My Favorite Books and Podcasts: 2018
When we need advice, most of us consult a friend. There is nothing like a personal referral from someone who has “been there/done that,” and has your best interests at heart.
So, traditionally, around this time of the year, I’ve written a “Favorites” post like these I did in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.
But this past year, Chris started doing our monthly “Best of” posts. He includes both his and my favorite blog posts each month. Judging from the traffic, this is a popular format and a good way for readers to get an overview of the financial blogosphere.
So, rather than reviewing my favorite blogs again here, I’ll switch gears and give you my favorite books and podcasts.
I love blogs, but I still read a number of financial books every year, for a deeper dive into key topics of interest. And most of us find podcasts to be an incredibly convenient format for learning while on the go. I typically listen to several each week.
Here are my favorites from the past year….
It’s not fair. Some people get an extra helping of brains. William Bernstein, Ph.D., M.D., is a retired neurologist who began dabbling in finance and investing and has now written an authoritative series of books on the subject. They’re readable and understandable as well. Recently I read his Deep Risk — exploring the difference between short-term volatility (standard deviation) and long-term risks such as inflation/deflation/confiscation/devastation, Rational Expectations — all about asset allocation and portfolio design, and Skating Where the Puck Was — on correlation and diversification.
It’s safe to say that if you’re familiar with the material in these three books, you’re probably at least as knowledgeable as the average professional money manager. And yet one of Bernstein’s overriding themes is that investing success is not about specialized knowledge. Heed his advice from the end of Skating Where the Puck Was: “Your long term results are less the result of how well you pick assets than how well you stay the course during the bad periods…”
Though I’ve written my own books on personal finance and the retirement question, I continue reading for my own education. Two books in particular have earned a place nearby on my bookshelf. They are Mike Piper’s Social Security Made Simple and Can I Retire?. I own a number of his other books on my Kindle. As a CPA and gifted writer, Mike has a knack for distilling key technical information. His compact and readable books are my go-to references for tax and Social Security law. They are quick reads, typically less than 100 pages, but also serve as useful references. He recently revised most of his collection to account for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and other changes. He also writes the perennially useful Oblivious Investor blog.
This past year I also read Naked Statistics — an entertaining survey of statistics packed with real-world examples, reminiscent of the classic How to Lie with Statistics. Glossing over the mathematical facts in other discussions is unhealthy enough, but doing it in your personal finances will cost you. Either of these books will help arm you against deceptive marketing messages and mangled financial data that are rampant in the media. Misunderstand basic statistics at your own financial peril.
Understanding human behavior is critical to financial success, and to overall life happiness. There have been a spate of books on the topic over the last decade, and I read several more this past year.
Predictably Irrational is a classic in behavioral economics. Dan Ariely explores everything from pricing, to the cost of “free,” to social norms, to procrastination, to decision-making, expectations, and honesty. It’s a wide-ranging book and a good introduction to these topics.
The more recent Barking Up the Wrong Tree covers some of the same ground, but from a fresh perspective. Eric Barker takes a more actionable approach to personal success, trying to answer fascinating questions like “Should we play it safe?”, “Do nice guys finish last?”, and “What makes a successful life?” Along the way he relates intriguing stories about piano prodigies, pirates, Navy SEALS, hostage negotiators, and many others.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is the most intellectual book I’ve read in a long while. It took me more than a year to plow through the 500+ pages from brilliant and controversial Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. But I kept going, and I can heartily recommend the book to anybody else who is fascinated by what makes us humans tick. Pinker debunks our societal myths about human beings as “blank slates,” “noble savages,” or “ghosts in the machine” and applies the latest scientific thinking to many of our most pressing social problems. If you have an open mind, you’re bound to learn something.
Finally, I can’t help but mention a book that influenced me heavily early on and always lies within arm’s reach on my bookshelf: Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. Browne lays out the various psychological and social traps that force us into lives that others want us to lead. And he lays out the actions and behaviors that can truly free us. Part libertarian manifesto and part self-help manual, this is a guide to living a happy life in a world that cares more about your conformance than your contentment. Note: Harry Browne also wrote Fail-Safe Investing and designed the ultra-safe “permanent portfolio” which has strongly influenced me and many others when it comes to conservative investing.
Health and Safety Books
It’s not much of a stretch to say that Younger Next Year changed my life. No, the underlying message — “exercise is good for you” — wasn’t exactly news to me. I’ve exercised consistently and been involved in various outdoor sports ever since high school. The benefits, physically and emotionally are clear. But what I didn’t realize fully until reading this book, was how fundamental vigorous exercise can be to staying healthy in your later years. Though I didn’t need the extensive physiological explanations, and though I implemented the authors’ advice in my own way, the change in my routine and my health have been substantial. In the past year, I’ve doubled my level of exercise, going from 1-2 hours of activity 3-4 days/week to 2-4 hours of activity 6-7 days/week. Your mileage may vary, literally, but the improvements to my health and well-being have been dramatic.
Unfortunately in today’s world, maintaining security over your digital life is essential to your financial and mental well-being. Who among us hasn’t been hacked in some form already? And when it happens, the monetary and psychological cost can be punishing. Hack Proof Your Life Now is a thorough guide to digital security in modern times. It includes an action guide for understanding and securing your email, passwords, devices, settings, accounts, credit, and files. It drives home the importance of mindfulness in all your online transactions. If you haven’t yet done a security audit of your digital life, this book makes an excellent checklist.
It should be no secret to regular readers that personal finance and blogging are only a part of my retired life. I still spend a lot of time outdoors. Whether you’re an armchair adventurer, a day-tripper, or a dedicated explorer of the wilds, there is inspiration and purpose to be found away from the comforts of home.
My recent article on Microadventures attracted a lively discussion and many re-posts from like-minded souls. So kudos to Alastair Humphreys, author of the original Microadventures book popularizing that term.
Several years ago, Humphreys came out with a related tome: Grand Adventures: Dream Big, Plan Quick, Go Explore. Though this book is not as focused as his earlier work, it’s still a must-skim for dedicated adventurers. In it he touches on the logistics of planning large adventures, and then explores the many modes of adventurous travel: bicycle, foot, animal, water, motor, climbing, polar, and so on. But the heart of the book are the dozens and dozens of stories and anecdotes from the world’s current top crop of outdoor adventurers, from the famous to the offbeat. I was amazed by the 16-year old girl who solos the high seas, the family that bicycles around the world, and the people swimming the great rivers, among many other tales….
One of the greatest of my own heroes and influences was Colin Fletcher — the “father of modern backpacking” and the first to execute and document a long “thru hike.” His trek of the spine of California in 1958 was immortalized in The Thousand-Mile Summer: In Desert and High Sierra. Fletcher went on to become the first man to hike the length of Grand Canyon National Park totally within the rim in one push. He wrote about that adventure in his book The Man Who Walked Through Time. He then went on to author multiple versions of The Complete Walker — the “hiker’s bible” for my generation. (Fletcher was a gracious correspondent when I sent him fan mail in high school, and I was thrilled to find my name in the acknowledgements for his 3rd edition!)
A biography of Fletcher, Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher, is recently out, and I devoured the story of his amazing life. I had not fully appreciated just how tough Fletcher was. His books evoke an idyllic stroll through nature. He wasn’t one to brag about the physical demands of his accomplishments. But he had been a Royal Marine commando in WW II, and soloed around Africa and British Columbia in the years following. Feats such as walking the length of the Grand Canyon with minimal supplies are much harder than he let on in his writings. The tragic final chapter of Fletcher’s life, rendered an invalid after being struck by an SUV, is a lesson to us all to “seize the day,” as he did.
Another favorite outdoor author is mountaineer and desert-explorer David Roberts. His classic pair of books In Search of the Old Ones and The Lost World of the Old Ones marry adventure travelogues with scientific research and good storytelling to relate the history of the peoples of the American southwest. If you love this part of the world, you’ll likely be as fascinated by Roberts’ work as I am.
Another book in the same vein, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster, tells the story — ancient and modern — behind the sad episode in 2015 when the Animas River in Durango, Colorado ran orange with mining waste. It’s a compelling tale of the history, geography, economics, environment, businesses, and people of Silverton, Durango, and northwestern New Mexico. Told by a local who knows the land and its personalities, and has a gift for expression.
The leading podcast for professional financial advisors is Michael Kitce’s Financial Advisor Success. Kitces is a prodigiously productive advisor, writer, speaker, and entrepreneur. On his podcast he typically interviews individual financial advisors, coaches, or consultants who have an interesting story to tell. Though many of the podcasts focus on marketing or business issues that would be less interesting to those of us needing financial advice, given the high-powered discussions there are always nuggets of great financial and life wisdom to be had.
Our friends at NewRetirement have been steadily building their brand this year. Starting out as “just” a blog (a very good one), they then built a very competitive retirement calculator, which they’ve been steadily upgrading with new features. Next they added the NewRetirement Podcast. Steve Chen, founder and lead interviewer, has a knack for landing prestigious and fascinating guests. Just check out his discussions with William Bernstein and Annie Duke, for example. On top of the podcast, Steve has recently converted NewRetirement to a full-service Registered Investment Advisor, with a new, aggressive pricing model. If you’re in the market for low-cost financial advice from a licensed advisor whose interests are aligned with yours, check them out.
Lastly, if your investing interests lean towards real estate, check out the REtipster Podcast hosted by Seth Williams. Though Seth built his business doing land deals, his podcast brings on real estate entrepreneurs from all walks — rentals, flipping, storage, land, and others. I’ve listened to a lot of his shows, and I really appreciate Seth’s encouraging style and genuine interest in helping his listeners succeed in real estate investing.
If all you want is easily digested, bite-sized chunks of financial programming, Planet Money from NPR is a good stop. Though I don’t listen for serious financial education, the podcast is very well produced, always entertaining, and just the right length for a short drive or workout.
If you already listen to podcasts in this space, then you likely know about Freakonomics Radio and the TED Radio Hour. Both are chock full of interesting discussions on relevant issues. Freakonomics tends to be more financially oriented, while TED Radio often gets into psychology or quality of life issues. But both range far afield on a regular basis, and you’re likely to find at least a few topics of interest every month.
A final favorite but lesser-known podcast comes from 80,000 Hours. That number represents the hours worked in a typical career. The organization was created by philosophers at Oxford to encourage young people in leading high-social-impact careers. I know, that sounds completely irrelevant for a prospective retiree at the end of their career! But, truth is, the in-depth discussions on what makes the world a better (or worse) place, are fascinating and relevant at any stage of life. Just be warned, though some of the podcasts are among the most interesting I’ve heard, others are long wonk sessions among nerdy academics. Be prepared to fast forward!
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