Saturday, February 27, 2010

“The Richest Man in Bablyon” by George S. Clason

So I have to preface this review by saying,

a) This book was written in the 1920's.
b) This is a book about personal finance and budgeting.
c) I absolutely love this book and had so much fun reading it, I went back three more times!

Ok, let me explain: I actually bought "The Richest Man in Babylon" in Audiobook form about a year ago. There was a time when I would incorporate Audiobooks into my morning routine (multitasking), but now prefer the selection of hardcovers and convenient delivery. If you want to pick this up on, or download the Audiobook from iTunes, it is an absolute treat. If you get the actual book, it's pure genius and full of charm, but you won't get the great voice acting.

I know. Voice acting? Here's how it works: Clason was a businessman and early 'motivational' guru and would travel around the US distributing pamphlets that would show people how to save money, and build wealth. He didn't just say, 'Do this, do that', though; instead, he created parables set in Ancient Babylon, which would be more engaging and enjoyable to read than the driest subject on Earth...personal finance and budgeting.

So now you can imagine why I had so much fun 'listening' to this book. Set in Ancient Babylon, it tells tales of common men getting together to discuss how they can emulate the local hero, The Richest Man in Babylon (who himself, was a self-made man). The whole thing, as a parable, is one huge metaphor. First you fall in love with the story, then you feverishly jot down notes as you realize just how brilliant this is. The Babylon setting simplifies the whole thing into great archtypes, not overly confusing 401k, IRA, gibberish (which by the way aren't strategies at all, they're just tools).

As the richest man in Babylon relates in this book, even he can't afford to satisfy all his desires, and his stomach cannot fit all the food he might desire to eat each night. Even he is limited by the time on this earth, so he spends his time carefully (budgets his time?). Even he, with all his endless wealth, has a budget. And that budget works for him to make sure each meal is delicious, each hour is spent thoughtfully and enjoyably, and each dollar is spent usefully and intelligently. And here's the kicker: when he eats, he does not mourn that which had no space to eat. He is content with his choices.

Ok. So, so far, absolute gibberish and fluff, right? First we have to get past this idea that you have a money problem. You don't. If you made a million dollars a year, your bad habits would scale and you'd be just like those guys who win the lottery and squander it in 6 months.

The truth is, the fallacy of 'a few more bucks' is so ingrained in our mentalities, that we put off thinking about this stuff until we have more money. When that happens, we spend it. Look, it's pretty simple. In the West, we're just coming out of a huge recession, and yet the Stock Market seems to be ticking along just fine. What does that tell us? That people are still clinging to their credit cards. If you don't have a problem with credit cards/loans, you're the exception, not the rule.

What Clayton does with this book is demonstrate how the very poorest of tramps can start building wealth right now. Today. Is it simple? Sure. Can anyone do it? Yeah. If you have discipline, you can start paying down all your debts and building your own empire.

I'm gonna try not to plagiarize the book by reciting its laws. Go get it. I can, however, give you my own story. After reading this book, I jumped into Excel and starting doing the calculations on the elements it teaches you to focus on:

1) Pay down your debt
2) Contain your monthly expenses
3) Invest in something that will grow

What's hard about this? The initial 'woe is me' complaint that most people have stops them at step one. People also have this annoying fear of money: they'd rather not know how much credit card debt they have. I check every week, to make sure that number is going down.

Lastly I want to say this: if you take one thing away from this book, its that your salary doesn't matter as long as you have discipline; with discipline, you can eliminate your debt and be on the road to prosperity, health and ultimate happiness. Without discipline, you can be Nicholas Cage. Take your pick.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World" by Niall Ferguson

So go back about 6 months, and I get a call from my parents, back in Canada. Who's going where, how's the garden, what's the next trip they're planning. And they mentioned to me they were watching this really interesting documentary on PBS called 'The Ascent of Money' and it was right up my alley. A couple weeks later, I was in a bookstore in Shanghai and saw it, so I picked it up. While I slogged through The Count of Monte Cristo, this huge book sat on my coffee table for months and months.

Having graduated in Economics, there were bound to be some nuggets in there that caught my eye. I wasn't really stoked for a review of my college textbooks though. Luckily, most of this book is great read because of the story, not the financial meandering (sparse, I promise). The context of what was going on, say, when the first banks started cropping up in Italy is what makes it so fascinating. And what a marvelous story it is: man's quest for riches, dating back to the Babylonians. So allow me to rephrase, this is an Economics book, that is more Archeology and History than x/y graphs and Interest rates.

The Ascent of Money track developments of money, from sheckles to gold pieces, and eventually paper and later online banking in context. A brilliant ride, he shows how , effectively the great wars, won and lost, had a few rich men pulling the strings (or at least betting on the outcome!). The section on the Rothschild family is awesome.

In as pleasant language as humanly possible, he outlines the development of the stock market, what the heck are bonds, why we need to know this stuff , and perhaps more interestingly, the families and empires that were built with the knowledge and understanding of their wallets, and just what incredible power they had.

He outlines the earliest developments of insuarance companies and how similar they are to the modern health care crisis of today (Britain, US, Japan, for example). And you can actually see right where everything broke down, where greed started to be institutionalized.

Obviously I loved it. The whopping Financial history of the world, leading up tot he Enron disaster, Long Term Capital Management, and the Subprime lending crisis (which, everyone hears about, but few actually really understand).

Not surprisingly, he dedicates a full chapter to the resurgence of China. Ferguson coins the symbiotic relationship with America "Chimerica": China lends money to the US, the US uses that money to buy from China (plus interest payments). It's lovely.

What I like the most about this kind of book, is that it does its best to hide the real nitty gritty financial (read: dull) minutiae, but gives you enough so you can follow along in what is really an amazing story.

If this subject is completely foreign to you, it should be a delightful (and enlightening) book. And yeah, I guarantee that after reading it, you will feel like the smartest person in the room. For a few days, anyway. ;)

Follow this author on Twitter@nfergus

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Mr. China: A Memoir" by Tim Clissold

This one was reccomended to me by a fellow expat colleague back in 2008; finally got around to it, and it's a real gem. Before I go on about how the difference between East and West can cause problems, confusion, misunderstanding, (as well as wonder, fascination and reflection) I'll come right out and say it now:is a cliché. I know. But it is critical to understanding why certain things happen.

Put it this way, were it not for 'misunderstandings' Tim Clissold would be at the helm of a massive empire in China right now, and this book wouldn't exist. Everything they'd dreamed of and planned bumped up against this pervasive, ancient, unshakeable culture. This book is about their attempt to go ahead with their plans and how it all turns out.

This story is about a foreigner, who, like hundreds of thousands who followed him, had a fascination for the exotic, mysterious, richness of Chinese culture, and did everything he could to get 'over there.'

What usually starts off as flirting (traveling around for a week or two, hitting the Great Wall, picking up a book on learning/writing Chinese) turns to full on dating (move to China, get a cool job) and aspirations for a shared future (confidence in culturally and linguistically maneuvering throughout the cities and countysides, with the intent to settle down for good).

Our hero, Tim Clissold, is relentless in his desire to get into China and do something huge. He explains how he got a few lucky breaks, but did what it took to get money ( and lots of it) into China long before anyone on CNN was talking about it. He got in early, which meant, as a trailblazer, he had to be the real liason between East and West. We get firsthand insights on the big bosses in the developing Chinese economy. Just fascinating stuff.

The book turns into a series of Anecdotes about ways in which he dealt with 'the Chinese mind' by way of a handful of clever, tough, and sneaky Factory Managers, as well as navigating the Chinese political structure to not get fleeced in the Middle Kingdom.

I'll admit, the symbolism on the front cover (with a classic Chinese dragon 'biting' a mans head) is a little ominous. "Did he lose his shirt?" "Did he turn to bribes/backdoor deals?" It turns out that neither of these were really true. But his team of investors didn't 'take over' China at all. Not by a long shot.

What you will absolutely adore about this book, besides Tim's astute insight into not only the language and culture "challenges" but his 'case studies' are priceless. Somewhat unbelievable, almost always hilarious, he goes down the list of amazing stories of his mixed bag of Chinese investments. In many cases, the way his Chinese partners attempted to 'get the best of him' was very clever, and the followup is even better.

Come to think of it, the Dragon symbolism is befitting: by the end of it, the dragon doesn't bite his head clean off, it just takes a chunk out of his ego. I think they call that wisdom.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Think Week

If you haven't heard of Bill Gates' Biannual Think Weeks, this is going to sound pretty crazy: he actually takes off, unplugs, and hides in a cottage twice a year to read books.

I know what you're thinking "Read books? That's so...old fashioned."

Yeah, he's done it for years (well, since he was able to afford a cottage in the hills). It used to be that he would read lots of weird books (really geeky stuff) on Computer Programming, and Financial Instruments, and Business Models, etc. These days, he reads an insane amount of stuff that all comes internally from Microsoft.

Managers at the software giant have 'homework' to hand in to Gates, who spends a week in silence, sipping Orange soda and making notes.

To me, the idea of this guy, worth about 60 billion, trudging up to some remote cottage to 'mark papers' from his employees of 'average intelligence' is just hilarious, and at the same time, inspiring. Even now, he still feels he has a tremendous amount to learn and still strives to be the smartest guy in the room.

So alas, there I was, pondering what to do with my Chinese New Year 'holiday.' I could go to Thailand or Japan, or Sanya, etc. All places which would be expensive/packed for the holiday, and I wouldn't be able to check emails if I was having too much fun, etc. Then it dawned on me... where can I go, where I'll have peace and quiet, and can actually do something productive, ala Gates?

If I stay at the apartment, its way too noisy, and I'll get sidetracked with Internet, Movies, Friends etc.

I actually found a middle ground: I got a hotelroom on the outskirts of Shanghai. A nice one, with internet on the first floor, and room service, out in the far west (near the airport). Minimal disruption, minimal fireworks (99% of the time), and I took a bunch of books.

And you know what? I can probably get away with doing it twice a year. Like I said, I can check emails daily, in the morning, survive off room service, and the amount of time I have devoted to just reading great books (preferably about your line of work, keeping up with the very latest trends in your job, or big picture stuff, like Gates) can be of huge benefit to your company.

One thing I will say, the amount of 'Wow' great ideas I've gotten from this week is astounding. That's how the brain words, you fill it up with 'information' and then it digests it over the course of a few days. It'll rattle around up there, and suddenly BAM, you get the answer to something that was puzzling you (about business strategy, about time management, or about how to get financing on the next big project).

Think about it... you could worse than emulating one of the richest (and smartest) guys alive.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle" by Carl Jung

What is an amazing coincidence? Is it magic? Is it just impossible luck? Maybe its nothing more than a roll of the dice that the you wake up one day, and you have the flu. As a result you don't go into work, and a few hours later there's a huge snowstorm, and the afternoon rush hour roads are jammed and your colleagues don't get home until 10PM that night. In such a case, you feel blessed to have gotten the flu. But was it just a coincidence, or, was it written, somehow?

One could theorize the weather and your sickness were related. But sometimes, just sometimes, there cannot be any connection whatsoever, and the only two 'explanations' are that you've witnessed a) an amazing coincidence or b) a miracle.

I've wanted to read this book for a number of years; I've been a huge fan of Jung's work since I started reading his amazing insights into personality development (Id, ego, projection, etc). Synchronicity goes beyond those 'theories' of psychology and borders on the paranormal.

Synchronicity, I assumed, was his theory to explain the occurrence of unbelievable 'magical' circumstances, and perhaps, what they can tell us about ourselves. Be warned: although this is only a 120 pager, this was academic piece from a brilliant man, written in 1960. In other words, put the coffee on.

Having read it, I can't believe where Jung went with this idea. Having first introduced the notion of causality and 'connected events' he posits that in such a complex world, it would be easier to start by looking for events that are unique-- they are indeed rare. Connected events are everywhere. He delves into rigorous statistical analysis of card games and dice games, and concludes that ESP may be possible, as well as 'willed outcomes' (Think, The Secret).

This is where Jung gets going. He puts away the calculator for a second and turns to.... Chinese Philosophy?

Having first pondered the possibility of ESP/Psychics/psycho-kinetics, he then discusses several ancient systems of divination, preferring the Chinese (Like the 'Yi Ching') for their holistic approach (again, almost everything is connected). He goes into a very spaced out and esoteric trip consisting of galactic forces (in attempt to prove or disprove Easter and Western Astrological forecasts) and Greek Gods--seriously--knowing that all these things are man's 'creation', the common link is, Archetypes?

Archetypes are an idea of patterns, figures and characters that are common throughout the world's cultures and eras. These seem to be models for possible personalities and relationships which are so universal as to be, perhaps, wired in our DNA to understand (eg. The Hero, the Trickster, the Nurturing Mother--these are ingrained ideas which Jung believes compose our dreams).

This is really an amazing book whereupon, Jung attempts to sit down and prove the power of our minds to either predict the future or create it. I won't spoil the end, because I won't do it justice, obviously, but I'll share an anecdote, which occurred just after I finished reading the book.

It just so happened that during my Think Week, I'd finished a book called 'The Ascent of Money"the day before. Now, there's a part in that book which mentions Mary Poppins: apparently, there's a scene in Mary Poppins where everyone wants to take their money out of the bank at the same time, causing a run on the bank's money. Why do I mention it? Because just before going to sleep that night, and I was watching some TV (keep in mind, this is China, most of the Channels are Chinese talk shows and dramas). I stopped on what looked like a very old movie, with some old-looking white people. It was Mary Poppins.

Why is that weird?

Well first of all its about 50 years old. Secondly, its geared towards a North American audience, making it less liklely to have any appeal whatsoever in China in 2010. The fact that I remembered 'Oh yeah, I was just reading about this yesterday' was amazing. And I'd actually bought that book 'The Ascent of Money' about 6 months prior and never got around to reading it until then. It's amazing that I just so happened to get the book, and then let it sit on my coffee table for half a year before, in the right hotel, on the right week, watching the right channel at the right time, Mary Poppins shows up. And it would have been completely meaningless unless I'd read Ascent of Money they day before, instead of the day after.
You're right, I'm probably just grasping at straws there. Or maybe Synchronicity is just a matter of paying attention to the millions of coincidences and miracles that happen every single day.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"The Power of Less" by Leo Babauta

I'd already been interested in the a more simplified Zen lifestyle (I've been meditating daily for a couple years now) and picked up this book because the title was so representative of my direction recently: less stress, less hassle, stop messing around and focus on the things and people that are really important to me.

This book is not just a 'guide' for doing less; it seeks to bust what I call the Multitasking Myth: that is, it emphasizes that by doing 14 things at once (MSN, Emails, Music, Twitter, Sending Text messages, Eating...etc) you're actually way less efficient. You're way more stimulated but way less productive.

(Note: there has actually been a bit of talk on 'Multitasking' recently on the web with the recent launch of the Apple iPad, which, unlike a real computer, is generally designed to run just one program at the same time. Techies screeched, "How can you get anything done without Multitasking?"... Ironically, it might be a great built in 'feature')

In this sense, at its core, the message is to 'unitask'. Focus on the task at hand, and finish it. In the same vein as Tim Ferris (, Babauta is a big fan of batch processing things. Everything from Email to Errands, Bill Paying etc. And it struck me that its actually a very popular idea: just ask Henry Ford.

We've known the power of specialization of labour for so long, so... why are we so hung up on the idea (rather, the myth) of doing a bunch of different things at once? The truth is, to really hit your productivity groove, you gotta turn off the music, get off Facebook, and focus. The productivitity gains are amazing. I know, I know, the great thing about Multitasking is the flexibility, and the time-saving that comes from driving while you play with the your Blackberry, yada yada yada. Come on, what kind of brilliant writing have you done halfway through a Big Mac? Be honest.

Ok so that was just one element of the book, but I think it exemplifies what we're trying to do here, 'Power of Less' doesn't mean you're doing less, you'll actually do a ton of things, the point is less distraction and less wasted energy on things that, frankly, don't really mean much in the long run.

A big section of the book, Babauta talks about nailing 6 month to multiyear goals by breaking them down and, again, focusing on just a few goals concurrently (you could do just 1, ideally, but there are often time gaps between certain objectives, and we don't want to waste that time idly.)

If you find yourself getting sidetracked easily at work, (it's normal, we all do) definitely check this book out (as well as the aforementioned Tim Ferris classic, 4 hour Work week).

Follow this author on Twitter@zen_habits

Node Zero: "Love is the Killer App" by Tim Sanders

For my first review, I want to go back to the first book that sparked me to get into business. It was early 2000's, and I was working like a dog. At a factory. While I figured out what I was going to do with my life. Everyday after work, I'd get home and eat in front of the TV. Usually around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, there would be some 'Biography' or 'Inside the Actor's Studio' on, and I was always really into those, hearing about brilliant people, and their humble beginnings.

It was around this time that I saw the story of Bill Gates and how Richard Branson started his empire when he was 16, etc. I was buzzing off these 'interview' shows, and there was something about them that really turned me on, I wasn't sure what it was, but each one had a nugget of genius, and I felt that if I could just keep getting the odd nugget of genius, maybe I could find what I wanted to do with my own life.

Flipping the channels one such afternoon, I stopped on a local access show because there was this wild looking hipster guy, with purple tinted shades passionately talking up a new way of doing business. I listened with rapt attention, as this guy, Tim Sanders, tore apart every negative stereotype about the big bad world of business.

"These sharks don't last"..."No one wants to be that cheesy guy at the Office"..."I love my Company"..."The people I work with are rockstars!"

Before I even knew what company he worked for (Yahoo!) and what his 'job title' was (Chief Solutions Officer) I knew I had a lot to learn from this guy. He was living the existence I'd always dreamed of, basically he was a Businessman with a Conscience. No, scratch that. He was a Passionate Businessman! And he wasn't just scraping by, he had landed a huge role at a huge company that had their pick of pretty much anyone for that job. In other words, his 'passion' wasn't a fluke, his conscience, his authenticity was a core element of how he did his job! It was the thing that set him apart from everyone else! At the time, it was a real revelation to me that being anything other than a slimy salesman could be an... advantage in the workplace.

He'd written all his ideas down in a new book, and within days I was delving into "Love is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends." Tim breaks down his holy trinity of Bizlove: Knowledge, Networks and Compassion. This was so huge to me then, and now, looking back, it's still a rarity to find people who act the way this guy lives.

The idea goes something like this: you can actually have really close relationships with great people in the office, it doesn't have to be cold, and it doesn't have to be cheesy and fake, but you have to have to know you're stuff first. And for that, you have to hit the books, and you have to become a social animal, networking the right way.

In order, reading great books, applying their knowledge, sharing it freely with your growing network, and then, when you have demonstrated to people that you know your stuff, then you can start building sincere relationships with people. If you do that, you'll almost never lose a sale, you'll almost never be undercut by a competitor, because it won't be about dollars and cents, it'll be a sincere partnership, in a sea of Machiavellis.

If you don't know anything, and start making promises to the customer (eg. all your prospects) and then let them down, you are the cheesy guy. You're the shark.

At the end of this great book is a killer Reading list to get the newly indoctrinated on their way, not only Business books, but books on Tech, books on Out of the box thinking, and books on ...Love.

I couldn't recommend this book more highly, and if it isn't already obvious, Tim Sanders' ideas are what led me to eventually studying Business in school, and even doing this very blog. Tim Sanders, among other things, is the anti-Cynic, and I believe, that should be enough to get you to pick up his book. Once you get a few pages in, you'll be hooked.

Follow this author on Twitter@sanderssays