2016 was a bizarre year. Donald Trump won the Presidential election. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Uber grew its revenue and still lost $3 billion. It’s been 1,000 days since a major American suburb has poisonous water--and nothing has been done. General Electric re-made itself–again. A 74-year-old socialist almost won a major party’s Presidential nomination. The long-awaited digital revolution is finally happening. Solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuels. Thirty years of social change seemed to hit at once.
Like I said. 2016 was a bizarre year. Thankfully, books can help us make sense of what’s happening and what’s driving the trends. In a recent interview with the New York Times, President Obama remarked that reading allowed him to better digest the constant bombardment of information pointed at the office. It slowed the assault, helped separate the signal from the noise, and gave him perspective. Here are the books I read in 2016 along with a quick recap of the context they provide to the ever changing landscape. If reading recommendations are your thing, here are my recommendations for 2014 and 2015.
Peter Drucker more or less invented management consulting. Here he is talking about the role of business school in American society.
Business schools no longer see themselves as social instruments. They want to be ‘respectable’, as say mathematics departments are respectable. But this is wrong. Professional schools are not intellectual institutions but social institutions. Old-timers at the business schools had one great strength; they knew what they were talking about.
Peter Drucker, Fortune, May 1963
Bell Labs, the world’s most innovative organization in history, had a simple view on innovation. Whatever improvement came out of their Murray Hill headquarters had to do the job “better, or cheaper, or both” than its predecessor. In thirty years, this philosophy allowed the company to develop semiconductors, lasers, fiber optics, solar panels, the Unix operating system, the C++ programing language, cellular phone networks, and much more. At its peak, America’s monopolistic telephone company was one of the most profitable organizations in the world. In his book The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner makes the case that nearly every single improvement in modern communications can be traced back to one lab, at one company—AT&T. Trillions of dollars in economic growth, millions of jobs, all from one group.
The question is, what can we learn from Bell Labs?
Contrary to what I want to believe 2015 is nearing an end and that means it is time to create my annual list of recommended books. If 2014 was my personal apocalypse, 2015 was the most demanding, unpredictable, and rewarding year of my life. Reading-wise I found myself diving head first into the civil rights movement and graphic novels, only to circle back to sports, entrepreneurship and science fiction. Hopefully you find something on this list worth reading; I know I did. If reading recommendations are your thing, check out last year’s The Best 38 Books I read in 2014 and The Best 27 Articles I Read in 2014.
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.