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Favourite Books & Reading Habits: Interview with Cristina Riesen, Social Entrepreneur

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Cristina Riesen is a social entrepreneur passionate about technology and design. At the beginning of this year, she founded We Are Play Lab, a nonprofit organization that aims to accelerate change in education and prepare children for the future demands. By bringing together parents, educators, researchers, and policy-makers, its mission is to create more innovative, effective, convenient and affordable ways to deliver education.

Former General Manager of EMEA at Evernote and startup mentor at Kickstart Acclerator, Cristina also recently managed the setup and launch of Swiss EdTech Collider at EPFL Lausanne, Switzerland’s first collaborative space for education technology entrepreneurs.

Cristina now lives in Switzerland, but she started her career in her home country, Romania, back in 1996, at PRO Fm – the first private radio station. After graduating from Transilvania University in Brașov, she moved to Switzerland and continued her studies in public relations and corporate communications at the Swiss Public Relations Institute.

Thanks to Gabriel Coarnă, I had the opportunity to meet Cristina (well, only virtually – for now) and talk about the books that had the biggest impact over her and what lessons she learned. Keep on reading to find out more!

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

Tough question as there are so many. I’ve always been an avid reader, book-worm is my second name. 🙂 Several business and non-business book left an important mark at different stages of my life, I would really not be able to pick only one. Chronologically, my first favourite book probably was Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Or maybe Frank Herbert‘s Dune. Most recent favourite book is Tim FerissTools of Titans. I am a huge fan of Tim.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

Books have always played a big role in my personal development. I fell in love with books early on and as soon I could start reading, it would become my favourite activity. I would get lost in reading because they would fire up my imagination and would teach me so much about people and the world. Mind you that growing up in communist Romania, most books were forbidden so having a chance to get your hands even on classics such as Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas was quite a thing, not to mention a life-threatening exercise. Later on, I chose literature as my major at the university so books would help me combine interest with pleasure.

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What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

More than career paths, I like to look at life trajectories. There are some books who will forever change who you are. When I was around 12 years old, my father brought home Henri Charriere’s “Papillon“. He told me that it was totally inappropriate for my age but he wanted me to read it so that I can understand what persistence and grit means and how important it is to learn to develop them. I did and I must say it was a life-changing experience on so many levels. Enlightening not only because of the extraordinary story and skilful storytelling but also because, now looking back, my father’s gesture empowered me so much. You will not be surprised that persistence and grit are still my top skills, even today.

What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

First, a word on career paths. In time, I realised that career paths are like one-way streets. Magic happens in unexplored territories. Plus life is how you choose to live every moment, every day. So today, rather than building a career, I prefer to make lateral moves in life, working with great people and being part of ambitious projects impacting the world. There are a few books that got me here:

– Mircea Eliade “The Sacred and the Profane
– E.M. Cioran ” The Temptation to Exist
– John Fowles “The Magus
– Milan Kundera “The Unbearable Lightness of Being
– Jon Krakauer “Into Thin Air
– Tony Robbins “Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement
– Stephen R. Covey “7 Habits of Highly Effective People
– Tom and David Kelley “Creative Confidence
– Tim Ferriss ” The 4-Hour Workweek“, “The 4-Hour Chef“, “Tools of Titans
– Frederic Laloux “Reinventing Organizations
HBR‘s series on team building and management, strategy development, finance

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

I still read a lot but these days it’s mainly business books and/or magazines (Wired, HBR) and usually taking advantage of commuting time. It’s mainly speed reading (e-books and hard cover). I am also listening to audio books and podcasts. I still prefer hard cover books though, with a cup of green tea. 🙂

How do you make time for reading?

Because I am a curious mind, reading feels more like a life necessity than an obligation. So even though my agenda is busy, I manage to block time for reading. Not as much as I would like, for sure though.

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

I use heavily Evernote for collecting interesting reads and taking notes. 🙂

How do you choose what books to read next?

It has to do with the projects I am working on and recommendations from people I look up to. As I am now building We Are Play Lab, it has to do a lot with the science of learning, sustainable development and the economy of purpose.

Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

Tim Ferriss is always a good source for great reads. Also Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings“, it is my favourite newsletter.

Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

I am reading Tim O’Reilly’s “What’s the Future and Why It Is Up to Us” as the future of humanity and technology is one of topics I am very passionate about. As Tim says: ” the future that we can imagine shouldn’t be a dystopian vision of robots that are wiping us out, of climate change that is going to destroy our society. It should be a vision of how we will rise to the challenges that we face in the next century, that we will build an enduring civilization, and that we will build a world that is better for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It should be a vision that we will become one of those long-lasting species rather than a flash in the pan that wipes itself out because of its lack of foresight.”

Links where you can follow Cristina Riesen or find out more about her projects:

  • We Are Play Lab
  • We Are Play Lab – Twitter account
  • Cristina’s Linkedin account
  • Cristina’s Twitter accoutn
  • Cristina @

  • Books mentioned by Cristina in this interview:

  • Around the World in 80 Days – Jules Verne
  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Tools of Titans – Tim Feriss
  • The 4-Hour Workweek – Tim Feriss
  • The 4-Hour Chef – Tim Feriss
  • Papillon – Henri Charrier
  • The Sacred and the Profane – Mircea Eliade
  • The Temptation to Exist – E.M. Cioran
  • The Magus – John Fowles
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
  • Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
  • Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement – Tony Robbins
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen R. Covey
  • Creative Confidence – Tom and David Kelley
  • Reinventing Organizations – Frederic Laloux
  • WTF? What’s the Future and Why It Is Up to Us – Tim O’ Reilly

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