In a previous post, I provided a list of 2014"²s best business books--practical guides with "how-to" advice. This post is quite different. It contains the 2014 books that compel entrepreneurs to rethink and reframe conventional business wisdom.
Subtitle: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Author: Walter Isaacson
Why it's important: The mainstream business press (print and Web) tends to lionize CEOs as if they were personally responsible for the success of their companies. By rewriting the history of high tech to show the importance of teams, Isaacson puts the emphasis where it belongs: with the people who actually do the innovating, rather than the managers who take credit for it.
Best quote: "Most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. There were a lot of fascinating people involved, some ingenious and a few even geniuses. This is the story of these pioneers, hackers, inventors, and entrepreneurs--who they were, how their minds worked, and what made them so creative. It's also a narrative of how they collaborated and why their ability to work as teams made them even more creative."
Author: Thomas Piketty
Why it's important: While admittedly long and unwieldy, this book is the key to understanding how the automatic accumulation and concentration of wealth poses a threat to the peaceful economies in which entrepreneurs prosper.
Best quote: "Some people believe that inequality is always increasing and that the world is by definition always becoming more unjust. Others believe that inequality is naturally decreasing, or that harmony comes about automatically, and that in any case nothing should be done that might risk disturbing this happy equilibrium. Given this dialogue of the deaf, in which each camp justifies its own intellectual laziness by pointing to the laziness of the other, there is a role for research that is at least systematic and methodical if not fully scientific. [However,] expert analysis will never put an end to the violent political conflict that inequality inevitably instigates."
Subtitle: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government
Author: Philip K. Howard
Why it's important: Every entrepreneur is painfully aware that government regulation is burdensome and yet (if he or she has any brains) also realizes that there must be some sort of structure to prevent laissez-faire capitalism from running roughshod over the non-billionaires. This book explains that government regulation is not inherently counterproductive but is made that way by the constant creation of endless legalistic details. The solution is to create basic principles rather than detailed regulations and allow civil servants and citizens to apply common sense in order to implement those details.
Best quote: "Nothing will get fixed until we give back to officials the authority that goes along with the responsibility. This requires more than reform. It requires remaking our structure of government--towards radically simplified structures with room for humans in charge to accomplish public goals. That's what other countries are doing--replacing thick rule books with a few dozen goals and principles, liberating citizens and regulators alike to use their judgment and better accomplish public goals without getting paralyzed with red tape."
Subtitle: A Secret History of the Workplace
Author: Nikil Saval
Why it's important: The most common mistake that entrepreneurs and big company executives alike make is thinking of their corporation as a machine rather than a community of individuals. With very few exceptions, offices are designed to be regimented and depersonalized, thereby guaranteeing that creativity, in order to manifest, must first overcome a fundamentally depressing and even hostile work environment.
Best quote: "Transposing the factory model to the office turned white-collar work into numbing, repetitive labor. The mid-century middle manager began to feel himself as spiritually trapped--an 'organization man,' his soul made captive to his company. Honest attempts to fix these problems produced more problems: the German 'office landscape' was chaotic and inhospitable to concentration. Robert Propst's Action Office would be perverted over the years into the most notorious symbol of the American office world: the cubicle. Even the crazy dot-com offices would be remembered not for their architectural utopianism but for the crazy hours their denizens worked: "white-collar sweatshops," many began to call them. Meanwhile, the burgeoning cafÃ© life of the freelancer is a reality for many, but it comes with persistent financial insecurity, no benefits, and a relatively asocial work environment. In short, the story of white-collar work hinges on promises of freedom and uplift that have routinely been betrayed."
Author: Russell Brand
Why it's important: Endless articles have been written about managing Millennials but there are few, if any, that seem to capture what the new generation is all about. Technically, Russell Brand, born in 1975, is a Gen-Xer, but he speaks for Gen-Y in the same way that Frank Zappa, born in 1940, articulated the stoner, young adult nihilism of the baby boomers. Brand's book, in short, is an absurdist tour of the fundamental cultural viewpoint of our new generation of workers. (God help us!)
Best quote: "A bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth's population--that's three and a half billion people. Though I can't imagine that they'd be getting on a bus with that kind of money or be hanging out together, I bet there'd be a lot of tension, jealousy, and petty bickering on that bus: 'My corporation is bigger than your corporation.' 'Yeah? I've got my own media network!' 'YEAH!? I've got an elite organization that controls global politics.' 'Stop this bus. I want to return to my subaquatic palace with my half-fish brides and sing a song about the supremacy of marine life.'"
Subtitle: Capitalism vs. The Climate
Author: Naomi Klein
Why it's important: The majority of intelligent people realize that 1) climate change is indeed taking place, and 2) it's caused by human activity. However, rather than wasting time and energy convincing the fuzzy-brained denialists that they're wrong, we need to spend our mental energy deciding what we're going to do to ameliorate the inevitable disasters. This book provides a straightforward vision for what can actually be accomplished, and, if you read between the lines, the incredible opportunities that climate change will create for forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
Best quote: "We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. Major cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas, and there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts. And we don't have to do anything to bring about this future. All we have to do is nothing. Just continue to do what we are doing now, whether it's counting on a techno-fix or tending to our gardens or telling ourselves that we're unfortunately too busy to deal with it."
7. Flash Boys
Subtitle: A Wall Street Revolt
Author: Michael Lewis
Why it's important: This book explains, in no uncertain terms, that the stock market is rigged through the use of technology combined with what amounts to legalized bribery. However, even though Wall Street is a moral wasteland, a few insiders are trying to overcome what's become a pervasive system of institutionalized injustice.
Best quote: "The average investor has no hope of knowing, of course, even the little he needs to know. He logs onto his TD Ameritrade or E*Trade or Schwab account, enters a ticker symbol of some stock, and clicks an icon that says "Buy": Then what? He may think he knows what happens after he presses the key on his computer keyboard, but, trust me, he does not. If he did, he'd think twice before he pressed it."