It’s the end of the year, which means it is time for ugly sweater parties and “best of lists”. 2014 was a pretty eclectic year in reading for me. For a short time I got obsessed with the journalism of Jon Ronson and then the novels of David Benioff, only to meander down to Presidential biographies. One thing you won’t find is a lot of business books. Even though I write a lot about business you won’t find many business books on this list. The reason is simple. You’ll learn more about strategy and leadership from LBJ than you will from any business advisor.
If you missed my earlier post on 2014’s best articles you can find it here.
Now to the books.
Why spend the time identifying the 27 best articles I read all year? The better question should probably be, “Why not?” I selected each article based on the following criteria:
- The work should most importantly be interesting
- The work should help explain the business, political and social world we live in.
- The work should provide historical context to the modern world.
- The work should make you laugh (See Jones, Jerry)
Without further ado, here they are.
Each year hundreds of thousands of business books are published. Peter Thiel’s Zero to One is arguably the best business book of the decade. I’m not alone in this sentiment. The Atlantic called it “a lucid and profound articulation of capitalism and success in the 21st century economy.” New York Magazine said it was “surprisingly awesome” and The New Republic argued it “isn’t just entrepreneurial; it’s also ethical and romantic.”
Perhaps calling Zero to One the best business book of the decade was an understatement?
The book begins by asking a simple but contrarian question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” The answer, according to Thiel, is that “most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.” Thiel describes globalization as taking what worked in developed nations and applying them in developing world. This moves the world from 1 to n. But if you invent a better way of doing things (how Thiel describes technology) the world moves from 0 to 1.
The problem is, moving from 0 to 1 is hard.
Thiel offers a lot of valuable advice on the topic. The most intriguing is his argument that capitalism isn’t about competition but rather creating a monopoly. He goes so far as to state “capitalism and competition are opposition.” For everyone on the right who is upset reading this socialist propaganda, realize that Thiel is about as pro-business as you can get without opposing all taxes. He founded Paypal in an attempt to create a virtual currency and supplant the US dollar. This would seem extreme if it wasn’t for his plan to build private islands exempt from the American government and international law.
All in all, Thiel’s book is an antidote to the bullshit percolating around the web. The world is now populated with charlatans and consultants of all stripes. Here is a guy who has actually built billions of dollars worth of value.
It is time we listen.
I have very few certainties in life. There’s life and there are taxes, but when Eric Schlosser releases a book you read it. That may seem like a bold statement, but it is the truth. With the release of Fast Food Nation, a 2001 book that examined the impact of the fast food industry on America, Schlosser became one of the few working journalists who can claim to have changed an entire industry. “This is a fine piece of muckraking, alarming without being alarmist,” wrote the New York Times upon the book’s release, “Schlosser makes it hard to go on eating fast food in blissful ignorance.”
It took him over ten years, but Schlosser finally released his follow up, Command and Control, a book nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. I can say this with certainty; it is without a doubt the most comprehensive book on the systemic risk of any nuclear weapons system. It is impossible to read this book and not think to yourself, “I don’t understand how the world made it through the Cold War.”
The book centers itself on the Damascus Incident, a 1980 nuclear missile explosion in Arkansas that nearly blew the state in half. Schlosser takes a detour to trace bureaucratic and executive decision making that led to a place where the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction went from a punch line to stated American policy. It makes incredible and jarring points about the folly of complex systems. How the people most familiar with nuclear weapons were the most dedicated in their support for banning them. How armed nuclear bombs were routinely dropped and discharged, completely by accident. The book is meticulously researched, balanced and important.
I’m also not sure I would recommend it.
To put it bluntly the book was so detailed that I felt it detracted from the overall flow of the narrative. Unlike his previous works, I felt myself struggling through the middle of the book (although the last section that details the actual explosion is riveting). Instead, I’d recommend reading the excerpt published earlier in the New Yorker. The except doesn’t give a complete picture of how close the world came to ending due to minor lapses, but it gives a good enough glimpse.
Bottom Line: Command and Control is one of the most important books ever written about both nuclear strategy and the dangers of relying on a complex computerized system. If you are genuinely interested in those topics than it is a must read, if not, read the excerpts and reviews to get a general sense of how close we all came to not existing.
Chip Kelly is an interesting man. He was an unassuming former D-1AA defensive back who became a successful offensive coordinator and found himself the most wanted college football coach in America. In his first game as the head coach of the Oregon Ducks, his team managed just 153 yards and scored only 8 points. A season ticket holder wrote him asking for his money back. Kelly mailed him a personal check for $439.
Like I said, Chip Kelly is an interesting man.
Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. He has been mostly forgotten, but he once wrote best selling novels, short-stories and plays. He had his own stamp. He was evidentially the inspiration for Howdy Doody.
He also wrote one of the greatest insult passages of all time:
She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps Tinka her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.
That passage is describing the titular character’s wife in Babbitt, a spectacular satire of American culture published in 1922. It tells the story of a hardworking man named George Babbitt who is a successful real estate agent, solid citizen and fervent supporter of prohibition (he drinks himself).
Do yourself a favor and read it. The best compliment I can give it is that you would only need to make a handful of changes today and the satire would apply to nearly all conservatives.
On July 22, 2014 General Motors announced they would recall an additional 800,000 cars, bringing their annual total to 29,000,000. According to The New York Times the cars have been called back for a number of problems including: “seats, air bags and turn signals, parts that may not have been welded together properly, and a loss of power steering.” General Motors knew about the problems since at least 2004. They did nothing. In fact they threatened consumers who asked questions about malfunctions after their spouses and friends died driving the cars. 13 deaths have been linked to GM’s failure.
Pundits everywhere are talking about the value of leadership at GM, if there’s any question about the value of their leadership please, do yourself a favor and read this article from 2012. GM’s answer to declining millennial sales was to hire a Marketing Director whose solution was to “infuse itself” with the same insights that “made MTV reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Team Mom” breakout hits”.
Translated: Someone in GM thought it was a good idea to copy television shows that are universally regarded as absolute shit, the scorn of the nation, an embarrassment to everyone involved.
Look on the bright side people. Millennials may be driving a $16,000 death trap, but at least it looks great in “techno pink,” “lemonade” and “denim.”
This seems relevant:
A corporation ages like a person. As the years go by and the founders die off, making way for the bureaucrats of the second and third generations, the ecstatic, risk-taking, just for the hell of it spirit that built the company gives way to a comfortable middle age…If the business is wealthy and strong, the executives who come to power in these later generations will be characterized by the worst kind of self confidence: they think the money will always be there because it always has been.
Rich Cohen, The Fish that Ate the Whale
When you throw away the books and the theory and look behind the curtain to see public and business strategy being implemented something becomes clear: most people have no idea what they are doing. They may speak the language and look the part, but deep down most decision makers do what they think a person in their situation should do.
Last month Esther Kaplan published a phenomenal article in VQR titled Losing Sparta. In it, Kaplan reviews a recent decision by Philips to close an award winning light fixture manufacturing plant in Sparta, Tennessee. What’s fascinating and important about this story is that there was no business case to outsource the plant’s production. It had it all. It was a days ride from most U.S. markets. It had a brand new production line that could be switched and retooled in minutes. It was named one of the best factories in America by Industry Week. Yet by 2010 the plant was closed and all of the production was shipped to Monterrey, Mexico. Now manufacturing lead times at the plant have ballooned from ten days to eight weeks. Phillips lost nearly a third of their market share in the products previously produced in Sparta.
Why did Philips decide to outsource? The answer is quite simply a lack of critical thought at the executive level. Kaplan explains:
You know you are on to something when people simultaneously hate and adore what you are doing. A prominent Boston Globe columnist once wrote about a band, “[They] are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful.”1
A year later the Beatles sold out Shae Stadium.
Apple has legions of fanboys, but plenty of people believe their computers are nothing but overpriced and stylized pieces of plastic. People get tattoos of their favorite football teams on their arm, but more and more refuse to allow their children to play. CrossFit fits this description. For those that don’t know, CrossFit is a new group fitness regime. Fast Company explained:
The heart of CrossFit is the Workout of the Day (WOD), a common workout begun at hourly intervals throughout the day by cohorts of gym members. All exercises are functional in nature, cherry picking movements from gymnastics, Olympic lifting, army obstacle courses, triathlon training, and calisthenics, designed to prepare athletes for whatever real-world obstacles they may encounter, from police pursuits to lifting newborn twins.
People who love CrossFit really can’t stop talking about the benefits, while the critics can’t stop talking about the risks. I’m guilty of the first. I’ve been doing CrossFit for about 16-months and I often find myself annoying friends with stories about my workouts. In that way, CrossFit is like fantasy football: No one wants to hear about it unless they are involved. But yet, there is an entire online industry both deriding and proselytizing the fitness regime. People go ‘undercover’ to investigate the phenomenon, while others enroll their kids in classes. It has been called dangerous. It has been called a cult. But I think that most apt description is innovative.