Let’s say you’re visiting a new city, and you love eating at local restaurants. A friend has been to this city, and also enjoys scoping out local eats. So of course, you ask him what he recommends, and long lists usually follow.
“You’ve got to eat at Sunny Pointe Cafe for breakfast, and then 12 Bones BBQ for a late lunch. If you’re even hungry for dinner, go to White Duck for tacos.”
Me: “Great, thanks dude!”
“You should also go to Doc Chey’s, Wicked Weed, Louise’s, and Thirsty Monk!”
Me: “Umm, ok, may not be able to fit all of those in.”
“Don’t forget Bouchon, Mela, Tupelo Honey, and Early Girl!”
Me: “You know I’m only going for the weekend right?”
“Also stop by Rosetta’s Kitchen, Universal Joint, Over Easy, then Jerusalem Garden! They have belly dancers there!”
Me: “Ok great you can stop now.”
I’ve been on both sides of this conversation, and I’ve realized that dumping a long list of options on the listener is just plain egotistical. Going overboard with long lists is basically a way for me to show off how much I know about a topic, while burdening someone with a wave of options that can’t possibly be fulfilled. I committed this error by flooding poor Pat Flynn with about 20 suggestions of things he should do during his time in Nashville.
Honestly, people function better with restraints than unlimited options.
The conversation should go more like this…
“You’ve got to eat at Sunny Pointe Cafe for breakfast, and then 12 Bones BBQ for a late lunch. If you’re even hungry for dinner, go to White Duck for tacos. This is a beer city, so you can also go by The Thirsty Monk for a beer. Don’t hesitate to call if you need any more spots.”
“Great, thanks dude!”
What have I done there? I’ve been clear about 3-4 options I know my friend will enjoy. Maybe he won’t make them all, but he has a clear, memorable list in his head. In fact, most people can really only recall about 7 pieces of information at a time, give or take two, says George Miller.
Miller’s landmark cognitive psychology paper on the subject of short-term memory capacity states that we struggle to take in much more than even 5 poly-syllabic words at a time! The 4 suggestions I offered in the concise conversation still involved 10 words and 15 syllables, so really even it’s on the threshold of memory capacity. Joshua Foer, in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, dives in to the research behind they way memory works in our brains, showing how short-term accessible memory functions on a daily basis.
Foer’s book and Miller’s research clearly show we need to keep our advice clear and concise, giving the listener the effective dose they need, not burying them with information.
My point is not to dumb down our lists or limit the access of knowledge, but I am personally not in favor of blog posts listing “100 Blogs You Need to Read Today.” Mercy, I don’t have time to read 5 blogs most days, much less 100! I’d rather have a trusted friend or writer recommend 4-5 she adores and gets a lot of inspiration or advice from. Honestly, I think many long lists are SEO plays, hoping that someone you’ve recommended will link back to you, increase your Google ranking, and hooray! – everyone is happy.
Where I do believe longer lists are helpful is in the context of skillfully curating the content into smaller categories, for instance here I’m talking about business books. A list of all the books or blogs I recommend would be longer, but in small subsets of 3-5 items each.
I also don’t believe in producing long lists because it’s a form of stalling. Reading great work and having a deep well of inspiration are both helpful. But too often we hoard information, feeling we must consume every scrap of content before we can start producing. Untrue. Start producing today. Click to tweet that.
With that in mind, here are 5 business books I think are incredible. I’ve received both inspiration and practical advice from each book, and have seen the writers succeed across a wide range of fields. These guys have the knowledge and the experience to back up their words. Many of the books I have read multiple times, and recommended them to everyone who asks, and many who don’t! They’re worth spending a little money on, without a doubt.
Re/Work, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
My favorite business book of all time. Re/Work is written like a series of hyper-specific blog posts, usually only cover 3 pages per chapter. I love that you can pick it up, flip to any page, and get something meaningful which can be applied that day. There are sections of the book covering broader topics, but again they are distilled down in to concise chapters that are memorable and applicable.
My favorites? Emulate Drug Dealers, Underdo the Competition, and Fire the Workaholics. Fried and Hansson not only run a first-class company at 37Signals, but write extremely well. Their blog is a great source of similar content, check it out at 37signals.com/svn.
The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries
Wow, this book really changed the way I thought I could start a business. The majority of book covers the steps inherent in starting a lean programming or web-based business, but there is plenty of great content for people looking to start a physical (brick and mortar) business using lean principles. When you read the book, you can’t help but think “This makes total sense! Why haven’t we been doing this all along?”
Following the steps laid out in The Lean Startup will help you build a business, product, or service in less time, because you’re paying close attention to what people actually want and will pay for. Measuring desire for the product allows you to quickly learn what changes you should make, and continue building a company with sustainable growth. Ironically, going through the build-measure-learn feedback loop also allows you to quit (or pivot) sooner, if you realize people aren’t buying what you’re offering.
The $100 Startup, by Chris Guillebeau
My favorite collection of real-life case studies, inspiration, and practical advice. Chris has the personal experience of starting an online consulting and world domination business, and uses that as the groundwork for explaining how you can also start your own small business for less than $100. Ok, so he admits that not every business can be started for $100, but the cost of starting is far lower than it used to be. Some of the strategies Chris uses and recommends also bear resemblance to the lean startup principles, and in Re/Work. Basically, make sure people want to buy what you’re selling, and continue to build from that point.
The book helps you find the convergence of your skills, your passion, and what people are willing to pay for. This convergence is your own personal niche, what you can do that no else can. In today’s world, you can start a business in your convergence niche.
To Sell Is Human, by Daniel Pink
Pink is one of my favorite authors, who seamlessly blends story, research, and action steps in to his books. Pink sets out to prove that being in sales is no longer a profession limited to used-car salesmen and pushy telephone/internet marketers. In fact, we are ALL now in sales, or what Pink terms “non-sales selling.” Are you a teacher that needs to engage students in your lesson plans? You’re in sales. Are you a blogger with a email newsletter? You’re in sales. The premise is that much of what we do is rooted in sales and persuasion, and not in a slimy way, but a way that is focused on the greater good. If you’re not a persuasive teacher or writer, and have a message worth spreading, you better be selling.
Contrary to Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross, the ABC’s of selling are no longer Always – Be – Closing. Our information rich society demands we follow the principles of Attunement, Bouyancy, and Clarity. For example, Attunement is “the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook in to harmony with the other people and context you’re in.” Crafting your information and “pitch” to find the common ground between what the individual’s needs are, and what you can offer, creates a better offer for both parties, not just you. In a world where people can find a piece of information or a review with just a few taps on their phone, the onus is on the seller to provide useful, helpful information and products that benefit both parties. Anything less will be skewered on social media within minutes.
There are tons of other great principles and case studies in To Sell is Human, including the continuous walk through San Francisco with the last Fuller Brush salesmen on earth. Pink’s book isn’t worth just reading once, but over and over again.
The Personal MBA, by Josh Kaufman
Josh Kaufman caught a lot of flack for writing this book, because of this bold and audacious statement.
“Going to business school is NOT worth the time, effort, and money.”
Saying this is easy enough, plenty of self-proclaimed experts will blare opinions that go against the grain, but Josh has put in the time, effort, and research to back up his claim. The good news for us… he’s right. The sheer magnitude of debt alone is enough to scare me off, since most MBA programs cost upwards of six figures to complete. Christian Schraga, a Wharton MBA graduate, estimated the 10 year “net present value” of a top MBA program is still negative $53,000!
The vast majority of MBA programs train graduates for jobs in finance, consulting, and upper-management. Those are all fine pursuits, but many of us have no desire to work in those fields. My business desires are to gain a better understanding of the fundamental practices of a business, implement them at my current job, and possibly start a small business of my own one day. None of those require spending 2 years of my life and $100,000 to accomplish.
Josh has wisely organized the book in to subject matter in to stand-alone sections, so you can begin reading any of them at any time. Want to learn about Finance, including income statements, value capture, and incremental degradation? Go to chapter 5. What about System structure and Gall’s Law? Turn to chapter 9. The Personal MBA has become a go-to manifesto for learning the most important principles in business, and how to merge them with the experience specific to your situation.
Side note: I love Seth Godin’s books, and couldn’t believe I made a list without one of them on it. Seth is described as a marketing and business writer, however as I thought about his books that have made a big impact on me, I realized they made more of an impact on how I lived, taught, and behaved, more than how I simply worked. Linchpin is my favorite Seth book, and will definitely be present in a later list.
In conclusion, I would love to hear what you think about the premise that long lists are egotistical, and what additions or subtractions you would make to the top business books. Engage with me on twitter @mattragland, or leave a comment below. Thanks!
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