Please enjoy this transcript of another episode of the “Books I’ve Loved” series, in which I invite amazing past guests, close friends, and new faces to share their favorite books—the books that have influenced them, changed them, and transformed them for the better.
This episode, we have Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly), who might be the real-life most interesting man in the world. Kevin is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its executive editor for its first seven years. His most recent book is The Inevitable, which is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. His other books include the best-selling New Rules for the New Economy, the classic Out of Control, and his summary theory of technology in What Technology Wants. From 1984–1990 Kelly was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. He co-founded the Hackers’ Conference, and was involved with the launch of the WELL, a pioneering online service started in 1985. He also founded the popular Cool Tools website in 2003.
Recomendo is his free, weekly newsletter that gives you six brief personal recommendations of cool stuff.
Note from the editor: The podcast episode was recorded in late 2019.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch a few minor errors. Enjoy!
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Kevin Kelly: Hi, this is Kevin Kelly. I’m Senior Maverick at Wired magazine, and I’m an author of a couple of books, mostly about future technology, but in a previous life I ran a magazine called The Whole Earth Review in Coevolution Quarterly that reviewed books on a regular basis, and, in that capacity, I have read through and evaluated—I don’t know—many, many, many thousands of books. I am speaking right at this moment in a two-story library of my own that’s filled with many, many thousands of books that I own. I love books. I read books. I write books, and I care about the kind of books that change people’s minds, and I want to talk about a few of those kinds of books briefly.
I want to tell you about four books that have changed my mind, and maybe they’ll change your mind. I think the power of a book to change people’s minds is an amazing superpower—that we could hand something that [had] little scribbles on it, and it would change how you thought and maybe even looked at the world.
The kind of books I’m going to recommend are nonfiction books, but fiction can certainly do that. There have been books of fiction that I’ve read that have changed my view, but I’m going to talk about four nonfiction books that changed my mind, and I’m going to start with the most recent one, one that has just come out a matter of weeks ago and it’s called Open Borders.
Open Borders is a graphic novel. That’s what we call a comic book for adults and it’s a graphic novel written by an economist, Bryan Caplan, and the graphic novel is illustrated by an artist, Zach Weinersmith. And together they have made this comic book for adults, which is about the science and ethics of immigration. It’s probably one of the most radical books that I have read in years.
It’s radical because it has a radical idea, and the radical idea simply is that everybody in the world, individually, and every country in the world would benefit from having open borders, meaning the ability, or the right, for anybody to live anywhere they want if they obey local laws.
Now, there are going to be variations of that principle, but the basic premise is that you have open borders, that you don’t have borders that restrict where people can live and work. In a certain kind of intellectual level, we can imagine some future society on this planet where it becomes a universal human right to be able to migrate and live anywhere you want on the planet as long as you obey local.
That idea, it seems very strange to many people right now. It seems unworkable or idealistic or in some ways simply a fantasy. Bryan Caplan, in this book, goes through the scientific, economic reasons, all researched and evaluated, and makes a very clear, fast, fun case with comics about why our kind of intuitions may be wrong about this, and why the fact is, is that it is the most and best economic thing we could possibly do for ourselves and for others.
Again, there are many objections about… that you may have, many obvious ones. He goes through all of them offering reasons why those objections aren’t true. Showing the data why it’s not true, but at the end of the book he even goes a little bit further and says, “Well, even if you kind of don’t accept all my arguments and you decide that maybe we meet some halfway measures,” he offers a bunch of different what he calls “keyhole solutions” that are less than this perfect open borders, but it’s still superior to what we have.
I’m maybe not giving it credit because it sounds very dull and boring, but in fact, because it’s a graphic novel, it reads very fast. There’s a kind of actually humor element in it and it’s very, very clear. It’s very methodical, and I believe it might even change your mind if you have some doubts about the premise. That’s Open Borders, very new, very current, very radical, very persuasive and fun to read.
The second book is one that’s a little bit older and it’s written by a friend of mine, Stewart Brand, who used to be the editor—and he was the founder—of The Whole Earth Catalogs, and he’s read a lot of books too, but he wrote a book that I really found changed my mind about the spaces that I live in, the structures that we work in, the buildings that surround our lives. His book is called How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. It’s an illustrated book with lots of pictures, but the main thesis of this book is that when you make a building, when you build something, when you build a structure, when you build a home or office building or even a factory, you’re making a prediction about what you think it’s going to be used for because you’re going to design it for certain uses in mind. Like all predictions, most of these buildings will be not used over the longterm for what they were originally built for.
People build homes and they have additional kids and they need to remodel, and then they begin to remodel, or they want a home office. Commercial buildings are constantly being renovated for different kinds of stores or from a store to a warehouse, a warehouse to a store. Stewart’s idea is that we should build buildings with the idea that they’re going to be modified. You want to make them sort of easy or ready to be modified by the current people who are using them and that the buildings that sort of last the longest are actually ones that have been modified many times and therefore they are the ones that sort of are more able and capable of being modified. He calls that learning.
This is [the] idea that when we want to make our surroundings, our offices, the places that we live in, we should keep in mind that we’re probably going to modify what they’re being used for, and therefore we’re going to modify those spaces, and so we want to make adaptable structures, adaptable spaces. It doesn’t mean some high tech things. It might even mean making something a square shell that’s very easy to modify within. It kind of depends, but the point is is that buildings are adaptable and adapted in time, so you want to think of the structures as having the element of time. That changed my mind.
The third book that I want to talk about that changed my mind was a book called The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clay Christensen. It’s kind of famous now. It may not be 100% correct in all its details because it was based on some data that was preliminary, but the basic idea is is that when you are trying to do innovation, that there’s a dilemma in the innovation. There’s a dilemma in the organization that’s trying to make the innovation and the dilemma is simply that, in the short term, it makes more sense to incrementally improve what you know how to do rather than throwing it out and starting over and taking a chance on something new and maybe bigger that might not work.
And that in a business sense, it always makes more sense, at the business bottom line in the short term, to just incrementally improve what works and that to take a chance, to do the risk of innovation, which is very likely to fail. That’s almost the definition of innovation, is that most of the time it’s going to fail with the chance that you may have a hit, a higher yield, doesn’t really make short-term economic sense. You have to take a longer view. The calculus only works if you’re willing to take a longer view.
The dilemma is how do you do that? How do you balance that risk of doing what you know, improving excellence in what you know how to do versus going with non-excellence, going with failure, and trying something new.
People think that it’s always obvious that you want to innovate, but the point of this book is that it’s actually not obvious, that you actually have to kind of go beyond the obvious. You have to kind of push through the obvious because the obvious thing is to not innovate. He gives case studies about why he believes this is true and that aha to me really changed my mind about thinking about how you be creative because to some people, being creative seems natural and the obvious thing to do, but if you really are creative, it’s not going to always be so obvious.
That is actually when you want to remember this book, which is that you have to take a longer term view to kind of continue trying to innovate. Innovator’s Dilemma, Clay Christensen.
The last one I want to talk about is another book that changed my mind called Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. This is a little-known book. It’s kind of hard to read. It’s written by kind of a theologian. A lot of it… I mean it was kind of written in the language of religious orientation. A lot of it is really maybe not so useful, but read the first and last chapters.
The basic premise that changed my mind was to understand that in the world there were two kinds of games. There were finite games in which there were winners and losers. We often call that a zero sum. If somebody wins, someone else has to lose. In those kind of games the rules are fixed. You have fairness. If someone is breaking the rules, it’s unfair. You don’t want to play. You play until somebody wins and most of the games in the world, they’re about winning and losing, but there’s another kind of game called the infinite game and there aren’t winners or losers. The rules are not fixed. You’re kind of constantly changing the rules just to extend the game and the purpose of the game is just to keep the game going.
The purpose of the game is to bring as many people in to play the game. The purpose of the game is to kind of invent new games and that non-zero sum or what we might want to call the positive sum is really the basis of most of the good things we have in life. In a certain sense, you could say that a company that is working or successful is an infinite game because if it’s really doing its job well, it’s not taking from other competitors it’s actually enabling other people to do their own thing. It’s actually creating jobs and creating money flow and creating new objects and services and goods that can be improved upon and used by others and maybe making ecosystem. It’s in some ways enlarging the pie rather than just taking a slice of the pie.And that idea of kind of the ever-expanding-pie is the view that I now see the world in, and it helps me kind of look at things and even decide what to do by saying, “Is this a finite game?” And then I don’t want to play, or, “Is this an infinite game?” in which sign me up. Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse.
Those are four books that changed my mind and maybe they will change yours. I hope they do. Thanks, Tim, for giving me a chance to rant about some favorite books. Bye.
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