The 4 books I read this summer vacation

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This year, on our annual holiday, we travelled to Provence, France. I packed 4 physical books with me in one suitcase. We did quite a bit of cycling on electric bicycles in the hilly villages around Ménerbes, the scenery was stunning; with patchy wifi and very little distractions, books became my main refuge, after conversation of course.

As much as I try to read everyday, it is so much easier on holiday when one can devote 1-2 hours a day uninterrupted to a good book. I also planned to go running daily. I hate running so I don’t know why I even planned that.

Here are the four and oh, I only read non-fiction:

  1. Red Notice : How I Became Putin's No. 1 Enemy

This book gave me sleepless nights on holiday, I got really involved with it. I highly, highly recommend reading it - it's well written even if you aren’t all that interested in finance.It is not for the faint hearted, especially the chapter about Sergei Magnitsky, his lawyer being harmed in a Russian prison. What I loved about the author is that he’s moved on from investing in Eastern European & Russian equities (and he was very talented at that) to lobbying for human rights, in a big way. In my excitement, I tweeted about this book and then because Bill Browder liked the actual post, I got a lot more attention on Twitter than I usually get.

  1. Family Constellations Revealed: Hellinger's Family and other Constellations Revealed

A friend shared attending a money constellations workshop and greatly benefiting from it. I have experienced family constellation work before but never delved deeply into it. Hearing about the money impact, I rushed to buy everything I could on the topic. I really enjoyed the book -interesting stories, great insights and leads to the understanding that there is a lot we don’t know that is “hidden” stuff and so useful to uncover.

  1. The Elements of Investing, Updated Edition: Easy Lessons for Every Investor

I tried reading this and just couldn’t get into it. It may be that I have become that jaded investment adviser that has read too many books on this topic. Or that I just needed a break from investment speak on holiday. I will try again especially as I spent £18 on it.

  1. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King

A book about a banana trader. I learnt so much about the yellow fruit and the facts were written in such a fascinating style that I couldn’t get enough of it. An engrossing tale of the life of Sam Zemurray, the ‘banana king’ who found a gap in the market and began selling this fruit to areas of the United States that had never seen them before. A well told story, worth reading.

I am always looking for book suggestions. Feel free to leave me a comment if you have any.

Money lessons from Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (creator of Nike).

"What if there were a way, without being an athlete, to feel what athletes feel? To play all the time, instead of working? Or else to enjoy work so much it becomes essentially the same thing." - Phil Knight

Reading business memoir books can take a bit of work and I don’t mean the fun kind of work; with certain books, I have to give myself motivational speeches by page 15  and encourage myself to plod along. Do you know that feeling? Not this book. Not only a fun read, it also helped me connect with the author as a human being, flaws and all. A deep honesty shone through in the stories & anecdotes about Phil Knight’s own shortcomings, his mistakes, management style, accidental great decisions, business highs and a sometimes flawed relationship with his children - which was truly refreshing. It all started with a $50 loan from his father; today we all recognise the Nike swoosh- the whole story is such a gripping, fascinating & hilarious read.

Some of my favourite lines from the book, which speak to his relationship with money, work and business are below with my thoughts:

On business:

“It seems wrong to call it ‘business’. It seems wrong to throw all those hectic days and sleepless nights, all those magnificent triumphs and desperate struggles, under that bland, generic banner: business. What we were doing felt like so much more. Each new day brought fifty new problems, fifty tough decisions that needed to be made, right now, and we were always acutely aware that one rash move, one wrong decision could be the end. The margin for error was forever getting narrower, while the stakes were forever creeping higher – and none of us wavered in the belief that ‘stakes’ didn’t mean ‘money’. For some, I realize, business is the all-out-pursuit of profits, period, full stop, but for us business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood. Yes, the human body needs blood. It needs to manufacture red and white cells and platelets and redistribute them evenly, smoothly, to all the right places, on time, or else. But that day-to-day business of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic processes of living – and at some point in the late 1970’s, I did, too. I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted, as all great businesses do, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is – you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman. Maybe it will grow on me.”

It is striking how in touch Phil Knight is with his mission, vision and a ‘higher aim’ which included meaning, contribution and efficiency - needs that all humans share. Business can be life-alienating rather than life-enriching, with a focus merely on the bottom line, profits or ‘what’s in it for me?’. It can also be alive, full of meaning, play with a laser sharp focus on delivering value and improving the quality of life of the customers (or clients) you work with. Having empathy for what is important to a customer is so important in business & also doing business for more than just ‘money’.

On money:

“When it came rolling in, the money affected us all. Not much, and not for long, because none of us was ever driven by money. But that's the nature of money. Whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, it will try to define your days. Our task as human beings is not to let it.

I bought a Porsche. I tried to buy the Los Angeles Clippers, and wound up in a lawsuit with Donald Sterling. I wore sunglasses everywhere, indoors and out. There’s a photo of mine in a ten-gallon gray cowboy hat - I don’t know where or when or why. I had to get it all out of my system. Even Penny wasn’t immune. Overcompensating for the insecurity of her childhood, she walked around with thousands of dollars in her purse. She bought hundreds of staples, like rolls of toilet paper, at a time. It wasn’t long before we were back to normal. Now, to the extent that she and I ever think about money, we focus our efforts on a few specific causes. We give away $100 million each year, and when we’re gone we’ll give away most of what’s left.”

From my other blogs, you may notice that I spend quite a lot of time wondering about the unconscious drivers around our relationship with money. Some of us need to act out behaviours several times before we get to the bottom of it - and our childhood’s have a lot to do with our relationship with money too. As Phil refers to it ‘get it all out of my system’. Glad to note that his wife Penny and he did explore what they truly wants to do with money and they are now philanthropists.

An inspirational read, highly recommend!

Oh, and like me if you wonder what ‘Shoedog’ means, it is an industry slang name given to a veteran of the footwear industry. Someone who has dedicated their life to selling shoes is sometimes referred to as “an old shoedog”.

Further reading:

Shoe Dog - Gates Notes

Book Review: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

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“Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships”. – Matthew Desmond Matthew Desmond, an American sociologist wrote this brilliant book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City whilst living near the families whose lives he wrote about. The book also won the 2017 Pulitzer prize for General Non Fiction. This ethnographic study was an eye-opening read about how tragic our systems are in not giving a helping hand to the poor. From the stories I read, it felt like those being evicted had limited options legally or otherwise and were being ‘kicked when they were down’ – seemingly, everything can be profited from including homelessness. I really enjoyed the humane way in which Matthew Desmond described the Landlords & their own conflicts in choosing to evict their tenants, sometimes during the Christmas season in the freezing cold of Milwaukee.

In my review, I focus on scarcity and “material hardship” and what that does to the decisions, quality of life and stability that low-income families experience.

Some of my favourite lines from the book are below with my thoughts:

On material hardship

 “This – the loss of your possessions, job, home, and access to government aid-helps explain why eviction has such a pronounced effect on what social scientists call “material hardship,” a measure of the texture of scarcity. Evicted families continue to have higher levels of material hardship at least two years after the event.”

Stable housing or shelter is one of our basic human needs. In the stories, the renters could not afford to put their belongings in storage and so ended up losing their possessions too, once evicted. This affected their ability to attend interviews or look for ways to better their life. Sometimes, it was hard to get out of the trap of addiction or slip back into addiction due to sheer hardship and brutality of being homeless. I cannot really even imagine what this does to one’s state of mind.

On residential instability

  • “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets social stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.”
  • “Instability is not inherent to poverty. Poor families move so much because they are forced to.”
  • “It takes a good amount of money and time to establish a home. Eviction can erase all that.”

Housing authorities (in the US) count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes – so to read that those with the greatest need are systematically denied help is really sad. It just doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes, tenants were evicted for complaining there was no hot water. Poverty also drowns out your voice.

On opportunities for growth

America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable home.”

“A good home can serve as the sturdiest of footholds. When people have a place to live, they become better parents, workers and citizens.”

This is such an important book which throws light on how the need for housing and the need for profit clash, resulting in much psychological devastation for the poor. While the broad consensus is that families should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing,  it is difficult for renting families to meet this goal with rising rents. In London, where I live, rents rise each year and certainly salaries do not keep pace with rising rents. Yet, the public housing situation in the UK seems more humane.

Empathy for the Needy

I recently came across The Core Values of César E. Chávez and this one caught my eye: A Preference to Help the Most Needy – A concerted effort to support programs that reach the most needy, the most dispossessed, the most forgotten people in society no matter how difficult the challenge that choice may bring.

The book enlightened me to the many privileges I take for granted such as knowing where I will sleep at night. I highly recommend reading it. Any book that awakens me towards empathy for the less privileged and gratitude for mine is a great book.

Further reading:

Evictionland - Curbed.com

America’s Insidious Eviction Problem - The Atlantic

Evicted - Matthew Desmond

Nonviolent Communication and Corporations - Medium

 

 

My Favourite Books I read in 2017

My intention for 2018 is to read every day, meditate every day, cut back on social media time and be more like Cal Newport who inspires me with his writings on 'deep work'. January is a digital detox month and my brain already feels so much clearer. I cheated a little bit though and have sent the odd tweet. For the most part, though, I have been 'good' and spent more time offline with friends and on the phone. I digress. Back to my favourite books listed below. Oh, I only read non-fiction - so there’s no lists for fiction if that is your thing.

Non-Fiction

Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez,‎ Vicki Robin, Monique Tilford and Mark Zaifman

A very sneaky book...in the sense, that it is non-prescriptive and yet, it gets you to follow some basic steps such as methodologically tracking all your income & expenses, which ultimately leads you to reflect, introspect, get clear and make different decisions with both earning, spending and using money. You start seeing money as an exchange of life energy and have a logical way of seeing this- see my post - Frugal is Freedom for more on it. Also, if you are interested in FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early), this is a good book to read.

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics by Richard Thaler

If you had any illusions about how rational we humans are with money, this book sets you straight. Interesting research, great anecdotes and useful to learn the psychology behind money decisions.

Finance for Normal People: How Investors and Markets Behave by Meir Statman

Having heard Meir Statman speak on podcasts, I grabbed this book as I found his insights worthwhile. He talks about the emotional, expressive and utilitarian uses for money. We compartmentalize money into buckets, have incredibly foolish behaviour with it, take mental shortcuts, are overconfident investors and so much more. Meir helps investors reflect on what they really want from their investments focussing on what is the money for  - retirement, children's education, socially responsible investing and so on. He also advocates automating investments. Overall, a worthwhile read and useful especially if you invest and want to understand yourself as an investor better.

Non-Investment related

The Nonviolent Life by John Dear

What is a nonviolent life and how can we be nonviolent to ourselves, others and join a global movement to impact the world? John Dear, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee attempts to answer this question and does so beautifully. Bear in mind, he is a Christian and so teachings of Jesus (whose message of nonviolence was radical for his time- love your enemy, what?) are sprinkled liberally through the book which I actually enjoyed. I bought the book for myself and gifted it to a few friends.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari

First of all, Yuval Harri practices Vipassana, also known as Insight Meditation and does 60-day silent retreats; he plans his working year around that and schedules it first. For this, I already hugely admire him. Secondly, I find history very dull and could never get into it in college or school. However, this book - I could not put down. I also like that he weaves relevant connection to our present day issues whether it be talking about colonialism, racism or money stories; worth buying and savouring every page. There is no thirdly.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

I heard about this book via Miki Kashtan, an international Nonviolent Communication teacher whom I deeply admire and trust. The book made me quite angry & disgusted. No, the book didn't do that, I chose to. I felt quite angry on reading the book and yet, I was glad to have read it - we need to be better educated about crime and 'justice'.  The book shines a light on racial segregation, colour blindness, how the prison system in America almost substitutes slavery. It is very thought-provoking and well worth the emotional aggravation you may feel on reading it.

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine

A great manual for life, if you are interested in Stoicism, then even better. It talks about reducing worry and focusing only on things we can actually control (not very much). I love the challenge of letting go of the 'illusion' of control we have and learning a philosophy that helps you have a truly joyful life. I became interested in Stoicism through the work of Tim Ferris and so glad I bought this book, highly recommend.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer prize for non-fiction, it is an incredible read. Matthew Desmond is an ethnographer, he lives in communities in the United States that struggle with housing and tells an honest, heart-breaking account of incredible characters who struggle to keep a roof over their head. The struggle with homelessness is so real, the landlords have a lot of power with eviction and it seems the system almost obstructs survival for tenants who fall behind. Residential stability is important for psychological stability and community stability. Families lose so much with eviction. I read recently that this book also made it to Barack Obama's recommended book list for 2017.

Further reading:

My favourite books on Money and Personal Finance

Book Review: The Joy of Tax

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“Tax is actually the Government's money that we sometimes hold on its behalf” – Richard Murphy

Tax is not the most riveting topic to read about. The author's work with the Tax Justice Network got my interest and I bought the book. Richard Murphy, a Chartered Accountant in the UK is passionate about this topic and the book intelligently challenges some commonly held views about tax.

Some of my favourite lines from the book are below with my thoughts:

“For most people, tax means income tax. Income tax represents only just over a quarter of all taxes paid in the UK.”

Where does the rest come from, you may ask? Income tax is the highest contribution followed by National insurance contributions, Value added tax & Corporation tax (based on the 13/14 tax year). Besides this, there are over twenty-seven categories of tax including Swiss capital tax and Climate change levy.

On money creation:

  • “The reality that is now accepted to be true by the Bank of England is that all money is created by banks making loans.”

  • “Money is created by a stroke of a pen or some taps on a computer keyboard. There aren’t any physical processes involved.”

Money is created ‘out of thin air’ as Richard refers to it. The whole section on money creation was quite fascinating. I also learned about the chicken-egg scenario - governments don’t necessarily raise taxes to spend, they spend first and then reclaim the money already spent.

On Education

  • “Indeed, tax is at the heart of our society. But we do not talk about it, and we do not teach it, and that is little short of a national scandal.”

I agree that our general financial literacy is poor on practical money matters or personal finance. Many of us, citizens, see tax as something to avoid instead of it being a joyful contribution. I imagine Richard would love to see this change and have an effective tax curriculums taught in schools and universities. Politicians too could benefit from a better understanding of the subject.

On the absurdity of some taxes

  • “Not only does the UK have a wide range of its own tax havens available so that banks can hide their profits off-shore, it also does not charge VAT on financial services and so relatively underprices banking activity as if it were an essential service like healthcare or education and it makes no sense at all.”

  • “ We tax least the most carbon-emitting form of transport, which is air travel.”

  • “If only we taxed excessive consumption we would, without doubt, create funds for future generations who will have to manage the legacy of our mistakes, including nuclear waste.”

  • “Interest relief on mortgage borrowings has been provided to landlords for the last twenty-five years when it has been denied to owner-occupiers.”

I wholeheartedly agree on the absurdity of it.  It is tragic to witness younger generations or our lower-income citizens now effectively priced out of buying a decent home - at least in London. Richard’s proposal of a more joyful tax system would eliminate ISA tax relief and phase out pensions tax relief - both of which he argues create wealth inequality and favour those with higher income. Pensions tax relief, he explains, was originally offered as by contributing to one's own pension, you were lessening the burden on the state; also, it is not tax avoidance. As a financial adviser, I am torn -  a big part of my role is helping people invest for the future, tax efficiency can be a pleasant incentive to encourage money being invested for the future; yet, I can see the clear logic of his proposal.

I particularly enjoyed reading the section about tax secrecy, creating structures to avoid paying tax, offshore companies, especially as Amazon, Google, Walmart, have been in the news for this. More recently, the Queen.

Like Richard, I am hopeful of us having a fair tax system based on principles of honesty & equality, enabling all of us to thrive, reducing wealth inequality and closing loopholes for tax evasion. The Joy of Tax is deliberately titled so; on reading it, I can see why. It was a heavy read, an important book with a crucial message -creating a common future that benefits all citizens.  I enjoyed learning from someone who understands the current tax system and cares so deeply about change for a fairer society. Richard Murphy's book can be found here and he tweets @RichardJMurphy.