What did your books do for you lately? If they aren’t working hard, you should cut your losses and get new ones. That’s what I learned while reading last year.
2018 was a year when I needed my books to be right. I looked around for the ones I needed, and I abandoned several that didn’t work out.
Stopping reading a book is always a hard decision — something about giving up, about wasting an opportunity to learn – but it helps to remember sunk cost fallacy with the precious time and attention that goes into reading.
I put my 2018 list together based on the books that made the biggest contribution to my life. These are books that worked hard — and worked me hard. I’d like to give them medals. Some of them earned battlefield commissions — Brevet Majors of motivation and curiosity.
When I studied American History at university, I focused on the 20th century. What I knew of the American Civil War was just a rough outline — abolition of slavery, burning of Atlanta, enormous casualties. Of Grant I knew the name only, a counterpoint to the South’s military giant, Lee.
I have a sense that in the 90s (and before) that Lee was more admired as a historical figure. This may be because while the South was defeated militarily, a terrorist, guerilla and culture war continues to be fought to this day against the outcome. An oddity of the culture war that followed the military one is that many who wrote the history were on the losing side. If we were to believe the “history is written by the victors” dictum is generally true, then either the American Civil War is an exception, or the Union’s victory was temporary.
The War was colossal. As Shelby Foote — a Southern-rooted historian — said in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, more soldiers died in the Battle of Shiloh than at Waterloo. And, he points out, “there were many more Waterloos to come”.
Ulysses S Grant, who had previously served and then left the army under a cloud, helped form a volunteer Federal militia in Kentucky. Then, with incredible speed, he ascended to be the Army’s first Lieutenant General since Washington. His career, which includes many failures and setbacks but ultimately reaches the Presidency, is a story worth reading for its own sake.
After the Civil War, the book describes the very complicated and tragic tale of the emancipation of the slaves and the aftermath. Lincoln and Grant were opposed to slavery on principle, but their support for emancipation and support for equal rights for black Americans grew and hardened through the course of the war. The tragedy of great progress then being put down with horrific massacres and intimidation throughout the South is caused partly by Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the War and the subsequent fudging of the peace. Chernow notes:
Americans today know little about the terrorism that engulfed the South during Grant’s presidency. It has been suppressed by a strange national amnesia. The Klan’s ruthless reign is a dark, buried chapter in American history. The Civil War is far better known than its brutal aftermath.
Reading about the systematic violence across the South gives you a deeper perspective on the Civil Rights struggles of 100 years later, a struggle that continues today in the face of white supremacy and racism in its many forms.
Grant himself is also a fascinating individual. An alcoholic who fought the disease all his life, a gullible over-truster of others, he was also unlucky and incompetent in business matters. As President, his achievements were offset by scandal — his naivety in business dogging him to his dying day.
The accounts of Grant’s alcohol addiction — and the depression suffered by his most trusted and brilliant fellow general Sherman — reminded me of the excellent A First Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi. When facing extreme challenges, leaders with neurotypical or average healthy emotional profiles often fail (Ghaemi calls those with an average profile homoclytes). In peacetime people get used to steady states, predictable ways of succeeding, but in extraordinary circumstances — say wars waged on a scale with technology more deadly than they can fully understand — sometimes we need people whose minds have been to dark places and survived, learned to think and find new ways of thinking that let them survive.
Grant was accused of being a butcher who wasted lives, but the current appraisal by historians like Chernow shows Grant as someone who saw the nature of the war for what it was, both in terms of the need for unconditional surrender by the Confederacy in order to preserve the Union, the key issue of emancipation and equality for former slaves as a war aim, and the nature of the new telegraph and railroad enabled large scale, strategic warfare.
But I digress. Let’s move on to my second book…
2. A Perfect Spy, by John Le Carré
This is the most autobiographical of Le Carré’s novels — the protagonist works in intelligence and is suited to that profession in part by his malleable sense of self. His mercurial identity emerges through his childhood under the influence of his Father, a conman and fantasist.
While the story is about espionage it also about the universal puzzle of the self — who are we really? Who can know us at all, least of all ourselves? The spy of the title baffles and enrages the powers that be, his family, and his friends. It’s an amazing yarn that makes you yearn for something just out of reach of all of us. The book took me into myself and away from the world and left me as lost as anyone. I read The Little Drummer Girl shortly afterwards, which it is in the same thematic vein – and also highly recommended, even if you have seen the recent BBC TV adaptation.
3. The Last Man in Europe, by Dennis Glover
The first book I read last year and a profoundly brilliant piece of storytelling. It is the story of the writing of 1984 by George Orwell, drawing from different chapters in his life to show how the masterpiece — written as he was dying of tuberculosis — drew on his experiences of being hunted by the NKVD in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, censoring things at the BBC during the war and other personal experiences. It’s so much more interesting and engaging as a story than it would be as an account of all of these things. The author pulls off the trick of making you believe that his Orwell is the real Orwell, that somehow you are reading something like a non-fiction account. Maybe this is because the Orwell we follow is bound up with petty matters and dreary mortality as well as the grand quest to write his greatest novel.
4. Measure What Matters, Radical Focus and Scrum
These three books share as space in my list as they combined to power the adoption of OKRs (objectives and key results). I’m not going to evangelise this approach — this isn’t the post for that — suffice to say these books made a massive difference to my year. (Hat tip to Sienne Veit for recommending Radical Focus).
5. The Prince, by Niccoló Machiavelli
One of those books you think you know already – until you read it.
The Prince was a beautiful read on a number of levels. When we stop thinking of politics as what others do in organisations and think of it as the art of getting things done then Machiavelli becomes very relevant. As well as being an interesting treatise on power, it’s timelessness as a practical guide to working in political (i.e. most human organisations).
Try reading Machiavelli and substitute “prince” for “client” or “boss” and it feels like a book written for today as much as 16th century Italy.
It also complements the first two parts of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Henry VIII’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies — which I read a couple of years ago and like to revisit now and again. “You have to choose a Prince” says Mantel’s Cromwell, who learned banking, soldiering and the art getting things done — of being “a ready man” — in Italy.
Recently, I’ve started reading Cromwell, by Diarmaid MacCullough, a biography. I was delighted to read that there was primary evidence that Cromwell read The Prince.
…some time in the late 1530s Morley could assume that Cromwell would be pleased by a gift of Niccolò Machiavelli’s best-known works the History of Florence and The Prince, in Italian editions, for recreational and instructive reading. He accompanied the present with reminiscences about the many occasions he had heard Cromwell observe of the Florentines that he had ‘been conversant with them, seen their factions and manners’.
Being someone who sometimes advises clients on innovation and organisational change – something that is often analogous to politics and war – I was stopped in my tracks by one passage in The Prince.
It is incredible that this was written 500 years before the current canonical theory of disruptive innovation. As I noted in my last blog post, it answers the question of why it is so hard to get organisations to do radically new things:
And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack, they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.
6. I Hate The Internet, by Jarett Kobek
A book full of boiling contempt for tech giants, it was a very good year to read I Hate The Internet. Gorgeous prose and ideas that in turn confuse and clarify the reader’s thoughts. There’s a dash of Ellroy’s pugilist flow and of Hunter S Thompson confrontational nihilism to the book. It gets a medal from me for its rage, for creating a place that my mind could hang out for a bit — a kind of punk retreat from the dark chaos of the world in 2018, while also being a book of its moment. Read it.
7. The Ego Trick, by Julian Baggini
This book almost didn’t make the list, as I read it at the end of the year while I was already thinking about my books of the year. Thanks to procrastination in posting this piece, I’ve had a chance to appreciate how much of an impression it made on me. Ever since I read it I’ve seen everything else through the ideas it presented.
Written by philosopher Julian Baggini, The Ego Trick is accessible but not an easy ride. It deals with the
It was a quote from the book that made me hunt it out: “I is a verb, masquerading as a noun.” As simple a sentence as you would hope to write, but like a compressed file, there a million bits of provocation and questions that spring from it as soon as you start to consider the idea.
Step by step, Baggini walks us through the arguments for the idea of a soul, a constant self, and debunks them. You end up with your head spinning and realising what a complex, illusory and yet essential and wonderful the idea of the self really is. I can’t compress that argument here for you – I’d just recommend getting the look and going on the journey yourself.
The Ego Trick gives you the opportunity to experience and gain a threshold concept – an idea that once you truly grasp it, turns the world upside down, changes how you see everything from that moment onwards.
8. The Definitive Guide to Strategic Content Marketing, by Lazar Dzamic and Justin Kirkby
Does what it says. But that’s a lot.
Only a handful of the books written about content and marketing are worth the megabytes they travel upon, but Lazar and Justin have applied academic rigour (they both lecture on marketing) to the thinking, have decades of experience that inoculates them against neophilia and wide-eyed optimism for the next big thing, and basically know what they are talking about.
I’m quoted in the book, which is awkward, but I read everything else in it and violently agreed with most of it, so whole-heartedly recommend it to you. It should be on the desk of anyone developing strategy for marketing or running content programmes. It would also save us all a lot of time if publishers insisted specialist books on marketing be as good as this before they agree to publish them.
. . . .
So, 2018 was a good year for reading. But any year is — if you choose the right books.
Below are some of the other books I read last year that I would recommend.
- City of the Dead: A Claire De Witt Mystery, by Sara Gran. A wonderful, off-centre detective story set in the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans.
- The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo. I think this may be the best of the Nesbo’s books – a great plot and the usual grim, Nordic existentialism (but that’s why we read it).
- The Outsider, by Stephen King. Starts as a crime/mystery and ends up somewhere else. Even though you kind of know what you’re in for, the sense of rising dread in the plot is so subtle. You’re like the frog in the pot of warming water that suddenly realises the heat has been rising for a long time but you never noticed.
- This Is What Happened, by Mick Herron. I love Herron’s Slough House series so much that I will basically read anything he published. This standalone tale is a creepy, twisty delight, that switches your perspective and the plot direction in very satisfying ways.
- Hhhh, by Laurent Binet. Read it and then watch the movie Anthropoid. An incredible true story told in a self-regarding laconic way that ought to have annoyed me, but it mostly didn’t.
- The Descent of Man, by Grayson Perry. It’s a good time to have a bit of a think about what it means to be a man. Sadly I think I have met more women than men that have read this book. It’s brilliant.
- Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. A New York Times best-selling self-help book is something I tend to avoid until, as was the case with this, someone I trust recommends it (thanks, Will). This was a perfect book for me to read at the moment I did, simply about doing less as a formula for a better life.
- Reinforcements, by Heidi Grant Halvorson. Another simple theme – asking people to help you. When you dive into the detail of what happens when we ask for help, you realise why it is so hard and why we don’t do it well or often enough. A more accessible book than Helping by Edgar Schein, but you should also read that if you’re interested in this subject.
- Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff. Boom! The first year of Trump. It’s so useful to have a look inside and understand some of the moving parts of the current administration. Superlatives are not enough to describe the spectacle and the horror.
- On Writers and Writing, by Margaret Atwood (Published as Negotiating With the Dead outside the UK). A collection of lectures on writing by one of my favourite authors. Her mind is amazing and it is a lot of fun to hang out there.
These were all intensely useful to me in my work as CEO of Brilliant Noise. I would recommend that anyone working in leadership or management should read them all:
- The Silo Effect, by Gillian Tett. A classic and so well written. All abouthow siloes emerge and how to break them.
- The High Growth Handbook, by Elad Gil. The ultimate how-to book for companies that aren’t quite start-ups any more. The intereviews from leaders of businesses that have scaled are really useful and I imagine would be even if you aren’t growing a business.
- Powerful, by Patty McCord. Advice and insights from a people management genius, drawn from her experiences at Netflix and elsewhere.
- Principles, by Ray Dalio. Dalio has spent his working life figuring why his decisions worked or didn’t and has systematised them in his own company. Here he shares his approach and the principles (rules of decision-making, really) that have won out over 40 or so years. His specific principles might not work or be relevant for you, but the method and the thinking are really useful.
I hope one of these books is useful to you. I know I have loved reading them and writing about them too…
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