My Favourite Books of 2014

With Christmas fast approaching I’ve started thinking about progress on my goals and what I’ve learned this year. A big part of that learning is what I read. They’re not necessarily all published this year, but the books below came into my life and elevated thinking or what I thought was possible.

The Wave by Susan Casey

Image courtesy of Flickamag

Image courtesy of Flickamag

You know those ginormous container ships with hundreds of shipping containers stacked on their decks? A dozen of those vanish into thin air every year. They’re taken out by 70-100 foot waves, sometimes in perfectly calm seas. This is the utterly fascinating world of huge, rogue waves. 

The book alternates between the history and research being done on these huge waves and Casey following big wave surfers like Laird Hamilton.

It is not an exaggeration to say I did not put this book down for two days. It reminded me that Black Swans occur all the time and they can be taken advantage of. 

 

The Outsiders by William Thorndike

A fascinating profile of 8 CEO's who, despite being in vastly different industries, built incredible shareholder value over 20+ years doing things like decentralizing management, thinking like an investor, buying stock back, and when they see a growth opportunity that meets their criteria, striking hard. 

It's got some great ideas on how to effectively allocate capital to create long-term growth and written incredibly well. Plus, it exposed me to Henry Singleton, an absolutely fascinating guy.

 

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Horowitz doing his thing, image courtesy of Pune OpenCoffee Club

Horowitz doing his thing, image courtesy of Pune OpenCoffee Club

As Horowitz of Andressen Horowitz, Ben is a Silicon Valley luminary. He’s also a huge rap fan, so I’m in. After a stint at Netscape, Horowitz and Andressen started Loudcloud, a proto enterprise cloud computing company. After taking off like a rocket they ran into the tech crash of 2001. IPO’ing with six weeks of cash left Ben and his team nursed the company back and sold it to HP for $1.6B. 

The Hard Things gives the practical nuts and bolts of building a high growth organization. Unlike tech lore, scaling company to 1B+ is anything but smooth sailing. To paraphrase Horowitz, it’s playing motherfuckin’ 3D chess.

 

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand 

The story of Louie Zaperini, a kid growing up in California in the 40’s who competes in track at the 1936 Olympics. His dream of running a four-minute mile is cut short by the start of WWII. Zamperini becomes a bombardier on a rickety B24 Bomber, shot down by the Japanese in the middle of the Pacific 

Zamperini and another airmen survive seven weeks at sea, where they’re attacked by sharks and shot at by Japanese fighters. Their ordeal goes into overdrive when they’re “rescued” by Japanese sailors.

Being a former Olympian, Zamperini was a valuable propaganda tool. However, it left him open to more torture. Transferred through a series of increasingly sadistic prisons, Zamperini is pushed to his physical and mental limits. His reactions and ultimate choice to see the ordeal as something that made him stronger are incredibly moving.

An Astronaut’s Life by Chris Hadfield

Hadfield shares how to think about separating risk from consequence. For instance, while on a space walk Hadfield got a speck of cleaning fluid stuck in his eye. A problem when your hands are encased in a suit. The resulting irritation caused him to be temporarily blinded. The intriguing thing was Hadfield’s first choice was to say to himself “Well, my colleague is close by. I’m securely strapped to the space station and I’ve got enough oxygen. So, what can I do to solve this problem?” Hadfield realized that while the consequences were high, the risk of those events actually happening were fairly low, so he could move forward; a great way to think through a challenging situation.

One of the surprises of the book was the idea of ‘Be a Zero’ in new situations. No matter how smart or experienced you are, when you’re entering a new environment your goal is to observe, ask questions and learn. Not to be a burden (being a “-1”) or add value (being a “+1”) because you don’t know enough yet about what’s going on to do that. In my advising work this is an important lesson to be reminded of. When I’m asking questions, listening and learning – instead of trying to get my preconceived notions across – means I can ultimately provide more value.  

 

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu Goldratt

This is a weird book. Written as a parable, the prose in clunky as hell, the characters one-dimensional and it’s too long. That being said it’s a great look at how to think about continuous quality improvement in a system or process in your business. It’s required reading at Amazon.

It did give some great tools, like when you’re examining an onboarding process for new customers that’s taking too long, think and do the following:

  1. Where is the bottleneck in a process?
  2. How can you exploit that bottleneck?
  3. Subordinate every other activity to the bottleneck.
  4. Expand the system’s bottlenecks
  5. If the bottleneck breaks, go back to step 1 to look for more.

If you can plow through it, Goldratt’s book is worth its weight.

 

The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Image Courtesy of Harvard Political Review

Image Courtesy of Harvard Political Review

Did you know the Ex-Presidents of the United States have a clubhouse? It’s in an old townhouse in DC. The club acts a sounding board and political tool. The sitting President can get advice, insight and deploy living ex-Presidents to work on sensitive projects, like Clinton traveling to North Korea in 2009 to negotiate for the release of captured journalists. 

The book reminded me that talking to people who have been where you’ve been is the best way to gain insight into your current challenges. For instance, Clinton loved talking to Nixon, getting feedback on how he was spending his days. It also offers glimpses into the daily routines of the Presidents. No matter your political leanings it’s a fascinating look at what it takes to be in the most challenging leadership positions in the world.

What did you read this year that really impacted you? Disagree with any of my selections? Let me know in the comments!

- Aaron