a physical fact, can be abstracted based on our experience of travel and mode of transportation. Specifically, people’s willingness to walk inflates or deflates depending on how we feel about the streets. He contrasts how far and long people are willing to walk when it’s past interesting storefronts (a long time) versus when it’s through an asphalt parking lot (not even a few minutes). Cars also have a detrimental effect on reducing distance “to abstraction. Home is simultaneously far from and close to everything else, depending on the number of cars on the road at any moment” (p. 46). It is what creates road rage and frustrating commutes. It strips away our sense of independence for being able to move because mobility is now dependent on external factors (i.e. traffic). (The same can be said of transit and how riders are completely at the whim of its schedule or delays.) And for many, the joy of driving a car is often throttled because congestion limits the speed and thrill of driving. I think urbanists often get painted as anti-car on principle, but I think a more appropriate characterization is not to ban cars but rather to reframe the question as: how do we make cars non-essential for daily life like commuting so we can instead restore them to be a pleasure for those who want it?
So what is to be done? And what will result from embarking on this “path to happiness”? Many of these interventions are intertwined; something that increases our sense of control and autonomy also augments our sense of community. At its core, it requires recognizing that we are able to find eudaimonia in communities and public life rather than only by carving out private spaces. It requires recognizing that the option of regular social contact is essential to well-being. It requires recognizing that we don’t need to start from carte blanche to design a happy city; there are plenty of opportunities to retrofit already suburban or sprawled areas (see: N Street Cohousing, allowing basement units and laneway garages to be converted into full units) that preserve quietness and walkability while enabling vibrancy. It increases the neighborhood capacity and encourages diversity in living style for each person’s preferences (p. 140).
It also requires ensuring that we can harness the restorative power of nature daily (even in the form of a small neighborhood greens) rather than as a sporadic dose (large parks you need to travel to). It requires restoring a system where people have the ability to socialize with their communities if they want to after a workday. It requires systemically dismantling of the incentives we’ve artifically introduced to prop up car use. This includes rethinking how we pay for parking and how we make it possible for everyone to commute in ways that is freer (rather than forcing car dependency). Here, I find a useful heuristic for inclusive design is to imagine how children would fare. Do you have options that are safe (from cars) and allow children to roam freely? For example, I’ve biked in SF and many of the bike lanes don’t feel safe at all and only “sport cyclists” who can navigate the obstacles and compete against cars who intrude onto bike lanes. This is in contrast to my experience biking in Copenhagen where speeds are slow enough that children freely bike because there’s a curb to separate cars from cyclists.
And what we stand to gain beyond happiness are also economic: “Minicozzi has since found the same spatial conditions in cities all over the United States. Even low-rise, mixed-use buildings of two or three stories – the kind you see on an old-style, small-town main street – bring in ten times the revenue per acre as that of an average big-box development. What’s stunning is that, thanks to the relationship between energy and distance, large-footprint sprawl development patterns can actually cost cities more to service than they give back in taxes. The result? Growth that produces deficits that simply cannot be overcome with new growth revenue” (p. 263).
By Susan Fowler | June 2020
This book hit home hard. I remember reading Fowler’s 2017 blog post and the conversation it sparked on campus amidst recruiting that was happening at the same time. It was so hard imagining how that kind of environment could have existed and persisted. Having now worked in tech, so many details of her account in Whistleblower feel so salient. Like Know My Name, Whistleblower highlights that what is often missed in these conversations is not just the initial transgressions, but to recognize that how institutions (and people within) respond to, antagonize, and diminish these claims amplify the harms done. That resonated so much. Her blog post gave me a lot of courage to speak up at the time, and I only wish I blew my whistle louder.