As a known avid reader, I am often asked, "What books do you recommend?" To best address this question, below is a running list of books that have crossed my nightstand, beginning January 2019. As you will see, my taste is eclectic and may occasionally follow a theme as a new interest plays out. Click on the book's cover image and you will be taken straight to Amazon to add it to your collection. Click on '2018' and you can peruse the stack of books I plowed through last year.
Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Start-Up Bubble
by Dan Lyons
This book is just crazy town. Or, really, the subject matter - the author's time at a venture-backed startup - is what is edging towards insanity. After an abrupt end to a 25-year career in print media, the author stepped into the world of early-stage startups. Rather than revealing a new career path, he gained a fascinating topic for a book. While this is one man's experience at one company, his experience is (unfortunately) not unique. I expect that it gets amplified the closer you get to Silicon Valley or as piles of venture dollars pour in. As you read along on this grand misadventure, there will be many moments when you declare, "That cannot possibly be true." But then, when you realize it is, you are both intrigued and deeply saddened.
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America
by Beth Macy
I am sure most of us have heard of the 'opioid crisis'. But unless you have experienced it firsthand, you probably just dismissed it like all the other grim news on the 24-hour channels: without understanding its impact - or surprising reach, affecting both the impoverished and wealthy alike. Unlike other drug epidemics of the past, opioids did not wait for the big cities to first set a trend and then radiate outwards. Rather, this crisis began in rural America. At pharmacies. With legally obtained prescriptions (well, in the beginning, that is). The author starts in her back yard in and around Roanoke, Virginia to tell the tale of individuals, families and even whole towns town apart or put in the ground at the hands of OxyContin, other prescription pain killers and heroin. This book is both gripping and heart wrenching. And shifts your gut reaction from "That would never happen to anyone I know and love" to "Who in my circle might need help?"
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
by David Graham
This enthralling non-fiction tale reads more like a mystery novel with its endless twists and turns. The author walks the reader through the sad and storied history of the Osage Native America tribe as they went from roaming vast lands to living on a cramped reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. But, their new home proved to have vast oil deposits lurking below. With the discovery in the 1920s came untold riches - and fueled a systematic effort to exploit, defraud and eventually murder more than 20 Osage for their tribal claims. The crimes drew national attention, and spurred law enforcement efforts that helped advance the newly forming agency that later became the FBI. This is a fascinating and highly recommended read.
This Is Marketing: You Can't Be Seen Until You Learn to See
by Seth Godin
This book should be required reading - and not just for marketers. While the primary subject matter and backdrop is marketing, the lessons learned and topics covered go much deeper. And get almost philosophical. "Ideas that spread, win." With this premise in mind, the book explores the root causes of why certain products or projects prevail, and why others lay wheels up in the ditch. Grounded in concrete and insightful examples, the author challenges the reader to re-think their approach to marketing. And maybe life in general.
Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work
by Sarah Kessler
My emotional journey while reading this book was similar to that of The Wal-mart Effect. At the beginning, you think all is wonderful and that it is affecting positive change. Then, the dark underbelly reveals itself and it gets a little uncomfortable. The 'gig economy' takes the concept of the independent contractor and twists it to answer the question, "How can I get people to work themselves to death for me at the lowest possible cost, without having to invest in them, their benefits or even well being?" Welcome to the Uber-for-employment. Conceptually, many gig economy startups sound great in theory. "Earn extra money." "Be your own boss." "Work on your own terms." But that touted flexibility acts more like a siren song leading one into the rocks than the promised path to riches. Ironically, after reading this book, I would conclude that the two tenets of the subtitle are disproven and the gig economy will persist, but never be the 'new normal'.
Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future
by Hemant Taneja and Kevin Maney
This is an interesting - and valid premise - but overshadowed by the off-putting humblebrag execution. For each point made, the headline author (I expect Maney wrote it and Taneja just took credit) somehow has to make it about himself. It makes the read clunky and awkward. If you can look look beyond this, there are valuable lessons to be learned. In contrast to the 'blitzscaling', go-big-fast-or-go-home mindset currently pervading the VC-fueled unicorn-or-die hysteria, Unscaled explores the merits of being nimble, leveraging technologies like artificial intelligence and intelligently scaling into a building opportunity. You know, a strategy that is more likely to actually work.
Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear
by Kim Brooks
What do you do if you are a writer and something crazy happens to you? You write a book, of course. Here, the author recounts the events that unfolded in March 2011. Frantically preparing for a return flight home after a family visit, a mother of two young children discovers her four year old's headphones cannot be found. No big deal, right? Well, you must not be a parent. Anything to keep a child occupied and happy - and from causing a scene with other passengers - is mission critical. A series of avoided conflicts and a bad decision later, the author leaves her son in the car for the few minutes it took to go inside Target, buy the headphones and return. It took five minutes, tops. And nothing happened. Except for the passerby who videoed it all and called the police. What then unfolds is a two-year ordeal. And an opportunity to examine the culture of fear and competitiveness that has shaped modern parenting.
Seriously Curious: The Facts & Figures That Turn Our World Upside Down
edited by Tom Standage
This is the perfect book for someone who is inherently curious - or just loves to learn. About pretty much everything. This book is a collection of quick hit, two-page synopsis of offbeat questions like "Why do Swedes overpay their taxes" to "Why we're still waiting for the space elevator", and more grounded ones like "Why the sea is salty" or "Why Easter moves around so much". It's kind of like if Freakonomics and Cliff Notes procreated. And it is totally worth your time.
A Burglar's Guide to the City
by Geoff Manaugh
Despite the clunky style of prose, this is a fun and interesting book. Read it, and you might never look at architecture the same. What if instead of admiring a building for its grandiose structure, sweeping arches and ornate finials, you were casing it, looking for the most minor of weaknesses? Since man first occupied built structures, criminals have been exploiting them for personal gain. Using examples that span time, the author lays out how architecture and design influence the vulnerability of a space. Even how a multi-million dollar security system can be foiled with a little attention to detail - and about $40 of supplies from Home Depot. Now, I am not suggesting you should read this as an instruction manual for a new career. Rather, let the book open your eyes to everything around you to reveal a different, more attentive perspective.
Growth Hacker Marketing
by Ryan Holiday
This book and Seth Godin's This Is Marketing are the one-two punch of how to raise awareness of your product or service and to drive sales. Period. It is time to forget what you think 'marketing' is and abandon the spray-and-pray approach of traditional TV, print and radio ads as the totality of your strategy. That simply no longer works - and it might only be intended to build the portfolio of the marketer to help them get their next (and better) job. While I believe the "hacking" term to be overused and played out, the tenets of the book matter. A lot. At just over 100 pages, this is an approachable and quick read that will set you up for tackling your marketing strategy from a fresh - and more effective - perspective.
The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth's Ultimate Trophy
by Paige Williams
This might just be the most well-written book I have read in a long, long time. The prose is simply beautiful - the author's rich choice of words paints an intricate and vivid picture - and it reads like a gripping fiction novel. However, the almost 100 pages of bibliography and notes reveal that this is a true story. Dinosaur Artist tells the tale of a Tarbosaurus bataar fossil skeleton (a cousin to North America's T. rex) and how it made its way from the Late Cretaceous Period 70 million years ago to its final resting place in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to an auction house in New York. And how the man who secured and prepared the skeleton found himself in the middle of an international scandal that made the careers of some and landed others in prison. A fun, fascinating and educational read from cover to cover.
Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It
by Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik
Sometimes you need to examine why something failed to understand how to make it work the next time. Or, to avoid a failure altogether. In this book, the authors use a vast array of examples, ranging from the tragic (airplane and train crashes) to the mundane (overcooked meals), to drive home the point: even the simplest of tasks can go wrong when things are 'tightly coupled'. That is, when one tiny mistake or variance sets off a cascading series of events leading to failure. Lest you think this is a depressing walk through a graveyard littered with mistakes and missed opportunities, Meltdown is loaded with solutions. (And they dedicated to whole chapter to a concept I wrote about in Let The Idiot Speak, so there's that.) Read it, and do better next time. In everything.
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters
by Priya Parker
I was disappointed with this book. As someone who believes strongly in the power of 'in person', I was really looking forward to exploring the topic and deepening my knowledge base. Unfortunately, The Art of Gathering starts out reading like a guide for party planning and then devolves into complaining about bad events or gatherings the author has attended. While it picked up a bit in the back half, I was left wanting more. A lot more. But I did learn one thing: I would never invite the author to an event knowing my gathering could be skewered in future writings.
Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change
by Leonard Mlodinow
You know that moment when you are involved in a really ordinary or mundane task – not really thinking about anything, really – and you have that flash of brilliance? Or a solution to a longstanding problem emerges as if out of nowhere? Welcome to elastic thinking. The human brain is an amazing thing. It keeps the complex system that is the human body humming along. But one thing it often does not handle well is change. Take a person out of a set of norms or expectations, and the system might get a little wonky – or shut down altogether. In this book, the author explores various concepts that allow us to change perceptions, connect together hidden elements and to train our brains to handle the ever-changing world. Adapt or die, they say. With a little elasticity in your thinking, you might wind up on the right side of that statement.
Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
by Simon Senek
Though written in 2009, this book is just as poignant and spot on 10 year later. Okay, maybe some of the examples seem a little dated, but that matters little when the message is clear - and tremendously important. It all boils down to 'why'. If your employees, customers and anyone else, really, do not understand why your company/product/service exists, then it might as well not. The author lays forth what he calls The Golden Circle, a series of concentric circles beginning with what, then how, and in the center, why. The trick is to start in the middle and work outwards; not the other way around as is common. Companies have been launched with great products, a swollen marketing budget and a team of A-players, but have still fallen flat on their faces. Lean too much on the what and how, and not enough on why and your fate could be the same.
Impossible Owls: Essays
by Brian Phillips
Just like the title, this book is pretty random. It is a collection of essays (more like a series of short non-fiction books, really) that takes the reader from such places as the Iditarod dog-sled race in Alaska to India to chronicle a series of man-eating tigers to New Mexico to dive into the American fascination with UFOs. Each chapter is well researched, well written and compelling. A direct result of the author imbedding himself in the action, I believe. Rather than simply constructing each essay through referencing and leaning on the work of others, he chronicles his personal experiences with the various subject matters. It is a fun ride, and one that will leave you smarter at the end.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
by David Epstein
As a generalist's generalist, I simply had to read this book. As if I needed the validation that my life and career choices were the correct ones. And surprise, surprise... according to the author, I am on the right side of the equation. This book and its core premise flies in the face of commonly held beliefs that in order to excel in a sport or a career, one needs to be highly specialized and that success can only be achieved through countless hours of repetitive practice. Instead, the author builds the case that through continued experimentation and a neural network built on varied skills and experiences, the generalist often rises to win the day.
Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love
by Marty Cagan
This book reads a lot like an instruction manual. Not that there is anything wrong with that, per se; but not what expectation was set when the author hung a title like Inspired on the cover. (I mean, who has ever felt anything but frustration from a set of Ikea instructions...?) Once my brain caught up to the fact that there would, in fact, be no actual inspiration, I hit my stride by shifting my lens towards digesting a set of well-annotated blueprints. And for that, it delivered. This is an excellent (and highly organized and detailed) compendium of staccato-like chapters that lay out the structure, roles and key components of building a durable and successful technology company. If only more founders would read this and follow its guidance, we might have fewer tales of companies raising tens or hundreds of millions of VC money, only to crash and burn due to failed execution.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
I will admit, I have a bit of an intellectual crush on the Heath brothers. Everything they write is infinitely readable, highly informative, directly relevant and immensely enjoyable. Made to Stick is one of their best. Since it was first published in 2007, a few of the examples have not aged well, but the points are made, nonetheless. This is a great book for anyone interested in marketing - or just in effective communication in general (so I guess that's everyone, really). The authors explore why some ideas/statements/message/stories/urban legends stick (meaning they are memorable and maintain longevity), sometimes long after they have been proven to be untrue. Read this, and you will better understand how to put forth your own stickiness.
Blitzscaling: The Lightning-fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies
by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh
This book is total and utter bullshit. It sat on my nightstand only partially read since I grabbed an advance copy at last year's TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. I just cannot bring myself to finish it. It is just so tone deaf and disconnected from the reality that most (almost all?) entrepreneurs face. Sure, Reid has been successful. Yes, he should be applauded for his accomplishments. But it is unreasonable to take an extreme outlier and declare that this the norm and write a playbook that is put forth as to how all startups should function. If your startup is obscenely overfunded, you are drowning in VC money and have zero investors focused on a developing a sustainable (and even potentially profitable) business model, then this is the book for you. If not, avoid the book, keep your head down, work hard, focus on delivering on your promise to your customer, raise only the amount of money you need (i.e., skip the huge vanity raises) and build a viable company. There; I just saved you 20 bucks.
Acceleration: What All Entrepreneurs Must Know About Startup Law
by Ryan Roberts
I recommend this book as an essential pre-read for any first-time entrepreneur. The word "law" in the title might scare a few people away, but do not worry. It is far from Harvard Law Review, and instead, reads more like an approachable guide for how to launch and build a company that will be VC-investable in the future. And, the author's sharp and dry sense of humor comes through to add a little levity here and there. This book is packed with so much useful advice (written in clear language), direct examples and a whole bunch of watch outs that can kill your company where it stands. Or at the very least, make it easier for the VC to throw out that dreaded "You're too early". Read this, and get the proper foundation laid before you begin to race to build the house on top.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
by David Wallace-Wells
If you have been sleeping too well, your blood pressure is just too low or you are looking to add a little stress in your life, then this is the book for you. When the inside jacket begins "It is worse, much worse, than you think", you know you are in for a heavy read. And it delivered - but in a good way. While the topic is alarming, the author's direct, factual and data-driven approach makes it highly readable. And as a result, most likely to be accepted by even the most hardened climate change denier. Well, at least I hope.
Picnic Comma Lightning: The Experience of Reality in the Twenty-First Century
by Laurence Scott
This book was an impulse read born out of mindless perusal of shelves at the local library. The unusual title caught my fancy, and I was hooked by the subtitle. The prose was as random as the source of the title (from the inside jacket: "In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Humbert Humbert offers a memorably brief account of his parents' death: 'picnic, lightning.'"). I found it charming and authentically personal, but at times, a little muddled. Probably better reserved for an extended, focused read than the bite-sized consumption before drifting off to sleep.
(It's Great to) Suck at Something: The Unexpected Joy of Wiping Out and What It Can Teach Us About Patience, Resilience, and the Stuff That Really Matters
by Karen Rinaldi
Fortunately, this book is not as long-winded as the subtitle. Whew; that is a mouthful... At its heart, the message is simple: you don't have to strive for perfection in everything you do. In fact, there is often sweet, liberating joy to be found in being just plain bad at something. That is, as long as you are aware that you suck. It is not so good if you are clueless to your lack of ability. Per the Sucking Matrix, the ideal position is "sucking and knowing that you do." The author uses her love of - and completely lack of proficiency in - surfing to illustrate you can both love something, but be terrible at it. And that is what makes life rich and interesting.
Bloodline: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse-Racing Dynasty
by Melissa Del Bosque
After catching the last few minutes of a fascinating NPR interview with the author, I took a flyer and decided to read the book. And I am glad I did. Bloodlines chronicles the plot of a Mexican drug cartel to launder money through the purchase, racing, sale (often multiple times over) and breeding of quarter horses. In the United States - some of which crossed through my very own hometown of Dallas, as well as through the neighboring racetrack in Grand Prairie. Woven throughout the unfolding of the criminal activity is the efforts of the FBI and a rookie agent to uncover, document and prosecute the tangled, cross-border web. It reads more like a crime novel than non-fiction, and is just as fascinating as the interview.
Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Reign
by Stephan Talty
Who wouldn't love a book about pirates? But they are so much more than the caricature-like Captain Jack Sparrow, a Jolly Roger flag flying high and copious amounts of rum. Pirates looted and accumulated vast fortunes on their raids throughout the Caribbean, but would quickly squander them away upon returning to port. That made the pirate's life full of adventure, but one that whipsawed between feast and famine. This book tells the tale of Henry Morgan, a Welshman who found himself in a vastly different part of the world - and became one of the most notorious pirates of all time. And hidden amongst the raids on unsuspecting towns, swinging cutlasses, bloodshed and piles of treasure is the story of a strong leader who pulled together and motivated some of the roughest folks of the 1700s.
The Driver in the Driverless Car
by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever
This book is far-reaching and wonderful, but at times, just plain maddening. As in, I want to throw it across the room maddening. It is not until the first paragraph of the conclusion that you learn that this was intentional. The prose, just like the technology that is covered, has bright spots and the darkest of shadows. The authors tackle driverless cars (expected), but also dives into drones, gene modification with CRISPR, IOT, AI and several other acronyms, for good measure. It is a thought-provoking look into the what the future certainly will - or could possibly - hold in store.
Weapons of Math Destruction
by Cathy O'Neil
The author's April 2017 TED talk changed my views on algorithms and how big data and AI are applied. There she said, "Algorithms are opinions embedded in code." Let that sink in. We are led to believe that math is infallible. Not subject to manipulation or interpretation. One plus one must always equal two. But what if the formulas (usually unknowingly) capture the bias of the coder? If societal constraints are programmed into the math from the very beginning, how can the output be trusted? As algorithms influence - and often decide - many elements of our life, it is growing evermore important that we understand, and when appropriate, question their use. In this book, the author expands on her 13-minute talk, and puts together a compelling read on how these weapons of math destruction (WMD) shape and influence our lives. Read it, and be more informed - and probably a little more wary of blindly trusting "the math".
Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration
by Rachel Elise Barkow
This is a heavy topic, and the typography and small font size of the hardback made it a little of a slog to get through. But, it is worth the effort. The United States has the highest incarceration rate per capita of any country in the world. Our policies and practices we have in place - from laws to sentencing to limited in-prison budgets - create the perfect storm to make things worse, not better. We let emotion, not data and rational thought, determine our response to public safety and crime control. Well intended laws can (and often do) have dire, unintended consequences. In this book, the author wades through how we got in this mess and proposes orderly, logical changes. Read it, then demand more from your elected officials.
Angel: How to Invest in Technology Startups - Timeless Advice from an Angel Investor Who Turned $100,000 into $100,000,000
by Jason Calanacis
The subtitle of this book is as outsized as the author's ego. But, I guess when you ride a few investments to healthy exits then you have a right to have a little swagger. If you wave away the frequently self-aggrandizing prose, the content is actually pretty useful. Whether you are just kicking the tires on angel investing or have written a stack of checks, there is something in here for you. It provides a helpful overview of angel investing, and throws in a few insider tips to hack the system, so to speak. Read it, invest and hope for the best.
Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover
This book is a roller coaster of emotion, taking you from heart-wrenching empathy to cringe-inducing discomfort - often in the same chapter. The author chronicles her off-the-grid upbringing with her over-religious, doomsday-prepping family. You as the reader get an inside peek into what it is like to grow up distrusting the outside world. Shunning everything from formal, school-based education (they will brainwash you) to modern medicine (they are Godless sinners). Going against everything she was led to believe, the author seeks out education and has the world opened up to her. But, at the heaviest of costs: her family.
The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs
by Alexa Clay
What a fun read. When the term 'entrepreneur' is thrown around, we tend to frame it in the confines of the typical Silicon Valley-based, hoodie wearing techie that turned a dorm room idea into a billion dollar company. But what about those that do not fit that mold? What if they did not consider themselves an entrepreneur, per se, but instead, were bold, resourceful and opportunistic? Welcome to the misfit economy. Where pirates, hackers, bootleggers and a woman who started a prison-based entrepreneurship program all have something in common. They are innovators.
Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It
by Adrian Slywotzky and Karl Weber
People do not like to be sold, but they like to buy. This book is a wonderful guide on how to avoid the used car salesman tactics, but instead, to start at the beginning to actually solve problems and create solid products and marketing strategies that actually work. And it's not just for entrepreneurs, but for any business, organization, governmental agency or non-profit that has consumers or supporters. So, in other words, pretty much everyone.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond
Look back throughout human history, and much can be explained with only three words: guns, germs and steel. Well, those and a few others like agriculture, domestication of animals and written language, but the exhaustive list does not make for as catchy a title. Many questions about how and when civilizations rose or fell can be answered with technological advances and the advantage they brought with them. When the 'haves' reigned supreme over the 'have nots'. But, in certain cases, those with the advantage (on paper at least), fell victim to the germs lingering in or around their foe that tipped the scales unexpectedly in favor of the underdog (inspiring the plot of 2005 film War of the Worlds). Read this, and be on the winning side of the phrase "history repeats itself."
indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
by Nir Eyal
This book made it onto my reading list after I saw references to it bouncing around my Twitter feed for a few weeks. While at first blush the topic looked like it would be a yawner, I gave it a go since the author's first book, Hooked, is a favorite and a great resource (if not a little ironic that it is probably the root cause of many of the distractions we now fight). While at times it reads a little like a blog post extended into a 231-page book, there are a lot of good tips, tricks and insights into how to be more effective through managing distractions. We have all been there. When facing a deadline or just needing to direct our undivided attention to a task, we seem to give in to the siren song of alerts, interruptions and just about anything other than where our focus should be. Sometimes it is hard to fight our inherent human nature. But armed with the skills clearly laid out in the text, you can win the fight and get more shit done.