Episode 198 – The Top Ten Reads of 2019

I set myself a tough challenge for 2019: read 100 business books in the year. It was a close thing, but I hit my target (if we allow manuscripts as well as published books, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t). You can see the full list here, but in this week’s episode I’ve picked out the 10 titles that that have particularly stood out for me and which I’d recommend to anyone who cares about good business books, in the order in which I read them.


LINKS:

The full list of 100 titles on GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/34626998-alison-jones?shelf=100-business-books-in-2019

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alison-jones-9b09893/

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2020: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

And here’s the text of those recommendations:

  1. Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley. I finished this towards the end of January and just loved the experience of reading it. In my review I called it ‘a masterclass, and a joy’, and that’s my abiding memory of it. It’s not strictly a business book I suppose, but the point is that if you’re in business these days you’re in the content business too: everything you write, your copy, your blog posts, your newsletters, it all stands in for you, communicates your personality, your message and your understanding of and passion for your subject. So you might as well learn to do it well. And what she does brilliantly is combine the big picture stuff – the philosophy of writing, if you like – and the nuts and bolts of it. Very few books do both so beautifully.
  1. Pig Wrestling: Clean Your Thinking to Create the Change you Need by Pete Lindsay and Mark Bowen. I actually finished this immediately after Everybody Writes – so that was a particularly good week. It’s a very short book, it’s one I picked up in Waterstones in Basingstoke because it was so short – I think I was behind target even then – and also because I just loved the title, it was so intriguing. It comes from a quote by George Bernard Shaw: ‘”I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” It’s basically a parable about the Young Manager who’s struggling with his team and meets the wise Barrista who sends him on a journey of discovery to find the full picture of problem solving. It uses the memory palace technique to fix the ideas in your head, so the whole set-up is pretty artificial, but it’s still very effective. Here’s what I said in my review:
    ‘Quick, enjoyable read, and a good example of how storytelling smuggles learning straight into our hearts.’
  1. Building a Story Brand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen by Donald Miller. I think this is probably a candidate for the book of the year as far as I’m concerned: I think it’s absolutely brilliant and have been recommending it to anyone who’ll stand still long enough to let me. It’s also an absolutely textbook example of how to use your book as a key asset in your business – there’s training courses and consultancy and so on all linked to the principles outlined in the book. For me one of the most profound lessons was that when you’re writing marketing copy you should never position yourself as the hero of the story, which of course is what most business owners do: the customer is the hero of their own story, and they’re not looking for another hero to compete with, they’re looking for the guide who can help them, a guide with empathy, but crucially also the guide with a plan. So obvious, but so profound. Here’s a quote from my review to give you more of a sense of the book:
    ‘In a book packed full of valuable content, the single most valuable takeaway for me was about simplicity. Understanding your offer requires a potential customer to burn calories, says Miller, and we’re programmed to conserve calories. So here’s the brutal truth, and one that’s forced me to go back and look again at my own suite of products and services:
    “People don’t buy the best products; they buy the products they can understand the fastest.”
    If that doesn’t make you go back and review your sales copy, I don’t know what will.’
  1. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE by Phil Knight. I don’t read too many business biographies as a rule, I just don’t find them that helpful, but this one I absolutely loved. It might be because I’m a runner, so I was interested in the topic anyway, but the thing that struck me most forcefully about it was Phil Knight’s brutal honesty about how close the company came to failure, not just once but several times. It’s the only one of the 10 I’m highlighting today that was ghostwritten, or at least it’s the only one to acknowledge that openly, and the brilliant storytelling of journalist J. R. Moehringer is definitely part of the appeal of this book. I definitely feel differently about the brand having read the book, which is interesting from the perspective of how books work for businesses: here’s what I wrote in my review: ‘It’s also a masterclass in brand storytelling: I, like any other runner who’s read this, will feel differently as we lace up our Nike shoes. They’re not just shoes any more, there’s an emotional connection there. I’m inspired as a runner, but more importantly as an entrepreneur I’m encouraged and feeling something of the Nike fire in my own belly.’
  2. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts by Brené Brown. I came quite late to the Brené Brown party, and I’m not sure why: I think perhaps I thought she was a bit fluffy, or a bit too American for me. But I read Daring Greatly and Rising Strong last year and loved them, so Dare to Lead was a no-brainer for me this year – I also read The Gifts of Imperfection later in the year, just this month, in fact, but the standout for me was this one, Dare to Lead. It’s not perfect. There’s quite a lot of repetition, and it is very American, but it’s also incredibly powerful, and because I listened to it as an audiobook which Brené Brown narrates herself it’s especially authentic and powerful. Here’s a quote from my review, which includes a quote from the book itself: ‘One of the points that resonated with me so powerfully that I actually yelled ‘YES!’ out loud in the car was the section on the seats in the arena, which is pure gold for any entrepreneur or leader:
    ‘If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgment at those who dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’re not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in what you have to say.’
    You tell ’em, Brené.
  1. Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. I finished this in July, only a few weeks after it was published and a couple of months before it was shortlisted for the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year award. It is absolutely brilliant – and very encouraging for people like me who don’t have a thing, one area in which they absolutely excel to the exclusion of everything else. Here’s a quote from my review:
    ‘Child prodigies may excel in skills such as golf, chess or music, but in the messy real world, full of ‘wicked problems’, over-familiarity, repetition and pattern-matching can only take you so far, and sometimes it can be disastrous: Epstein gives the graphic example of experienced firefighters dying in a forest fire because when things went unexpectedly wrong it simply didn’t occur to them to drop the 100lb-plus of tools they carry so they could run away more quickly. They saw their tools as essential to their usual fire-fighting routing, and they couldn’t drop the tools of their expertise even when they were clearly not serving them. It’s a powerful metaphor for a cognitive limitation that afflicts most specialists facing a wicked problem.’
  1. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. It took me months to finish this book – I started it in April and didn’t actually finish it until July, and I don’t quite know why: it is long, and I think I started to think I’d made a mistake committing to it when I had so many books to read, but whenever I was actually reading it I didn’t regret it for a second. It is beautifully written and I found something of value on every page. Again, it delivers on the holy grail of the business book: it’s both practical and inspiring. There’s so much material you can use in your business tomorrow, but there’s also a sense in which it forces you to see the whole idea of meetings in a new light, and that’s what really stayed with me. Here’s a quote from my review:
    ‘Perhaps her most profound point is that all gatherings must end, and in those endings we sense our own mortality. This too shall pass. As leaders responsible for gathering people, once we have gathered them with purpose and facilitated connection and creative transformation, we are also responsible for helping them come to terms with the pain of ending. Don’t end on logistics (don’t begin with them either, come to that); get the admin out of the way and then end with purpose, honouring your guests: ‘It is your job as a gatherer to create an intentional closing that helps people face, rather than avoid, the end.’’’
    (And also the cover of this one is one of my all-time favourites, it is absolutely beautiful, which always helps.)
  1. Super Thinking: Upgrade your reasoning and make better decisions with mental models by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann, who are husband and wife. My background is in reference publishing, which of course was the web before we had the web and has never really been the same since, so the publishing geek in me loves a good encyclopedia and this book had me at the endpapers, which are basically a long list of all the models included. But of course a simple dictionary doesn’t do so well in the 21st century, and Weinberg and McCann have been really smart in bringing all these concepts together into what feels like a whirlwind guided tour of metacognition – thinking about thinking – with just enough narrative framework to keep it flowing. Here’s a quote from my review:
    ‘Just as a good toolkit enables you to carry out tasks more effectively than you could with your bare hands – at least, if you know how to USE those tools – so having a mind equipped with at least a smattering of these models will help you make sense of the world more effectively. Once you know these patterns you see use cases for them everywhere: the Eisenhower matrix helps you prioritise your tasks for the day; understanding confirmation bias will remind you to test your senior management team’s recommendations more critically than you otherwise might; being aware of Hick’s Law (ie the more choices someone has, the longer it will take them to make a decision) will ensure you keep your website navigation clean and lean.’
    I think actually my favourite model of all, the one that was completely new to me and that I’ve thought about and used in conversation most since I finished the book in September, is luck surface area, which is a simple formula: L = D * T, where L is luck, D is doing and T is telling. So if either of those is zero, so is your luck surface area, whereas if you’re doing great stuff AND talking about to people, you’ve massively increased the odds of useful connections and opportunities. You need to maximize both of them to maximize the luck. Genius.
  1. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez. This of course was the winner of the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year, and I called it. Well, more accurately I told everyone on my table at the shortlisting event I thought it would be either this one or Range, but that’s close enough. It is absolutely superb – it is relentless, and meticulously researched, and passionate without being ranty, and so, so important. Here’s a quote from my review:
    ‘It’s easy for someone of my generation, who sees how far we’ve come in the last 30 years or so, to feel that gender equality is no longer really an issue: yes there’s a gender pay gap still, and not enough women in positions of power, but we’re getting there, right?
    Well, yes, and also no. Perez reveals the imbalance baked into our systems and our societies and the gaping hole it leaves in our understanding of the world (by which, too often, we mean our understanding of men in the world). From transport to sanitation to health to GDP calculations, she elegantly, devastatingly sets out the facts that show a gaping hole where our understanding of women in the world should be.’
    I think this is probably the book I’ve recommended to other people most out of all the books I’ve read this year, which is saying something.
  1. Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long by David Rock. I do love the intersection between business and neuroscience, and this is one of the best books I’ve ever read in that very busy space. Rock is the expert in this space which is a promising start of course, but it’s not enough to know your subject, you’ve got to be able to communicate it to your reader in a way that sticks and so that they can use it in their daily lives, and that’s what he does so brilliantly. Here’s a quote from my review: ‘The book is written as a series of ‘Acts’ with two central characters facing typical challenges at work and home; their initial reactions to the situations they find themselves in are entirely understandable and familiar, and so too are the consequences that follow – angry interactions, wasted time, frustration and so on. After a discussion of the neuroscience involved in the interactions, Rock presents a second version of each scene in which the characters catch their brain at work, understand better why they’re reacting as they are, and choose a different response, with very different outcomes.’

So there you are – 10 books that I’m very glad I read this year, and many of which I probably wouldn’t, frankly, if I hadn’t set myself that 100-book target. I hope that at least one of those titles appeals to you and will be your new great business book find – as I said, you can see the full list of 100 titles on GoodReads, and do connect with me on GoodReads while you’re there, I’d like to see what you’re reading too. And I’d also love to hear whether you set yourself a reading challenge this year and how you got on with it, or whether you’ve been inspired to set yourself a challenge for 2020: comment here or drop me a tweet, @bookstothesky.


LINKS:

The full list of 100 titles on GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/34626998-alison-jones?shelf=100-business-books-in-2019

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alison-jones-9b09893/

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2020: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

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