The 3 Best Business Books I've Read Recently

The 3 Best Business Books I've Read Recently

2019 was the year of personal productivity books for me, and 2020 has turned out to be the year of business books. I’ve read half a dozen of them this year and wanted to call out 3 that stood out to me.

Company of One

Company of One is my most recent read and it looks at what it’s like to run companies in ways that don’t make growth the ultimate goal for everything. I’m a metric guy, and I love seeing charts go up and to the right with no end in sight. This book doesn’t say growth is bad, it takes the position that growth for the same of growth is bad.

In a world of VC funded ventures that need to gain millions of users quickly before they even have a business model, this book is a fresh glass of water in a world obsessed with growth in all things at all costs.

If you are working for a bigger company, this book has some advice for making your personal role follow some of these principles, but if you’re a business owner or work for yourself, the advice in this book is particularly fantastic.

Start with Why

Start with Why and The Infinite Game, both by author Simon Sinek, are amazing books that address similar topics, but don’t feel like they’re treading on each other’s feet. Start with Why’s ultimate premise is about ripping one’s focus from “what” you’re doing and moving it to “why” you’re doing something. It sounds simple, but so much of the world is focused on what others are doing, what we can do to catch up, what customers are choosing, but often much less time is spent understanding why these things are happening.

The book also gets into talking about customer values and the chapters on this were incredibly informative in helping me talk about technology, especially the iOS vs Android debate, with more empathy for other views.

Range: Why Generalists Thrive in a Specialized World

Finally, we have a more personal business book, and one that basically runs counter to the 10,000 hours rule we’ve all heard over and over. While there are some things that benefit from extreme specialization, and there is something to be said for people who are absolute masters of their crafts, Range posits (with data, of course) that in the modern workplace, it’s more valuable for people to be skilled at a range of things, not just one corner of talent.

As I wrote about this book when I was reading it in January:

I will say that although I didn’t really think of it this way, much of the success I’ve had in my career has come from being able to think critically and perform many things well.
[...]
The fact that I can do multiple things is a huge asset, and makes me a more valuable employee. Going to school for video editing, teaching myself UI/UX design, and immersing myself in the world of people who care deeply about great software has been very beneficial in the long run.

I do a lot of things at my work, as well as a lot of things here in my various BirchTree projects. I’m not the best in the world at any of these, but a large factor in me finding some semblance of success in recent years has been my ability to adapt, to learn new things quickly, and to be able to raise my hand and say “I can do that” to more than just my core competencies.

Range

Range

I’ve been reading the new(ish) book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and as the title suggests, it makes the case for why being well-rounded, experimenting so you have more than one skill, and having the ability to think on your feet are important to success in the modern world.

We all hear the story of Tiger Woods, who had a father who wanted him to be massively successful, pushed him from the age of 1 to practice hours per day, and simply had raw talent that took advantage of this early push. But the argument the book makes is that people like Tiger Woods are the exception, not the rule. Most people will not be Tiger Woods, and if as a society we can accept that, we can help more people be successful.

The book talks about how there are some areas in life that are “kind” environments, and others that are “wicked.” Kind environments are like golf or chess, where goals are predictable and where things like pattern recognition are incredibly valuable in figuring out what to do next. But the world in general is made up of wicked environments, which don’t have such predefined answers and are constantly changing. The metaphor I like where the author describes the world not as tennis, but Martian tennis: you can see the players, the court, the rackets, and the ball, but no one has told you the rules.

Without getting into full on book report mode, I will say that although I didn’t really think of it this way, much of the success I’ve had in my career has come from being able to think critically and perform many things well. My current job, at a very basic level, is to write tasks for my dev team to execute, and work with them to make sure that good, user-centric decisions are made, all while getting these tasks released on time. The reality is that I do that plus make video tutorials for our users, I run design for the whole company and had to build a design system from the ground up, I give regular presentations in front of the executives on new products we’re releasing, and I talk to clients in a semi-sales pitch, semi-technical contact capacity.

The fact that I can do multiple things is a huge asset, and makes me a more valuable employee. Going to school for video editing, teaching myself UI/UX design, and immersing myself in the world of people who care deeply about great software has been very beneficial in the long run.

I don’t know if this book is 100% on the nose, and I’m only about 1/3 of the way through it so it could all fall apart, but thus far this book is resonating quite well with me.

Great Experience, Unfortunate Pricing: My Apple Books Trial

Great Experience, Unfortunate Pricing: My Apple Books Trial

Apple Books is the best Apple service and store that I will not be using again anytime soon. It pains me to say it because I really do enjoy it, but I’ve listened to two audiobooks in it this year and there is one reason I won’t be using it for my next book.

The Good

The Books app on iOS is surprisingly good. It has a generally nice UI with some really excellent use of serif fonts to make this app feel decidedly more “bookish” than their other content stores and apps.

I like how the store is laid out and the curated collections on offer. I like how the chapter times and “time remaining” times change based on the speed that you’re reading (i.e. if it’s a 10 minute chapter and you’re listening at 2x, it will show as a 5 minute chapter…brilliant!). I like the cool animations when you launch the app. I like the support for basic iOS features like dark mode.

The list goes on, but the ultimate point is that I enjoy reading books in this app. It feels good from top to bottom and it’s a very pleasurable experience.

By comparison, the Audible app feels like an app that was updated for iOS 7 and then never changed after that. Yes, that’s selling it a little short as they have made some nice upgrades over the year, but their iconography and material work is all custom and looks like it’s several years out of fashion.

The Bad

Pricing.

That’s it, but it’s a big one. My wife and I read a lot (maybe 50-75 books per year) and at that scale, pricing matters. Without getting too in the weeds, we pay for the 2 credit-per-month plan ($23/month) which essentially means two books per month. If we run over, we can buy 3 extra credits for $36.

Let’s say we have a big month and read 5 books this month because we’re amped up for the new year.

  1. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
  2. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
  3. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
  4. Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
  5. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Those 5 books would cost $89 on Apple Books and $59 on Audible. At 50% more per book, the math simply doesn’t work out. That’s $30 per month we could be losing simply by using this service, and for me that makes it a non-starter.

Before anyone asks, you own each Audible book you buy even if you cancel your subscription. It’s not like you lose everything if you want to take a break or go somewhere else.

Best of Both Worlds?

Audible lets you download your books and import them into Apple Books, which is nice, and for a second I thought this would give me the Audible pricing with the Apple Books experience. It sort of does, but there are two major downsides.

One, Apple Books will only open these files in the Mac app, not the iOS or iPadOS ones, because uuuugggghhhhhh. To add insult to injury, these books do not sync over the cloud like Apple Music imports, they instead sync using the good old fashioned “plug you iPhone into your Mac” method, which I had not done in like 5 years or more. If I want to listen on my iPad too…go on and plug it in too.

Two, and I think this one is on Audible, there are no chapter markers so you just get one 20 hour file to listen to with no indicators on good places to stop or use the “sleep at the end of this chapter” feature in Apple Books.

What I’ll Be Doing

I’m back to Audible with my tail between my legs. I’m not totally happy to be back, and if the difference was less significant, then I’d be more inclined to say “it’s worth it,” or if I didn’t read many books the absolute price difference would be too slight to matter. But with the quantity of books we churn though, it’s just not economically viable for us.

Maybe Apple will have some sort of Apple Books+ service I can subscribe to and get more books for less, but until that happens, Audible gets me so much more bang for my buck that I can’t use the app I prefer right now.

21 Books in 2019

21 Books in 2019

I set out to read 20 books in 2019 and today, on the final day of the year, I have completed my 21st book. Here are 21 micro-reviews of each book, in the order I read them:

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work

Probably the best book I read all year, this extremely short book was exactly what I needed to get a grip on my work life going into the new year. I still think about this book nearly everyday and recommend it to basically everyone.

A Darker Shade of Magic

A fun novel about a magical world and really fun characters.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

The first dud of the year, this book didn’t have much compelling information if you have spent any time at all thinking about the effects of technology’s impact on your life.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

A fascinating read about the world of high frequency trading on Wall Street. The moment that really got me was hearing about trading firms paying astronomical amounts of money to get their server closer to the door so that the bits hit it nanoseconds before their competitors.

A Gathering of Shadows

The sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, this book was sadly half as fun as the original.

The Demon Next Door

An Audible Original, this short story about a murderer in a small town is actually quite riveting, and anyone who listens to true crime podcasts will probably enjoy this one.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

I’m like 20 years late to the party on this one, but I finally read David Allen’s classic and my goodness, did it click with me. I thought I understood GTD before this, but I had no idea and that change has been a massive improvement on my life.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

This book, from the author of the mega-popular Sapiens, looks at what the next 100, 1,000, and million years may look like for humanity. It’s an amazing read.

A Conjuring of Light

The final book in the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy, this book bounces back and is a fun romp through this world I enjoyed. Not amazing, but definitely fun.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Also from the author of Sapiens and Home Deus, this is a shorter read and looks at the trends in today’s world. It was not amazing, but some of the chapters on the rise of nationalism, extremism, and closed borders were quite insightful.

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be

I read this on the recommendation of Myke and Grey on Cortex, and I thought it was decent. The biggest thing it gave me was to be mindful of my own personal triggers. How do certain people and situations make me behave/feel? Once I recognize those triggers, I can try to combat the ones that cause problems for me.

Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More

I really went through a productivity kick this year, huh? This book was another decent one with one or two things that stuck with me. The big one: be careful not to be a jack of all trades, master of none. It feels like being useful for many things is ideal, but often a deep understanding of a few things is more valuable to companies.

Ender’s Game

A really good sci-fi book that I had been meaning to read for years. It’s a clever story, with a fun, if not shocking twist.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

I didn’t get anything out of this book, although I know many people love it. To me it read like “people like products that make them happy.”

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Another book I’m late to the party on, and a book that will make some people roll their eyes, yay! As someone who wishes they could maintain a life with less shit in my house, I enjoyed the book and it inspired me to trim quite a bit out of my life that I no longer needed. The bits about your clothes having feelings and energy made me skip ahead, but the practical advice is good.

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties

There was no book I read this year that I disagreed with more than this one. I won’t get into it here, and there were indeed parts I found insightful, but there is enough junk in here to make me hard-pressed to recommend it.

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses

This is a pretty good book, and I can see how it inspired many people building companies in the past decade.

Dark Matter

My favorite fiction book of the year, this is a really fun adventure story that bends reality and got me choked up more than I thought it would.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

My first Malcolm Gladwell book, this book was a fantastic look at how seemingly small things can make the difference between success and failure. The part on Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues was particularly excellent.

Outliers: The Story of Success

I liked the first Gladwell book so much I read another right away. This one was not quite as impactful on me, and it apparently is responsible for popularizing the now-disbelieved 10,000 hours theory. But despite that, the book’s overall message that we try to give credit for people’s success exclusively to hard work and individual talent when there are so many environmental factors that give certain people a much better chance at being successful in certain realms.

The Total Money Makeover

I don’t think Dave Ramsey and I would be friends if we meet in real life. Despite that, and despite a heaping serving of motivational speaker bullshit, and despite a first half of the book that I found completely unnecessary, the actual advice in this book is pretty solid.

My Favorite Books of 2019

My Favorite Books of 2019

I made a personal goal in 2019 to read 20 books. Considering I read like 5 in 2018, that was a pretty lofty goal, but I’m happy to say I just got there, finishing Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping point yesterday afternoon. I’m really happy with myself for finding more time to read this year.

That said, because not all of them are worth your time (in my opinion, of course) I wanted to pick out a few that really stuck with me.

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work

$9.99 on Amazon - by Jason Fried

While I suspect this book paints an overly-rosy picture of what it’s like to work at Basecamp, the problems it talks about with the modern workplace hit home with me. I read this right before going back to work in January and I rad it in one sitting because it spoke to me so directly.

My professional life was going well by all accounts, but the topics of unfocused work time, of endless, pointless meetings, and communication overload resonated with me in a very deep way, and I’ve spent the past 12 months thinking about the lessons in this book almost every single day.

The moment that sticks out to me the most is a part where the author asked when the last time you had done 4 hours of uninterrupted work. Like most people, I can’t point to a time I’ve ever done that at work. Hell, I couldn’t think of the last time I did 30 minutes of uninterrupted work. My work life was a non-stop train of interruptions and being asked to focus on other people’s priorities. This book gave me the confidence and the clarity to be able to improve that situation a ton throughout 2019.

Getting Things Done

$8.99 on Amazon - by David Allen

The other part of my improvement at work and at home this year was reading the classic productivity book from David Allen. I had been using the many GTD-style apps on the iPhone for years, so I didn’t think there was any need for me to read the book that inspired them.

I was wrong.

Despite its age, reading this book in 2019 gave me tons of little ideas that help me get a grip on all of the things I want to be good at in my life.

The best part for me was the idea of treating your GTD system as a way to “offload your brain.” At its very basic core, this means embracing the idea of an inbox in your life. If something comes up and you can’t act on it right away, put it in your inbox to do something with later. For example, when I’m in a meeting at work, I don’t have a web browser or notes app open, I have my task manager’s inbox open so I can immediately add tasks for anything I need to do coming out of that meeting.

This has spiraled into me using GTD as my reading list and for Christmas gift tracking.

Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Get it on Amazon - by Yuval Noah Harari


On a whole other track, Home Deus was the most interesting non-fiction book I read this year. It’s from the author of the very popular Sapiens, and while that book was about how humanity got where it is today, Home Deus is a look forward at where we might be going.

The book does a fantastic job of looking at big things going on today in terms of artificial intelligence, brain science, bioengineering, social media, and war and seeing where these things could go in the next hundred, thousand, and even million years.

One thing that I found really fascinating was the idea that Home Sapiens might be the first species who will knowingly craft their next evolutionary step. We are already able to shape the world around us to our whims, and we continue to get better at changing ourselves at very fundamental levels, down to our actual genetic code. The impacts of this on everything from inequality to, well, a billion other ramifications are exciting and horrifying all at once.

I think the internet is making this one of the most exciting times in all of human history, and Homo Deus makes a strong case that we are just scratching the surface.