Don't chase each new business book as it rolls off the presses. These eight have everything you need.
At Haven, we’ve read more than our fair share of business books. When one of us has a problem, we tend to reach for a business book, a podcast, or a call with a friend to help us work through it.
What we’re doing is short-circuiting the problem by accessing information through networks. No matter what problem we have, we probably aren’t the first ones to encounter it, and someone else probably already has our answer. Sure, if we beat our heads against the wall long enough, then we’d probably come up with the answer ourselves eventually. But time is short, walls are hard, and skulls aren’t as thick as our critics tell us they are.
Even so, we never fully plumb the depths of those networks when we access them. It would take too long. Business books are a great example. More and more of them roll off the printing presses every year. Some are good, some are novel, some are both, and some are neither. But we certainly aren’t going to read all of them to figure out which is which.
When we read business books, we tend to read them to determine whether they meet our standard as a subject matter bible. (And if so, then we return to them time and again.)
What’s a subject matter bible? Think of it this way. Suppose we asked you to recommend to us a book in your area of speciality. You can only recommend one book to us, and we can’t read another book on that subject for the rest of our lives. What book would you recommend? Well, hopefully one that’s broad in its coverage, that’s detailed enough to be useful without being so specific that it’ll become obsolete in short order, and that’s abstract enough to give you a complete mental model for making sense of the field. Finding one in any particular subject matter area is a great stroke of good luck because you now have everything you need to think about that subject matter.
So if you don’t want to read an endless stack of business books, then try these eight business bibles and call it a day!
Getting Things Done is David Allen’s excellent treatment of how to manage all of the stuff that comes at you every day so that you can be more productive and get more done. What makes this book so interesting is that it’s a great example of pattern recognition. Allen analyzes projects, tasks, to do lists, e-mail, phone calls, and many other components of modern life at the abstract level, proposes a simple process for thinking about and dealing with any new distraction that you encounter, and gives you concrete tips and action items for implementing that system in your own life.
Getting Things Done helped Allen build a huge following online, and it’s pretty clear why. Disciples refer to Allen’s system as the GTD system and swear by it. For example, one of our team members used to work in a large law firm and was so overwhelmed by the amount of work and the fast pace of communications that he reached for this book out of desperation, and it helped him finally get his head back above water again. The impact was so great that whenever he saw a younger lawyer in similar straits, he would take that person aside and personally lend them his copy of Getting Things Done to help them get re-centered.
After you’ve read Getting Things Done, you’ll be amazed by how much more free time you have to get ahead. A great way to do that is to optimize your habits to make the most of that extra time. To do that, we recommend reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Taking to heart the old adage that a man is nothing more than the sum of his habits, Duhigg draws insights from academic literature and scientific research to explain how we naturally form habits, both good and bad, and gives you actionable ways to actively create good habits that will serve you well on a daily basis. Think of this book as an instruction manual for how to outsmart yourself into becoming a better person!
The oldest book on our list by far, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu--assuming that he was actually a real person and not just an amalgamation of authors and comments--perhaps needs no introduction. The book is considered a classic of Asian military thought, but it has become a foundational text in the more general area of strategy. Sun Tzu speaks of things like moving armies over terrain, attacking enemies indirectly instead of directly, and using deception to conceal true intentions, but he does so at just the right level of abstraction that the discussions feel like they could just as easily apply to competition with an economic rival. There’s a reason why you’ve seen references to The Art of War in everything from Wall Street to the Sopranos and Star Trek.
These days, we’re living in a networked age. Lots of us think of networks solely in terms of social media platforms, but that’s a mistake. For example, don't think of LinkedIn as a network in its own right; think of it as a way of helping you visualize and organize and reach out to a network that would exist anyway even if LinkedIn had never been invented. That network is your personal and professional network. How should you think about and approach your network to get the most value out of it? For answers, turn to Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. This book is a master class not only in how to network but how to do it in a good way, not a destructive or manipulative way. Spoiler alert: One of the most important lessons Ferrazzi offers is that the way to get the most out of your network is by focusing not on getting anything out of your network at all but rather on giving back to your network.
The old joke is that if all the marketing in the world can’t get the dog food to start selling, then maybe it’s just the dog food and the dogs don’t like it. Fair enough, but even the best dog food in the world won’t sell itself. It’ll just sit on the shelf and spoil. Whether you’re selling dog food or caviar, marketing is how you actually get people to buy what you’re selling, and for a lot of people, it just doesn’t come naturally. For those of us in that boat, Donald Miller, the creator of StoryBrand, has written a wonderfully engaging book called Marketing Made Simple that leads you by the hand to develop a marketing plan that will actually help you sell. But most importantly, Marketing Made Simple takes you a step beyond tactical considerations in advertising to the marketing strategy that zeroes in on the exact type of customer who will buy your product. Get that foundation right and the tactical considerations will come much more easily.
Negotiating is such a ubiquitous part of life that sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. As anyone with a five-year-old knows, those fish don’t even know they’re wet. What they do know is that negotiating is the key to getting what they want, and they act accordingly. Perhaps because we start negotiating at such a young age, no one ever really teaches us to negotiate. We just pick it up as we go along and, as we sometimes say right before going into a negotiation, “try to get the best deal we can.” But “just doing the best we can” is a recipe for not getting what we want. Instead, try thinking through your upcoming negotiations strategically and tactically through the framework provided by Marty Latz in Gain the Edge!. Latz teaches courses on negotiating to corporate executives and lawyers, who tend to think through negotiations in a much more procedural way than others, and that’s actually how this book came on our radar. If negotiating is a game, then think of Gain the Edge! as the playbook.
A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), by Barbara Oakley, is the oddball choice on this list. The subtitle really does make this book seem limited to parents of seventh graders, but it isn't. Hear us out. Oakley wrote this book based on the same material used for her Coursera course Learning How to Learn, and it is in fact a general treatment of how we learn and how to learn more efficiently. As recent college graduates are sometimes surprised to learn, learning doesn’t stop when we cross the stage to pick up that diploma. (And let's be honest: These days a lot of learning doesn't even start until we leave school...) We continue learning throughout our entire lives, and that’s certainly true in business. From discussions of how to manage procrastination to using chunking and spaced repetition and recall, A Mind for Numbers will help you think about how you learn so that you can learn faster. How meta!
At Haven, we put more stock in results than credentials, so it pains us that, in a moment of weakness, we have to include a book published by the Harvard Business Review. But that black mark on its record notwithstanding, How Finance Really Works: The HBR Guide to Thinking Smart About the Numbers, by Mihir Desai, is a highly accessible treatment of finance. If you share the cynical view of Ryan Gosling in The Big Short that Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think that only they can do what they do, then you’ll love this book. Desai focuses on demystifying the general principles that underlie finance and then helps you apply those basic concepts to your everyday experiences.