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Book Report, Part I
Every year since 2000, I set a goal to read 100 books. From 2000-2020, I hit that goal every year and exceeded it more than once. The advent of audiobooks helped me mightily along the way, as did my travel-based lifestyle. Mostly, though, it was forming the discipline to achieve the goal and then finding any way I could to make it happen.
This year the goal is the same and here are the books I’ve knocked down so far this year.
The Blue Lady by Bob May. A novel set in the 1950s exploring the civil rights movement in Mississippi. A gift from one of my faithful readers. It might not have been a book I would have picked for myself since I don’t tend to read enough fiction but I liked the book. “The human animal is the only living being that purposely betrays its own kind. No other beast does that.”
iX Leadership by Meg Manke and Rachel Headley. These are past friends of mine who published their book just before I published my own. They are deep thinkers on the issue of corporate culture and this book explores how a CEO might work to engender Internal Experience for his organization so that the individual employees begin to really show up for the mission. The pair use a model of four psychological culture types: Fixers, Independents, Stabilizers and Organizers and then demonstrates how those types move through the organizational psychological model for change, the Kurtz model. Their core proposition is that an organization that focuses on building a culture that supports each individual’s way of interacting with the culture will have more success.
Making it All Work by David Allen. Allen is the progenitor of the Getting Things Done (GTD) movement of the late 1990s. I read his first book and implemented as much as I could. I found it helpful but not life-changing. I attended a training he led and the light bulb began to go off. I deep dived into his youtube channel and watched his presentations to Google, Microsoft and other large companies and it clicked a little more. Then I read this book and my life changed entirely. This is his magnum opus and no one has read it. He shows you how to organize your life in such a way that you interact with tasks only when you are able to provide the highest and best value. I read this book every year and find some new thing that I had seen before but hadn’t digested. People say to me all the time, “How do you do so much?” David Allen’s book is the answer. There’s a reason people consider GTD a cult, once it grabs you, you never let it go.
16x by Richard Koch. This little monograph was given to me many years ago by my great mentor, Ron Willingham. His friend Price Pritchett wrote the forward to this profound little book. We all know about the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule that says that 20% of the work yields 80% of the results. Koch takes that further and mathematically proves that “the best bits of our time, energy, or effort produce 16 times better results than most of our energy.” How true it is. In a 10 hour day, 2 hours of that is real work-time. Knowing that 2 hours is going to produce everything that happens for me that day, how do I structure those two hours to pay them the respect they’re due. It’s a transformative piece of work that changed me and my approach to my work.
Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov. I love the short story format as a good way to get my fiction. When you write short stories you have to deliver the goods, and quickly. Chekhov was a master of the genre and I like reading him. My favorite tale here is the Cook’s Wedding. “She was evidently oppressed by her isolation, and she was longing to express herself, to share her impressions with someone, to open her heart.” Aren’t we all, honey.
The Leader Launchpad by Howard Shore. I was in a Mastermind with Howard and respect the work that he does coaching business owners to pay closer attention to how money gets spent inside their businesses. His first book “Your Business is a Leaky Bucket,” is a classic and I was excited to read this one, too. The book has a couple of dozen “Growth Accelerator” tips to be implemented by business owners. Things like “Commit to an Audacious Goal,” “Narrow Your Target Market,” and “Everybody Knows Their Numbers” are practical and useful at once. I don’t know if I caught the entire message of the book my first time through it, but as I revisited just for certain chapters I found useful things for me to do.
Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. This book was all the rage when it came out and I bought it and promptly left it unread on the shelf. The Heaths are educators who are obsessed with explaining why some ideas thrive in the marketplace of intelligence while others die a quick, unmourned death. They lay out 6 principles of stickiness and give some great examples (the story of the guy who had his kidney removed and woke up in a bathtub; or the razor blade in the apple story that ruined Halloween for us as kids; or the rat that was served in a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket). These urban legends are Stories that are Simple to grasp, contain an Unexpected twist, are Concrete in their illustration of the main point, seemingly Credible, and prey on Emotions. And that matrix is what makes ideas stick. Now, how do I use that framework to make my own ideas really stick in other’s minds?
Who Not How by Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy. I’m a contrary personality. If a bunch of people like something or someone, there’s a tiny piece of my brain that makes me dislike them. This “oppositional reflex” (yes, it’s a diagnosable condition) often robs me joy and growth, I know. Dan Sullivan is someone that everyone seems to love and I just can’t get my arms around. I’ve resigned myself to believing that you just have to be around the guy to be impacted by him because I’ve read two of his books and just haven’t been blown away by them. This is one of them. Who not How says to recruit a team of people, capable experts, to whom you can turn for things that you need in every facet of your life. Don’t we already do that, though? I know I do, but maybe Dan’s genius here is making it a more conscious experience, or encouraging us to invest in those people even more. Or maybe there are people who don’t know this, that’s a possibility, too.
The Gap and the Gain by Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy. The second Sullivan book I tried to see if there was some profound thing I was missing. In this book, Sullivan says that the source of unhappiness is comparing ourselves to what we hoped to achieve instead of recognizing what has been achieved. Again, seems like it could have been a Ted Talk, or magazine article, but a book-length treatise on that theme is what we got. Again, its good, solid. The model is workable, useful and something I introduced the kids to over dinner after reading it. I’m just not sure there is enough meat on the bones of these books. Having said that, though, Dan Sullivan has sold millions of books, so his stuff is scratching an itch that I don’t want to kvetch about too much.
Diamonds by Mine Moldoveanu and Roger Martin. One of my goals with my reading this year was to improve my decision-making. Someone that I respect a lot shared with me that he had this as a goal years ago and felt like the work he did improved his life immeasurably. I didn’t really know that working on making better decision was a thing you could focus on and asked what books he recommended. He came out with this one which is a work of art, in an academic sort of way. The authors are Ivory Tower academicians who are often surprised to learn things that students of human potential have known to be true for over 100 years. Having said that, they atomize the decisioning process here and draw contrasts between those that make really good consistent decisions (diaminds, cheesy I know) and the rest of us. I highlighted and quote-carded this book over 150 times because its dense and worth the effort. “How you think is important than what you think and can be trained and improved over time to create better decision-making to create better solutions that compound over time.”
Secrets of Sand Hill Road by Scott Kupor. Largely a book for startup junkies, this bills itself as what’s being said behind closed doors in Silicon Valley by VCs about startups. It made the rounds years ago and hit myself but I never picked it up so I read it one weekend and found some really good things in it. Kupor is a partner at Andreeson and so is definitely in these conversations and I think he wrote the book in an effort to really help startups understand VCs and their challenges to help out the whole ecosystem. He explained several concepts in the book that I know, have worked with, and have taught others, but he gives them a much deeper gloss and I came away with a depth of knowledge of a field I know pretty well already. His explanation of the Yale Allocation model and how institutions and now Family Offices use it as a benchmark was worth the price alone. If you love startups and VC, its a good read.
First Generation Wealth by Robert Balentine and Adrian Conje. The authors spoke at my Vintage group but I missed it. The group said it was great so I bought the book and read it. I was a little underwhelmed by the seemingly obvious advice in its pages and when I queried the team, they couldn’t remember why they liked it so much (Thanks guys). Having said that, I think it has an important message that just so happens to feed the top of the funnel for their very respected wealth management firm. First Generation wealth creators should recognize that if they make the right decisions, they can put the family on a wealth trajectory for generations to come. To do that, there are three rules they should adopt: Remember that money isn’t legacy, Business and Family aren’t the same thing, and the next generation’s opinions are valuable, too. The audience for the book is narrow, but a good refresher for us in the business of managing generational wealth.
Radical Relevance by Bill Cates. Bill is a friend and mentor who taught me the overarching power of referrals in relationships. He’s known as the referral guru in sales circles and his new book marks an attempt to transcend that label and get to the heart of why referrals work. To boil it down, he says “being radically relevant is about solving the right problems, with the right product, for the right people, with the right messaging, through the right medium, at the right time.” Too simple? Maybe so, but being conscious of the rubric and working on each of the elements as he does in the book improves the way you sell and present offers. Developing backbone and discipline in each stage is important, too, and something I wish he had focused on a bit more. I know hundreds of organizations who would double their sales if they used the assessment found in the last chapter of this book.
To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink. Pink is another one of those guys that people gush over but I never understand why. His style of writing is great and something I envy. Journalistic in style and really colloquial, it makes me want to keep reading him. He’s constantly discovering things the rest of us already know, though. “We are all in sales now.” Wow, what an insight. Pretty sure Don Draper knew that one. All in all, I liked this book enough to hate it on its merits. The whole thing is a book on sales by someone who's never done sales but thinks he’s so smart he can reason his way though it and teach the rest of us all about it. Give it a miss.
Poets and the Fools Who Love Them by Richard Katrovas. The author is an academic poet and a special friend of mine who knows my love for poetry thought I’d like this volume of his critical essays. It’s out of the ordinary for me to read something like this and I finished it but it took over a year. I’d just take a chapter at a time, read it and think on it. Remarkably little of it stayed with me, honestly, largely because I don’t deal in the things that he points out as recurrent in his own world. The best essay in the bunch draws a parallel between his father’s work as a petty criminal and that of his son, an academic poet. On the whole, the book reminds me that other people who have chosen other paths naturally see the world in another way. They aren’t right or wrong with their opinions, just constricted by their worldview, as I am.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. The same friend who gave me the poetry book, gifted me this after she read it. I looked at with great skepticism, honestly, because I thought it was the book that some silly movie about Rich Asians. I read it out of obligation and found that it wasn’t the same thing at all. This was a heartfelt exploration of what happens when a father who comes from nothing, works hard, gets the breaks and makes it in India in the last 30 years. The challenges he faces are possibly universal, but seem remote at the same time. It’s written with clarity and heart and I’ve read it twice just to get into the pathos that he experiences.
Creating Competitive Advantage by Jaynie Smith. The author is a consultant and coach who helps companies unearth their competitive advantages, spin their communications to talk about them, and achieve growth-based results. The book is a good, quick read, with a central theme: “Find your competitive advantage and talk about it a lot.” These competitive advantages almost always are overlooked because we take them for granted because they do not seem special to us, but with the right messaging can become central to how a customer sees our company and product. Good read.
The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus. Back to my theme of improving my decision-making, this little volume is a compendium of 50 Mental Models for Strategic Thinking. The author is a freelance journalist of no repute and sort of had no business writing this book inasmuch as he just grabbed a bunch of mental models and put them between covers. Having said that, I keep it on my desk and leaf through it when I’m engaging in slow though about a problem and its helped on several occasions.
Do You Want to Keep Your Customers Forever? by Joseph Pine II. One of the most read articles in the Harvard Business Review ever, this monograph has been republished as a stand-alone book in their Classics series. In essence, this is the work that taught American companies to get into a learning relationship with their customers. Frequent and intense conversations about what customers want, how much they’ll pay for it, and what they look for in competitors are questions we take for granted today because Pine and his team reduced it to absurd simplicity in 1995. It’s been said that era of mass customization, and personal marketing were birthed in these pages. A seminal work on how to think … and communicate.
The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock. This book caused all kind of scandal when it was first published in 1994 because it dared to ask the question: “Can God change his mind?” On its face, you could easily answer that question with a “yes,” or a “no,” but thinking through why you choose one or the other shows more about you than it does about God. We live in a time of process theology, God is the ultimate computer programmer who can’t change the programming unless his plans for history unravel. No one would say it that way, but if you believe in a God who ardently pursues a responsive relationship with his creation, you have reconsider ideas of his unchangeableness, and deepen your understanding of foreknowledge. I don’t read theology much, preferring a more revelatory approach to religion on my own, but this book will juice your thinking without leading you away from the truth of revealed salvation.
Financial Self Defense by Hillel Presser. The author is an attorney who left the profession of plaintiff’s work (suing others for damages) when he realized how much havoc he was wreaking on the lives of businessmen who had made mistakes and lost everything in the process. While not a Road to Damascus conversion, he switched sides because he realized that there were ways to protect yourself from plaintiff’s attorneys but very few people were doing it. In interviewing potential clients, he found that most of them had really well thought-out estate plans to protect their estate after death. None of them had coherent strategies to protect their estates while they were living, and so he set out to provide the roadmap. In February of this year, I worked with our family attorney to tighten up our asset protection plan and I used this book to educate myself on the various strategies before entering the conversations. If you don’t have a will, get that done, and pay a lot for it, because the quality of what you get will matter when you’re gone. Once that’s done, go get an asset protection plan from your estate attorney or from Hillel.
Branch Rickey by Lee Lowenfish. Rickey was called Baseball’s ferocious gentleman. He was known as the greatest manager of all time reinventing the sport as he progressed through its history. This is the man that invented the farm team system. He’s the one that insisted on paying men to play the sport. He recruited and played Jackie Robinson to integrate the sport. Norman Vincent Peale preached his funeral and said “Thank God that God makes such people as Branch Rickey.” I don’t care for baseball. It takes too long, the rules are too confusing, there are too many games and the season takes forever to finish. But when I heard that this guy existed I wanted to know more about him and I fell in love with him. He was the arch-enemy of Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis one of the biggest egos ever who said about Rickey “There but for the Grace of God goes God.” The book is a little flat and would have benefited from an author who was less concerned with endnotes as the way to best tell a story. If you like baseball and literally want the “inside baseball” story of the sport, this is the guy who made it what it is today.
The Strenuous Life by Theodore Roosevelt. Another monograph, a speech really taken and published posthumously. My son Ret turned 13 this year and he and I have many discussions about what the next 5 years holds for him. The choices he makes now will lead to him becoming the man he wants to be then. Roosevelt is a perpetual hero of mine. Want to tie me in knots? Ask me who the better President was, Roosevelt or Reagan. I love and know everything about him. Ret and I have read the Strenuous Life 4x so far this year and will continue to do so. It’s an exhortation to get off your ass and do something with your life. “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life.”
Creating the Accountable Organization by Mark Samuel. The author is a consultant who’s been wrestling with why organizations don’t perform as they should. After years of practice, his one word answer is “Accountability.” Leaders who want to move through the current paradigm to a different place of excellence and success must focus on keeping everyone — individually and organizationally — accountable. And it can be difficult to develop a culture where people at all levels are counted on to be as good as their word in keeping their commitments. His chapter on keeping score is worth the read alone.
Individualism and Economic Order by F.A. Hayek. Who’s your favorite economist? I know, I know, but I really have one and its Hayek. After a mentor gifted me a copy of the Road to Serfdom (don’t read it unless you’re ready to be different) in college I’ve never been the same again. I’ve read all his major works and this year treated myself to a collection of his essays. The essay on Free Enterprise and Ordered Competition was eye-opening where it shows how when the state enters the marketplace to ensure competition, it inevitably creates a class of protected businesses with advantages over other competitors. He wrote this in the 1940s and we’ve seen it time and again since then as Liberal economists and politicians whine that the public must be protected at all costs. The other essays are just as weighty and yes, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea but man is it good stuff.