At the beginning of the year, Mark Zuckerberg challenged himself to read a new book every week and welcomed the Facebook community to join him. (I have a feeling he was taking a page from Bill Gates' book.) In his pledge, Zuck wrote, "books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today" and I agree. They offer much more in-depth lessons for readers, especially for business leaders and technologists taking on daunting tasks and impossible adversaries. I learned a good deal about opportunity, innovation, execution and efficiency from these five books--which I highly recommend--and I wanted to share my big takeaways.
1) The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson
I came to Silicon Valley to attend Stanford University in 1994, after going to high school in Paris and moving around for most of my young life. When I tell friends, coworkers and acquaintances about how I got here, I usually say "talk about luck--I couldn't have picked a better time or location." Technology was just starting to take over the world and Isaacson (who recently spoke at our customer conference) does a great job of capturing the opportunity so many innovators encountered and seized at the time.
The takeaway: Sure, being in the "right place at the right time" plays a role in success, but those who truly succeed are open to opportunities at any time. And they know seizing the moment is as physical as it is mental.
2) Moore's Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley's Quiet Revolutionary, by Arnold Thackray, David Brock and Rachel Jones
This biography of Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, focuses on the development of Moore's Law, detailing how Moore foresaw the potential of silicon transistors to make electronics affordable and immensely powerful. His belief that microchips could double in power, then redouble again like clockwork, was revolutionary at the time. It drove Intel to pioneer new technologies in computer memory, integrated circuits and microprocessor design--technology that made them the giant we all know today.
The takeaway: Since insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, we have to learn from the past. Moore's story and impact offers a history lesson on innovation for all business leaders. If Intel didn't shift from memory to processors, it would be long forgotten. Now the company has one of the greatest legacies in technology.
3) How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery,by Kevin Ashton
Kevin Ashton is best known for coining the phrase "the Internet of Things" and co-founding the Auto-ID Center at MIT, which created a global standard for radio-frequency identification (RFID), the use of sensors to identify and track tags on objects. I was confident the man who recognized the potential of sensors so early would be able to tell a compelling story about innovation and invention, and Ashton didn't disappoint. From the creation of the Muppets and the Wright brothers' mission to "fly a horse" to the discovery of DNA, Ashton profiles inventors and their unique journeys to world-changing breakthroughs, showing that innovation can't simply be "done."
The takeaway: Your "a-ha" moment isn't going to challenge the status quo or move the landscape forward. Truly impactful innovation comes with incremental progress and hard work.
4) Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel (and Blake Masters)
Zero to One is not only a must-read for startup founders, but it also has relevant messages and lessons for business leaders at any stage and in any industry. Not only does Thiel encourage entrepreneurs to think for themselves and do something unprecedented; he also gives practical advice--particularly on sales, which is a topic many authors shy away from--and focused on the importance of daily execution.
The takeaway: If you want the pie in the sky, you need to execute everyday and figure out how your team can best block and tackle.
5) Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance
Like most entrepreneurs and innovators in Silicon Valley, I have a great deal of respect for Elon Musk. He's taken on momentous challenges--electric cars, spaceships, solar energy--and done it at scale and in parallel. Beyond being the current CEO and Chairman of Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity, he's also raising 5 kids (twins and triplets, just for kicks). Vance's biography showcases how Musk does it: he brings a "think big" approach to everything he does that's off the charts. And not only does he think big; he does big. So big that he truly believes he can change the world, which is something we can all aspire to.
The takeaway: We can solve the world's biggest problems if we're all as efficient as Elon Musk. I'm only partly kidding. What I learned from Vance's biography is there's no problem too big to take on, but it has to be tackled will scale and scope in mind.