Recommended Books

When I first started working in strategic innovation a Senior Vice President at a Fortune 100 pulled me aside at lunch. “You’re pretty quiet,” he said. That comment didn’t surprise me. I was 24 and working in a room full of Senior Executives at a large financial service company. Quiet was basically another way to say intimidated. What came next did.”When you do talk you’re a human encyclopedia.”

 I was pretty taken aback by this comment. After all, it’s not like I went to a great university or anything. I was a middle-class kid from the Midwest, who went to public school his entire life. The fact that I could talk relatively intelligently about most topics was because I spent most of my free time learning. This “ability” was the natural byproduct of curiosity.

Now that I’ve built a career in an un-traditional industry, I often get asked for career advice. Here it is.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in anything strategic you need to start fueling your curiosity. Read good books. Listen to smart people. Watch great movies. The world is complex, but the complexity wilts away if you consciously develop a critical framework. The only way that happens is through work. To help, I’ve compiled a list of recommended books.  (This is a work in progress)

I also write an annual book review post. You can find 2014, 2015 and 2016 here.

Books to Understand Life and Society

  • Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization

    “I keep coming back to the way terrorism and guerrilla warfare is rapidly evolving,” John Robb writes in the preface of the paperback version, “to allow nonstate networks to challenge the structure and order of nation-states.” Brave New War is a book about terrorism but defines the structure of an interconnected world in regards to war, politics, and business. He argues that for the first time in modern history an outsider can not only fight a modern war–but win. This leaves established organizations (corporations and governments) in a tenuous position. Recent memory has shown that Robb’s final thesis was right; companies that embrace lean tactics flourish, while others fade away. “We have two choices: we can enable its emergence, or we can delay it until it evolves on its own out of necessity.“

  • Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream

    Sports Illustrated named Friday Night Lights the 4th best sports book of all time. With all respect to the top 3, Buzz Bissinger’s classic is 3 spots lower than it should be. He pulled off the impossible. He wrote a timeless sports book that isn’t about sports. At the core, the book is about the decline of conservative America. It is about a nation in denial, a system stacked against the participants searching for immortality in a sport made for the temporary.  Thousands of copycats have tried to tie sports to society, but none live up to Bissinger’s example.

  • The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

    You know a book is great when it is published as a libertarian manifesto and becomes required reading for political organizers of all persuasions.  Brafman and Beckstrom argue that organizations that become leaderless become unstoppable because they can’t be logically attacked. If you cut off one source of power a new one simply reemerges. The book belongs in the same category as Rules for Radicals, but as I’ve gotten older and gained experience working with Fortune 100 management I’ve began to question to viability of scaling a leaderless organization. Nevertheless it remains an important work.

  • The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

    Much of policy and business run on fear. Fear of terrorism, fear of a competitor eroding your market share, fear of uncertainty. If you turn on the television after a tragedy it can seem like the world is falling apart. Thankfully, it’s not. “Imagine having a near miss in your car,” de Becker writes, “avoiding what would have been a serious collision–and then talking about every hour for months after the fact.” It would be ridiculous. Welcome to the modern “fear” market.

  • Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or how to Build the Future

    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.” 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.” He then goes on to explain in great detail what this means for not only business but society.

  • The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

    The Pulitzer Prize-winning, definitive work on the rise of radical Islam. Combine this with Brave New War to understand ISIL.

  • Men Who Stare at Goats

    Jon Ronson is an expert of drilling down into a seemingly ridiculous/hilarious idea and revealing the terrifying fragment of truth behind it. Men Who Stare at Goats is an investigation of a rumored US Army program to train a group of top-secret soldiers to become so powerful they could kill a goat by staring at it. He investigates the seemingly insane rumor and stumbles upon something true and perhaps even more frightening: the institutionalized use of psychological warfare in modern society.

  • Average is Over

    99% of all new income growth goes to the top 1% of income earners. The Luxury Goods market is growing fast. Most millennials don’t believe in the American dream. Self-identified conservative economist Tyler Cohen argues this is a natural result of supply and demand. There is a vast global supply of low-skilled labor and money. There is a dwindling supply of resources, IP, and skilled labor. The result is an increased concentration of wealth to high-skilled workers, IP owners, and people who control resources.

    Unfortunately, it looks like Cohen is right. The question isn’t “is this happening”, but “how do we fix it?”

  • The Warmth of Other Suns

    With a scope wide as it is personal, Isabel Wilkerson paints a historical picture of one of the largest, but least reported events in the 21st century: the mass northern migration of African Americans. She traces the individual journeys of three migrants: a surgeon, a baggage handler, and a female line worker. Each journey is different, but each escaped the open tyranny of the South, only to find a subtle version up North. If you’re looking for help contextualizing American race relations today, where we’ve been, and where we are going, I couldn’t recommend this book enough.

Books to Understand International Politics and Economics

  • The Quiet Coup

    In a watershed 2009 article Simon Johnson, the former Chief Economist of the IMF, argues that corruption, not interest rates or consumers, caused the 2008 financial crisis. In clear prose, Mr. Johnson outlines how a government can become complicit in the buying of an economy. If you are still trying to wrap your head around what caused the 2008 financial crisis this is a great place to start. You can read my summary here.

  • The Michael Lewis Collapse Trilogy – Flash Boys, Boomerang, The Big Short

Books to Help You Become a Better Writer

Books To Help You Think Strategically

  • The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

    Quite simply, Robert Caro has written one of the best modern books on power, strategy and politics that I have ever read. When the book starts LBJ is one of the most powerful people on earth. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson controls what becomes law and who becomes powerful. He seems preordained to achieve his long-term goal: become President of the United States. Over the next 700 pages you see how LBJ’s own fear caused him to lose the 1960 Presidential Nomination, only to have terrible circumstances make him President three years later, and hold the country together while seamlessly asserting his authority in the process. You see how his herculean political instincts and a near monopoly on the arcane rules of the Senate allowed him to pass two bills that lay trapped under Kennedy’s guidance – a massive tax cut and the first meaningful Civil Rights legislation in America’s history. Caro brilliantly describes how Johnson strategized progress into the American system and shaped a nation. “Although the cliché says that power always corrupts,” Caro writes, “What is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals.” For a brief period power revealed LBJ to be the perfect man for the situation, if only for a moment.

  • Ender’s Game

    More or less a fictional description of Asymmetrical Warfare

  • Eleven Rings

    With apologies to Greg Popovich, Phil Jackson is the best basketball coach in modern history. As much as I love Pop, it’s hard to argue with nine NBA championships across two separate franchises. He also wrote a great book on leadership and management. To Jackson, the goal of a leader is to create the best possible system for your team’s success.  “As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way. But at some point, you need to let go and turn yourself over to the basketball gods. The soul of success is surrendering to what is.”

  • Eisenhower In War and Peace

    In an age where the United States operated as a pure patronage system, Eisenhower rose from poverty in Kansas to become the most powerful and important person in the world. This book tells how. Credit to Ryan Holiday’s fantastic monthly reading newsletter for the recommendation.

Books to Help You Become More Creative

Books That Every Twenty-Something Guy Should Read

  • Killing Yourself to Live

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *