My Reading Exercises

Eric Sandosham, Ph.D.
6 min readMar 30, 2024

Learning to be more insightful.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Background

Many people have asked me how I’ve come to think in such contrarian and unique ways. I’ve often attributed it to my reading habits. That inevitably leads to the follow-up question: “What exactly do you read?”. They’ve asked me to compile a reading list and how this relates to cultivating good data analytics habits. And so I dedicate my 32nd weekly article to unpacking my reading habits, which is a bit of detour from my usual weekly writing topics. But so what. :)

(I write a weekly series of articles where I call out bad thinking and bad practices in data analytics / data science which you can find here.)

Reading to Become

As the saying goes: “You are what you eat.” The same can be said for reading. In fact, you are the product of your inputs (and activities). Reading is so much more than just ingestion of data and information. Research shows that reading improves memory, builds vocabulary, and provides and strengthens foundational knowledge. It is essentially brain exercise. Research also shows that reading stimulates imagination, and thus creativity, more than watching videos and images; the difference between reading the ‘3 Body Problem’ as compared to watching its adaption on Netflix. And just like any form of exercise, you need variety and diversity. So I cover my reading ‘exercises’ across the following genre, each serving a specific purpose.

My reading covers books, articles, blogs across the physical and digital, including audio books and podcasts. The breadth and diversity of my reading allows me to ‘borrow’ concepts and ideas across different disciplines, allowing me to build confidence in my contrarian thinking. In short, the more widely you read, the more you are unlikely to swim with the masses.

Below summarises the typical genre that I read. I’ve also listed down books within each of these genres that I particularly liked from the recent last few years of reading. It is not meant to be a book club recommendation.

Murder Mystery

The Murder Mystery genre (aka Whodunit) teaches me to 2 things — the power of observation and the ability to connect the dots. They teach me about the power of asking good questions and forming robust hypotheses. While I continue to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, I find these older books play on domain expertise. For example, Agatha likes to reference her knowledge of exotic poisons, while Sherlock is a walking encyclopaedia on esoterics. The murder mysteries I prefer require only general knowledge to solve and I find these to be the most instructional. Some of my favourites in this genre are:

  • Chief Inspector Ganache series by Louise Penny
  • Jack Reacher series by Lee Child (the recent ones co-written with his younger brother Andrew aren’t as clever)
  • Hawthorne series, and Magpie Murders series by Anthony Horowitz

History, Biography & Philosophy

I group the genres of History, Biography and Philosophy together as they share many similar themes on time-anchored exploration and re-interpretation. In terms of history books, I’m not just covering the classical topics like the “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, but also the history of Science and Maths. Collectively, these books teach me perspective and ’cause & effect’ compounded over time and on a global scale. They teach me about sense making. Some winners in this genre for me are:

  • The Silk Roads, and The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
  • Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon by Todd Zwillich
  • That Will Never Work by Marc Randolph
  • Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson
  • Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Business/Economics

This is also a broad genre. Topics range from how the business world and global economies work to management concepts and best practices. I tend to go for those that are somewhat contrarian since most of us already know the commonly-accepted precepts. These books teach me about analytical thinking and applying it to deconstruct how the social and economic world might actually be operating. I particularly like these books:

  • Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham & Ashley Goodall
  • Work Rules!: Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock
  • Super Founders: What Data Reveals About Billion-Dollar Startups by Ali Tamaseb
  • Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez
  • Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All by Michael Shellenberger
  • How An Economy Grows And Why It Crashes by Peter D Schiff & Andrew J Schiff

Science

This technical genre not only feeds my curiosity of the natural world, but provides me with an expanded foundational repertoire of knowledge. While my love is in data analytics / data science, I also read a lot about astronomy, about neuroscience and consciousness, about biology. All of science is inter-related; the robust scientific method and hypotheses-based thinking is portable across all the disciplines. These are some of the winning gems for me:

  • Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark
  • A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins
  • Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili & Johnjoe McFadden
  • Lifespan: Why We Age — and Why We Don’t Have To by Dr David A. Sinclair & Matthew D. LaPlante
  • Gut by Giulia Enders
  • Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner
  • Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently by Dawna Markova & Angie McArthur
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know by Byron Sharp

Self-Help

I’m not a fan of self-help literature. I don’t put a lot of stock into literature that prescribes how you can win at sales, how you can better network and make more influential friends, etc.. I prefer the act and experience of self-discovery. But once in a while, I come across interesting topics. These self-help books teach me about behaviour modification and oftentimes empower me with new skills. Here are a few titles that I found useful:

  • The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential by Tony Buzan & Barry Buzan
  • The Art of Thinking Clearly: The Secrets of Perfect Decision-Making by Rolf Dobelli
  • Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Colin Bryar & Bill Carr
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear

Conclusion

Instead of seeing reading as ingestion, think of it as another form of exercise. It is well-documented that reading is essential to success in both personal and corporate life. This one single ‘habit’ cannot be understated. It is the cornerstone of learning agility and adaptability. Despite claims of shortening attention spans and social media addictions, recent research shows that reading is becoming increasingly more popular. I myself read an average of 5 articles on Medium every day and consume at least 20 books a year.

In today’s knowledge economy, reading isn’t just about physical books. Books can be read digitally, can be consumed aurally, can be engaged visually. I want to wrap up by giving a shout out to these other-modality ‘reading materials’:

  1. The Prof G Pod with Scott Galloway, available via podcast → for teaching me about challenging the status quo with data while keeping it simple.
  2. Professor Roger Martin’s weekly articles on Strategy, available on Medium → this ‘Top 3’ Strategy thinker in the world has taught me about how writing consistently on a passion topic helps to continuously sharpen your own perspective, and that there are indeed many things to say about any given topic. His generosity with knowledge sharing also resonates with me. He’s been posting a Strategy article on Medium every week for the last 4 years!
  3. Dami Lee’s monthly videos on Architecture, available on Youtube → this Gen Z architect-turn-content-creator taught me about thinking deep and broad. Starting from posting daily short videos on her experiences as a budding architect to becoming an entrepreneur who puts out long-form videos on complex architectural ideologies and their intersection with societal evolution. Her passion and commitment to research is inspirational.

Happy reading!

--

--

Eric Sandosham, Ph.D.

Founder & Partner of Red & White Consulting Partners LLP. A passionate and seasoned veteran of business analytics. Former CAO of Citibank APAC.