Things that Only Books can Teach


There are things that only books can teach. Their format is most suitable to sharing knowledge, wisdom, and arguing a point. A good book opens new worlds, it gives us words to say the things we feel. Sometimes, it also opens our mind.

For many, the love of books starts early. Mine comes from the experience of going to the bookstore with dad. He was a voracious and curious reader and would buy a half dozen books at a time.

Of course, back then bookstores were more like churches or temples than supermarkets, to put it in the words Carlo Alberto Bonadies used in a recent conversation. Bonadies is editorial director of storied publisher Giulio Einaudi.

Books are also a reflection of culture; every age has its conversations. This year we celebrated a couple of big anniversaries: the invention of the Internet, for which initially we didn't have a word, and the fall of the Berlin wall.

Increasingly, I read fewer business books and more history, biographies, and mystery novels. The best books I read this year:

  • Cascades kept my attention from introduction to summary, and I dug through the notes with relish. The big idea is that there's been a shift from hierarchies to networks. This has been a little while in the making. Then Greg Satell will take you through what a cascade looks like. Once you're clear on the anatomy of a cascade, you'll learn how change movements succeed and fail. 
  • Numbers provide a framework for figuring out the essence of how we're connected. Hence, why the title of his book, The Formula. The subtitle explains what he set out to break down the mechanism that create success, hence The Universal Laws of Success. The title sounds gimmicky, but the focus is worthy—the science of networks and how success is the product of collective work. Albert-László Barabási puts some meat behind the statement, Your success isn't about you and your performance. It's about us and how we perceive your performance.

  • If you've ever felt you could use some help thinking strategically about your doing, The Strategy Book will get you there. It will ever teach you how to sell your strategy, not to mention how to measure progress. “Strategy is moving from where you are to where you want to be,” says Max McKeown. “Smart strategy is the shortest route to desirable ends with available means.” It should include what we're not going to do, along with an intelligent reaction to what others are doing.

  • Our tools have become more powerful than our ability to use them to find what Buddhists call “the middle way.” To find this higher way where something new comes from two or more people, we need genuine dialogue. Crucial Conversations provides guidance for finding this higher path. The stakes are high, and we must meet this challenge with a way to “break-with,” because that's how we breakthrough.

  • The central problem is everywhere in organizations—how to translate the way we view our job and ourselves and how we get things done into how we leverage relationships to get things done. Leigh Durst says it best, “I wanted to work in a more people-centric way, and I felt like a lot of the training that I went to kind of pointed me to naval gazing instead of having me focus on others.”  Without an understanding of operational style, we don't have an appreciation of how others view work, nor how we can help others and use get what we want. Walk, Climb, or Fly is a timely book that was gestating for 15 years. 

  • We need to be “brave,” says Aaron Dignan, and re-learn to adapt to ever changing circumstances. Autonomy is once again a hard-earned skill to navigate the hardened controls that make business efficient, if inflexible. These are the themes of Brave New Work, a long love letter to organizations and the people who want to breathe life into them.

All my reviews are here.

And here's a list of the books I am yet to read, and plan to during or after the holidays.

  • That Will Never Work by Marc Randolph, co-founder and first CEO of Netflix. I loved Shoe Dog, Nike's founder Phil Knight's entertaining memoir for the same reason I'm likely going to enjoy this one: the founders did not stop at the first idea or experiment; they kept going until they found something that worked. We have a strong survivor's bias in business circles and look almost exclusively at a sanitized version of what worked, without taking into account all the instances in which something did not work.
  • Strategic Doing by Ed Morrison and the team at Purdue Agile Strategy Lab because it's structured to help teams use conversation to collaborate to work on complex issues and is designed for open, loosely-connected networks. The gig economy we saw rise over the past decade will increasingly evolve into professional collectives in the next. This is a timely book.
  • Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, a nonfiction writing legend shares technical advice about writing in a guide written superbly. This is also an entertaining memoir of McPhee's writing life, especially for The New Yorker magazine. And I do love memoirs. I enjoyed Stephen King's book On Writing, and I know I will love this one.

Over the years I shifted more of my reading to include memoirs.

The overall best I've read is still The Pope of Physics about the life and work of Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist at a time when physics wasn't held in high esteem in Italy. The 1938 Nobel Prize winner earned his leadership status through work. Gino Segre' and Bettina Hoerlin have written a spellbinding tale.

Fermi was versed in both theory and an experimental physics — publishing the results of his thinking, learning new languages to access and join the European scientific community, and supporting the discipline at home got him noticed. 

He demonstrated time and time over how he was able to estimate the stages in a process, often getting so close to the actual results to inspire wonder in fellow physicists. If Fermi said something, it was golden. Because of this and his natural calm and measured temperament, colleagues called him The Pope.

What are you reading or plan to read during the holidays?

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