I've published a list of best business books every year since 2011. However, it's difficult to create a good list, because the terms "best" and "business book" are so damnably vague. Does "best" mean well-written? Most useful? Best-selling? And what, exactly, is a "business book?" Do inspirational books count? What about CEO victory laps? Biographies?
To get around all this ambiguity, I'm limiting this year's list to books that everyone in business should read, because it will give them perspective on the major trends that will influence how business is conducted over the next decade. I've therefore avoided books specific to corporate roles (like sales or management) and the entire "how to" genre (I may post separate "best of" lists for those categories, so stay tuned).
Until then, though, here are the seven books that you simply MUST READ by the end of the year:
Subtitle: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
Authors: Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling
Why It's a Must-Read: This optimistic tome, a favorite of both Bill Gates's and Barack Obama's, explains through the science of statistics that, despite all the demagoguery and complaining, things aren't nearly as bad as they seem. Technology and government working together have, in fact, alleviated massive amounts of suffering, lifted billions out of poverty, and enriched the lives of billions more. Progress is not automatic, however, and cannot survive either complacency or willful ignorance. So be forewarned but optimistic.
War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disaster, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that's the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It's stressful and misleading.
In fact, the vast majority of the world's population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.
Subtitle: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us
Author: Dan Lyons
Why It's a Must-Read: We are all accustomed to treating high-tech companies as the fountain of management wisdom, when in fact what was once a Spartan, engineering-driven environment has metastasized into a crazy-making, irresponsible, exploitative sweatshop. Silicon Valley is broken, badly, and this is the first book to really point out, in detail, how horribly broken it's become. The quote below (the first page of the book) should be posted as a warning in the lobby of all high-tech firms (and those that imitate them) so that job candidates, before they interview, know exactly what they're getting themselves into.
First, you are lucky to be here. Also, we do not care about you. We offer no job security. This is not a career. You are serving a short-term tour of duty. We provide no training or career development. If possible, we will make you a contractor rather than an actual employee, so that we do not have to provide you with health benefits or a 401(k) plan. We will pay you as little as possible. We do not care about diversity: African Americans and Latinos need not apply. Your job will be stressful. You will work long hours under constant pressure and with no privacy. You will monitored and surveilled. We will read your email and chat messages, and use data to measure your performance. We do not expect you to last very long. Our goal is to burn you out and churn you out. Your managers may not know what they are doing. They also may be abusive. If you are female, there is a good chance you will be sexually harassed. HR will not help you. If you file a complaint, you will probably get fired. If you get pregnant or turn forty, you also will be fired. You may be fired even though you are doing a good job. You may be fired for no reason at all. We do not offer day care. We do have ping-pong. There are snacks and beer in the kitchen.
Subtitle: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America
Author: Beth Macy
Why It's a Must-Read: For decades, society has treated drug addiction as if it were a moral failing when, in fact, it was big business. During the War on Drugs era, it was the big business of building police forces and a massive prison system. Today, it's all about big pharma using big health care to get masses of people addicted so that money can be channeled to the .01 percent. This vital, essential book explains how the moral bankruptcy of the pharmaceutical industry has ended up killing tens of thousands of Americans. If you have a close friend or relative who's become addicted to a drug or died of a drug overdose, this book will make you beyond furious. Consider yourself warned.
From a sales perspective, OxyContin had its greatest early success in rural, small-town America--already full of shuttered factories and Dollar General stores, along with burgeoning disability claims. Purdue handpicked the physicians who were most susceptible to their marketing, using information it bought from a data-mining network, IMS Health, to determine which doctors in which towns prescribed the most competing painkillers ...
Purdue's growing legion of OxyContin apostles was now expected to make more than a million calls annually on doctors in hospitals and offices, targeting the top prescriber deciles and family doctors, and aggressively promoting the notion that OxyContin was safe for noncancer patients with low back pain, osteoarthritis, and injury and trauma pain.
Subtitle: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet's Culture Laboratory
Author: Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
Why It's a Must-Read: You can't understand what's happening on the broader internet (such as with Google and Facebook) unless you understand the story of "patient zero"--the hugely popular Reddit site. This book describes how a handful of half-baked programmers, armed with half-baked utopian notions of what the web was all about, created an online Frankenstein that prefigured all the worst abuses that are now coming back to bite all of us.
R/stormfront is [now about] meteorology. R/whites is dedicated to conversation about 'shades of whites, off-whites, and light grays.' R/faggots--which far-right Internet provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos seemed to have wanted to moderate (his speaking tour was called the "Dangerous Faggot Tour")--was handed to a Redditor who said she'd use her mod powers for "good instead of evil." R/faggots became a forum that hosts mostly photos of elaborate bundles of branches.
It's tempting to view this witty do-gooding as a sign--maybe all those years of hate speech and uncivil discourse, masked by rallying cries of "free speech," were all a blip, a painful, multiyear blip--that maybe, just maybe, the Internet will indeed return to its happier, blithely egalitarian roots. It's unlikely. It wouldn't be Reddit--or the modern Internet--if elsewhere on the site some critical faction wasn't enraged that subreddits such as r/punchablefaces had been taken over by people they called SJWs.
Subtitle: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Author: John Carreyrou
Why It's a Must-Read: There was a time (and not long ago) when Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was the poster child for entrepreneurism. Now that the entire enterprise has been revealed as a huge fraud on the scale of Enron, it's sobering to learn, once again, how easily so many smart people were taken in, and how both the financial community and government regulators missed dozens of red flags. Don't take my word for it; this book was among the most-reviewed and best-reviewed 2018 books on Amazon.
Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry. But it's crucial to bear in mind that Theranos wasn't a tech company in the traditional sense. It was first and foremost a health-care company. Its product wasn't software but a medical device that analyzed people's blood. As Holmes herself liked to point out in media interviews and public appearances at the height of her fame, doctors base 70 percent of their treatment decisions on lab results. They rely on lab equipment to work as advertised. Otherwise, patient health is jeopardized.
So how was Holmes able to rationalize gambling with people's lives? One school of thought is that she became captive to Balwani's nefarious influence ...[But] Balwani didn't join Theranos until late 2009. By then, Holmes had already been misleading pharmaceutical companies for years about the readiness of her technology. And with actions that ranged from blackmailing her chief financial officer to suing ex-employees, she had displayed a pattern of ruthlessness at odds with the portrait of a well-intentioned young woman manipulated by an older man.
Holmes knew exactly what she was doing and she was firmly in control.
Author: Michael Lewis
Why It's a Must-Read: Arguably the best business writer alive, Lewis has turned his attention to how the Trump administration has made a pig's breakfast of the government agencies that protect normal citizens (that's us, folks) from disease and disaster. If this book had a subtitle, it would be: "It's far worse than you could ever dream, and the people now running the federal government are dumb as bricks."
How to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to determine if some foreign country is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon or if North Korean missiles can reach Kansas City: these are enduring technical problems. The people appointed by a newly elected president to solve these problems have roughly seventy-five days to learn from their predecessors ...
Two weeks after the election, the Obama people inside the DOE read in the newspapers that Trump had created a small "Landing Team." It was led by, and mostly consisted of, a man named Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, which, upon inspection, proved to be a Washington, DC, propaganda machine funded with millions of dollars from ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. Pyle himself had served as a Koch Industries lobbyist and ran a business on the side writing editorials attacking the DOE's attempts to reduce the dependence of the American economy of carbon ...
A month after the election, Pyle arrived for a meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Deputy Secretary Sherwood-Randall, and Knobloch. Moniz, a nuclear physicist who was then on leave from MIT and who had served as deputy secretary during the Clinton administration ... Pyle appeared to have no interest in anything he had to say. "He did not seem motivated to spend a lot of time understanding the place," says Sherwood-Randall. "He didn't bring a pencil or a piece of paper. He didn't ask questions. He spent an hour. That was it. He never asked to meet with us again."
Afterward, Knobloch says, he suggested that Pyle visit one day each week until the inauguration, and that Pyle agreed to do it--but then he never showed up. "It's a head-scratcher," says Knobloch. "It's a thirty-billion-dollar-a-year organization with about a hundred thousand employees. Industrial sites across the country. Very serious stuff. If you're going to run it, why wouldn't you want to know something about it?"
Subtitle: A Theory
Author: David Graeber
Why It's a Must-Read: Because this book is insanely subversive, the publishers positioned it as a "how to" tome. It's not. This book is a true eye-opener about the absurd nature of work in today's "information economy." Most jobs are useless, make-work, and basically accomplish nothing, other than create work for other drones. This existential realization is crucial to your future survival and success, because unless you realize what's going on, you'll end up plugging away at a job that's "meh" at best, when you could truly be doing something meaningful.
While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing, and maintaining things. Through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves--not unlike Soviet workers, actually--working forty- or even fifty-hour weeks on paper but effectively working fifteen hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles, or downloading TV box sets.
The answer clearly isn't economic; it's moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. (Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.) And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.