How to handle a down-market (and 3 book recommendations)

If you’ve been following the business news the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen bad news story after bad news story: a slowdown in China, the US market is down, the price of oil is down and oil companies are losing money, etc. etc. etc.

We’ve heard it all before. The most important piece of advice is: don’t sell. Turn off the news, stop refreshing your portfolio, and go do something else. Take a walk outside, meditate, read, write, exercise, spend time with your family.

(As an aside, I read an interesting paper today that says most investors who invest in mutual funds actually get WORSE returns than the funds they invest in due to bad timing: they pull their money out when the market falls, and buy in after it has already recovered. As economist Matt Yglesias says, the stock market is the only market where things go on sale and all the customers run out of the store.)

Anyway, while I was ignoring the financial news this week, here’s what I was reading instead:

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

This is an epic, 800 page biography of an incredible industrial titan. One of the wealthiest men in history, Rockefeller’s net worth was estimated to be around $200bn in today’s money. What struck me from this book is his intensity of focus, and his stoicism — he accepted the reality he had to deal with, and just got down to work, with incredible results. (And thanks to Ryan Holiday for his post on the joy of reading long books, which drove me to finally pick this book up, having had it on my wish list for some time now.)

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

This had also been on my wish list for a few months — Chernow’s book got me in the mood for more biographies, so I grabbed this and tore through it in a couple of days. I actually learnt a ton about SpaceX from this book — I’ve been a Tesla fanboy for a couple of years now, but the story and accomplishments of SpaceX are actually more impressive from an engineering and innovation point of view. Reading this, I’m struck by the same thought that I had when I readWalter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs: this guy is a real dick, and I would hate to work for him. I understand why people would want to, because if you can deal with a high-pressured working environment, you can create things that literally change the world — but I don’t think I would like it, and I don’t think I’d do well in that situation. I’m not sure what that says about me though. Something to think about a little more.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Cal’s previous books helped me hugely when I was at university (How to Become a Straight-A Student) and in the early stages of my career (by becoming So Good They Can’t Ignore You). Now, in his latest book, Cal outlines his philosophy of Deep Work, which he defines as complex, cognitively taxing work that is difficult, but creates real value — as opposed to shallow work like reading and responding to email, which tends to be straightforward, and feels productive, but doesn’t usually create much value. Cal argues that by maximising the amount of deep work we do (and consequently minimising shallow work) then we’ll not only be more productive, and do better in our careers, but we’ll be happier too. This book had a big impact on how I view work as a whole, and I’m genuinely excited to put the ideas in this book into practice. My friend Kevin did a great summary of this book too, if you want to check that out.

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