A good reading list should be like a great business mentor. Something to challenge you, spar with and return to for guidance.
Yet ‘business’ is too often treated as a separate subject, kept in a lock box away from the rest of human endeavour, encouraging entrepreneurs to unnecessarily narrow their focus.
So this reading list ignores the usual business canon – no How to Win Friends and Influence People here – and instead heads off the beaten track to find those books, radio programmes, videos and essays that provoke and inspire a broader understanding of business, life, the universe and everything.
After all, if you’re trying to out think your competitors and find your niche, why read what everyone else is reading?
The entrepreneur’s unorthodox reading list
The Penguin History of the World by JM Roberts and Odd Arne Westad, or A History of the World by Andrew Marr.
I’m a historian by trade so I’m biased, but casting a historian’s eye over the world’s roots gives you a unique insight into humanity – your customers. Both books are articulate, opinionated and eminently readable.
Writing a history of the world is a ridiculous thing to do. … The only case for doing it, and for reading it, is that not having a sense of world history is even more ridiculous.
– Andrew Marr
The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod.
Axelrod explores cooperation and competition – the core elements of business – through the prism of game theory, finding that cooperation emerges without a central power to enforce it. He recounts the famous computer tournaments that pitted different game strategies, such as Tit for Tat, against each other and applies the lessons learnt to various subjects.
do not be envious of the other player’s success; do not be the first to defect; reciprocate both cooperation and defection; and do not be too clever.
Sceptical Essays by Betrand Russell.
Russell champions rational scepticism and independence of thought. These essays touch on freedom, happiness, emotions and more, and are an antidote to passing fads and the irrational certitude of belief.
no man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness.
Promises, Promises: A History of Debt by David Graeber.
Penned and presented by anthropologist David Graeber, these ten 15-minute radio programmes, drawn from his 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, are a lucid, enlightening exploration of debt. Debt might sound dry, but Graeber shows that it is at the very heart of human interaction.
our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around.
This Thing For Which We Have No Name by Rory Sutherland.
This video conversation with Ogilvy & Mather ad-man – and self-appointed ‘behavioural science impresario’ – Rory Sutherland chews over behavioural economics and what it means for business.
The single best thing the London Underground did in terms of improving passenger satisfaction per pound spent wasn’t faster, more frequent, later-running trains, it was putting dot matrix display boards on the platform to tell you how long you were going to have to wait for your next train. There’s something about the human brain, for whatever reason, which hates uncertainty.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Following on from The Black Swan, Taleb suggests that those things that want to survive in a black swan world should relish, not resist, randomness and uncertainty.
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. … Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.
Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World by Deirdre McCloskey.
This ‘postmodern, quantitative, literary, ex-Marxist, economist, historian, progressive Episcopalian, coastie-bred Chicagoan woman who was once not’ stresses the importance of innovation and the power of ideas over capitalism. With a sceptical but optimistic voice, McCloskey offers a refreshing and controversial take on economics.
Nor during the Age of Innovation have the poor gotten poorer, as people are always saying. On the contrary, the poor have been the chief beneficiaries of modern capitalism. It is an irrefutable historical finding, obscured by the logical truth that the profits from innovation go in the first act mostly to the bourgeois rich.
I, Pencil by Leonard Read.
Written in the first person from the point of view of a pencil, this essay lays out the numerous complex processes that make up the pencil’s creation, illustrating the power of the ‘invisible hand’ and denouncing central planning and micromanagement.
The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited.
Art as Design by Bruno Munari.
Apple has brought design into the limelight, and if you run a business you’ll inevitably have to engage with design – logos, web pages, products, etc – so getting the basics down is a must. Described by Picasso as the ‘new Leonardo’, Munari strips down design to its fundamentals in an entertaining, approachable fashion.
There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use. If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
The business case for reading novels is clear, and no reading list for the disruptive entrepreneur would be complete without a book by Rand. This ‘Fifty Shades of Architecture’, as one Amazon reviewer dubs it, is both a paean to the irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit and an extended sexual metaphor. If you can plough through all 700 and something pages, you can probably do anything.
My dear fellow, who will let you?
That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?
Hat tip to Mo Riza for the photo.